History of Salemtowne
The land beneath Salemtowne’s homes and common buildings has seen tremendous changes since the first pioneer settlers claimed portions of the property in 1849 and 1851. They arrived by flat boats making their way up the Willamette River. Here, the settlers met the original inhabitants of the land-the Native Americans whose homes were on the surrounding hills. The new settlers found the land already partially cleared by the Indians who used controlled burning to discourage the fir and oak trees and keep the area open for hunting. The settlers and Indians engaged in trade–berries for buttons, among other early commerce.
The general area became known as “Brush College” for the school started by the early pioneers in 1860. While never a college, the little school’s pupils often ranged in age all the way up to those in their late teens or early twenties, who had to postpone their education while working on their families’ farms. Twelve donation land claims originally made up the Brush College farming community which stretched from south of the present Lincoln store to the Willamette River where Edgewater Street is now located. The goods produced in this area and incoming supplies were transported on the river. During the period of steam navigation, the port of Lincoln, just a few miles north of present-day Salemtowne was second only to Portland in the tonnage of wheat it handled.
In 1885 Robert Wallace took the advice of his doctor to give up his stressful life as a commodity broker in Chicago. He had recently visited Salem, Oregon and liked what he saw. He sold his holdings and together with his wife, Nancy Black Wallace, and their three children moved to Salem where they built a large house at the corner of Capitol and Court Streets. Mr. Wallace was an active business entrepreneur who founded and built the Capitol National Bank, owned the first cannery in Salem, built the first bridge across the Willamette, and operated the Salem Sand & Gravel and the Sydney Power Companies.
He also purchased 308 acres on the west side of the river, derived from those donation land claims of 1849 and 1851. On this land, Mr. Wallace developed the “Wallace Orchards.” Thirty Chinese workers were hired to clear the land and plant trees. Thousands and thousands of fruit and nut trees! Pears were the predominant fruit, but cherries, prunes, apples, and hazelnuts were also planted. The Wallace Orchards were considered the finest in the state, and they were the most famous landmark in the Brush College area. People from miles around worked in the packing shed, packing fruit for the eastern market.
In 1889, Robert Wallace built a summer home for his family at the orchards which is still an integral part of the Salemtowne common buildings. Today it is known as the “Farmhouse.” The original structure consisted of a large kitchen, living room, dining room and three small bedrooms. Square nails were used in the construction.
Perhaps Mr. Wallace did not heed his doctor’s advice about leading a less stressful life. He died in 1891 at the age of 41, having lived in Salem for only seven years.
Over the years the Farmhouse was enlarged and improved for year-around occupancy. Other members of the Wallace family continued to operate the orchards and live in the Farmhouse until the property was sold in 1952 to James G. Watts, a construction company owner. Fifteen years later, in 1967, Mr. Watts was inspired by Del Webb’s “Sun City” near Los Angeles to turn his 300-acre farm into one of Oregon’s earliest adult communities. He christened it “Salemtowne.” The developers of Salemtowne recognized the historical significance of the building and incorporated it into the Towne Hall Complex. The Farmhouse architectural style was extended to the adjoining buildings.
Robert Wallace’s thousands of fruit and nut trees were removed and replaced by a golf course and home lots. In just a few months the Towne Hall Complex and five model homes were completed. Senator Mark Hatfield presided at the opening ceremonies on August 18, 1967.
While Salemtowne was attracting growing numbers of home buyers, the developers found themselves facing serious financial and legal problems that eventually led to the community falling into receivership in 1972. During this unhappy period, the developers stopped all maintenance of the golf course and common property. It was then that the “Salemtowne Spirit” came to the fore, as the residents used their own equipment and water to keep the grass on the golf course from dying. One resident volunteered to keep the golf course greens mowed regularly, while others cared for the common area kitchens and the beloved Farmhouse. One man, who had served with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, headed up a volunteer security patrol. By the time the Salemtowne Civic Association assumed ownership of the common property in 1973, a tradition of volunteer support for the community was well-established.
The “Salemtowne Spirit” of volunteerism continues to be the reason for Salemtowne’s success. The all-volunteer Board of Directors manages the day-to-day operation of the community with the help of committees composed of Salemtowne residents. The only paid staff consists of a Grounds Crew who maintain the golf course, greenways and other amenities; and a Bookkeeper and Office Manager who manage the Association’s financial and administrative matters.
Today there are 462 homes and over 700 residents in Salemtowne. But the history of Salemtowne is far from over. In August, 2007, the community celebrated its 40th anniversary with a weekend of events featuring the “then” and the “now” of this vibrant active adult retirement community. Salemtowne celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017.
Salemtowne’s first fifteen years is chronicled in The Story of Salemtowne, 1967-1982. This was a volunteer effort by Salemtowne residents and was published in 1983. Lending copies are kept in the Farmhouse Library.