You may recall that Innovative Housing has been working on converting the old Erickson’s building into a low income housing development. I have had the honor of working with an art team that is constructing some public art pieces for the common areas of the space. It has been an exciting project that has allowed me to really dig into one of my favorite “old timey” Portland locations. And in many ways, it has challenged my standard narrative of this space. This is Public History.
The lore has it as such: in the 1880s, August Erickson established the “Temple of 10,000 Delights,” Erickson’s Saloon – the North End concern that was known the world over. Gus owned the place until he sold it to Fred Fritz Jr., owner and proprietor of Fritz’s Saloon and Theater, which was across Burnside from Erickson’s. Owning two of the famed Portland gambling, drinking and whoring establishments cemented Fritz’s fame in the city’s history. Fritz was a wise businessman, and he preserved the name, and the legacy, of Gus’s storied establishment.
Yet so much of the genuine narrative is untold. Remember – Gus owned Erickson’s for maybe 20, 30 years tops. But the Fritz family (Fred Fritz’s son was also named, somewhat confusingly, Fred Fritz Jr. – and he took over the business after his father died in October of 1921) owned the bar for decades more – much, much longer than Gus. Again, the family WANTED patrons to come to “Erickson’s Saloon,” they capitalized on that name and the associated legacy, but truly their contribution to the North End/Whitechapel/Old Town surely surpassed the old Finn/Swede/Russian’s.
Fritz’s obituary is an interesting document. The Oregonian refers to him as “one of the ruling spirits in the Portland north end.” Which is absolutely true. He was a gambler – a high roller at that (peep that cigar). The daily noted that he had been “identified with interests in the north end… he owned both Erickson’s and Fritz’, widely known saloons.” But again – the more you dig, the more you learn.
Fritz owned much more than that – in fact – he owned several other buildings in Portland. BIG buildings. He built and owned the Villa St. Clara (named after his wife) on 12th and Taylor – today’s Gentry apartments). He owned the Panama Building on Third and Alder, and numerous other lots in what we today call Downtown Portland. He also owned farm property in several counties. He was a massive real estate baron – and his dealings moved back and forth – in and out of his hands and into the hands of other owners. Surely deals done well and deals gone bad. Fred liked to gamble, and he seemed to have been pretty fucking good at his games of chance. I’m surely willing to wager that the tables at Fritz and Erickson’s almost always went the way of the house – not in the favor of the Henry’s swilling sailor or logger or hayseed from Umatilla who came to town to see the fucking elephants. Maybe his real estate dealings went in his favor as well.
I do find it interesting, as a historian, to see what we choose to have preserved as “legacy.” It is often a simplistic moniker that summarizes a lifetime of contribution to our municipal heritage. Erickson’s was Gus’s saloon. Fritz was a saloon owner. These little soundbytes are just a snapshot in time – and they define a (formerly) living person’s endowment. THAT is what is remembered. THAT is the label that gets associated for decades. But as we all know, it is much more complex than that. There is always, always more to the tale.
In working with the team on this Erickson’s project, I have had an opportunity to really examine those accepted narratives. And I have had the freedom to explore the depth that is associated with those characters (remember when we told you about the Gus Erickson that tired to kill his wife?). We are going to bring something new to the narrative. Talking to family members. Looking over the old newspaper articles one more time. Walk the sites – visit, stay a while. And yes, even examining Holbrook for finer details. And I’m not just talking about the same five, tired old timey photographs and a placard on the wall talking about “history.” The narrrative is in the art that the team is creating. I am able to perform art as well. Our project manager, James Harrison describes the process as an opera that kind of creates itself from all the pieces that we are all disparately, and collectively, bringing together. And it will be beautiful. But it will also be rugged. It will be raw. And I would like to invite you to experience it. Because this is our history. Truth. Reality. Real History. But new. And we are going to bring that process to you. In a podcast.
I’d like to think of Old Gus and Baller Fritz just hanging back on the bar, checking it all out and digging it. Have some beans, kids. Let’s play a hand on the second floor. Bring your dough.
And we still have a few bombs to drop about the history of Erickson’s (sorry Andy…). Oh yes – there will be bombs. But you’ll have to wait for the podcast to hear about that… #Boom