Commerce has a home in Battle Ground

Chamber proud to set up in house reconnecting city to its commercial roots

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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BATTLE GROUND — Commerce has come full circle at a modest, two-level yellow house on East Main Street.

Located mere feet away from the Andersen Dairy, the house has been home to the Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce since April. But for decades, it's harbored traces of a nearly forgotten link to the city's early days of commerce.

The chamber's move to the building is the sort of historical happenstance that proves the adage: The past is bound to repeat itself. The original owners of the house, the Onsdorffs, helped build the city.

Seventy-eight years later, the Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce is getting situated in the Onsdorffs' old house and looking to lay the foundation for a bright future in an old area. The chamber has found inspiration for its revitalization efforts in the house.

"Since we moved here, our walking traffic coming in has increased," said Carrie Schulstad, the chamber's executive director. "The place we were in before was strip mall retail space. Going from that to this, it embraces what we believe in."

It embraces a connection to the past as well.

Originally from Sweden, Peter Onsdorff, the patriarch of the family that built the house, homesteaded on Bell Mountain in the 1880s. He was a noted storekeeper, first in Hockinson, then in Battle Ground. Considered one of the founders of the fledgling hamlet, Peter recognized Battle Ground's potential to be a regional hub for commerce and transportation, thanks in part to the expanding Portland, Vancouver and Yakima Railroad at the turn of the 20th Century.

The house was completed in 1935 by Peter's son, Sheldon Onsdorff. For a time, teachers at Battle Ground High School rented upstairs rooms.

For its part, the chamber is looking to revitalize Old Town by starting a Main Street program in the area, Schulstad said.

"This would incorporate the history and heritage and legacy of (our) downtown," she said.

The Main Street program is a national initiative that provides redevelopment guidance, as well as tax incentives, to blighted commercial districts. The chamber has pursued using the program within Old Town, with buy-in from the city and businesses. One way the city has talked about doing this is by enacting fee exemptions for some Old Town businesses.

Schulstad said she didn't know about the building's history when the chamber was looking for properties to move into last spring. She learned about it from the house's current owner, Judy Ost, who operates Main Street Tax Service. To do this, Ost literally showed Schulstad the writing on the wall.

On a doorframe, down a corridor in the house, there are lines, like hash marks, running vertically — the kind a parent makes for a growing child. Next to each mark, there's a date and name. The dates extend back to the 1930s. The name Jane belonged to the only child of Sheldon and his wife, Catherine.

Although the house has had some work done to it over the years, Ost was conscious never to paint over the markings, a direct link to the Onsdorff family.

"We painted the entire house except for this," Ost said, leaning and gesturing toward a bare stretch of marked wood on the frame where the white paint came to a stop.

When Ost bought the house, she knew she had to keep the markings. "We thought it would be a bad omen not to," she said.

She still has copies of the home's original architectural drawings. The architect behind the house was also a big name during the first half of the 20th century.

D.W. Hilborn was a prominent Clark County builder, responsible for a number of civic buildings, including the Vancouver City Hall, completed in 1930, and the Battle Ground Post Office, built in 1944.

There have been plenty of changes made to the house over the years, to bring it in line with modern times. A new heating system was installed, and the original garage has been repurposed into an office. But, for the most part, the structure stands as it did seven decades ago.

"We're very, very proud of not changing anything — not to beat out walls," Ost said.

Center of commerce

Even though the house hasn't changed significantly over the years, Battle Ground has.

When Pete Onsdorf moved to Battle Ground, the population was pushing 75. Now, the city has roughly 18,000 residents, spread across roughly seven square miles.

The city's Old Town may never become the bustling center of commerce it was during the heyday of the Onsdorff family. But it is showing signs of recovery, the city's community development director says, in the form of shops peddling old-timey wares.

"It's becoming this hub for antiques and vintage wear," said Robert Maul, Battle Ground's community development director. "That creates enough interest to draw people from far away."

Next month, the city will discuss whether to exempt sewer impact and traffic fees for some Battle Ground businesses, he said. The city has also met with Clark County to discuss using community development block grants to assist Old Town businesses make façade improvements.

The hope is, with the chamber nestled within the area, Pete Onsdorff's legacy will live on.

"He was a bit of a forward thinker," said Schulstad, "in the sense that he understood what (commerce) meant for the city."