Research: Jessie Sweeney, MLS

Support for Preserving Historic Site

In December of 1991 Eric Stewart wrote a letter to the Comptroller of Taylor Lumber & Treating, Inc. addressing the concern Friends of Historic Forest Grove had as decisions were being made concerning the future of the A.T. Smith house. The letter was sent out of concern for the future of an important landmark in the history of the town. In the letter, Eric wrote,

"To give you an idea of how important the house is historically--In the 1930's the federal government conducted a national Historic Architectural Building Survey and selected four sites in Washington County: Old College Hall at Pacific University, two churches north of Hillsboro and the old Smith House. The National Register of Historic Places lists it as one of the most important houses in the west and Elizabeth Potter of the State Historic Preservation Office in Salem calls it "one of the most significant houses listed in Oregon." (Eric Stewart Collection, Box 12, Folder 18, Item 7).

For those interested in viewing the Abstract title, complete with deed records of the property compiled in 1940 and reviewing the period from 1866 to 1940, they can be found in folders 12-13 to 12-17. These records detail the ownership of the property covering this period of time.

Plans to save the house

By examining a collection of articles around the beginning of 1992, one is able to get an idea of what took place in the the discussions of what to do about the house standing in the way of progress:

In an article from the Oregonian on January 1, 1992, correspondent Harry Bodine reported ten acres of land in Forest Grove, including those on which the Smith house sat, had been selected "as the best potential site for a new garbage transfer station" (The Oregonian, January 1, 1992, Stewart Collection 24-7-39). Representatives from interested parties met with the chairwoman of Forest Grove's Historic Landmarks board to design plans to save the home, if the transfer station plans go through, to save the building by moving it 240 yards to the south. The previous owners of the house had said they would like the building back in order to restore it, as parts of the structure was decomposing and was in danger of deteriorating significantly in a short amount of time.
"Placed on a foundation of quarried stones, probably from the Scholls area, the home is supported by 12 inch by 12 inch oak beams, hand hewn from nearby trees by Smith's ax...They appear to be in as good condition today as they were when assembled by Smith working alone in the mid-19th century" (News-Times 1/8/1992, Eric Stewart Collection 24-8-28). At the time these referenced articles were printed, the city was scheduled to make a decision by January 21st on whether to restore the house at its present location or move it.

On February 4th, the Hillsboro Argus reported that a reprieve was given on the decision to place a waste transfer station in Forest Grove, citing cost effectiveness as an issue (Eric Stewart Collection, 24-5-43). This decision saved the house from destruction. It was eventually purchased by Friends of Historic Forest Grove, who oversaw it's restoration efforts.

Historical Document Transcription from EGS Archives:

City of Forest Grove, Washington County Cultural Resource Inventory, Nov. 3, 1984
Resource No.: 106
Present Owner: Glen Zurcher
Original Owner: Alvin T. Smith
Tax Lot #: 100
Construction Date: 1856
Common/Historic Name: Alvin T. Smith House

Architectural Description:
This Classical Revival style structure is a rectangular block of two and a half stories with a side hall plan. A one story hipped roof extension on the south and west sides of the house appear to be contemporary with the main building since detailing is identical. The whole structure sits on a brick foundation. The house is covered with clapboard siding with corner trim resembling columns with molded capital trim where they meet the frieze. Cedar shakes and corrugated steel cover the medium pitched gabled roof which trimmed with a plain boxed cornice with returns at the gable ends. One exterior chimney is found on the north side of the house. Most of the windows are 6/6 double hung sash, others range from four to twenty-six panes. The front door is at the east end and contains four recessed panels. It is framed by a simple entablature of transom and side lights.

  • Sources consulted:
    • Paul B. Hartwig and D.W. Powers, III
    • National Register of Historic Places nomination
    • Historic American Buildings Survey, 1934
    • Forest Grove Survey, 1978

Contextual Description:
The A.T. Smith house is situated at the end of Elm Street on a farm just above the flood plain to the south of Forest Grove and adjacent to a lumber yard. Landscaping includes various fir trees, a large oak, lawn and flower beds. A large field lies to the west of the house. Outbuildings consist of a double garage made of corrugated steel and a Quonset hut shed, both of which are of more recent construction.

Architectural and Historical Significance:
The Alvin T. Smith house in Forest Grove is an exceptionally richly detailed example of the mushrooming of the Classical Revival in the Willamette Valley in the 1850s. The side-hall plan and the presentation of the gable end as the facade are also unusual among Oregon's Classical Revival houses, where the central hall plan is the general rule and the presentation of the longitudinal axis as the facade is almost universal. Also rare is the brick foundation, which if not original, replaced the piers usually under such houses at an early date.

Alvin Thompson Smith, also know as "God-Almighty Smith," was a very early pioneer to Oregon. He was born in Branford, Connecticut in 1802 and learned the carpenter's trade there. In 1827 he went to Illinois where he farmed and married Abigale Raymond, and in 1840 he and his wife crossed the plains for Oregon where he became a lay missionary to the Nez Perce Indians at the Spalding Mission at Lapwai in the Clearwater country of what is now Idaho. There he repaired the grist mill and sawmill and built what is thought to be the first loom west of the Rocky Mountains. The Smiths moved on the the Willamette Valley in 1841, where they took a land claim of 640 acres and attempted to start a mission at the site of the present house. This endeavor however was not successful, for as Mrs. Smith noted, "The Indians were not willing to stop and cultivate the soil." She continues, "We have much reason to mourn over Zion; the spirit of the world prevails here too much, even in the hearts of Christians. There is much here to tempt and lead the mind from God. The greatest thing wanting here is good society-- or faithful, praying Christians."

Smith is sometimes credited with being one of the men who voted 50-52 at Champoeg on May 2, 1843 to establish a provisional government in the Oregon Country under American rather than British law. This appears doubtful as Smith records in his diary that he planted potatoes that day. Nevertheless he was elected one of the three magistrates at that meeting, is know to have had a keen interest in political affairs, and attended a May 5 meeting. His letters East contained strong appeals for the annexation of the Oregon country and he was deeply suspicious of the Hudson's Bay Company and Dr. John McLoughlin, "Father of Oregon" and factor in the company's post at Fort Vancouver. It was McLoughlin's tolerance and kindly humanitarianism which had opened the Oregon country to American missionaries and settlers.

He was one of the founders of what was to become Pacific University and the Smiths, who never had any children of their own, took a number of orphans into their home. Abigale Smith died in 1858, and Smith remarried Jane M. Averill of Branford, thirty-six years his junior, in 1869. They lived in the house until 1875 when they moved into Forest Grove, where Smith died in 1888.

Though it is known that at least two previous structures stood on the site of the present house, and it is expected that as more of the diary becomes available additional information such as the exact date and builder of the present house will come to light.