Scratching the Surface: One Reedie’s Work with Vanport and the Girl Scouts of America

black and white image of people celebrating with Tales From the Archvies in white text on top.

By Ronan Battistoni

Sepia image of a woman wearing a long coat and dark gloves, tucking a bag under her arm, in front of a house next to a short palm tree.

[Opal Weimer poses for a photo, circa 1940]1

This article draws from the Opal Weimer-Tice papers, a new addition to Reed’s Archives. Weimer was born in 1900 and grew up in the St John’s neighborhood of Portland before going on to receive her diploma from Reed College in 1922. After graduating, she relocated to California with her first husband, William Fostvedt, to become a teacher of physical education. The couple had two children before their divorce in 1940. By August of 1943, Weimer had remarried to Chicagoan textbook salesman Fred Tice.

This article focuses on a brief period between Weimer’s two marriages, during which she lived in Vanport, a warworkers’ housing project located between Portland and Vancouver. It’s the story of a young woman attempting to find purpose in a period of mass global turmoil, while simultaneously acting as the sole caretaker to her two young children. It’s one of the most dramatic chapters of Weimer’s life, but only a small part of what her papers contain. If you’re interested in learning more about her story, the Archives team encourages you to reach out–we’d love to show you around!

Black and white scanned images of Opal Weimer, standing on a lawn smiling, wearing a long skirt and long-sleeved shirt, and James Hamilton leaning against a brick building wearing a three-piece suit. The text in the image reads:
"Opal Rae Weimer  Portland. Life has no terrors for Opal. Achievement comes about as easy to her as humdrum existence to the rest of us. Her cups testify to this, as well as her election to class office, athletic council, and presidency of the women's dormitory. She sings alto in the chorus and dispenses chewing gum and golf balls in the Co-op. Opal deserted us for one year at California, but returned to the fold for her last year. She is modest in spite of her ability at husky jobs. Not even pleading calls to go strolling will distract her when her mind is made up to study. Her ambitions include a brilliant future.
James Thompson Hamilton  Portland. This man rounded his career of activity upon the Reed college campus with the presidency of the Senior class. Quest, Drama Club, football, basketball, track, house presidencies- all these were meat for him. Besides these Hamilton as a member of the old firm of Ham and Hunter and as an independent more recently was the star photographer of the campus, and has been responsible to a great measure for the success of the three Griffins. In spite of all these responsibilities, Hamilton is a cheerful cuss, and we wonder why he wasn't called Sunny instead of Jimmie."

[Opal Weimer and James Hamilton’s senior photographs for the Reed College Griffin, circa 1922]2

In late March of 1943, three years following their divorce, Opal Weimer sent a letter to her ex-husband, William Fostvedt, requesting his approval to relocate from California to Portland with their two young children, Cyndy and Nancy, for one year. James Hamilton, an old friend from her days at Reed, had offered her a position establishing extended services (before- and after-school) programming for children of war workers in Vanport City, a federal housing complex located between Portland and Vancouver. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Weimer: not only would she be able to work full-time without worrying about childcare, thanks to the Extended Services program, but she would also have the chance to shape a radical new project from the ground up and to “feel an integral part of the great war effort.”3

Sepia photograph of two young girls bundled up with gloves, winter hats, and coats and a woman wearing a long coat and dress sitting between them. There is snow covering the ground and some is on the clothes and shoes of the girls.

[Opal Weimer photographed with her daughters, Cyndy (left) and Nancy (right) circa 1943]4

Fostvedt enthusiastically supported Weimer’s decision, explaining that he had long desired to enlist in the military and join the fight against fascism in Europe but was prevented from doing so by his poor health.5 As a result, he was able to sympathize with her desire to contribute to the war effort through the limited avenues that were available to her, even though it meant being separated from his children for an extended period of time.6

Weimer spent the months prior to her arrival in Vanport traveling the East Coast with her children, learning as much as she could about Vanport and its needs from federal educational personnel, librarians, and schoolteachers while conducting publicity interviews with national magazines.7 She found that opinions on Vanport were mixed; while federal housing projects were much more widespread at the time, Vanport was by far the largest, and faced a number of unique challenges due to the historical, political, and geographic conflicts that led to its construction.

Black and white image depicting the interior living room. There is a couch, radio, lamp, a child reading in a chair, a table in front of a window, a child reading on a twin bed, and rugs on the floor. Typed on the image is: Interior, Denver Ave. Housing Project, Nov. 3, 1942, Kaiser Company Inc. Portland, Ore.

