White Seed building holds many different memories for many different people
On Front Street in downtown Salem, between a vacant lot and a building on the National Register of Historic places, stands a crumbling brick warehouse. The splintered double doors in front hang crooked and are boarded up, the arched brick window frames in back are stopped up by more brick. There are chunks of brick missing here and there, but behind them another layer, and then another. No wolf can blow it down. Yet outside of all that old brick, the building is not much. Until you look at the front again and see the white stenciled block letters: D.A. White and Sons. Grain Rolling Seed Cleaning. It changes everything. Like the outfit, you might say, makes the person. All of a sudden, there’s a story here, more than we will ever know. These letters have been gazing down on Front Street for over 100 years.
The writer E. L. Doctorow said, “what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.” And Joseph Campbell wrote in “The Power of Myth” that “Myths are public dreams.” Maybe that’s exactly what this building, empty now for 50 years, is — a public dream.
History is a squishy thing. Many a vacation is planned around something that no longer exists — empty fields where men once fought with guns, a vacant theater where a president was shot, houses with low ceilings where George Washington was purported to have slept — the list goes on. But they’re simply placeholders for stories.
In Oregon there are plenty of famous families: the Pittocks, the Joe Palmers, Meier and Frank. But zoom in to Salem at the turn of the 19th century and there’s a man named Daniel Anthony White, D.A. White, according to the form of the time — initials plus a surname.
White came to Oregon by means of the trail, and put up a brick building on Front Street in 1890. He painted his name on it in white block letters; he kept seed cleaning equipment inside. He had a mercantile store around the corner on State Street. His sons were Harlan and Floyd.
In 1926 the Daily Statesman featured an article in their Business Section on the seed industry. In it they proclaimed, “The Salem District is coming into its own as a seed country, and Salem is destined to become the great seed center of the United States.” The bulk of the article was an interview with Harlan White of the “well known firm of D.A. White and Sons.” Harlan had already served a term as mayor by this time. The Whites were no strangers to success. Then Mr. James Jenks Sr. walked into the store. No slouch himself, he too had spent time on the Oregon trail —five months when he was four — then grew up and helped his father amass a kingdom of farmland near Albany. He said, “Let’s make a seed company,” and the rest is history. The City Directory listing the following year read “Jenks-White Seed.”
Flash forward to 1951: Grace Ketcham had just moved from Scotland to Los Angeles looking for work as a seed analyst. (“What kind of experience do you need for that,” I asked her. She laughed and replied, “Good eyes!”) She heard there was a seed company in Salem. Howard Jenks Sr. hired her over the phone and she went to work in the lab in the offices on State Street. She describes the dozen or so employees whom she worked with as a “big family.” She wasn’t joking. Howard Jenks Sr. and Robert White were at the helm then, and Howard Jr., Jim Jenks Jr. and Floyd White all worked there, too. Robert White, who served as mayor and then Oregon State Senator, sponsored Grace’s citizenship.
In those days the warehouse stored seed and there was little reason to go into it. Grace remembers the wooden floors, but not much else. She would walk a mile and a half to work from the boardinghouse where she rented a room. She met up with her colleagues each morning at Gracie’s Coffee on Liberty, later Van’s. She left the company in 1961, with fond memories, to raise a family.
Flash forward, again, to 1978: there’s a picture in the Oregon Statesman of three guys in an office. Casual, cool and confident, they are: Howard Jenks Jr., Jim Jenks Jr. and Gordon White. They’re wearing big collars under fitted sweaters. The picture invokes old images of Sam Phillips in the heyday of Sun Records, Elvis and Johnny Cash on either side. Or the Rat Pack, with girls and cigars in the back room
The younger Jenks-White business is commodities; they’re pulling in $10 million a year. They make seed trading look sexy, spinning deals with a snap of their fingers, using the keys to their dads’ offices on State Street (James Jenks Sr. is still Chairman of the Board, but remotely, from Albany.) They look like they own the world.
Somewhere in the next few years they disband.
The Salem Public Library has a small black and white picture in their photo collection of the D.A. White Building taken from the corner of State and Front Streets. It was shot in the ‘70s when the younger Jenks, Jenks and White were trading seeds, and the warehouse, looking stately and proud, had been empty for a number of years. There’s a raised wooden walk in front of the building and an awning. The Eoff Electric Company is next door where the grassy lot is now. It might have been interesting to have one of these every few years — a picture of this old stubborn building, with life going on around it.
D.A. White rode to Oregon in a wagon from Washington, Illinois. After his death in 1938, he was buried in Pioneer Cemetery. His occupation on the cemetery record is listed as “feed and seed dealer.” It says so little about the man whose initials grace the building on Front Street.
That’s myth. That’s what history is about. Chances are most people driving down Front Street on any given day don’t notice the old brick building. Chances are most people wouldn’t notice if it was gone or, if they did, only briefly. If one-time owner Evan Boise had paved over D.A.White and put in a parking lot, it might not have changed anyone’s life.
But history is a squishy thing. It lives in different places — in the memories of the old, in books, in faded pictures — and its value is immeasurable. A Jenks walks into a White mercantile store on State Street, and a Salem empire is born. The only remaining link to that story is an empty brick building on Front Street.
Today there’s a shiny new sign in front of the place with a Coldwell Banker logo and the announcement, “Just Sold!” Its bright, unmarred colors strike a comic pose with the faded charm of the old building. Flash forward to 2010: Margaret Furlong now owns the place. What’s the story now — guesses, anyone?