By Chuck Zickefoose
Why mysterious? His name shows or has shown up on sidewalks around Newberg. The sidewalk faces have a distinctive white paint-like appearance not seen on other walks in town. Also he is associated with two “Union Block” buildings, one in McMinnville, the other in Newberg. It is supposed that the “E” in his name stood for either Elsia or Elza according to Polk’s Directory of 1912-13 for McMinnville, Oregon. His occupation is listed as a cement worker. Other sources name him as a contractor building sidewalks in McMinnville as well as a harness maker.
There are three sections of sidewalks in Newberg that are presumed to have been laid by Wright, these are:
- West side of S. College St south of First St
- West side of Blaine, E. Sheridan and south on Washington
- West side of Main St. north of Hancock to Franklin St.
The distinctive markings are evident on each of the above stretches of sidewalk:
Each segment has distinctive “paint smear” pattern. The Blaine has “E.Wright” stamped near the south extremity of the walk, but no date. The College St. segment was reported to have “E.Wright” stamped on it as well as the date – 1907. No indication exists for the Main St. stretch but due to the poor condition, it may have had stamps at one time. The definite “paint smear” pattern is in evidence, however. Also, each one has the two-panel pattern in contrast to many single panel sidewalks around town.
So, two historical construction leavings of the mysterious “E. Wright” appear to be sidewalks and some involvement in the Union Block Buildings in two Yamhill County cities.
Another part of the mystery is his work as a building contractor
He was instrumental in a building in McMinnville with his name on it. The State of Oregon Inventory of Historic Sites and Buildings has this note on the Wright Building:
“Built in 1893 at a cost of $12,500, the Wright building is a two-story brick building with a heavy zinc (or metallic) façade connecting chimneys and screening its flat roof. The building has the full appearance of being a late 19th century “commercial palace.” A photograph from the 1890’s indicates the building once had a semi-circular brick arch above a central staircase ascending to the second floor; this stairway has since been altered. The building also had sections of cast iron façade on the main floor. The first floor of the building has been altered several times in the 20th century and the exterior has been covered with stucco. Most of the balls mounted on the façade ornaments have disappeared, but the remaining exterior features of the building are largely intact.”
Then there’s the involvement in two Union Block buildings in two cities.
The McMinnville structure is across the street from the E. Wright Building on 3rd in McMinnville. One report noted this:
Twelve partners, among them, Ed Hendricks, Elsia Wright, and Frank Fenton, built the structure in 1890 at a cost of $18,000. They were incorporated as the McMinnville Investment Company.
The Newberg building is situated at the S.W. corner or S. College and E. First St. It was completed in 1907, the same year as the purported date on the sidewalk which now does not exist. An early photo of the building is shown below.
The National Register of Historic Places notes the following about the building:
“The Union Block is clad and decorated with bricks manufactured locally by the Pacific Face Brick Company, established in 1892 by Jesse Edwards, Newberg’s founding father. On the north and east, or primary facades, the brick veneer is light-buff colored in a stretcher bond pattern, with flush joints and tinted mortar… The Union Block is covered with a flat asphalt roof, which features a low parapet on the two primary facades. The structure is topped with a wide cornice with block modillions and dentil course, and is currently painted sea-foam green.”
It is interesting to note that the brick was made in Newberg by the firm of an early founder of the city.
So, what’s known about the mysterious man himself?
The best resource seems to be from records in McMinnville and Newberg Library, namely:
- 1888 bus. directory:
- McMinnville – Wright Bros, (JL&E Wright) harness shop
- History of the Union Block Building in Newberg:
- “Although the actual architect/ builder has not been confirmed, it is presumed that the building contractor was E. Wright, as his name and the year 1907 are stamped in the sidewalk on College Street.”
- Union Block history in McMinnville:
- “403 NE 3rd St McMinnville – The Union Block is a rectangular stuccoed corner structure facing south, ten bays across and four bays deep. Twelve partners, among them, Ed Hendricks, Elsia Wright, and Frank Fenton, built the structure in 1890 at a cost of $18,000….”
- McMinnville Polk’s Directory 1912-13:
- Elsia Wright – concrete contractor p.437 1912-13 Polk’s Directory 610 5th St. – McMinnville, OR [or alternate information]
- Elza Wright – cement worker p.113 1912-13 Polk’s Directory 610 5th St. – McMinnville, OR
This biography is noted in the State of Oregon Inventory Historic Sites and Buildings “Elsia Wright was born in Knox County, Illinois, in 1851. He emigrated to Oregon in 1871 and was a farmer until 1888. He then entered the harness business and in 1892 began constructing business buildings in McMinnville. Following the construction of his first building in 1892, he built the Wright Block in 1893 and was also an investor in the Union Block across the street. Wright served as a member of the McMinnville City Council in the 1890’s. In 1898 J.C. Cooper noted: “He is one of the heaviest men in the county, weighing 263 pounds when on full feed.”
Another source has this information:
“Elsia Wright was a very prominent early McMinnville citizen. He was born in Illinois in 1851 and came to Oregon in 1871. He farmed and went into the harness business. He built several business structures, most notably the 1893 Wright building. He laid McMinnville’s sidewalks and it was his custom, since he bought the first thresher in the county, to spend his vacations doing others threshing. In winter he would attach a saw and saw wood for people. His son lived in this house also.
Elsia Wright came to Oregon from Illinois in 1871. He was in the harness business in McMinnville and erected several buildings. This was his finest. It cost $12,500 to build. He served on City Council and was active in various civic organizations. The building has remained in the Wright family and is owned today by the builder’s grandson.”
So we know that he was from Illinois and came to Oregon when he was 20. During his life he was engaged in:
- Farming, specifically grain harvesting
- Harness making
- Sidewalk construction
- Building contracting and construction
- City councilman
- Investor in real estate
From this information we could conjecture that he had more to do with the Newberg Union Building than lay and autograph a sidewalk on the premises.
Did he know Ferguson and Caldwell early drug store owners and builders of prominent houses between Washington and Blaine streets on the south side of E. Sheridan St.? It is assumed he built the sidewalks that surround the two properties and possibly the sidewalks leading up to the two houses. The sidewalks still display his signature “paint smears” and it extends up the walkway to the Caldwell house and toward Sheridan St. The portion of both houses walkways to the street display the existence of horse rings, the one at the Caldwell property is still intact.
Following are pictures of segments of the sidewalks on all three sides and walks at the house entries with stamped dates. The 1907 mark at the Caldwell house may confirm the validity of the 1907 date at the Union Block on College St. The date of 1908 at the Ferguson house also confirms the time of his work in Newberg. His mark of “E. Wright” on Blaine St. side confirms his being the contractor of record.
So, this is a tale to fill in some of the gaps in this mystery man out of history, that left several historical marks in Yamhill County as well as in the City of Newberg.