By Art Sommers, WCM Archives Volunteer
Orenco originated as a company town. It was founded by Archibald McGill and Malcolm McDonald two nurserymen from Salem, Oregon where they had founded the Capital City Nursery in 1867. They changed the company’s name to Oregon Nursery Company in 1896 to better reflect their expanding business. In the late 1890s, the two men scouted land in the Tualatin Valley area west of Portland and started buying acreage with their initial purchase being 640 acres of farm land in rural Washington County. An immense packing shed was built on the newly acquired acreage with claims it was largest such building in the country. Because of its size, the packing shed served as the site of the Washington County Fair for many years. The company’s packing plant in Salem was destroyed by fire in 1905 and the entire nursery business relocated to the Washington County site. By 1906, 1,200 acres had been acquired and the two men began the process of establishing and managing a town devoted to the nursery business. The business name of the Oregon Nursery Company was the source of the name “Orenco”. In 1908, the foundation for a nursery office was laid down with claims it would be the finest such nursery office on the west coast. The image of the company’s office shown here is from circa 1910.
By 1907, homes for the nursery workers were under construction on Quatama Road. One large group of workers was recruited from Hungary. Those Hungarian workers were refugees fleeing their homeland from religious persecution as Protestants.
The Oregon Nursery Company granted a right-of-way through nursery land for the building of a branch line of the Oregon Electric Railroad. A depot was established at Orenco on the railroad line. The present day Max line uses that same right-of-way, but the new Max station at Orenco is not located on the same site as its predecessor.
By 1912, Orenco had a city hall, fire department, police department and jail, a general store, a drug store, a printing plant, hotel, barber shop, a post office which operated from 1909-1963, and an elementary and high school occupying the same building. A Presbyterian church was dedicated in 1911. McGill and McDonald put up $2,000.00 of the total $8,000.00 needed to build the church.
Disputes between McGill and McDonald over whether or not Orenco should be incorporated led to McGill’s withdrawal leaving McDonald to run both the business and town. The city of Orenco was officially incorporated on January 06, 1913 with Malcolm McDonald elected as Orenco’s first mayor.
The Oregon Nursery Company achieved its peak of production in 1913. Its 1,200 acres was planted with fruit trees, nut trees, shrubs, berries, and other nursery stock. In June of 1913, the company hosted a national horticultural event bringing three hundred nurserymen from across the nation to visit the Orenco operations. A banquet was served in the packing shed to impress the guests with the size of the facility and to show off the modern processing and distribution capabilities.
The company had plans to expand into the European market, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 ended that dream. The company began to lose money due to increased costs and slow moving inventory exacerbated by strong competition from other nurseries. After years of financial loss, the company filed for bankruptcy and was dissolved in 1927.
With the loss of the town’s single largest employer, the population of Orenco started to shrink with many families moving away looking to find work elsewhere. In 1938, eight Orenco residents representing the community’s remaining families voted to dissolve the city government. The land that was once the property of the Oregon Nursery Company and site of Orenco was eventually annexed by the city of Hillsboro as it expanded east to 185th Avenue.
The Craftsman style house Malcolm McDonald had built in 1912 is a local landmark added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. Today, the McDonald house sits on the grounds of the Orenco Woods Nature Park. Archibald McGill’s home is also still standing not far from the McDonald house. The two houses are on opposite sides of the MAX Blue Line. The McDonald house, the McGill house, and the headquarters building for the Oregon Nursery Company all look very similar.