By PATRICIA SANDERS
Old Montavilla, the intersection of SE 80th Avenue and SE Stark Street
Photo courtesy of Heyward Stewart
Now, Montavilla is certainly an unusual name. It’s not borrowed from a town or city somewhere else. Doing a Google search, I did find a Montavilla Way in Peachtree City, Georgia and some Montavilla Apartments in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, but no urban equivalent in the United States.
You might think the name sounds like it might derive from someplace in Spain or Italy. But again, no, as far as I could find. A writer for the Oregon Daily Journal July 20, 1906 edition did query the unusual spelling of the name and recommended the first “a” be changed to “e,” so it would make sense in either of the Latin tongues.
Headline in the Oregon Daily Journal, July 20, 1906, p. 10
More Google searches brought up an even more obscure Montavilla reference: one version of the surname of a fictional protagonist of a late-medieval bestseller about fantastic travels. More often you see his name given as John Mandeville. But I digress. It would be a stretch to think this is the source of our Montavilla. (By the way, should you be curious about this book, you can find it in the Multnomah County Library as “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.”)
Portrait of Sir John Mandeville from his “Travels” (1459 edition). Here the Latin version of the traveler’s name, Johannes de Montevilla, is used.
So how did Montavilla get its name?
Before answering, I’d like to put to rest two myths about the source of the Montavilla name: one is the oft-repeated claim that it is a contraction of Mount Tabor Village; the other is that it was a contraction invented to fit the destination signs on Montavilla line streetcars.
I agree with the assumption that Montavilla is a contraction. But a contraction of what?
Why is Montavilla not a shortened version of Mount Tabor Village? Put simply, there is no evidence that the neighborhood was ever called Mount Tabor Village. I’ve heard people say that it was. And this claim is repeated over and over online, including Fodor’s Inside Portland (2020) and the Willamette Week (August 22, 2016). But repetition doesn’t make it true.
Perhaps the confusion comes from the formation of a Montavilla business improvement association that came together in 1968. This group called itself the Mount Tabor Village Association. The Oregon Journal of December 19, 1968 reported that these business owners wanted to recreate “the village atmosphere” of Montavilla and to improve the visual appearance of local businesses.
But this 1968 invention does not mean “village” was ever part of the Montavilla name.
No, I think Lewis A. McArthur (1883 – 1951) correctly identified the source when in his article, “Oregon Geographic Names,” published in the Oregon Historical Quarterly of September 1926 and in various editions of his book Oregon Geographic Names. There McArthur wrote: “The name Montavilla is a contraction of Mt. Tabor Villa.”
Mt. Tabor Villa was a subdivision, which was platted and went on the market in 1889. This subdivision was a mere fraction of Montavilla neighborhood of today. Its boundaries stretched from SE Stark Street to NE Glisan Street and from 74th to 78th Avenues. The promoters presumably tried to market it with references to the nearby prestigious neighborhood, Mt. Tabor, and to villas (large country estates).
As the local community became established in the 1890s— creating its own school, its own town hall, its own businesses— Portland newspapers referred to it as Mount Tabor Villa, Montavilla, or just the Villa. But never “the village.”
The shortest name, the “villa,” also argues against the usage of “village.” East Glisan in the early days was Villa Avenue. The local baseball team was known as the Villas.
The first identifiable use of the name Montavilla for the early community came in 1891, when grocer James Downing was appointed the Montavilla postmaster. The ledgers for the Appointments of U.S. Postmasters show that Downing was appointed on September 28 of that year.
Detail of the ledger showing the appointment of Montavilla postmaster James Downing on September 23, 1891. The abbreviation “M. O.” in the left and center-right columns indicates the beginning of money order service on January 28, 1893.
Source: Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1831 – 1971
Portland city directories and newspapers trace the gradual shift from Mt. Tabor Villa to Montavilla. Within a few years businesses were giving Montavilla as their location. Portland city directories show that Mt. Tabor Villa School gradually shifted its name to Montavilla School.
Gradually the name Montavilla came to include other subdivisions until it became the large neighborhood we know today. The 1900 U. S. Census survey of Precinct 62, Montavilla shows that extension, since the 1268 residents lived both north and south of Base Line Road (SE Stark Street). On Montavilla’s changing boundaries see our previous story “Where is Montavilla.”
So what about those streetcar signs?
Remember, the earliest use of the name Montavilla was 1891, in the U. S. Post Office records. But he Montavilla (aka Fairview) line didn’t begin operating until July 26, 1892, according to the Oregonian of that date. The post office contraction offered a convenient destination name for the City and Suburban Railway Company, but the company did not invent it.
A final question about the Montavilla name remains: who invented it? Was it our first postmaster, James Downing, or someone else?
Two names have been suggested: Franklin Willard and Frank Anspach. In the Oregonian of April 16, 2007, D. G. W. of Beavercreek claimed that his grandfather, Franklin Willard, invented the name Montavilla because he thought that Mount Tabor Villa was too long. Franklin A. Willard (1853 – 1926), a broom maker from New York was living in the neighborhood by 1892 and was included in the 1900 Montavilla census. I found no records placing Willard in our fair neighborhood in 1891, but it’s possible.
Frank C. Anspach (1888 – 1982), a well-known Montavilla plumber, was only three years old when the name Montavilla first appeared in the U. S. Post Office record. Anspach was married to Willard’s daughter Myrtle Mae (1891 / 1892 – 1974), so that may be where the confusion came in.
We’ll probably never know the answer to who invented the name Montavilla. Perhaps new information will someday make that known. For now, we can at least confirm that Montavilla is not a contraction of Mount Tabor Village and it was not invented to fit on Montavilla streetcars.
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 email@example.com.
Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here.