“We all come from somewhere. And no matter where we end up going, we are rooted and shaped by where we have been.”
– Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner, “Steady,” April 23, 2022
“New York – Welcome to the land of freedom – An ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty: Scene on the steerage deck,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1987
Source: Library of Congress
By PATRICIA SANDERS
From its earliest days in the 1890s, Montavilla attracted immigrants. The 1900 United States Census, for example, shows 136 persons from various European countries as well as 20 from Canada.
With Ukraine so much in the news today because of the tragic war with Russia, I wondered if any of Montavilla’s immigrants came from Ukraine. Searching “Montavilla” + “Ukraine” in the historical Oregonian, the name Robert Ratter popped up in his obituary published in the April 17, 1986 edition.
The obituary stated that he was born in the Ukraine in 1910 and came to the US in 1923. For 27 years, he owned a hardware store in Montavilla at 8045 NE Glisan St., joining the ranks of immigrants who had businesses in this neighborhood.
What follows is the story of Robert Ratter, pieced together from historical documents, that trace his journey from farm boy in rural Ukraine to hardware store owner in Montavilla.
In his Declaration of Intention, the first step in becoming a US citizen, Robert stated that he was born in Marjanufka. It is difficult to identify exactly where this village was, since there are many villages in Ukraine with this name with various spellings. It’s reasonable to assume that his village was in the province of Volhynia, since his father August Ratter (1873 – 1947), gave his birthplace as Lutsk, a major city in that province, and near the present town of Mar’yanivka, one of the alternative spellings.
This modern map of Ukraine shows the Volhynia region in yellow.
This Volhynian town of Mar’yanivka may be Robert Ratter’s birthplace.
Source: Google maps
This Google Earth map detail shows Mar’yanivka is still largely agricultural like much of Ukraine today. Ukraine is sometimes referred to as “the breadbasket of the world.”
Although Robert was born and lived in Ukraine for his first 13 years, he was ethnically German, not Ukrainian.
Germans had been immigrating to Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire, since the late 18th Century and continued throughout the 19th Century. According to the 1897 census, there were 171,000 Germans living in Volhynia alone. Despite living in Ukraine for generations, the German immigrants, living in self-governing rural colonies, retained their own language, their own culture, their own German-language schools, their own churches (in Volhynia, mostly Evangelical Lutherans). Most, like Robert’s father, August were farmers.
Germans began leaving Ukraine when the Russian government took away many of the privileges Germans had long enjoyed in the 1870s and 1880s. They were no longer exempt from military service, their self-governance was suspended, Russian was mandatory in schools. Many left for the free or cheap land in Canada and the US.
Robert’s great uncle, Friedrich Weich (1853 – 1933), was part of this first wave of migration. He established his family in Portland, Oregon, where in the opening years of the 1900s, he ran a hotel, then the St. Petersburg Saloon downtown. More family members followed in the first decade of the 20th Century, including Robert’s father, who crossed the Atlantic in 1910, just eleven months after Robert was born.
August Ratter left behind his wife Emelie Spitzer Ratter (1884 – 1939) and his three children, Julia (1901 – 1989), and Alwina (1903 – 1936), and Robert. Perhaps he intended to work until he had the means to bring his family to the US, but World War I brought emigration to a stop.
When Robert was only 6 or 7 years old, western Volhynia was a battle zone, with the Austro-Hungarian-German armies on the west and the Russian army on the east.
The Ratters in Portland could follow the war in Volhynia in local newspapers. In this map, published in the Oregon Daily Journal of July 22, 1917, the bold black line identifies the Russian-Austrian battleline which moved back and forth as one side or the other conquered ground. The city of Lutsk, in the center, was at this point under Russian control.
This was a terrible time for Germans in Volhynia. Russians treated the German settlers with suspicion and hostility. In 1915, Volhynian Germans were ordered to sell their land and to evacuate immediately. Many were deported to Siberia. Some escaped to safety. Some returned to their hometowns after the war.
How did the Ratters fare during these horrible times? Did they flee? Were they deported? Did they return? No information about this has come to light.
If they were still in Volhynia, they may have also experienced the further hostilities of the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919 – 1920.
German Russian emigration resumed in the early 1920s, although American immigration policies were more restrictive. Fortunately, despite increasing restrictions, all of Robert’s immediate family were able to enter the US.
On July 26, 1923, Robert and his mother sailed from Copenhagen on the SS Fredrick VIII. They arrived in New York on August 6 with $50.
Robert and his mother Emilie sailed to the US in 1923 on the steamship Frederik VIII, the largest vessel of the Skandinavien-Amerika Line.
In Portland, thirteen-year-old Robert met his father for the first time. He was also reunited with his sister Julia Ratter, who came the year before. There was also a cohort of relatives in Portland to welcome them and help them orient to American life.
