Horse ring with tethered miniature horses, Montavilla

Photo by Thomas Tilton

Imagine yourself back in Montavilla’s early years, the 1890s and early 20th Century. Imagine fewer houses, no sidewalks, unpaved roads that turned to mud in winter rains. Imagine those roads used mainly by vehicles powered by horses rather than motors.

Like other metropolitan areas, Montavilla once had a substantial horse population. Yes, the Industrial Age had dawned decades ago, but horses were still a major source of power in cities. In fact, in her book “Horses at Work,” Ann Norton Greene wrote, “Americans consumed more power from horses than from any other source.”

Today the only evidence of those horses is the horse rings embedded in curbs around Montavilla. 

Horse rings

Before talking about the horse culture of Montavilla, I’d like to say a few words about those horse rings. They were, of course, installed for tethering horses.

A horse-ring in Montavilla

Photo by Thomas Tilton

You see so many of those iron “ring bolts” or “tie rings,” as they were called back then, because a Portland ordinance required contractors to embed them in curbs every 25 feet. It was a convenience need by delivery men and horse owners making short stops.

The rings also prevented the unfortunate habit of hitching horses to tree-trunks. This was a problem because horses liked to eat bark, which could destroy precious shade trees. So a city law made tree hitching illegal.

A horse illegally hitched to a tree trunk.

Source: “Oregonian,” October 26, 1905

Those ring hitches still survive in such numbers partly because of a movement began in 1978 to retain these bits of Portland history. Before that they were being removed as curbs were repaired or replaced.

When deliveries came by horse

In urban areas, horses once did a wide variety of jobs. One of the most important was delivering goods to where they were needed, whether this was railroad yards, warehouses, local retailers, or homes.

A Butter-Nut bread wagon delivers to the Daniel B. Troutman (1861 – 1929) grocery at the SE corner of NE 74th Ave. & NE Glisan St.

Source: Oregon Historical Society

Back in the early 20th Century, items such as ice, milk, and fuel, were delivered by horse-drawn wagons. For routine deliveries, horses could often help their drivers by remembering the stops.

In the photo below, we can see Montavilla teamsters posing with their two-horse teams, the power for their wood deliveries.

John B. Wiltse, the owner of this fuel yard located at 82nd and East Burnside, holds the team on the left.

Source: Oregon Historical Society

Horses to the rescue

Going to the fire, 1901.

Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Before motorized fire trucks, it was large horses who pulled the heavy fire engines. The Montavilla fire station, opened in 1913, had three powerful horses to speed men and equipment to local conflagrations. (Read our previous story “The Montavilla fire station” here.)

When a fire broke out, a speedy response was essential; and horses were trained to respond quickly. When the alarm bell rang, they stood ready to receive their harnesses and gear. They then trotted to their assigned positions waiting to be hitched to the heavy engine. In seconds, they were heading to the fire. As men fought the fire, the trained horses waited calmly.

Stables in Montavilla

Men with a horse at the livery, circa 1890, location unknown.

Source: City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2004-002

After a hard day’s work horses needed a place to rest, eat, and be groomed. In other words, stables.

The 1909 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Portland locates stables in early Montavilla. It shows various types of stables, private ones for business and household use, and a commercial one for boarding.

Stable fires were a big fire hazard. So the Sanborn map company made them stand out by marking stables with a big “x.”

Below is a detail of the 1909 map showing a stable attached to a business, in this case, a coal yard. Coal was one of the main deliveries made by horses.

Detail of the 1909 Sanborn Fire Map showing a coal yard andits stable on E. 80th north of Ash Street.

The detail from the 1909 map below shows two types of stables: the lower right a stable serving a retail business and on the left a small stable for a homeowner.

Detail of the 1909 Sanborn Fire Map showing the block between E. 79th Ave. & E. 80th Ave. with a retail and a personal stable.

Besides stables for deliveries and for private purposes, Montavilla also had one or more commercial stables where horses could be boarded or rented. 

The first commercial stable was listed in Polk’s 1893 Portland City Directory under “Livery, Sale and Boarding Stables.” It belonged to John H. Rathbun (1833 – 1905).

Where was the Rathbun stable located? In 1893 the city directory gives no address other than Mt. Tabor Villa, the name of Montavilla’s first subdivision and its namesake. But in 1905, Polk’s directory describes the stable’s location as the east side of Hibbard Street (now SE 80th Avenue) north of Base Line Road (now SE Start Street). Perhaps this was the original location.