[A Vanport publicity photo, depicting the interior of a standard apartment living room]8

Vanport was built in 1943 to support employees of the Kaiser Shipyards, which opened near Portland and Vancouver shortly before the US entered World War II in 1941. Because the military draft had created a shortage of able-bodied, white male laborers, Kaiser’s workforce was primarily reliant on women and Black people. However, Portland’s aggressive redlining policies consigned Black residents to the severely overcrowded Albina district. Such limited housing and poor living conditions made it hard for Kaiser to retain employees, so when the Housing Authority of Portland resisted changes to their racist zoning policies, Kaiser went to the federal government to secure funding and support for a new housing project.9

Sepia image depicting the exterior of a Vanport apartment block. There are several cars parked in gravel or dirt in front of a two-story complex. Typed on the image is: Parking Area and A Unit, Denver Ave. Housing Project, Feb. 9, 1943, Kaiser Company Inc. Portland, Ore.
[Vanport apartment block exteriors]10

Vanport was haphazardly constructed in under a year on the Columbia River floodplain, surrounded by 15 to 25 foot dikes on all sides.11 By the time Weimer arrived in June of 1943, only two years after its construction, it was Oregon’s second largest city and the largest housing project in the US. Unfortunately, due to its hasty construction, Vanport wasn’t able to measure up to what had been advertised to the families who moved there–sometimes from across the country, at great personal cost. During her initial interviews to assess the needs of local parents, Weimer found that stress levels among the shipyard workers were high, and living conditions crude. One working mother, the subject of one of Weimer’s case studies, complained that

All the things that are gonna be here, they said was already here waiting for us… The day we got into Portland after 4 days and 4 nights on the train–it was just awful. It was raining, and we had to go to a hotel. $6 a day for a room, and we had to have two rooms. The next day at the yards they said we’d just have to wait until Vanport was ready, or they’d try to find someplace else for us to live.12

Meanwhile, in a survey for a Vanport school newsletter where fifth graders were asked what the word “Vanport” brought to mind, one young girl quipped “Mudport” in reference to the mud coating the city and its roads, a byproduct of the Pacific Northwest’s heavy rainfall and Vanport’s perpetually unfinished landscaping.13

Sepia image depicting the construction site of a school building. Typed on the image is: School, Denver Ave. Housing Project, Feb. 17, 1943, Kaiser Company Inc. Portland, Ore.
[A Vanport school construction site]14

For a time, Weimer worked with other Vanport school representatives to put a positive spin on the project’s problems by comparing their struggles to those of the pioneers who settled Oregon over a hundred years prior. In one draft for an article, she writes, “the immediate problems here are muddy, confused and growing like weeds, yet the very confusion is but part of the valiant effort toward the future beauty and orderliness of a new pioneer town.”15 It soon became apparent, though, that Vanport’s administration didn’t have sufficient plans in place to resolve the most serious problems. Schools lacked adequate facilities and supplies, enrollment was low, and with an end to the war in sight, massive numbers of Kaiser employees were preparing to leave Vanport and Portland.16

Meanwhile, by early July, Weimer’s working relationship with Hamilton had become strained by his unreciprocated attempts to engage in an affair with her.17 Weimer soon decided to end her contract early, remarry to Fred Tice (whom Hamilton had introduced her to earlier that summer),18 and leave Portland for Chicago.19

Wedding photograph of a man wearing a suit posed behind a woman, both looking into the camera. Dated July 30, 1943. Photograph by Gladys Gilbert, Portland.
[Weimer and Tice photographed together on their wedding day, July 30, 1943]20

Still, Weimer struggled to readjust to the constrained life of a housewife, feeling that it left one “lacking in continuity, and with one’s own personal life left lying about with so many tag ends.”21 She continued to keep up with Hamilton (albeit on uncomfortable and often hostile terms) through letters for several years, regularly inquiring about the status of Vanport and the Extended Services program. They cut off contact with each other entirely in 1945, after Hamilton berated Weimer for her personal and professional conduct. She preserved the letter, after adding her own label to the envelope: “this is kept as an example of neuroticism, extreme bad taste, and unjustifiable error!”22

Weimer continued to keep up with publicly-available news on Vanport until, three years later, the project was destroyed in a flood. In the immediate aftermath of the flood, Portland residents came together to support the survivors; Reed College hosted a clothing donation drive23, and offered single men temporary housing at a reduced cost in the Foster and Scholz dormitories.24 Vanport was never rebuilt, though, leaving over fifteen thousand people without homes. The disaster eventually forced integration in Portland neighborhoods that had formerly been predominantly or exclusively white-owned. The only other surviving remainder of Vanport is Portland State University, formerly known as the Vanport Extension Center.25

