Local History: Our Town – Our Story: Potato Starch Factory
by Ann Koppy
Spuds. Taters. Praties. Irish Potatoes. Murphies. American regional English has given many distinctive nicknames to this versatile tuber. The crew of a sailing ship made a short-lived effort in 1795 to grow potatoes on an island in the Columbia River, but a French-Canadian merchant is credited with launching the industry in Oregon. Gabriel Franchere was aboard the Tonquin when it arrived in Astoria in 1811 as part of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. It’s recorded that he planted one dozen “shriveled” potatoes that not only survived, but produced dozens the first year.
Farmers in other regions of the United States early on had a ready market in starch mills that processed the raw vegetable into wallpaper paste, textile sizing, thickener, gummed tape, and a product named apparatine, promoted as an “anti-incrustor” for steam boilers. Housewives found potato starch indispensable for cooking, baking, and laundry. Perhaps it was foreseeable that a plant would be built in agricultural Tualatin Valley.
In early 1918 the Pacific Potato Starch Factory opened to great promise and fanfare in Beaverton after nearly a year of delays caused by a lack of railcars, problems obtaining construction materials and equipment, and World War I restrictions imposed by the federal government.
Employing slightly more than a dozen men and purchasing from about 100 local farmers, it had an 80 horsepower steam engine to wash and cook the cull spuds stored in a space holding 1,000 tons. That required a steady supply; 250 bushels of potatoes = one ton of starch. One, two, and three-story wood buildings comprised the sizeable complex that was sited adjacent to the railroad tracks, about where present-day Cedar Hills Boulevard and Farmington Road intersect.
Before long, loads were arriving from Cedar Mill, Dundee, Scappoose, and elsewhere. After a 16-hour manufacturing process, the result was put in 10, 25, 50 and 100 pound sacks. Although the starch, flour, farina, and stock feed were fine products by all accounts, the enterprise would be short-lived and beset with further difficulties.
Equipment, including the shaker dryer and bolting machine, failed and had to be replaced. The waste product created a stench that exasperated nearby residents. This re-engineered plant expected to make only textile starch that would be sent to East Coast mills and animal feed for local farmers. Furthermore, the work was seasonal, beginning in fall and lasting only a few weeks at a time. Yet another issue likely led to the factory’s closure.
In 1920 Pacific Starch sued Northwest Process Company and American Surety Company in Circuit Court for $30,000 for breach of contract, alleging machinery plaintiff bought from the defendant was not up-to-date or cost-effective, nor was it intended to process starch. The litigants compromised on a $10,000 settlement paid to the starch company which announced later that year they couldn’t operate economically. Profits were down, demand had declined, and potato supply was limited. By 1921 the factory was shuttered and Beaverton Feed and Produce opened in the vacated space.
Although here only briefly, the factory enhanced Beaverton’s economy and enriched our history.
Interested in more local history? Visit the Beaverton History Society or go to: www.historicbeaverton.org