Interacting: Oregon Social and Cultural Trends

Oregonian building in 1906
The Oregonian Building, downtown Portland, circa 1906. The Oregonian newspaper heralded the success of Portland's economy as it covered the city's social and cultural events. (OSA, Accession 88A-057)

Portland Dominates

Portland's population grew by leaps and bounds in the decades before World War I. Ambitious civic leaders saw few limits as new bridges spanned the Willamette River and neighborhoods sprang up for miles to the east of the river. Shipyards and docks along the river expanded quickly. Dozens of factories, hundreds of shops and restaurants, and thousands of jobs in corporate and regional offices seemed to assure growth would continue.

As it came to dominate the Oregon economy, a thriving social and cultural life developed, both high brow and low. Opera, symphony, ballet, visual art, and theater were among the higher cultural offerings. Working class Portlanders frequented vaudeville theaters, silent movies, pool halls, sports arenas, and other more "colorful" locales.

On the whole, arbiters of culture based in New York, Boston, or San Francisco would have no problem identifying Portland's "provincial" deficiencies. Nonetheless, relative to other Oregon communities, it culturally dominated the state. However, this was tempered by the fact that many of its inhabitants worked such long hours in factories, offices, or shops that they had limited time to enjoy the cultural fare.

Challenges for Smaller Communities

Smaller communities made the most of their resources. Numerous local musical bands, orchestras, and theatrical groups performed for appreciative audiences. Places such as Baker City boasted remarkable offerings for their size. Even tiny Elgin in Union County had its own opera house. Small towns often stirred local political and social debates with multiple newspapers that practiced a feisty, opinionated journalistic tradition. Schools, churches, granges, and Chautauqua Societies brought some form of culture to the more isolated communities of the state. Fraternal organizations and ladies' societies further strengthened the social fabric.

Still, social and cultural life on the farm or in the small town could be frustratingly limited - especially for younger Oregonians. The question "how do you keep them down on the farm?" was not an academic one on the eve of World War I. Distance, geography, and weather conspired to keep most Oregon communities isolated. Roads were overwhelmingly made of dirt - producing sloppy troughs of mud in the winter and roiling clouds of dust in the summer. Year-round they were rutted. These realities naturally limited travel in a way modern Oregonians would scarcely recognize.

Economic realities also conspired to socially limit rural Oregonians. Summers often demanded work from sunup to sundown to plant and harvest the crops and complete chores. Loggers, fishermen, and others also saw long hours of work in summer. The coming of fall brought increasing preparations for "wintering in." Essentially, large numbers of Oregonians stocked up on firewood, home canned fruits and vegetables, cured meats, and other necessities in anticipation of winter. The short, often rainy or snowy days of winter were largely spent "holed up" in and around farmhouses and cabins. Children would walk to small local schoolhouses and the family may travel to church or to the neighbor's farm, but the term "cabin fever" still had real meaning for many rural Oregonians.

It was from this context that the majority of young Oregon recruits left home for military service in World War I beginning in 1917. But they were not alone. Others flocked to larger towns and cities for opportunities provided by the wartime economy. Jobs in factories, shipyards, warehouses, and rail yards beckoned as an impending war would transform the nation.