The Origin of Our StringtownOur Past - Places
I was biking last summer and found myself on one of the most scenic roads in our area: Stringtown. As I peddled, always keeping an eye out for the speeding semis heading to the ubiquitous nurseries, I wondered whether this road would lead me to some lost village in the hills where they produced string, yarn, or the like. It may come as a surprise to some, but there’s no string out there. I came to discover, however, there is a beautiful countryside to behold and an intriguing history of Forest Grove’s rural surroundings. Stringtown Road begins slightly north of Dilley at B Street, arcs around the picturesque hills west of Forest Grove, and ends at Gales Creek Road at an area known as Watts. In a search for the origin of the road, I came across quite a few references to Oregon’s many “Stringtown” variants.
Perhaps the oldest is the Stringtown just south of Oregon City on the Willamette River, next to what is now Canemah Cemetery across the river from Publisher’s Pond. It’s uncertain when the name fell out of fashion, but it is still cited on some official maps. This Stringtown is the only example noted in Oregon Geographic Names (p.802). The book’s author, Lewis A. McArthur, gives a clue to the name’s meaning: such towns were “strung out along a road or highway,” in this case, the Pacific Highway, or state highway 99 East. Another so-called “historical” Stringtown is at the exact site of what is now called Middleton, an unincorporated community south of and abutting Newburg, OR. The name was changed in the mid-1860s, and the post office was established as “Middleton” in 1869. According to a reference by Will G. Steel found in Oregon Historical Quarterly 27:3, “Middleton was once called Stringtown.” Steel claims the name was changed to Middleton when the rail line was completed running from Portland to Lafayette, with Middleton marking the halfway point between the two. I assume it too was “strung out along the highway.”
What is clear is at one time in Oregon, Stringtown was a popular location name! Our Stringtown Road at its B Street beginning once had a look similar to the Clackamas County variation with a string of homes at the start of the route next to the old county road. The modern route is composed of several once-distinct county roads, each with its own name and number. The first northern section, county road A-164, was surveyed and built around 1874, and it ran from Watts to Carpenter Creek. A slight adjustment to part of the road was made the following year: county road A-176, also called Enos Road after David Enos, whose property it ran parallel to. The stretch from B Street to near Carpenter Creek Road is officially called “County Road 214,” but was first known, according to the census, as “Oak Hill Road.” The move to build this section of road was spearheaded by George Alexander and his sons, who met with a number of other farmers in March of 1889 in the home of fellow petitioner D. C. Stewart to work out the logistics; the Alexanders took an active role as “chainmen” and “markers” for the survey. After some legal disputes, by farmers who felt the road would decrease their property’s value,
Alexander and his neighbors’ new road was realized that same year. The exact year that Stringtown Road became the route’s official name is uncertain, but sometime between 1910 and 1920, “Oak Hill Road” became “String Town Road,” the official name given in the 1920 census. At times, the residents along the road were listed as living in Dilley, though more often the road and its residents were included as part of Forest Grove. In the 1950s and 1960s, a lumber mill was located at the beginning of Stringtown Road. It’s possible, though pretty unlikely, the road’s name refers to the town that became Middleton, and that it was the preferred route to take from Gales Creek to the Newburg area. That was my going theory… that is, until I spoke with Preston Alexander, a descendent of George Alexander and a Forest Grove lifer who still lives on his family’s Century farm on Stringtown Road. Preston said his father had always held the road got its name from the hop farms dotting the area as the hops grew on strings supported by posts and wire. I could easily imagine the fields of Stringtown adorned with miles and miles of strings of green. The Willamette Valley was once one of the largest suppliers of hops to breweries nationwide. In an ironic twist, hop farmers hired, among others, Native Americans from the Grand Ronde reservation (where the Atfalati Kalapuya were sent in the 1850s) to pick hops, who were considered the finest pickers of all the labor force. Hop farming declined in the 1930s and 1940s, brought about by the introduction of Downy Mildew disease, which devastated the hop production here. That, and a number of other factors, led to the industry moving to Washington’s Yakima Valley in the 1940s. Within the last few decades, hops have made a comeback. The Willamette hop breed is resistant to disease and flourishes once more in Oregon’s rich soil and mild climate.
I advise anybody reading this to dust the cobwebs off your bike and ride up Stringtown Road. Be careful though, because trucks hauling saplings and other products speed along the road to nurseries, and are not really expecting cyclists. Basically, there are no shoulders and a blind, “suicide” hill. A designated bike lane would be beneficial, and would surely attract more eco-tourists to our fair city…it’s definitely something to consider. If you do venture out, make sure to use common sense on the road, respect vehicles that could crush you, and enjoy the spectacular views, of the hills, homes, and farmland. You’ll definitely gain a sense of what this area looked like a century ago. It’s a reminder of the importance of agriculture to our region, and of the great role hops played in the local and state economies. Stringtown is a treasure – historically, culturally, and visually! For more on the Stringtowns of Oregon, see Oregon Historical Quarterly (v10: 17-18; v46: 348; and v60: 160.) A special thanks to Preston Alexander; and Rex Russell at the Washington County Surveyor’s office.
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About Skip Buhler
I have been interested in Forest Grove's history since moving here ca. 2007 (it was probably 2006, but as I spend most of the time in the nineteenth century, I'm not exactly sure when I arrived). Since then, I have been actively researching the people and places that make this region such a great place. I first got involved with FHFG in 2011 or so, and have served as Board Secretary for many years starting in 2012. I'm an independent art historian, and also have a vinyl record store in town, where my interests in art and history converge.