Saturday, December 1, 2012

Santiam Bicycle's Building in Transportation History: The Story of Otto J. Wilson

If you look above the Santiam Bicycle awning on Commercial, you can sometimes see the dim outlines of a name, "Otto J. Wilson."

Otto J. Wilson
Oregon Voter, vol. 31, 1922
Wilson was an early dealer of bicycles who turned to cars and became an important merchant and politician in Salem.

It is difficult to assess the magnitude of his bicycle business other than to say that he was prominent in Salem, but the magnitude of his car business was known and significant nationally:  At the end of his life in 1942 he was said to have been the "dean" of Buick dealers nationally, one of three oldest in the country, and perhaps even the oldest.

Time sometimes wrinkles, and I love that Santiam today sells bikes in a shop and building with such close ties to an early bike dealer and pivotal figure in Salem's transportation history.  In a real sense, what goes 'round, comes around.

Santiam Bicycle inside early 1910s Otto J Wilson Garage

Traces of Otto J Wilson lettering - Love the low, fall sun!
Wilson was born in Salem on September 29th, 1868, to John H. and Minerva Wilson.  The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and Salem was still kindof a backwater, provincial town in '68, not even a decade after statehood.

Once grown up Wilson traveled in pretty nice circles of Salem society.

Albert-Wiggins Wedding, Nov 24th, 1894:  Oregon State Library
Here he is in the 1894 wedding party of Myra Albert and Fred Wiggins (Wilson is seated, on the left with moustache). Albert's father was a bank president and her mother from one of the earliest pioneer families, the Holmans.  The Holman building, now demolished, was the site of the first legislative sessions after statehood.  These were no ordinary Salemites.  And Myra and Fred had met over bicycles!  Fred was one of the earliest bike dealers in Salem, selling them out of his farm implement store.

(Though the story here is on bicycles and Wilson, do note that Myra Albert Wiggins could easily take over the story! She is distinguished and most interesting, and if you don't know her story or her art, it's worth going down the rabbit hole!  Hallie Ford has some of her photography and painting in its collection, and the Wiggins house remains on Court Street.)

Salem Biking in the 1890s

Clearly an important shared element in this social milieu was bicycling.  In 1927 furniture dealer Max Buren recalled an early trip and the crappy roads to Mt. Hood.  There was no pavement yet.
I remember very distinctly the first long trip I took on my wheel. Joe Albert, Otto Wilson, Fred Wiggins, Jack Phillips, Charlie Updegraff, and myself decided to make a trip to Mount Hood....We rode from Oregon City to Government Camp over roads that were almost impassable - some of them were scarcely jackassable...We pushed and carried our wheels about as much as we rode them.
Capital City Cycling Club
Not even a year after the wedding, Wilson participated in founding one of the earliest bike clubs in Salem.

The Capital City Cycling Club organized in May, 1895, and Wilson was elected secretary. The club met at City Hall in the Council chambers, a location that shows the high-status nature of bicycling and those attracted to it. 

About the same time, after working in banking for a few years, Wilson started a bowling alley located just south of the building where Shipp & Hauser would open a shop.  (The site is the parking lot just north of the Spaghetti Warehouse.)

At the bowling alley Wilson and Paul Sroat also displayed and sold bicycles on the side, and in July of 1896 held a bowling benefit there to fund repairs to the bicycle track in Willson Park.

By 1899, Sroat and Wilson's bowling business was almost certainly overtaken by the bicycle business.

Sroat & Wilson, dba The Salem Cyclery, Salem Library Photo Collection
This image of The Salem Cyclery is dated circa 1905 in the library notes, but it must be earlier than that, more like 1899.  In the lower left you can just barely read "SROAT & WILSON" on a dark band behind a man standing against the storefront.  Max Buren's furniture store, Buren & Hamilton, is in the building now occupied by the Spaghetti Warehouse.  (Do not be deceived by the 248 and think this is Greenbaums!  Remember the address change of 1904/5. )

Sroat & Wilson, March 1899
The next season, in 1900 Sroat appears to have exited the partnership, and Wilson took over.

