At Edgefield, during its seven-decade run as a poor farm, a remarkable array of personalities congregated under its roof: sea captains, captains of industry, school teachers, ministers, musicians, loggers, nurses, home builders, homemakers, former slaves and slave owners. There were Germans, Italians, Japanese, Chinese, Native Americans, African Americans; Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Buddhist. Frankie of “Frankie and Johnny” notoriety was there. The nephew of celebrated Confederate General Stonewall Jackson surpassed age 100 while at Edgefield. The one common thread among them was, at one time (and perhaps others) in their lives, each needed a “leg up.”
Many of the residents, or inmates as they originally were called, supplied the labor for the 300+-acre farm. Overseen by a succession of well-seasoned, college-educated farm supervisors, Edgefield was a model of agricultural efficiency and production. The fruit, vegetables, dairy, hogs, and poultry raised on property was sufficient for feeding the population at the poor farm, as well as the county hospital and jail. Many years, surplus quantities were canned and sold on the open market.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the farm supervisor was maintaining an adequate and capable labor force. Field “workers” were constantly coming and going and of course none were hired for their farming expertise. Outside labor gangs were periodically contracted-farm students, prisoners, prisoners of war, even some of Oregon’s first Braceros (migrant workers from Mexico)¬-to supplement the on-site force.
The Great Depression was one notable period when the labor supply was not an issue. In the early 1930s, when so many people needed “legs up,” Edgefield’s population swelled to over 600, nearly double its normal number. Closets were converted and residents put three or more to a room in an ongoing effort to accommodate the great demand. The poor farm’s basement quickly emerged as a veritable bazaar made up of booths operated by the legions of unemployed craftsmen and artisans living upstairs. The pool of talent and services available in those basement booths drew faithful patronage from Portland customers.
In the 1940s, when World War II put Americans back to work, Edgefield’s population shrank considerably, and those who remained were many Depression-era residents who had number of residents who had reached an advanced age or state of incapacity to prevent their departures. To better suit these needs, in the Post War years, Edgefield took on more of a role of a nursing home and rehabilitation center, though the farm operation continued through the 1960s.
In the 1970s, Edgefield saw fewer incoming patients as private nursing homes and in-home care became more accessible with the rise of Welfare and Medicaid. A shrinking population and a complex of aging buildings in need of daunting repairs forced the decision to close the old poor farm. In April 1982, the last patients were relocated and the place was locked up, though not too securely.
For the remainder of the 1980s, the elements and vandals¬-mostly bored teenagers¬-wreaked havoc on the property. Burst pipes sent water everywhere, windows were broken, every surface was spray painted with graffiti, and everything not bolted down was stolen. The place that for decades had been a refuge for thousands of needy souls was now a liability to the county. Arrangements to demolish the building were put in place.
It would have happened, too, if it weren’t for those pesky Troutdale Historical Society folks who decried such a move a “foul and unjust fate!” These courageous and resolute history-minded folks waged a five-year fight to save. Once victory was theirs, however, the bigger battle began: Who wants an old poor farm, anyway? A listing with a New York auction house prompted exactly no bids.
Enter brothers and Portland sons, Mike and Brian McMenamin. Amongst the ruins of Edgefield they saw a fabled gathering spot, a village populated by artists, artisans, gardeners, craftspeople, musicians, and folks from surrounding communities. The people holding the purse strings didn’t see it.
General confusion reigned amongst the moneylenders. They felt Mike and Brian’s proposal was a somewhat vague and decidedly different direction for the brothers, who to that point had opened a handful of neighborhood pubs in the Portland area. By 1990, though, the pair had developed a pretty good sense about the philosophy and verse of pubs, having opened their first in 1974.
On their journey of discovery, the brothers’ definition and expectations of a pub broadened. At the absolute core is a welcoming gathering spot for people of all ages. It needn’t depend on trendy décor; rather the people who have gathered and their conversations create the finest atmosphere (though, good music, good beer and good food often will enhance the experience). From this core, radiated such new rays as breweries, movie theaters, lodging rooms, artwork and history. But all this proved to be just a foundation for what a pub could be.
Braced with some experience, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm, and given a proverbial blank canvas with Edgefield, all that was needed was financing. The money finally came when two separate banks agreed to loan the brothers enough to accomplish the first stage. When (if?) that was completed, additional funding would be forthcoming. WaHoo!
First came the winery, in 1990. The following year saw the opening of a brewery, and the Power Station pub, movie theater and McMenamins first venture into lodging: eight rooms. Through word of mouth and minimal advertising, people started to come-despite the property’s then remote location on a county road, 16 miles distant from the company’s Portland customer base.
And the people came, the McMenamins’ faithful, disciples of the then-raging Microbrew Revolution. They were curious about this big new adventure, tolerant of the tumble down condition of the rest of the property, and thirsty for a good brew!
This initial spurt of success allowed the adventure to continue: renovation of the main lodge into hotel rooms, specialty bars, a fine dining restaurant, and inventive event spaces. Also, wondrous gardens, artisans shops, concerts, big and small, and golf.
Every salvageable building, shed, and outbuilding of the old poor farm that could be found beneath the rampant wild blackberries was saved. The mechanics facility became a festive event space called Blackberry Hall. The root cellar-turned stable found new life as the Distillery and clubhouse for the golf course. The delousing shed was reborn as the Black Rabbit House bar. Even the poor farm incinerator got a creative transformation into the Little Red Shed, prototype of McMenamins’ long line of small bars to follow.
A blending of art and history has become another of the property’s attractions, another McMenamins’ first that germinated at Edgefield. A team of more than a dozen artists was turned loose on the place, armed with tales and photos of the poor farm, its residents, and the surrounding area, with the directive to celebrate the rich past while doing away with the property’s institutional feel. Now, it’s hard to find a surface not enlivened by an artistic flourish and nod to the past.
McMenamins Edgefield continues its emergence as a pub of a most delightfully broadened definition, a village of artisans and publicans. The ever-evolving mélange of personalities, events, landscape and architecture makes for a truly extraordinary setting, inseparable from its poor farm past, and soon to be augmented by new lodging rooms in the 1962 county jail facility, and who knows, maybe a 360-degree bar in the old farm silo.