Hill and Dale club plants sunshine at soldiers’ home

Photo courtesy of Hill and Dale Garden Club

For the past three years, members of the Hill and Dale District of garden clubs have been planting daffodil bulbs at the Orting Soldiers’ Home.  This year the district was a little short of money and none of the local nurseries had bulbs to donate, however, the the home is facing cutbacks and the residents are so appreciative it is something the women want to do.  They’ve applied for a grant and went ahead with fingers crossed.  They’ve now planted 1,900 daffodils.

Remember when, for a period of time, some Tacoma houses had tarpaper roofs with shiny bits of mica on top?  Those roofs were probably made at Jesse Berkheimer’s plant on South M Street.
Berkheimer, born in Delhi, Indiana, moved to Minneapolis as a young man and worked in the roofing business.  He wanted to go to Alaska when gold was discovered, but only got as far as Seattle where he worked for a sheet metal and tar roofing company.

Six years later, he started his own contracting and excavating business, and a small tar roofing plant near Lake Washington.

In 1908, he relocated the business to a site on Tacoma’s tideflats, contracted with the Tacoma Gas Company to buy all their coal tar byproduct, and used it to make tarpaper and felt roofing.

Locals scoffed.  Roofs were wooden shingles and there was plenty of wood and plenty of mills to make shingles.  Nevertheless, Berkheimer persevered.  When the company he had worked for in the mid-west bought the Seattle plant and offered Berkheimer $10,000 and a job to buy him out, Berkheimer turned them down.

During World War I, the city decided to use Berkheimer’s property for a car barn.  Forced to move, he bought land at 29th and M Street and built a plant.

To make roofing felt, Berkheimer, ground old rags in a machine that chewed them up into a fluffy fiber.  The fiber was dumped into a vat of water and the mucky pulp was fed through a machine that beat it.  From there, it went to a machine where the fiber was mixed with a little more water and forced onto a revolving cylinder three feet in diameter. It came off the cylinder as a thin felt mat, which dried on rollers.  Once dry it was felt paper.

The felt then went into the asphalt room, was unwound and passed through a tank of hot asphalt, which was forced in by heavy rollers.

For cheaper grades of tarpaper, the process stopped here.  For better grades, more asphalt was applied and the felt went to another roller where a thick coating of green, red, blue or gray pulverized mica or slate was rolled onto it. A machine dusted it with talcum powder and another cut the asphalt roofing into shingle-sized squares.

Berkheimer used Vermont slate, mica from New York, talcum from Washington, asphalt from California, and tar, which was a byproduct from gas plants.  The tar came in tank cars and had to be run through a distilling boiler.  At a temperature of 700˚ the creosote it contained was condensed and Berkheimer was able to sell this on the open market. All this was, of course, made possible by Tacoma’s amazing railroad service.
On July 26, 1926, an explosion in the boiler room nearly demolished the plant.  Barrels and vats of benzoyl, naphtha gas and other flammable chemicals made for intense heat and fast-spreading flames.

There were no nearby hydrants.  Firefighters laid hoses for blocks in order to get water.  Six engine companies responded, and lookey-loos, who were willing to risk injury or worse just to get close, were regularly drenched with water.

The exploding benzoyl sent up 50-ft columns of fire.  Next door, the Ford Prairie Fuel Company had large piles of wood.  As the firefighters blasted water at the wood, large chucks flew into the air.  One came down on the head of firefighter Raymond Hammond who had to be hospitalized.  Joe Allen, the plant’s roofing superintendent, broke a window into the office and rescued all the records.  The plant was a total loss.

A year later, Berkheimer had rebuilt, was back in business, and had expanded to include a paper making plant and a place that handled his own by-products.

Making building paper, now called tarpaper, was a similar process.  Old newspapers were ground and the pulp went through the same steps except that the final one was to coat the paper with tar rather than asphalt.

In 1927, there was another fire.  This time some asphalt exploded.  Employees managed to shut off the pipes through which the asphalt was flowing, three firefighting companies responded and were able to beat back and contain the flames and the damage.

There was another fire in 1932.  Seven fire departments responded; the fire chief called in every available piece of equipment leaving three companies to handle the rest of the city, and for a time all the Center Street business district was threatened.

If it hadn’t been for a west blowing wind, tanks of oil and gasoline at the nearby Shell Oil Company distributing plant would have exploded.  This fire started when employee John Adler turned on a valve and hot asphalt flowing into a kettle exploded.  He was badly injured, and the saturating mill, refining mill, boiler rooms and storerooms were destroyed.  Berkheimer had $4,000 in insurance and the damages were $70,000.

Berkheimer installed an asphalt refinery in 1935.  A year later, Louis Goldsmith, an airmail pilot flying from Seattle to Portland via Tacoma, noticed flames from yet another fire.  He notified the Tacoma Airport radio operator who called the fire department.  Berkheimer’s insurance was sufficient to cover the $25,000 in damages.  Rebuilding took a week.

In 1939 Berkheimer added an addition, which included new lofts and storage space, and a new suite of offices.  Four years later, a fire started from spontaneous combustion in the rag room.  People raced to the site.  One car knocked down a policeman, explosions rocked several spectators.  The plant was destroyed.  Berkheimer said he did have some insurance.