Otto J Wilson, May 1900
Sales to women were an important part of the business, so important that step-throughs would be advertised matter-of-factly, without humor, sex appeal, or condescension.  Maybe it's a stock ad, or maybe it was created locally under Wilson's direction.  But it seems remarkable that it totally avoids getting bogged down in any politics of gender. 

Step-Through Frames with Skirt Guards, 1901
By August of 1901, the wooden building was to be torn down, and an extension of the brick building with Hauser & Shipp built in its place. Wilson moved to 135 Court Street (now the 400 block, in between Liberty and High) on the north side of the street.

Get out and ride your bicycle, 1903
by this time on Court Street
Cars mean Big Changes in 1903

Two years time brought a pivot.  1903 was a momentous year for Wilson and symbolically for Salem.

In April, Wilson purchased Salem's first automobile. Portland's first one had arrived in 1899.  In 1927 Wilson recalled spending $650 on it.  The news is worth quoting in full.

April 16th, 1903

Fancy Automobile is the First

Made its Trial Today, and will be Speeded

Liveryman will Get a Big One for Picnic Parties

Salem can no longer be properly denominated a slow town. The capital city now has within its boundaries one real automobile with the prospect of others being purchased before the season advances much further. And this is in addition to a large number of motor bicycles.

The first machine of this kind to reach Salem, is the property of O. J. Wilson, the Court street wheel dealer. It is a dandy. With 4-inch pneumatic tired wheels, a fine cushioned seat, and propelled by gasoline, the machine is a valuable one and it is quite likely Mr. Wilson's company will be eagerly sought during the season suited for automobiling, at least. The machine was adjusted Wednesday afternoon and may be expected to make its initial appearance soon.

The automobile fever is believed to be contagious. An enterprising Salem liveryman, who has made a big success at his business, is contemplating the purchase of a three-seated automobile, of a carry-all pattern - something suited for small parties of six to nine persons. He expects to make a trip east within a few weeks and if he succeeds in finding a machine, that will suit his needs, and that is propelled by electricity, he will bring it back with him. In this way even those who cannot afford to own a machine of their won, can enjoy the luxury of riding in this vehicle, which will be placed in the service of the public for a normal rental.

With the whiz and burr of several motor-bicycles and the appearance of a number of "horseless carriages" on Salem's streets, the capital city is becoming quite metropolitan and is able to keep step with even larger communities, in this respect as well as others.
Just a month later in May, Wilson was advertising for both cars and bicycles. The selling price for a new car was around 20x or even 50x that of a new bicycle - and the profit commensurately larger as well! As the automobile was now on the leading edge in ground transportation technology, early adopters and fans of gadgetry who could afford one were attracted to cars rather than bikes.

But this wasn't all Wilson was doing in 1903. In October, he also participated in what was said to be Salem's first automobile crash.
The first automobile accident in Salem occured today and fortunately it did not result fatally. As Otto Wilson was turning the corner at Court and Commercial streets he approached a group of boys. A team was approaching from another direction and with one exception the boys got out of the way of both vehicles.

One boy did not see the automobile and in getting out of the way of the team he ran in front of the auto and was knocked down. He fell directly in front of the machine so that when it passed over him he was not struck by the wheels. He sustained severe bruises in falling but no serious injury. No blame attaches to Wilson.
(Two years later, in 1905, Mary Albert, Myra's mother, died in what might be Salem's first automobile crash fatality.)

Wilson also got into politics, running for the first time for City Council in 1903. Council had earlier in the year passed an ordinance restricting riding on the sidewalks, and not everyone was pleased about it.

Wilson ran credibly, appealing strongly to young businessmen, but did not prevail this first time.  Though I am not certain, I have not found evidence that he ran again for another decade.  In June of 1915 he was appointed to Council to serve out another's term, and then seems to have been relected twice.

In 1904 he appears to have stopped advertising his bicycle business, and in the newspapers he's variously described as an autoist, automobilist, and sometimes bicyclist. The money by this time is plainly in automobiles, although few can afford them.  Because cars are still shiny and new and costly, they are also overrepresented in the news.  Conversely, bicycling is still prevalent, but it is increasingly second-class and in the process of being redefined for kids, and it is regarded as less newsworthy.  The silence does not, therefore, necessarily mean that he quit selling bikes.

