Portland Square, where friendships were as close as the houses

The houses surrounding Portland Square in East Hillside are close, not just physically. "Everybody watched out for everybody without being intrusive," said Diane Miller, who grew up in the neighborhood. Miller now lives in Spokane, Wash. She and ...

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Lynne “Cookie” Abrahamson Donoho and Gene Chessen great each other. (Photos by Naomi Yaeger)

The houses surrounding Portland Square in East Hillside are close, not just physically.

"Everybody watched out for everybody without being intrusive," said Diane Miller, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Miller now lives in Spokane, Wash. She and Denny Mickle, who now lives in Carlton, organized a reunion of a generation of kids, now senior citizens, who consider themselves as close as brothers and sisters.

Some came from Lakeside, Hermantown and Morgan Park. Others came halfway across the country, as far as Washington state and Washington D.C. They gathered to tour their old neighborhood around East Fifth Street and 10th Avenue on Saturday, Sept. 6.

All the houses in which reunion members grew up are still standing. Some took photos of themselves in front of their childhood homes. At some houses, the current residents invited them in.


The honking of ships in the distance could be heard as the group gathered. Some squealed with delight and hugged each other.

"Portland has changed a lot. It wasn't taken care of as nice as it is now," said Gene Chessen, who graduated from Central High School in 1959. Now Portland Square has picnic tables, a swing set and a jungle gym.

Though the park didn't have the amenities, Gene said the neighborhood gang spent more time together outside than children do now.

"We used to come home after school and play outside until dark. That's why I think we are close," he said.

Later generations had television and computers to keep them indoors. "Now everyone goes indoors," he said.

They attended Jefferson Elementary, Washington Junior High and Central High. Many of them graduated between 1952 and 1960, though some moved on with their lives without graduating.

"It doesn't feel no different to me," said one member.

"It always feels like home. Duluth still feels like home," said Diane Miller. "The lake is a jewel."


Miller was born and raised in Duluth and moved to Spokane when she was 24 years old. She worked for the Arthur Miller Dance Studios in Boston and Spokane.

The Dane sisters, Kathy and Doreen, grew up at at 1017 E. 5th St., a triplex facing Portland Square. They knocked on the door of the current occupant, Lori Carter, and asked if they could come in.

"I remember when we got a TV and we put it right here," Kathy Dane Trees said as she pointed to the television in the very same spot in Carter's sitting room. "We just got a test pattern, but I ran outside and told everyone, 'We have TV!"

Kathy now lives in Pequot Lake. Because her father was transferred, she graduated from a high School in St. Louis in 1972, but her older sister, Doreen Dane Marciniak graduated from Duluth Central in 1958. Doreen now lives on Howard Gnesen Road.

"The fun we had," Doreen said. "Almost every house had a family with children. We played football, kickball and walked two blocks down to Jefferson School. We attended Peace Church on 10th Avenue East and Third Street. [The church is now located at 11th Avenue East and 11th Street.] It was such a nice neighborhood and it's still intact."

"What happened to the hill?" one member said. "They must of grinded it down."

"Come on everybody!" someone shouted. "We are going up the hill."

"That's my bedroom up there!" said Judy Chessen Thomas.


"Yeah we all know that," answered one of the men. "We used to sit right here."

"Hey Butch, you wanna go steal some apples?" said Denny Mickle.

Judy thought the neighborhood felt smaller. She stopped to chat with Carol Jones, the present owner of 522 N. 11th Ave.

Judy told a story of the time her older sister's new in-laws were coming to town and one of the stove's burners did not work. The neighbors cooked the mashed potatoes. The Chessen's dining room window looked into the neighbor's kitchen, so her mother knocked on the window to signal that they were ready for the potatoes.

"That's the type of neighborhood we grew up in. We were in and out of each other's home all the time," Judy said.

"I think it is great that people have kept in touch all these years," Carol said.

"We should have asked them if that tree was always the first one to change color," said Robert Dow, who lives in the same house, about a maple tree on the corner with orange leaves.

A group of college student tenants invited siblings Margaret Mickle Nelson and Denny Mickle inside. "All of these houses on this street are designed the same way," Denny told the young men.


"We moved in here in 1941 and lived here until 1960," Margaret noted fondly that the home had served the family well. "There was only one bathroom."

"It's nice to know people who lived here," said Joe Haak, a UMD sophomore from Owatonna. "When I think of previous tenants, I just think of college students."

"All the woodwork is the same" since the 1940s, said Margaret as she surveyed the house. A wall now separates the dining room from the living room in order to create a fourth bedroom. She asked if the piano window is still in the dining room. It is.

"All lot of things happened on that porch," Denny said. "Stealing crab apples. Planning our days and nights. Everyone's porch was a gathering porch."

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