Cole Family Migration Article

The Cole Family Migration to
Portland, Oregon
World War II and Living in the Defense Housing
by Susan LeBlanc

In June of 1938, the economic recovery of the United States was moving forward, but many people had suffered irreversible damages from the great depression, and worked hard to regain their previous economic situations. As often occurs, this recovery might mean moving to other locations where work was more readily available. This was the beginning of a vast shift from farm life in the mid-west to manufacturing jobs in large cities. Many people migrated to Portland, Oregon to find work during and after the depression. With the need for increased workers in the shipyards in 1941 these people found the work they needed. For the family of Orville and Helen Cole, my grandparents, this meant a migration from South Sioux City, Nebraska to Portland, Oregon.
Orville Cole had worked at a meat packing company, but when a strike occurred he lost his job. In turn they were forced to sell their home and live in a small trailer. This was quite a change for Orville Cole, the seventh child of eleven children, who grew up on a farm in Walthill, Thurston County, Nebraska and Helen Anderson Cole, the oldest with her twin sister Hilda, of ten children, who grew up on a farm in Brunswick, Antelope County, Nebraska. Helen’s sister Hilda had previously moved to Oregon with her husband Roy Briggs. When Helen wrote to Hilda of their plight, her sister encouraged them to come to Oregon, as work was readily available. Thus in 1941, they sold the trailer, packed all of their possessions in their 1931 Model A car and made the 1,800 mile trip in several days, with their two young children, Jim age 10 and Yvonne age 7.[i]
1931 Model A Ford Fordor with a slant windshield (

Jim said, “My family left for Portland on around the last of August 1941. We had received a letter from my mother’s sister stating that there was work in Oregon, which was good news as the depression had really stopped much of any employment in the Midwest. Within the letter was a picture of my cousin Roy Jr. sitting on a pony. You will never know the picture that photo painted in the mind of this 10 year old. The "Wild West" horses, cowboys, everything we had seen in the weekly serials at the theater. I could not wait to get there! Much to my chagrin, my cousin lived on the corner of Grand Avenue (U.S. Highway 30 West) and Broadway Street (U. S. Highway 99 South), one of the busiest intersections in Portland. No horses, cowboys, or Indians, just lots of cars.

            During this 1800 mile trip my Sister and I sang ‘You are my sunshine’ until I am sure we had our parents ready to throw us out of the car. We also entertained ourselves by counting bottles along side the highway, until I got carsick from watching the road go by. Our trip took us into the Rocky Mountains. For an Iowa boy who had never seen anything bigger than a bump in a cornfield, those mountains were something.

We were in a 1931 Model A Ford and had all we owned on and in it. When we finally reached the top of the mountains the poor old car looked like a Stanley Steamer. My Dad was very upset with the people at the top as they would not give us any water for the car. They explained to Dad that they had to truck all of their water from the valley to the top of the mountain and therefore guarded it with their lives. They told Dad to turn the motor off at the top of the next hill and we would coast to the next water. We coasted for 17 miles.

When we finally got to the Colombia River and the gorge, in the area of Hood River my Mother spotted some cars way up on the side of the gorge wall and asked my Father what they were doing way up there. He informed her that that was the highway we were going to use to get to Portland, and her response after traveling some 1700 miles was, ‘Orville I want to go back home!’[ii]

For the first six weeks, they lived with the Briggs family in a large home, until they could afford to rent their own place and they moved across the street. Orville found work in a cooperage in North Portland and often walked the three miles to work.[iii]

            Jim remembers clearly the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He said, “On the morning of December 7, 1941 Portland was having a silver thaw and I like many of the kids was out ice skating. An older lady came out of her house and yelled at me, ‘To get home, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and they would be coming after us soon.’ I skated home and told my Dad what she had said. He turned on the radio and the rest is history. It not only changed our lives but the entire history of the world.”[iv] This life-altering event was only the beginning to many changes for this young family and those living in the Portland area.

            Yvonne shared that, “After they bombed Pearl Harbor we had block wardens who checked to make sure we had the big black drapes pulled after dark, because they were afraid the Japanese were going to bomb Portland. They did send a submarine near our coast and bombed some place along the beach.  The government was afraid they would get up the Columbia River and do damage.