The Garage and Dealership

By 1908, Wilson was storing a car at Commercial and Center, Santiam's site, and there were plans for a brick two-story garage. He's gained the Buick franchise and agency for Marion and Polk counties in 1907.

Not quite realized plans in August, 1908
This did not get built and the lot was sold again in early 1910. After the election of 1910, it appears that a two-story concrete garage had been built, since the Republicans in Salem held an election party there.  Information is not consistent, however, and it is even possible, though unlikely, that the garage was rebuilt.  According to the assessor's office, the structure was built in 1911; according to Wilson's obituaries and some later sources, it was built in 1915.  At least until other information shows up, we should regard the contemporary account in the newspaper as best: The garage was finished at the end of 1910 and showed up on the tax rolls in 1911.

The first ad for Wilson's auto business at this site appears in 1912.  (Note the motorcycle ads for Hauser and Shipp separately!)  The full address of 388 Commercial appears in ads not long after.

In the late 19-teens Wilson's political career finally launched.  Having finally become a member of City Council in 1915 and then reelected twice, Wilson was selected by Council to serve out the term of Mayor Albin in June, 1919, after Albin resigned. Wilson was defeated for re-election in May, 1920. He was then elected to the Oregon House of Representatives for the sessions of 1923 and 1925.

Wilson died in 1942.  His son, Otto jr, was serving in the military had to wait until the war was over and he was back in Salem to take over the business. From Otto jr's obituary:
Following WWII, Otto took over ownership of the family business, the Otto J. Wilson Company, with his cousin Kenneth Wilson. He operated Wilson Buick on the corner of Commercial and Center Streets until 1963, when he built a new garage at 3333 Market Street on the site of Margaret Siegmund's family farm.
Otto jr, passed away in 2007 at the age of 90.

What now, the National Register?

As a result of the Salem River Crossing / Third Bridge historical assessment process, the garage was found to be "Eligible under Criterion C" for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Buildings and places eligible under Criterion C show style and
embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or...represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or... represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
I want to float the idea that the garage could also be eligible under Criteria A and B, places
That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

B. That are associated with the lives of significant persons in or past
None of the other early auto garages on Commercial have survived.  The brick Catlin and Linn building on State street may be the very first structure built specifically to be an auto garage, and if so, Wilson's is likely the second surviving and the first of concrete.  Of newer vintage by a decade is the Vick Bros garage on Trade and High.  But that building doesn't have the link to bicycles!

Land use, transportation technology, and road development constitute deep, deep background noise in Salem (and in almost all of our communities).  To most people these patterns seem like the "natural" order of things, even though they have been the result of policy, subsidy, investment, and planning - things always at the service of interests.

Wilson's roles first in the bike trade and with bicycle transport, and then in the auto trade and with auto transport make for a "significant contribution" to local transportation history. 

And as a City Councilor, Mayor, and State Representative, as well as leading auto dealer, Wilson was no small fry, either.

But the significance of Wilson and his garage have been somewhat lost or diminished, and together they deserve better recollection. This part of history is nearly invisible.  Fortunately the Union Street Railroad Bridge, of nearly identical vintage, has been retained.  The streetcar and interurban tracks we saw this summer were not so lucky and are buried again under asphalt.

Putting the building on the Register wouldn't necessarily freeze it.  It could be creatively reused rather than fossilized in amber.  The Wilson garage is not grand, no example as far as I can tell of "high style" anything, and I don't think it would need to be preserved exactly as-is.  At some point in the future, the crossroads of Commercial and Center Streets will likely attract interest. The location is too good. 

MercyCorps Headquarters - THA Architecture
Happily preservation and redevelopment are compatible!  I love the way the Thomas Hacker's firm built something new on a surface parking lot and joined it to the renovated Packer Scott (aka Skidmore) Building of circa 1890. 

And from the other side before the addition...