Oregon Journal newspaper with headline "Educator Succumbs. Monday, June 2, 1958." "Prof. James T. Hamilton, 58, head of the department of education at Reed college since January 1, 1950, died late Saturday. Hamilton was the superintendent of schools for Vanport City during World War II. Born in Illinois, Hamilton was a 1922 graduate of Reed college. He served from 1924-1932 as superintendent of schools at Newberg. For the next 18 month he received his master's degree. In 1934 he became director of admissions for Reed college. During his career in education, Hamilton also did graduate work at the University of Southern California, at Columbia university teachers college, and at Stanford university. 
Hamilton is survived by a son, James Jr. Funeral services have been set for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at J. P. Finely & Son."
[James Hamilton’s obituary, printed in the Oregon Journal and preserved by Weimer]26

Hamilton went on to work at Reed College as the head of the Department of Education. He passed away in 1958, ten years after the flood, at the age of 58.27 In 2017, he was commended by the Oregon senate for his work in ensuring the integration of Vanport’s schools despite resistance from other administrators, as well as hiring some of Oregon’s first Black schoolteachers.28

Six people loading up a car with sleeping bags, two of the people are standing on the car's doorframe with the doors open and the other three are standing on the ground. Five of them are wearing girl scout uniforms and the person in the middle, Opal Weimer, is wearing a hat and coat and holding a bag at the door of the car.
[Weimer preparing for a trip with Girl Scouts, Chicago, 1953]29

Meanwhile, Weimer spent the rest of her life as a devoted wife and mother, eventually finding new outlets for professional fulfillment through work with the Girl Scouts. She wrote and edited the Lodestar (a newsletter for the Girl Scouts of Santa Clara, California) for years, served on the Girl Scouts’ Bicentennial committees, and worked as Girl Scout Roundup staff alongside her daughters.30 She received the Thanks badge in 1965, on the 25th anniversary of her involvement with the organization, and was commended by them for her work following her death in 1978.31

Black and white photo of Opal Weimer, seated in a rocking chair wearing a floral dress and beaded necklace, and  Fred Tice, seated in a rocking chair wearing a button up shirt and pants. The couple are looking at each other.
[Weimer and Tice photographed together in their garden, approx. 1960]32

[1] Opal poses in front of a house. 1940. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[2] The Griffin. Reed College, 1922.

[3] Weimer, Opal. Letter to William Fostvedt. 22 March 1943.

[4] Opal, Cyndy, and Nancy in the snow. 1943. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[5] Fostvedt, William. Letter to Opal Weimer. 25 March 1943.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Weimer, Opal. Letter to James Hamilton. 24 March 1943.

[8] Kaiser Company. “Interior: Denver Ave. Housing Project.” 3 November 1942. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Vanport: 1942-1943. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[9] Geiling, Natasha. “How Oregon’s Second Largest City Vanished in a Day.” Smithsonian Magazine, 18 February 2015.

[10] Kaiser Company. “Parking Area and a Unit: Denver Ave. Housing Project.” 9 February 1943. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Vanport: 1942-1943. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

 [11] Ibid.

[12] Weimer, Opal. “Case History: Families in Vanport.” Unpublished manuscript. 7 July 1943.

[13] “Vanport City Schools Weekly Staff Bulletin.”

[14] Kaiser Company. “School: Denver Ave. Housing Project.” 17 February 1943. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Vanport: 1942-1943. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[15] Weimer, Opal. “The Pioneers of 1943.” Unpublished manuscript.

[16] Weimer, Opal. Letter to James Hamilton. 9 November 1943.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hamilton, James. Letter to Opal Weimer. May 1943.

[19] Weimer, Opal. Letter to William Fostvedt. 7 July 1943.

[20] Weimer-Tice wedding portrait. 30 July, 1943. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[21] Weimer, Opal. Letter to James Hamilton. 1 November 1943.

[22] Hamilton, James. Letter to Opal Weimer. 14 April 1945.

[23] Heintz, Chuck. Faculty communication. “Clothes Still Needed.”

[24] Odegard, Peter H. Letter. 5 June 1948.

[25] Geiling.

[26] “Educator Succumbs.” Oregon Journal, 2 June 1958, pp. 5.

 [27] Ibid.

[28] Vanport Commemoration, S. Res. 21, 79th Cong. (2017).

[29] Weimer in Chicago, preparing for a Girl Scout outing. 1953. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[30] “Day is Done… God is Nigh: Farewell Opal.” Lodestar: Santa Clara County Girl Scout Council Newsletter, October 1978.

[31] Death Record for Opal Weimer Tice, 20 September 1978, File No. 129-1210, Virginia Department of Health. Certified copy in possession of Reed College Archives.

[32] Opal and Fred Tice in their garden. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.