You are in for a treat as we visit a “retreat” and explore one man’s vision of serenity, peace and solitude. It’s a wonderful destination that you may have missed in the Columbia River Gorge. Come along as we travel to a long-ago Oregon governor’s home, a place prized for stillness and wonder called Menucha.
A century ago, “America’s Greatest Highway” was built in the Columbia River Gorge as a marvelous way to see sites, tread lightly on the landscape and explore a landscape that took your breath away at every turn. It’s a fine place to visit and for Oregon’s 20th governor, Julius Meier, an even better place to live.
Prior to becoming governor, Meier owned the largest retail store in the state, Meier and Frank., and decided to build a country manor that rivaled the largest estates in the nation with a tennis court, swimming pool and gardens galore. Local historian Lynn Gibbons said the estate was called Menucha after the Hebrew word for “still waters.”
“Before the famous Columbia Gorge Historic Scenic Highway, the Gorge was was fairly remote. It was hard to drive out here and you might have had a couple flat tires on the way,” said Gibbons. “But, once the highway was built, the Gorge and beyond was accessible to a lot of families. So, the highway really opened it up.”
Meier was also generous to a fault, noted Gibbons. Each summer, he opened his home to thousands of employees for a company picnic, allowing them to escape the city heat for the cool beauty of the Gorge.
“The [more than 3,000] employees and their families would come here each July. A polka band, dance floor and beer garden were opened — the lunch counter served food all day so they’re having a wonderful time. They had potato sack races, pie eating contest, activities around the swimming pool were popular. Anyone who was anybody in Portland would have been here on that day,” said Gibbons.
Gerry Frank (aka “Mr. Oregon”) recalls much about those times. Frank is Meier’s grandnephew and is linked to the famed Meier and Frank business. His family pride shines through in his latest book, Gerry Frank’s Oregon. Frank remembers his youthful days were often spent traipsing across the Menucha property’s more than 100 acres and making daring, chilly dips in the swimming pool.
“It was a gorgeous view but that water was so ice cold you couldn’t stay in long. There was no heat whatsoever in that pool and no fun to come out here to swim,” said Frank. “My Uncle Julius wanted a place that he could relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. He was an Oregonian through and through and his wife, Grace Meier, had that same feeling.”
Frank loves to share stories about his famous uncle who went on to serve as Oregon’s governor in 1930. In fact, as we took a short stroll through the master bedroom, Frank let me in on a family secret: Governor Julius Meier had a hidden one way glass in his bath. “You look right over there and ‘Oh, Joe is there!’ I don’t want to see him, so tell him that I’m not around,” said Frank with a chuckle, adding, “I think it’s an ingenious way of doing it!”
These days, Menucha is owned and managed as a retreat and conference center by the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, which bought the property in 1950. The center hosts music camps, art camps, church seminars, croquet tournaments and more.
Frank said that Mencuha is as wonderful today as he remembers it 80 years ago: a fine place for reflection, exploration and worth your time for a visit.