|Otto J. Wilson|
Oregon Voter, vol. 31, 1922
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!|
Once grown up Wilson traveled in pretty nice circles of Salem society.
|Albert-Wiggins Wedding, Nov 24th, 1894: Oregon State Library|
(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|
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|
|Sroat & Wilson, March 1899|
|Otto J Wilson, May 1900|
|Step-Through Frames with Skirt Guards, 1901|
|Get out and ride your bicycle, 1903|
by this time on Court Street
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|
HORSELESS CARRIAGES FOR SALEM
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.
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.(Two years later, in 1905, Mary Albert, Myra's mother, died in what might be Salem's first automobile crash fatality.)
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.
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.
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|
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.
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; orNone 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!
B. That are associated with the lives of significant persons in or past
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|
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
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
|October 9, 1910 - Oregon Daily Journal|
|October 30th, 1910 - Oregon Daily Journal|
|October 30th, 1910 - Oregon Daily Journal|