By Margaret Gilbert

Forest Grove developed during the 19th century through four stages of growth and development:

  1. The Pioneer Settlement, 1841 – 1859
  2. The Village , 1859 – 1871
  3. The Town, 1872-1891
  4. The City, 1892 forward

The pioneer period started when the first settlers, A.T. Smith and his wife, settled on their donation land claim (DLC) farm just south of present day Forest Grove, in the region called West Tualatin Plains (west of Dairy Creek), as distinguished from East Tualatin Plains (present Hillsboro and east region). Additional emigrants from eastern states arrived each fall, and took up land for their farms. Each DLC was 640 acres (1 square mile) to a married couple, or 320 acres to a single adult. The settlers built log cabins, plowed and planted in the rich Willamette loam that covered this region. This soil was then so rich that a farmer could harvest two or three successive wheat crops from one planting without reseeding or recultivating. The first settlers were helped by Hudson Bay Company to start their farms, but later the well established settlers helped the newcomers to get started.

By 1855 all of the valley land within a 3-4 mile circle around present day Forest Grove had been claimed, and later settlers had to go up into the hills for DLC land. Since each claim was one square mile in size, people lived far apart from each other. The changes that led to a concentration of people into a village were several: The grist and sawmill that Joseph Gale developed west of the creek (now Gales Creek); Tualatin Academy, the first school, drew settlers to move near to the school around the present campus of Pacific University. Several small stores were started near the Academy. Three new churches were built near the Academy. The resulting center was called “The Grove” (probably for the oaks on the campus). In 1859 the U.S. Government admitted Oregon to be a state and also changed the name of the local post office to Forest Grove.

The village of Forest Grove (1860-1871) was a very rural place. Each family led an almost self-sufficient life on its one to four acre farm (1 village block = 4 acres). Barns, stock, chickens, bees, orchards, large gardens characterize each lot. So-called streets were muddy, or dusty, or filled with tall grass. The population included less than 100 adults, probably. Most “events” in the village were held at the Academy – speeches, debates, musicals, plays. The village had several general merchandise stores, a blacksmith, a realtor, and a hardware store. The academy and college, and the three churches were the center of public life in “The Grove”.

In 1872 the state legislature granted a charter to the Town of Forest Grove. The charter set the size of the town area at the land between the present D Street and Hawthorne Street, and between 24th and 16th Streets. The town government was a six-man board of trustees who were elected annually. The board passed ordinances, assessed property and levied the annual tax, hired a marshal and a street superintendent whose duties were to lay out, repair all streets and to prevent any trees within 8 feet of a street from being cut down. This control of cutting trees was the second ordinance (after setting up rules for the trustees), and it was cited by a later writer as the cause of Forest Grove’s beauty in later years. The major problems that the town government struggled with were keeping the streets passable and free from the meanderings of the many cattle, sheep, pigs, and dogs that the townsmen possessed. This town had many advantages over the earlier village: A public school (small, erratic); a newspaper once in a while for a short time; a daily coach for passengers, freight and mail from Portland; and finally, a central hall, called “Vert’s Hall”, for the use of everybody, especially “free-thinkers”, built by the town and the Masonic Lodge, using money willed to the town by Michael Vert for this purpose. Vert’s Hall remained a center of town life into the present century. Several magazine articles and letters still exist describing the town of Forest Grove in the 1870s as being one of the most beautiful towns in the state, full of good moral people, a prosperous town where everyone led a good life.

But Forest Grove started growing fast in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1892 the state granted petitioners a new charter that enlarged the area of the town to include the south park blocks (16th – 12th Streets), changed the name to the City of Forest Grove and changed the form of government to a Mayor and city council form, with most work done in committees. During the 1890 decade, many changes and considerable increase in population occurred, accompanied by a large increase in business and professional firms. Four new activities by citizens or council started the change to modern Forest Grove. A bank was started in 1889 to fund the new business activities. The council appointed a fire prevention committee which required everyone to repair chimneys on houses, and most important, to set up a fire controlled district in the downtown area where all future buildings were required to be built of brick. A volunteer fire department began to cut down on fire losses. Telephone wires were strung along the city streets and out the rural roads to Greenville, Vernonia, and other towns. The biggest event in the official life of the city occurred in 1895 when the citizens voted to build a City Water & Light Co., to provide the city with electricity and water under pressure. The city built, operated, and owned the C.W. & L. Co., which proved to be a profitable business.