            We moved to an apartment, then to a big old house (upstairs), because there weren't many places available.  Then we moved to a defense house in an area called St. Johns Woods.  The houses were all a like, constructed especially for all of us people who were moving into the area to work in the Shipyards. The houses were all the same, most of them ranch style with no garages, just a coal bin outside.  They weren't much, but they were all new and my mom loved how clean and new they were. We heated with a big old coal stove in the living room. My father worked in the Oregon Shipyard on swing shift. The pay was good, but so many things were rationed we didn't spend a lot. Mom didn't go to work, but some of the women did.”[v]

Jim mentioned that, “During the war, automobiles drove with their lights on but the only light showing was a small slit on the headlight lens that let through a very small amount of light, due to blackout regulations.”[vi]

            In Helen’s own words, “Orville was very homesick for Nebraska and wanted to go back. Then the war started and we moved to the military housing where there were many people from back home. He went to work in the shipyards. It was a nice new home and we enjoyed life there very much. We were able to save money and eventually bought the house in St. John's. Our family enjoyed living in the defense housing. There was a shared camaraderie with our neighbors in contributing to the war effort.

Four of my brothers and my sister Dorothy were in the service during the war. Harold was a captain in the Army. Norman was in the Navy. Lewis was in the Air Force. Kenny was in the Army and he was the only one wounded. He was wounded in Sicily and was in the hospital for 6 months. He was wounded again in Normandy.”[vii] (Of the ten siblings, five would migrate to the Portland area.)

Living in the defense housing was a new experience for most of the residents. Yvonne said, “There weren't any additional buildings in St Johns woods because the housing was temporary for the war workers.  We went to a school about a mile south of the Woods, in a residential neighborhood, called George School. We did not fit in well with the children at this school, so we changed to the Catholic school, about a block from that one, called Assumption. 

The whole area of St. Johns Woods was kind of like a big park and we kids had lots of fun playing with kids from all over the States.  There was no childcare in those days, but some stay at home moms I suppose babysat for the working mothers.  I think that was the start of the working mother idea.  Like I said there weren't any extra things like hospitals or meeting places that I knew of.  Those things were just incorporated in the towns nearby. This housing development was about 2 miles from Vanport, which was down by where the expo center area is now.  Kind of behind it where Heron Lakes golf course is located.”[viii]

Jim shared that, “St. Johns Woods housing was all single homes, not apartments like Vanport. They were built in clusters of four or six units, something resembling a cul-de-sac today. I think they were two bedroom, one bath units. I know the walls were thin and the insulation was poor, as they were cold in the winter. Pretty much looked like a giant cookie cutter just punched them out and placed them on the ground. The saying was ‘if a man came home drunk his chances of finding his own home were poor to none.’

In St. Johns Woods we had a market and a large maintenance area where I remember they stored the coal we used for cooking and heat. They delivered the coal as it was needed and I found it very exciting to see that big truck pull up to our outdoor coal bin, raise the bed and out came the coal. They had an administration building, where I remember my friend Larry Duncan and I twice weekly picked up the St. Johns Woods bi-weekly small news bulletin and delivered them house-to-house.  Seems like we delivered about five hundred papers each time. We were paid $3.00 each for this chore. Our theatre was the St. Johns movie house. We lived in St. Johns Woods from 1942 through 1945, and then moved to Burlington Street in St. Johns.”[ix]

“As I can remember, the place we ate in on Sundays was very large. I think it was the dining hall for the workers during the week. It was buffet style and there was lots of food. Great fried chicken and lots of mashed potatoes. They also had many desserts, one I remember was soft ice cream which was a special delight as most things with sugar in them were in short supply.

Our mom did watch over children that were asked to pick berries, beans and even hops. She would see that we all got on the bus at six in the morning and to the fields. Watch over us during the day, and get us all home safe about four in the afternoon. The farmer paid her for her time. We kids were paid for the amount of goods we were able to pick. Many times our family would go out on the weekends and all pick to earn extra money. It also helped the war effort at that time. We played during the summer, swam at Pier Park pool, fished in the Columbia Slough, and did a lot of climbing in the west hills at the end of the St. Johns bridge.

We had a large radio and that was the entertainment for the nights. The favorite shows like "the Shadow" or the "Lone Ranger", Jack Benny, Bob Hope, or "I Love a Mystery". They were great shows and made you use your imagination to put a mental picture to the dialogue you where hearing. I also had a crystal set that I enjoyed. I could get music from Hawaii and radio shows from Denver, Colorado and Chicago, Illinois. They also worked your imagination, wondering what those places looked like and how those people lived.”[x]

Yvonne shared that, “There were lots of foods that we couldn't get during the war.  I do remember Mom and I walking up to Fessenden Street about a mile south of the project we lived in to a little restaurant and we would have hamburgers and hot chocolate in the evening.  We had to have ration stamps for some things like meat, gas, margarine, oils, sugar, flour, cheese, just lots of things that we take for granted now and if the stamps got used up before the end of the month, we just had to do without.  We ate the rabbits and chickens that dad raised. I know Mom fed us horsemeat, which is very healthy if you can get by the thought of eating a pet. They also rationed clothes, shoes, all kinds of food, gas, and probably lots of other things I can't remember.”[xi]