A stable at this exact spot appears in the 1909 Sanborn map, although by this time it was owned by Charles Logan Idleman. The stable is long gone, it used to be just north of what is today the Ya Hala restaurant.

A 1909 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map detail showing the boarding stable near the intersection of SE Stark & SE 80th. Note the blacksmith shop in the lower right.

The stable looks like several small additions were made to the original big one at the bottom. Just north of the stable you can see the Rathbun home at 16 Hibbard Street, where he lived with his wife Mary Washington Nash Rathbun (1846 – 1917) and his granddaughter, Mamie Hansen (1889 – 1973). Rathbun was a successful businessman and community-minded man, but his private life was filled with tragedy. Of the ten children born to John and Mary their daughter, Mary Alice Rathbun Hansen (1868 – 1974) was still alive at the time of the 1900 U. S. Census.

Before Rathbun opened his stable, he had decades of experience with domestic animals. A native of New York’s Mohawk Valley, he arrived in Oregon as a young man in 1852 or 1855 and became a dairy farmer. He established and operated his dairies on Ross Island and then on the Columbia Slough for many some 20 years.

Then, in the 1880s, he managed the Union Stock Yards, where he was nearly killed by a horse. That near-death experience obviously did not deter him from opening a stable in Montavilla, where he and his wife moved in 1891.

The Oregonian obituary of July 25, 1905 describes Rathbun as “a man of force of character” who knew all the early Portland settlers. Certainly, he was respected in Montavilla. When the community considered incorporating in the 1890s, Rathbun was elected mayor.

After Rathbun died in 1905, Charles Logan Idleman (1867 – 1957) took over the stable, which he promised had the “best of care” as well as reasonable prices.

“Beaver State Herald,” December 28, 1906

Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers

Idleman hailed from Ohio and relocated to Oregon at age 18. He grew up with animals, since his father, Silas Idleman (1822 – 1903), had a farming and stock raising business in Ohio. Charles was also an experienced businessman as a merchant in Sandy prior to moving to Montavilla, where he took over the stable and the house that had belonged to Rathbun.

A few years after buying the stable, a strange incident occurred there that highlights one of the dangers horses faced on city streets. 

On November 26, 1910, the Oregonian reported that Cicero M. Idleman (1854 – 1943), brother of Charles, was driving from the stable onto 80th when his horse stepped on the highly-charged streetcar track. The horse was shocked and thrown to the ground. The horse got right up, but the newspaper noted that recently several other horses had also been shocked. This was a hazard of mixing horses and electric streetcars. Reported lawsuits indicate it was happening all over the country due to poorly managed electrical systems.

By 1911, Idleman was renting automobiles as well as carriages— clearly times were changing. By 1913, he was offering horses for purchase, sale, or rent. He continued operating the stable until at least 1915 and then it was purchased by the Ruby Stock Ranch Company.

In 1919, tragedy struck the stable. On June 26, an automobile gas tank parked there exploded and burned the building to the ground. The huge blaze threatened to spread through the business district, but it was contained and extinguished by the fire department. Losses were estimated at $8,000 to $10,000, but injured or killed horses were not mentioned.

The day of the Rathbun-Idleman-Ruby stable was over, soon to be replaced by a new Montavilla Post Office building.

Still the stable near the corner of 80th and Stark endured longer than any other stable in Montavilla— more than 20 years. A few others appeared and quickly disappeared in the Portland city-directories: A. W. Johnson, 1903; G. K. Howitt, 1905 – 1907 (more on him later); C. C. Chappell, 1913. Thomas A. Garner held on a little longer. He took over the Chappell stable at 1967 E. Stark and operated it until 1918.

T. A. Garner ad in the “Montavilla Sun,” April 2, 1915, offering a variety of horse-related services.

Livery and boarding stables gradually became a thing of the past. By 1924, there were only four stables listed in the city directory for all of Portland. Not one was in Montavilla.

Livery stables were in decline. Garages were on the rise.

To be continued in Part 2.


Ann Norton Greene, “Horses at Work. Harnessing Power in Industrial America,” Harvard U. Press, 2008

Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, “The Horse in the City,” Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2007. Available as an ebook on the Multnomah County Library.

Digital Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, 1867 – 1970. Available on the Multnomah County Library website.


Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

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