McMenamins Edgefield boasts an incredible history, owing to the fact that it was built and served as the Multnomah County Poor Farm from 1911 to 1982. Poor farms such as this provided communities with a much-needed safety net. In the days before Social Security, Welfare, Medicare and Disability were in place, even the wealthy could find themselves in dire straights upon suffering a reversal of fortune arising from injury, fire or flood. As such, literally thousands of Oregonians of all walks of life came to call Edgefield home, at least temporarily. And thanks to surviving admittance records, we are able to chronicle the great personalities who left their imprint on the property. In commemoration of this amazing cast of characters, we have named lodging rooms for many of them.
Room 301 honors Joseph E. Penney, an iconic figure of early-day Portland, whose lifetime of peaks and valleys was the stuff of legend – so much so, Edgefield Distillery named a fine American Dry Gin after him.
His café at 88 First Street was the rallying place of the city’s builders at a time when Portland was too small and provincial to support a club. The Gem was all the club Portland had and for some years it was all the club Portland needed; and Joe Penny acted as manager, and guide, philosopher and friend to over half the male population. He enjoyed a popularity that few men are lucky enough to gain.
(The Spectator, September 3, 1910)
From Toast of the Town to a ward of the poor farm, Joseph E. Penney amassed and lost several fortunes, at times from a single wager or an unkind act of nature, but always in stride.
As a young man, the ever-buoyant Joe Penney bounced into Portland in the early 1870s, fresh from adventures south of the Equator and most recently a stint in Port Townsend, Washington. Initially, he told of his tales while bartending at the wild and wooly Boss Saloon on Portland’s waterfront. Then, in the mid 1870s, Joe took over the already famous Gem Saloon at First and Stark streets. It was a time of wide-open gambling when huge sums of money came and went quickly, and Penney’s Gem was a favorite among businessmen and gaming types.
The old Gem, presided over by Joe Penney, was where many political jobs were hatched.
(The Oregonian April 13, 1922)
Penney himself loved the sporting life and was particularly fond of betting on the horses. He even bought into the city’s leading track, called City View Park, located in the Sellwood neighborhood.
From the mid 1870s through the mid-1890s, Penney’s home and business were both destroyed by fire, and floods devastated his business on at least four different occasions. In 1894, the most destructive flood of all inundated the Gem with six feet of water. In the wake of these drastic reversals, Joe took a job as cashier at the famous Hotel Portland’s rathskeller.
In 1916, with body slowing and resources depleted, old Joe Penney checked into the poor farm, now McMenamins Edgefield, where no doubt he recounted to rapt audiences a lifetime of great sport, fortunes and losses.