For several years, Robert’s father had been living and working in Portland’s Slabtown, a northwest neighborhood favored bymany immigrants, including several relatives. Housing was cheap. Nearby factory jobs were plentiful. Having family and other German-speakers nearby was surely a plus for Robert and his family.
No, this is not Robert or his mother, but it gives you an idea of how the Slabtown neighborhood looked in the early 20th Century when he arrived in Portland. It was a thriving community of modest houses, boarding rooms, retail businesses, and factories. The Vaughn baseball park was also nearby.
Photo courtesy of the Slabtown Community Festival
Robert’s father was employed as a molder in the nearby Independent Foundry Company. Several relatives also had jobs in steel and iron fabrication factories.
In 1926, Robert’s other sister, Alwina Ratter (1903 – 1936), arrived in Portland along with her husband, August Price (1903 – 1952), and their two children, Elfride (b. 1923) and Helmuth (b. 1925). Now the expanded Ratter family needed a bigger place to live.
They found it in South Portland, at the end of the Fulton streetcar line, at 138 Florida St.
A 1928 ad in the Oregonian describes the property as having two houses, one with three rooms, one with five. Modest, but sufficient for a family of eight. The 1930 census shows that August Ratter owned the house, which was worth $3,000.
The Fulton district was another neighborhood that attracted immigrants of various nationalities. It had cheap housing and jobs at the plants along the Willamette. It was here Robert began working in the furniture industry, which would be his vocation for many years. Perhaps he learned woodworking skills in his two years at Benson High School.
By 1934, Robert was working for the huge Doernbecher furniture manufacturing company located on NE 28th Avenue next to the railroad and what is now I-84. This company was founded by Frank Silas Doernbecher, son of a German political exile, who taught him the furniture manufacturing. Robert worked there until at least 1941.
While working at Doernbecher, Robert met Karen Bruhn (1914 – 1997), daughter of a Danish immigrant. They married in 1935 and within a few years had four children.
At the time Robert registered for the draft in October, 1940, he lived in Montavilla at 234 NE 82nd Ave. Coincidentally, this was just a three-minute walk from his future home. But the hardware store would have to wait until the end of the war.
In 1946, work began on the property at 8045 NE Glisan St.
He hired the contracting firm of Hood and Stuart to build the store for $12,000.
This building housed at 8045 NE Glisan St. once housed Ratter’s Hardware, today it is Ho’s Automotive.
Source: Google Maps
After the final plumbing inspection on May 14, 1947, Ratter’s Hardware opened.
In the Oregonian of June 16, 1954, Ratter’s Hardware is listed as a Home Town Hardware Store.
Ratter’s Hardware did have local competition. The Anspach and Blessing hardware stores were located on SE Stark Street, but Ratter’s hardware offered a convenient option for people who lived in the northern part of Montavilla.
It’s hard to say exactly what the Ratter’s Hardware inventory was like. Surely it had the usual items, but ads for products Ratter carried suggest it was pretty broad. Oregon Journal ads in the 1950s list Ratter’s Hardware as a place to buy Venetian blinds as well as paint and gardening supplies. An Oregonian article of July 14, 1954, adds an unexpected item carried by Ratter: air pellet guns. Ratter was fined $25 for selling one to a minor.
Robert retired in 1972. Perhaps someone else continued to run Ratter’s Hardware, but by 1975 it was Phillip’s Hardware, which stayed in business until 1983, when its inventory was auctioned. From this time there is a long gap in the record. Today the building is home to Ho’s Automotive.
Did residents of the nearby German Retirement Home (now Milepost 5) ever drop in to speak German with Robert? Did customers regard it as a friendly and helpful place? And what did it look like inside? Was it jam-packed with goods? Did it have a neat, orderly appearance?
There are plenty of questions about Ratter’s I wish I could answer. Such as who worked there. Robert, certainly, but also his wife Karen also worked in the store. But were there other employees? Did any of the Ratter’s four children— Betty Jean, Carol (Carolyn), Robert and Nancy Lou, who would have been teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s— help out?
Here is where I hope some of you, dear readers, can add to the story of Robert Ratter and his hardware store. Please feel free to click on the “Comment” button above or drop me an email at email@example.com to add your memories.
Hopefully this story has given you some insight into how twisty, complex, and even dangerous an immigrant’s path can be. Yes, Robert Ratter was ethnically German rather than Ukrainian, but that ethnic group was an important element of Ukrainian history.
And, a modest, successful hardware store in Montavilla is a long way from a farming life in Ukraine. About 5,500 miles, to be exact, if I got the right natal village.
Paul Robert Magocsi, A History of Ukraine, second edition, 2010, University of Toronto Press (available as an online ebook on the Multnomah County Library website)
Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history?
Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here.