Oregon Grape Nursery & Footpath Cafe

Remembering Oregon Grape Nursery & Footpath Cafe

By Scott McMahon

Our story begins at the Tualatin River where Field’s Bridge connects SW Borland to West Linn. Joseph Fields laid claim to the area in 1849. Fields saw a need to help people cross the Tualatin River, by 1852, he set up a ferry service. It wasn’t until 1862 that the first bridge was built.

A few years later in 1866, a better constructed bridge was put in place, only to be washed away in the flood of 1890. This prompted the construction of a covered bridge in 1891. This first iteration of the covered bridge had no windows. Between 1923 and 1926, two new covered bridges were constructed, but this time with glassless windows.

In 1953 an uncovered concrete version of the bridge was eventually built. This version of the bridge lasted until the bridge as we know today began construction in 2007.

Unfortunately, when the bridge was complete, the city closed off access to what was the end of Dollar Street. Before that, travelers could come off Field’s Bridge and take either SW Borland or Dollar St.

The Boiler Explosion Memorial …

In 1875, the stern-wheel-driven steamboat, The Senator, was scheduled to meet up with the steamboat, The Vancouver, to take cargo down the Willamette River to Oregon City as part of its normal shipping run.

Along with the freight, the Senator would be carrying passengers too. But as the Senator approached the Vancouver near Alder St (where the Morrison Bridge is today) the wheel at the stern locked up and the boiler on the Senator blew up!

The explosion was so violent and loud that it was known to have shaken the foundation of every Portland building nearby. It was reported that thousands of people rushed outside to see where the explosion came from.

It was initially reported that 7 crewmen were killed. But interestingly enough, a small stone that is buried at the end of Dollar Street near Field’s Bridge reveals an untold mystery to this tragedy.

On this hand-carved stone it reads, “Klaus Beckman killed 3pm, May 6, 1875. Explosion Steamer Senator buried 133ft North May 25th, 1875. Wife, Kate, son, Fred survived, 7 crewmen died 12 miles North Willamette River.”

Somewhere about 133ft north of this memorial stone, the body of Klaus Beckman is buried. Beckman, who was from Germany, was not identified as those initially killed in the explosion. Most likely his friends and family took it upon themselves to pay tribute to him in West Linn at the end of Dollar Street and the Tualatin River.

The Oregon Grape Nursery …

Just a stone's throw away from the Boiler Explosion Memorial Stone you’ll find what remains of The Oregon Grape Nursery.

Speaking of German immigrants who settled here in Portland, in 1935, German born Eugene Leitz, opened the Milwaukie Floral Company which is still in business today. Eugene’s grandson, Steve Leitz would later marry a red-headed go-getter by the name of Cindy. In 1975, the newlyweds would purchase an old farmhouse on almost 3.5 acres of land at the end of Dollar Street. With this newly purchased land, Cindy and Steve Leitz opened The Leitz’s Oregon Grape Nursery (as it was originally known).

The nursery was named after the state flower, the Oregon Grape.

Cindy Leitz, as she was known then, admits that she knew nothing about which flower was which. But she was determined to learn everything she could from her husband through his years of working in the family business.

Initially, the Leitz’s were just going to focus on the wholesale of wildflowers and native shrubs, but two seasons became especially important and busy for the small nursery.

One of the important seasons was springtime and Mother’s Day. The nursery would expand large enough to need 5 greenhouses and a huge ice cooler to be built on the premises to accommodate the orders for the nursery’s amazingly large Mother’s Day baskets.

Besides supplying wholesale flower baskets to businesses all over the country, the Leitz’s would open a retail option for all the residents who crossed Field’s Bridge to get to the nursery.

Christmas was the other important and busiest season for Cindy, Steve, as well as, for the arrival of daughter, Greta and son, Isaac. The Oregon Grape Nursery gained notoriety with the production of 75-ft long Christmas garlands and up to 25,000 hand-woven Christmas wreaths each year.

Cindy’s kids, Greta and Issaac grew up helping mom with the business. Participating in the city parades and even making wreaths themselves at such a young age.

The Oregon Grape Nursery’s wreaths and garlands were so well made and popular, that the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. ordered them for their holiday decorations one year.

With Cindy’s enthusiasm and willingness to be involved with the local community, the Oregon Grape Nursery donated and sponsored events in West Linn over the years. This included donating large garlands for the poles along historic Main Street during the Christmas season, partaking in the city parades, and sponsoring river raft races along the Tualatin River.

In 1987, the nursery closed for a short period while Cindy and Steve finalized their divorce. By 1989, Cindy received full ownership of the nursery and saw fit to keep the business going.

Cindy sold a good portion of the property to developers above the nursery. To ensure that the incoming residents had easy access to the nursery, Cindy had the developers build a path to the nursery’s back door. This path became known as the Footpath.

The Footpath Cafe …

By 1993, with all the new homes going in from the sale of her land, Cindy extended the footpath to the old farmhouse and turned it into the Footpath Cafe, with her daughter, Greta running it.

You must remember that Dollar Street was still connected to Fields Bridge. So, guests would drive by the nursery all the time, and when the Footpath Cafe was established, a drive-up coffee shop was created for the community. This was before Starbucks and Dutch Bros.

Guests could stop by, enjoy the cafe, and at the same time take a tour of the nursery. Cindy began to book musicians and brought live music to the area featuring some of Portland’s finest musicians to play at the Footpath Cafe.

Between 1996-2006, Cindy would remarry and change her name to Carmen VanDemarr. She would also license the cafe and nursery to John and Lori Blair, where the name was changed to the Tualatin River Nursery and the Farmhouse Cafe. Carmen, as she is known now, kept the Christmas garland and wreath business going.

Sadly, in 2007, when the city and county began construction on the new Fields Bridge, they ended up cutting off access to Dollar Street. This in turn devastated the business. Access to cafe became problematic and non-existent. Visitors looking to get their Mother’s Day baskets were saddened to see that when they arrived at the nursery it was no longer in business.

The area where the nursery sits is the only Neighborhood Commercial zoned area in West Linn. At the time of writing this article, construction on a new middle school is being built across the way. It’ll remain to be seen what comes of the area.

So, although not distant history and not necessarily lost history, this unique story of the Oregon Grape Nursery and the Footpath Cafe was special to West Linn for the time that it was in business for over 35 years.

This concentrated area of Fields Bridge and Dollar Street holds so much history for us here in West Linn. If you happen to see Carmen around town, feel free to say thank you for her contribution to the community and our local history.