A century ago, Portland faced a terrible scourge. The city’s newsboys were corrupting the city’s moral fiber. These inveterate ruffians, who numbered in the hundreds, were known for gambling, stealing, truancy, profanity, smoking and general recklessness. Several even lost limbs after jumping from moving streetcars. 

What the newsies needed, Portland's progressives determined, was a clubhouse. For a model, they looked—as subsequent generations would—to San Francisco. As The Oregonian reported in 1910, boys there received instruction in "manual training, music, athletics and kindred exercises." How to fund such an institution here? Portland decided to hold an election for a boy mayor. Ballots would cost a penny apiece, and ballot-box stuffing was to be encouraged. 

In 1914, Portland's just-elected boy mayor, Eugene J. Rich, and his personal secretary, a Lincoln High School football player, sailed to California aboard the steamer Bear. Once they reached Hollywood, they were asked to star in a short silent film. A restoration of that 16-minute movie, and several others from the Oregon Historical Society, will be shown Thursday, April 24, at the Hollywood Theatre, some with live piano accompaniment.

A fictional account of the titular character's efforts to rescue a street urchin from a life of petty crime,

The Boy Mayor

is emblematic of silent films of the Progressive Era that latched onto reformist causes like child labor, poverty and prostitution. Cinematically, it isn't impressive. Like many of the old reels stored in a 100,000-square-foot OHS warehouse in Gresham, it's dramatically inert, overwrought and amateurishly acted. But it justifies its existence if only for what it reveals about Portland's delightfully idiosyncratic boy mayor program.

If the film's title cards can be trusted, Portland, a city of 200,000, was the only place in the U.S. with a child government. Plumbing Oregonian archives, it's clear the program was more than a summertime diversion, though that was part of it. (During the 1910 festivities, a visiting San Francisco boy did a vaudeville act in blackface. He was deemed a "star performer.") Local reformers talked of "the boy problem" and treated the election with gravity. The program, they argued, would instill a sense of civic duty and slash crime rates. Most ambitiously—and paternalistically—they believed it would protect Portland's vulnerable youth. 

In 1910, its inaugural year, voting for boy mayor lasted a week, during which the candidate pool grew steadily. The Oregonian covered the race closely. June 23: "'Dark Horse' Lester Oakley Making Fast Strike Toward Top." (Oakley, age 11, had enlisted his sister to canvas for him.) June 24: "Several hitherto unimportant candidates climbed dangerously near the top." June 25: "Fight for Boy Mayor has Become Fast and Furious."

Voting booths were scattered downtown in hopes that businessmen would pause and make deposits for their favorite lads. One booth was located at department store Meier & Frank, where we presume young Harold Meier polled quite well. On the final day of voting, the polling headquarters on Southwest Stark Street "resembled a riot." Newsies darted about, collecting whatever gold and checks they could to buy more votes for their boy, Sam Weinstein, a red-haired kid with pale blue eyes and a serious face. A "man of mystery," who declined to reveal his name, purchased vote after vote for Bud Kribs, an independent candidate. But despite the efforts of this enigmatic fellow, Weinstein emerged victorious. All told, more than 150,000 ballots were cast. It was "an election as dramatic in its climax as anything ever seen in Portland.” 

Nearly as dramatic was Weinstein's weeklong term. He and his boy council supported the completion of the Broadway Bridge, required that horse-drawn vehicles use taillights after dark, endorsed the purchase of Council Crest as a city park, and advocated for more drinking fountains, swimming pools and band concerts. The regular mayor had made further requests of his juvenile counterpart, which it seems were ignored: "While you are at it, you might regulate the dancehall evil, determine the great question of 'what is a sandwich,' that we may tell just the difference between a restaurant and a drinking palace, solve the teamster's strike and call on the 477 people on the East Side who want streets improved."

Sex. Sandwiches. Strikes. Streets. Who says times change?

By 1912, candidates were canvassing extensively and hustling hard for votes. They made speeches at the Rotary Club and printed cards with campaign promises of lower taxes and more playgrounds. A few girls entered the fray, even if they demurred after being elected. In 1913, Alice Campbell said that while "always and unalterably a believer in the rightness and the beneficent effect of the feminine influence in public affairs...she felt a boy Commissioner might be able to 'help more.'"

From 1912 to 1914—there's no mention of the program after 1914, and it's unclear why it ended—the boy mayor and his junior administration met weekly. By 1914, they had a force of 50 boy police, "always on the alert to discover and deal severely with urchins guilty of petty thievery, short-changing, crap-shooting and other tabooed indulgences." Boys attended theater productions of Sherlock Holmes "to learn methods of detecting crime," and the juvenile court, which handled vexing newsboy cases, acquired "a reputation for dealing out speedy justice."

The towering achievement, though, was the newsboy clubhouse. Located on Southwest 1st Avenue, near where Lovejoy Fountain stands today, it had a swimming pool, gym, library and social hall with a player piano and a Victrola. There, boys encouraged each other to resist the temptations of modern life, and reformers rejoiced that vice was successfully being stamped out among these piteous, poverty-stricken youngsters. The clubhouse was "their one great joy, and the most wholesome influence in their young lives."

And the benefits went on. In the dark days before the establishment of the clubhouse, one newsboy a month was killed or seriously injured in an accident on the streets. But afterward? Well, reported The O: “This average has been reduced to only an occasional street accident.” 

GO: The Boy Mayor and other films from the OHS archives will be screened at the Hollywood Theatre at 7 pm Thursday, April 24. $8.