Once again, Berkheimer rebuilt.  The plant caught fire in 1944; three months later he sold the business to Joe Allen who had saved all the records in the1926 fire and retired to enjoy a well-earned rest.

At the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th century, Tacoma was rich with department stores.  Gross Brothers, built in 1889 at the current site of the Pantages Theater, was the first.  Peoples Store followed six years later at the southeast corner of 11th and Pacific, and then Stone-Fisher-Lane on the corner of 11th and Broadway in 1905. The new Rhodes Brothers department store, modeled after Philadelphia’s Wanamakers and Chicago’s Marshall Fields, opened on Nov. 8, 1903.

Rhodes Brothers began as Rhodes delivery wagons, with Albert, William, Henry and Charles Rhodes delivering tea and coffee throughout Pierce County, and taking orders for the next week’s deliveries.  Before moving to the address most people recall, at 950 Broadway, Rhodes Brothers was at four other addresses.

Rhodes’ grand opening lasted three days during which an orchestra played continuously. In recognition of the store’s horse and buggy days, one of its fixtures was a chandelier made from three old wagon wheels. Other than that, mahogany and large plate glass were the main features for both the building and the display cases.

The new building had three 120 feet by 110 feet floors.  A mezzanine between the first and second floors was divided with a ladies’ lounge/rest area on one side and an eight-person cashiers’ cage on the other.  Lawson’s cable carriers connected the cashiers to the various departments.  The first floor was dress goods, men’s wear, some domestics, candy department and Bargain Square.  The entire north side was the tea and coffee department, personally handled by Henry Rhodes.  Four electric mills ground coffee beans under the attention of “uniformed nurses.”  Saturday shoppers received complimentary cups of coffee.

Kitchenware, infants’ wear, a suit department, and fitting rooms were on the second floor.   Seamstresses had space on the third floor and handled alterations.  They shared the floor with furniture, art and framing, and a large basket department.  All totalled, the store employed 100 people, of whom 15 were delivery men.  It also owned four delivery wagons from which pairs of men made daily deliveries. Cars replaced the wagons in 1912. The clerks were well-screened and trained in efficiency and courtesy. The females wore dark dresses with white collars and cuffs in the fall and winter and dark skirts with white blouses in spring and summer. The men dressed in suits.

Thanks to hundreds of signs reading “All Roads Lead to Rhodes,” almost everyone in south central Puget Sound knew about Tacoma’s new department store.  The signs, which included the number of miles to Tacoma, were placed as far south as the Columbia River and east to the Grays Harbor area.  The Rhodes signs were Washington’s first highway signs.

Rhodes Brothers was definitely the place for upscale shopping, but to stay on top Rhodes continually made improvements:  1905, a sprinkler system, 1907, the first expansion, 1908, a tearoom, 1911, a major addition that doubled the store’s size.  The top floor now had a dining room that sat 300. The tables were covered with white, linen tablecloths and napkins, and crystal vases held fresh flowers. Lunch was served daily, and dinner served 1-2 nights a week. Favorites on the menu were broiled crab, mulligawney (sic) soup, clam chowder and Rhodes’ cheesecake.  In 1914, the store added a rooftop garden just off the Sixth Floor Tea Room. Lunch was served daily from 11:30 until 2 p.m.; afternoon tea daily from 2 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. and evening dinner was served on Saturdays from 5:30-7 p.m.

One of the department store’s most interesting features, though, was its date book.  Every morning for many years, a lady named Marguerite Darland set out pencils and replaced the paper in an appointment register where people could leave messages.  Wives left word for their husbands as to where the car was parked, women left short groceries lists, girls broke dates, shoppers arranged to meet friends.  Some notes were in code, others in a foreign language.  One squabbling couple left messages that became ever less vitriolic until they eventually made up.  Newspapers called it an index of life.

In 1920, the Rhodes Brothers, in need of more floor space, purchased the Judson Building across the alley, created an annex, and built a sky bridge between the two buildings.

Henry Rhodes retired in 1925, but that didn’t stop the progress. In 1936, Rhodes became one of the few department stores in the country to have a library annex.  On the building’s sixth floor a librarian took care of seven thousand books, many about etiquette, gardening, cooking and home making, and answered dozens of questions daily.  “How can I test this fabric to see if it is pure silk?”  “What would be a good name for our new baby?”  “Do you have instructions on how to build a cottage?”  When the beleaguered librarian wasn’t advising about hats at a wedding, she was answering questions or finding books for people on banking, finance, salesmanship and any number of other things.

Another favorite feature at Rhodes was the miniature Milwaukee Railroad train, the “Hiawatha”. Throughout the Christmas shopping season, children could ride the “Hiawatha” to the North Pole to visit Santa.

During World War II, Saturday Evening Post made a sixty-four paged, pocket-sized versions of its magazine.  They were called Post Yarns, except by the servicemen who called them dehydrated Saturday Evening Posts.  Post Yarns were available at Rhodes, which also had a special Post Yarns mailing center, and provided free delivery for the miniature magazine plus a personal note from the sender.

