One day in the spring of 1990, as Mike McMenamin and several colleagues wandered the grounds of the old Multnomah County Poor Farm, pondering a possible purchase of the abandoned and overgrown facility, a black rabbit hopped down a hill in front of them and scampered into a hole in the side of a building.
The rabbit’s somewhat-surreal appearance put the visitors in an “Alice in Wonderland” state of mind. It was at once a sign and an invitation. Landscape artist Patrick McNurney recalls someone, perhaps McMenamin himself, saying, “We want this to be a down-the-rabbit-hole experience.”
So Mike McMenamin and his brother Brian, pioneers of the microbrewery revolution in the Pacific Northwest, bought the farm, as the saying goes, from Multnomah County. By the time Edgefield fully opened to the public in 1994, it was a self-contained village and the flagship of the McMenamins’ hospitality empire.
There are 55 McMenamins properties in Oregon and Washington, the vast majority of them along the Interstate 5 corridor. None of them compares on any level with Edgefield, which covers 74 acres just east of Portland, near the point where Interstate 84 glides into the Columbia River Gorge. In addition to a 114-room hotel — a veritable gallery of art — it has 10 restaurants and bars, a brewery, a winery, a distillery, a theater, two golf courses, a lovely spa, spectacular gardens and an outdoor concert venue.
And it still feels like “Alice in Wonderland.”
Where whimsy reigns
I took a couple of days early this month to experience Edgefield. Central Oregon residents may sense the McMenamin brothers’ quirkiness at Bend’s Old St. Francis School — which opened in late 2004 as a hotel-restaurant-entertainment complex — but Edgefield is St. Francis times 10. Or times 50.
After a three-hour drive northwest from Bend, most of it on U.S. Highway 26 from Madras to Gresham, I entered the Edgefield nation via a long, looping driveway from Halsey Street, at the western city limit of suburban Troutdale. As I drove past a vineyard of pinot gris, just beginning to sprout its spring leaves, I could see the red brick facades of the old poor farm rising through flowering shrubbery and orchard trees.
I parked in a modest lot and climbed two sets of stairs into the Georgian Revival-style main lodge. To my left, through double doors, was a gift shop and espresso bar. To my right was the hotel registration lobby. I checked in and climbed more stairs to Room 206, on the second floor.
As I walked down one hallway and turned a corner to another, I was mesmerized by the colorful art on every wall. All of it original to Edgefield, the hand-painted murals were done by two dozen artists. There is a common, if eclectic, theme to much of their work as they tell Edgefield’s story — past, present and future — with considerable artistic license. I was not surprised to see a black rabbit hopping through some of the murals.
I was assigned the Fujii Room. Every room in the hotel pays homage to an individual historically associated with Edgefield or Troutdale. Many are named for one-time residents; mine honored a respected farming family, immigrants from Japan, who owned land in the Troutdale area in the mid-20th century. The walls were decorated with text and murals telling the Fujiis’ story.
As with every lodging unit at Edgefield, there was neither telephone nor television in my room. (Wireless Internet is available in some areas of the ground floor.) There was, however, a comfortable queen-sized bed, a dresser and armoire, and a comfortable chair in which I could sit by a window and read. My toilet and shower were down the corridor in a men’s restroom large enough to accommodate guests in the 18 rooms in my wing of the hotel. This is, indeed, a European-style accommodation.
I inadvertently shivered as I passed Room 215, having been informed ahead of time that this is, perhaps, the most “haunted” guest room in all of Edgefield. I did not personally have any supernatural experience, but the registration desk maintains two guest ledgers in which visitors may record their experiences. No matter your degree of skepticism, they make fascinating reading.
Down the rabbit hole
In Edgefield’s gift shop, I found a small book relating the fascinating history of the property. Written by Sharon Nesbit and Tim Hills, it’s called “McMenamins Vintage Edgefield: A History of the Multnomah County Poor Farm.”
Edgefield was built in 1911. It operated as the poor farm until 1947, a county-funded relief institution where down-on-their-luck residents could get a bed, three square meals a day and tobacco money in exchange for doing farm labor. They raised chickens, hogs and dairy cattle; operated a cannery and meat-packing plant; grew fruits and vegetables; and worked in a kitchen, hospital and laundry.
During the Depression era, more than 600 men and women lived at the poor farm. It was only after federal welfare and Social Security programs took hold in the late 1940s that its importance waned. But it remained a farm until 1964, when it took the name Edgefield as a nursing home and an adjacent treatment facility for emotionally disturbed children. It continued in that role until 1982, when it was closed.
By 1985, a county study had labeled Edgefield as “dilapidated beyond repair.” Every building on the property was earmarked to be razed in preparation for a public sale of the acreage. But the Troutdale Historical Society fought for historic preservation, even as vandals were breaking into the building and performing satanic rituals around a pentagram.
