March 27, 2024 at 12:00 a.m.

Tub revelation made caller’s day

Back in the Saddle


Editor’s note: This column is being reprinted from March 24, 2004. Jack loved history and loved Portland. He always had his eyes on something, whether it was an item he stumbled upon and the fairgrounds or one he spent hours searching for on eBay.


You never know when you’re going to need a butter tub.

I was going by the front counter the other day when I heard the words “butter tub” in passing. And since I was the only one on hand who seemed to know what a butter tub was, the call eventually went to me.

It was a guy in Oregon — a fellow by the name of Ted Cox — who is working on a book that focuses in part on the cooperage industry, barrel and stave making. He was looking for information about the Creamery Package Manufacturing Company and its butter tub factory in Portland.

It’s a pretty arcane field.

Butter tubs — virtually unheard of today — were small wooden barrels used to store butter in the days when home refrigeration was likely to mean a chunk of ice in a pan. Reusable, they were sort of a wooden Tupperware for the early decades of the 20th century.

What I didn’t know, but learned from Ted, is that the wood for butter tubs made in Portland at a small factory on Middle Street at the turn of the last century were constructed from spruce shipped in all the way from Oregon.

Ted explained his research needs to me, and I explained them to the ad department. Then I made his day.

“You know,” I said, “I actually have a Portland butter tub.”

For a second I thought I heard his pulse coming over the long-distance phone line. “Really?” he cried.

Really.

It was my first encounter with butter tub envy.

From Ted’s reaction, I might as well have said I owned the crown jewels.

The butter tub came my way pretty casually at the Tri-State Gas Engine Show. It was several years back, and I’d just ducked into the Roundhouse when I heard Alton Hartley say, “Now there’s a guy who needs to own a Portland butter tub.”

Notice that Alton didn’t say, “There’s a sucker who looks as if he’s ready to open his wallet.”

Instead, he knew I had an interest in local history. My first taste of the antique business came in Alton’s old shop on Park Street in the old locker building. The Hartley house was on my paper route, and I had to walk over to the locker on Saturdays to collect at the store.

Inevitably, I dawdled when I stopped by. The smell of dust, old books, and old leather almost seemed to be the smell of time itself, the fragrance of ages past clinging to the jumbled objects that filled the cluttered shelves.

So, that day at the engine show, Alton knew I shared his interest in antiques and local history. And I actually felt honored that he believed me astute enough to be in the market for something as oddball as a Portland butter tub.

Though it bore no official label, Alton’s years in the locker business gave the piece clear provenance. It was, said the handwritten scrawl on the bottom, a 10-pound tub circa 1920. I bought it on the spot.

Since then, it’s largely been forgotten, enjoying a place of honor on the hearth in the living room.

Is it rare? Who knows? My guess is that after being reused several times, old butter tubs were probably broken up for kindling.

Is it valuable? Almost certainly not.

Though there’s a guy in Oregon who would love to get his hands on it.

PORTLAND WEATHER

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