The other side before the addition - note the surface lot on the right
Image via Cafe Unknown
How great would it be to level the Chemeketa Parkade in a joint redevelopment with the Wilson garage.  Put something new there, a place where people actually live, work, and play, not just a place for idle car storage!

While they didn't build up, the example of the Deschutes brewpub in the Pearl District is a more direct example of redeveloping a vintage garage.  In fact, Portland has several garages on the National Register, the Auto Freight, Auto Rest, Corbett Bros, Imperial, Lombard, and Rose City - and maybe best of all, the totally charming Knighton Packard Service Building!

But the Lombard might be the best comparable, as its facade is not very grand.   For a long time it was home to Daisy Kingdom, and it was redeveloped and now houses the Museum of Contemporary Craft.

Hopefully Santiam Bicycle will grow and take up more and more of the building, leading eventually to redevelopment!  Wouldn't that be grand.  Maybe other businesses will want to use parts of the building that are currently unused or under-used.  Or maybe some other use for the building will develop. 

But I think it is fair to say that Otto Wilson's garage can make a minimal claim for significance under criteria A and B. Maybe not a strong claim, but I'm sure that places with weaker claims have made the cut. At the same time, I'm not certain that the building should be put on the National Register.  But I think it's worth talking about and seriously considering.

So what do you think?

Update January 28th, 2013

Thanks to Otto's grandson, John Wilson, here's a photo from mid-century!

Otto J. Wilson garage, May 1952.  Image courtesy of John Wilson

Update October 5th, 2013

From Mission Mill's Facebook:
Otto's 1903 Oldsmobile?

Another Update, May 27th, 2018

There's a nice history piece in the paper today! It has another view of the building from across the street on Commercial (the UGM site).

Update, October 23rd, 2019

I think we can confirm now that the building was constructed in October 1910. Interestingly, the auto sections in Portland newspapers have much more information than the Salem papers.

Here's a note about the move. At this time Wilson was in a partnership that dissolved within a couple of years.

Wilson & Maurer partnership to move
September 8th, 1910
But it's the Portland papers that have the details.

October 9, 1910 - Oregon Daily Journal

October 30th, 1910 - Oregon Daily Journal
It appears to have been completed by the end of October. The trusses and structural system are distinctive.

October 30th, 1910 - Oregon Daily Journal


Gary said...

What a great read! I'll be sure to look for Otto's name on Santiam Bike's building next time I'm near there.

Alex said...

You have me very curious about Myra Albert Wiggins-- Please do tell.. or I should write "please do write"

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here's a biking story for you!

From The Witch of Kodakery:

'Before leaving Holland [in 1903, I think, and on the way to Paris], Myra experienced what she called the "narrowest escape of my life." As she explained, "A man was walking directly in front of my wheel, crosswise, and the wind was blowing so he couldn't hear my bell. He finally heard just in time to keep me from striking him, and by that time I was on the street car track, and looked up to see a heavy wagon and horse coming toward me at a very fast gait and almost upon me. I hesitated half a second as to which way I should turn and then it was too late, for the horse's head was over my handle bars, still coming with his head drawn back to keep from striking me. Oh! But he looked like a monster. I thought of a thousand things in that instant, and then jumped, wheel and all, on to the narrow two and one half foot sidewalk without a hundredth part of a second to spare, and then I thought my foot would be run over. I landed on the spokes of my wheel and I tell you I was thankful for that escape. The horse was going too fast to stop, and he would have trampled me to death. My handlebars were twisted, but the wheel was uninjured."'

references for your reading pleasure:
The Witch of Kodakery and an article written by its author on the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission site.

An article in Oregon Quarterly

The Oregon Encyclopedia entry

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Thanks to grandson John Wilson for the mid-century photo of the building and dealership!

Anonymous said...

How interesting to read that bit of history; excellent re-telling. Facebook said...

is otto j. wilson related to a bicycle brand wilson or wilsons sole distributor star bicycle store?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added clip from today's paper.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added a note about zeroing in on the garage's construction date. Portland newspapers had more information! October 1910 is very close to a final answer.