Mike McMenamin read about the vandalism and called a county official for a tour. With a single flashlight, the two men explored the maze of hallways and found the property’s condition to be, in one word, horrifying.
But the McMenamins, who already owned 19 pubs and breweries in the Portland area, saw potential in the 100-room manor and its (at that time) 10 surrounding acres. In early 1990, for $500,000, the brothers became owners of their very own poor farm.
Over the next four years, the McMenamins brought big changes. Gardeners removed many years’ growth of Himalayan blackberry vines from the veiled exteriors of buildings. A winery was built in the basement of the old infirmary in late 1990. The old cannery became a 20-barrel brewery. The power station opened as a pub and movie theater in late 1991. A dozen bagpipers were hired to play “Amazing Grace” in a sort of exorcism, before contractors painted over the hotel’s satanic pentagram in 1992.
Through all of the construction work, the black rabbit stuck around, a plump little fellow frequently seen traveling through the grounds and seemingly unaffected by the changes in his environment. It was quite natural that he should become a motif for all of Edgefield. The rabbit gave his name to the Black Rabbit Restaurant and Bar, which opened in 1993 at the back of the main lodge.
When he died on a grassy knoll several years later, probably of old age, he was laid to rest in a flower garden behind a tiny shed now called the Black Rabbit House.
During the summer, it serves as a bar for the open-air Loading Dock Grill, located between the Power House Pub and the brewery.
Here’s how I’d suggest spending an afternoon and evening at Edgefield, whether or not you stay overnight here:
Enter the main lodge from its main (south) entrance and pick up a free property map in the main lobby. You’ll need it to navigate the maze of buildings, gardens and passageways.
Explore the main lodge, including Lucky Staehly’s Pool Hall (named for a wheelchair-bound pool shark of the 1970s) in the basement. Stop by the Black Rabbit Restaurant, Edgefield’s fine-dining establishment, just long enough to make a dinner reservation. Then step out the west door of the lodge.
Ahead of you, shrouded in apple and cherry blossoms, is the Administrator’s House, a stately, three-story home that today contains six upscale guest rooms, as well as dining and living rooms. The rear garage has been converted to the Gorge Glashaus, a workshop and retail space for blown-glass artists.
Cross the herb garden to the Power House, pausing at the pub for a pint of Ruby Ale or Sunflower IPA. The adjacent movie theater has two shows nightly, one of which you might catch before or after dinner. Leave through the east entrance, which opens to the Loading Dock Grill. To the left is the wee Black Rabbit House; straight ahead is the brewery, not open to the public. To the right is Edgefield’s landmark red water tower, no longer used as a source of water but as a trellis for hop vines that circle up its legs throughout the summer.
Just uphill is Blackberry Hall, once a mechanic’s garage, now a venue for meetings, banquets and special events. It accommodates up to 225 guests. Blackberry Meadow, behind the building to its east, sees at least one wedding every weekend in summer, and often more frequently than that.
It’s a short walk around a pear orchard to the Distillery Bar and Pub Course Clubhouse. Once used as a stable and as a place for storing potatoes, the distillery produces its own whisky, brandy and gin in a 12-foot, German-made, copper-and-stainless steel still. The adjacent bar doubles as the clubhouse for a pair of meandering par-3 golf courses: one 20 holes, the other 12. Clubs are available for rent.
Return to the main complex through a veggie garden — “please do not retrieve golf balls from the vegetable garden,” reads a landscaper’s hand-scrawled sign — and emerge beside the Halfway House, an interim morgue during poor farm days. Today it is the home of EarthArt Clayworks, open Thursday through Monday. Across a driveway is Jerry’s Ice House, once a cold-storage facility, now a cigar bar that plays nothing but Grateful Dead music.
To the right and downstairs is the Winery and Tasting Room, housed in the former poor farm infirmary. You can listen to live music here on Thursday through Sunday nights as you savor tastes of chardonnay, syrah, zinfandel and other grapes from vineyards in Oregon and Washington.
Your tour is almost complete. First, though, continue north around the right side of the building and pass a wetland pond, noisy with the “ribbets” of bullfrogs, to the Little Red Shed. Once an incinerator shed, it is now a tiny cigar bar with a brick fireplace that brings warmth even on the coldest days. It’s a gateway to the Edgefield Concerts Amphitheater, where artists like Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and B.B. King have performed in recent years.
At the east end of the amphitheater, a beatific Jerry Garcia, the late iconic guitarist for the Grateful Dead, is immortalized in a 7-foot-tall sculpture by Joe Cotter. The artist, who also created many of the paintings on Edgefield’s walls, responded to a commission for an “organic” piece, making Garcia appear to rise from the earth like a craggy tree.
It’s an appropriate postscript for a quirky complex that sprang from a long-neglected meadow as if from a rabbit hole.