Jim said, “Items that were rationed were sugar, butter, meats of all kinds, gasoline, rubber, most steel, nylon, oil. These items required stamps to get them. I know we also had tokens that were used like small change along with the stamps that were like paper money.” Some of the stamps and tokens are in the family collection of memorabilia.”[xii]

Jim shared that, “St. Johns Woods was a small version of Vanport. It probably contained 500 to 750 housing units. I sold papers (The Oregonian) at the Oregon Shipyards in 1945. On the day the war ended, I made more money than I had ever seen. Each person took a paper and handed me what ever was in their hand and did not wait for change. That was a big day in my life, war was over and I had a pocket full of money.”[xiii]

            The Vanport Flood was the climax to people living in the defense housing.
Jim remembered, “the Memorial Day flood that hit Vanport very hard. The Northeastern area of Oregon had lots of snow during the winter of 1948 and then we had a Chinook (warm rains) come through that lasted for about a week. All that snow melted and came down the Colombia River.

I worked with many high school boys on the dikes at what is now Portland International Airport. We sandbagged the dikes, but in the end, all was lost as 15 feet of water finally flooded the airport. At the same time the train dike that runs along Northwest Portland road, next to Smith Lake broke through and Vanport had 15 feet of water throughout the area. Thankfully, it was a holiday and most people were out of the area. It happened in the mid-afternoon.

A friend of mine and I took his Dad's boat out on to Smith Lake to see what we could and it did not take long for the current to pull us right through the break in the dike and smack dab in the middle of Vanport. Needless to say, the Sheriff's office was not too pleased with our actions and neither was my friends Dad when he came to retrieve his boat!”[xiv]

Yvonne remembered that, “the houses at Vanport and the houses in University Homes where Jim lived after the war, were two story apartment style houses; whereas where we lived were single-family houses. Also where we lived was spread out and kind of a park like setting, where as Vanport was down in a low lying place that flooded out in 1948 when we had the big flood of the Columbia river.

I remember we had been to the beach for Memorial Day and when we came home, they were trying to get people out of Vanport because the place was disintegrating into a flooded mess.  If I remember right, Jim and Dad went down to help out.  University Homes was up off of Columbia Boulevard on a hillside area on the south side of the road. It was a huge place as they all were I guess. These projects, as they were called were built very rapidly and were for all the people who came here to work in the shipyards. They were never meant to be permanent homes.”[xv]

            For the Cole family living in the defense housing project helped them to feel at home in the unsettled life of living in Portland, Oregon during World War II. They made new friends that would remain a part of their lives for years to come. Life in St. Johns following the war, in their home on Burlington Street was good. As more of Helen’s family moved to the area, they would often have them over for visits. Orville passed away in 1956 and Helen continued to live in this home until her death in 2005.

I was born in St. Johns long after these events and spent much of my life there, but I knew very little of its history. Even though I know the area very well, I had no idea what really occurred there during World War II and its impact on our family, prior to conducting these interviews. When we explore the history of the places and times of our ancestors we often learn much more than we anticipate. Whether it be good or bad, the history of our ancestors plays a dramatic part in each of our lives. Preserving this history is a vital part of the research we do as family historians.

[i] Interview with Helen Anderson Cole Haynes, 26 May 2000, by Susan LeBlanc. Helen passed away December 6, 2005 (6 December 2005).
[ii] Email from Jim Cole, 2 January 2009, email to Susan LeBlanc.
[iii] Interview with Helen Anderson Cole Haynes, 26 May 2000.
[iv] Email from Jim Cole, January 2, 2009 (2 January 2009) .
[v] Email from Yvonne Cole Olsen Barker, 23 December 2008, to Susan LeBlanc.
[vi] Email from Jim Cole, 23 December 2008, to Susan LeBlanc.
[vii] Interview with Helen Anderson Cole Haynes, 26 May 2000.
[viii] Email from Yvonne Cole Olsen Barker, 24 December 2008, to Susan LeBlanc.
[ix] Email from Jim Cole, 24 December  2008, to Susan LeBlanc.
[x] Email from Jim Cole, 26 December 2008, to Susan LeBlanc.
[xi] Email from Yvonne Cole Olsen Barker 23 December 2008.
[xii] Email from Jim Cole, 24 December 2008.
[xiii] Email from Jim Cole, 23 December 2008.
[xiv] Email from Jim Cole, 23 December 2008.
[xv] Email from Yvonne Cole Olsen Barker,19 December 2008, to Susan LeBlanc.

Originally published in The Bulletin, by the Genealogical Forum of Oregon, March 2009.
All rights reserved by Susan LeBlanc.