Western Department Stores Inc. eventually bought Rhodes and changed the name to Rhodes Western.  And then Amfac Company bought all the stores except those in Tacoma and Lakewood.  They were sold to Frederick and Nelson, which went out of business in 1992.

Tacoma Belles

According to a Tacoma Daily News article dated Nov. 8, 1890, Tacoma was known all over the east coast for having the largest number of single men in any city of comparable size in the country.  There may have been reasons why women avoided Tacoma, starting with hats.

At that time ladies’ hats were in the doghouse, so to speak.  Big hats were back, and women wore huge ones known as the Merry Widow.  Men didn’t like them, and they especially didn’t like them on the streetcars.  Three men not only complained, saying, “A woman’s hat broke my glasses…a woman’s hat severely scratched my face…a woman’s hat broke my derby,” they also filed charges for damages with the Tacoma Traction Company. The men wanted financial compensation and the street car line wanted the hats to go away.  It considered charging wearers double fare.

Men also had issues when it came to the masses of ribbons, felt, and feathers which adorned the Merry Widows.  Simply put, the furbelows obstructed vision.

Tacoma city council members decided enough was enough, and ordered a series of fines ranging from five to ten dollars “to be levied for wearing a hat in a theater or other place of public entertainment.”  The ladies were furious.  Fashion was fashion and where, at the theater, were they supposed to put their chapeaus?

Then the men tried to take it one step further: enforce the same law at church services.  The official reason it wasn’t extended to include houses of worship was the separation of church and state.  The unofficial one was that a big hat provided a handy shield behind which a man could doze.

Men in Tacoma had issues with dresses, too. According to one editorial, dressmakers were so skilled they were able to take several yards of fabric and cut and stitch it so that a woman appeared to be wearing tights, which were illegal, without actually breaking the law.  “Girls, whose minds should be as spotless as an angel’s wings,” the editorialist wrote, “attend their afternoon teas in gowns that are as plastic as Fay Templeton’s dress in Robinson Crusoe.”

Again, city council members went into action.  They ordered police to tear down and destroy “all posters of nude or semi-nude women which were used merely to attract audiences to (burlesque) shows.”  Which brought up the question of the two statues in Wright Park.  “It is certainly not unwarranted,” one newspaper claimed, “that the ankles of these dancing girls are such as to justify their demolition.”

The Tacoma Daily News, which seemed to have a misogynist bend, accused young women of both flirting in church, and of refusing to take their servants there for fear people would ask, “Which is the mistress and which is the maid?”

Of course women hotly denied the accusation.  Servants were hard to come by.  A number of ladies had gone to a slum area and tried to entice some of the young women away from their fast-and-loose lifestyles.  Unfortunately, the wages these ladies offered didn’t compare to the wages of sin.

The ladies must have been thrilled when Colonel Albert Whyte of Tacoma and the Honorable Mrs. Joyce of St. John’s Croft, Winchester, England started working together to bring “fresh, hearty, beef-eating, strong, willing girls” to Tacoma, in order that they might “achieve their greatest desire to work, their ambitions ending at kitchen portals, not extending to the drawing room.”  The women were expected to pay back their travel expenses.

The plan does beg the question, “with Tacoma’s afore-mentioned shortage of marriageable women, why would these young women want to work in someone else’s kitchen instead of their own?”

And then, because the councilmen seemed to spend a lot of time looking at women, it created a dance rule:  “The lady, in dancing, shall place her left hand on her partner’s arm and not on his shoulder or back.”  Men were allowed to accommodate themselves if, “they had a short arm and/or a buxom dance partner.”

According to the New York Times, which felt called upon to report the new rule, “The unhappy part of the situation is that the dance has fallen from the high estate of the days of the polka and schottische.”

Meanwhile, while councilmen were watching and ruling, Tacoma women were initiating a local branch of the Women’s Exchange, an organization started in the 1830s to allow “nice” women to make money by selling goods on consignment. In those pre-social-services days, when working outside the home had a stigma, spinsters and widows had few ways to make a living.

The W.E. matched skills with needs.  Some ladies came in to sell clothing they’d made.  Each item was examined and, if necessary, the seamstress received advice or additional training.  Talented cooks showed up with cakes, pies, bread, and jelly.  In 1890 alone, the exchange sold, on behalf of these women: 1,050 cakes, 600 dozen donuts, 400 dozen cookies, 5,000 loaves of white bread, 2,000 loaves of brown bread and 837 loaves of graham bread.  Exchange members also ran a lunchroom.

People came in to dispose of jewelry, lace, rare books or other items; women came looking for work, a man came to find a housekeeper, children came looking for someone to adopt them.  Through the W.E. seamstresses, house servants, stenographers, and teachers found work

Initially, the W.E. operated out of a room at the Northern Pacific Building.  When success called for more room, the women rented a store on 10th and A Streets. Officers for the organization were elected from a 36-member board.  Women wishing to participate paid annual dues of $2.50.

There isn’t much information about the Women’s Exchange in Tacoma.  Suffice it to say that the city council members seemed to have too much time on their hands.