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PORTLAND, MULTNOMAH COUNTY; 1873-1890:

How Abe Tichner hustled rubes at 1870s county fair

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By Finn J.D. John
November 23, 2019

When Abe Tichner died, on April 29 of 1935, he was one of Portland’s most respected citizens.

He was also one of its earliest, and if the editor of the Portland Morning Oregonian had been on the ball, his obituary would have run on the front page — alongside a summary of the changes Oregon’s largest city had seen since his arrival, exactly 65 years before.

“Portland had less than 6,000 inhabitants at that time,” he remarked on May 1, 1920, on the 50-year anniversary of his arrival in Portland. “All the dead were counted when the city tried to get an extra clerk in the post office. The east side was one long swamp as far as Union Avenue, which was high land, except for a stretch opposite Stark Street where there was a roadway and two houses. A ferry on which the fare was 5 cents paddled across.”

 

ABE TICHNER WAS BORN in New York on Dec. 10, 1852; but, when he was 11 months old, his parents packed up and set out on a steamer for California, crossing over the isthmus of Panama and arriving in San Francisco in 1853. He grew up, through age 18, in that city.

If one was asked to describe Abe Tichner in a single word, it would probably be “enterprising.” There does not appear to have been any point in Abe’s life in which he was not wide awake, on his feet, and hustling like a pro. He seems to have had a real knack for nosing out potentially lucrative enterprises and working his way into them.

He started out as a very young boy by taking on a paper route for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he handled it so well that he soon was being entrusted with other circulation-department duties, including delivering each day’s papers to the post office for mail subscribers.

When he was 18, his family moved to Portland, arriving via sidewheel steamer. In his new home town, he continued in the newspaper business, delivering papers and later setting up a newsstand at which he also sold cigars.

For a few years he pursued the sort of ordinary career that most of us do, parlaying his active membership in the Republican Party into a nice job as a customs inspector for the Port of Portland in the 1880s and, when that sinecure ended five years later with the election of a Democratic president, taking a job as an officer in the Portland Police Department. He was with the P.P.D. for six years, during which time he rose rapidly to the rank of Captain.

But during the time when Abe was working these regular jobs, he was also working diligently on side hustles – and his first one was quite literally a hustle. Starting in 1873, and for most of the rest of the 1870s, Abe Tichner was one of the most successful vendors on the county-fair circuit. He sold cigars and cheap jewelry out of a booth there – and came home from each fair with more money than his salary would have brought him in decades.

 

IN THE MID-1870S, county fairs were, of course, somewhat different from the happy, wholesome funnel-cake-and-prize-roosters institutions they have since become. For one thing, they were a lot less kid-friendly.

“On the (fair)grounds drinks and cigars sold for 25 cents; gambling ran wide open,” writes former governor Oswald West, recounting one of many conversations he had with Tichner in his golden years. “The games of chance were many and varied in character.”

Each one of those games of chance, West added, was run by a different member of a cadre of itinerant Portland swindlers who would set up shop at the fair, eager to separate all the pastoral “rubes” from any cash money that they might have managed to accumulate over the course of a year’s hard labor in the fields and orchards. Not a single one of these games was honest.

There was a roulette wheel, equipped with a “snake” – a concealed button on a cord that activated some sort of ball control. There was something called a “Red and Black,” which was basically a Bingo-ball cage, only with a hidden compartment, so that the ball that dropped down from the cage was not the same as the ball that fell out of the chute. And there was a very popular “wheel of fortune” – “where the boys were told they could win 20 to 1 on the eagle bird – but they never did,” according to West.

“When (Washington County) fair time approached, the gamblers and horse players of Portland booked passage on the Monitor, a six-horse stage coach operated by ‘Little Sam’ Bernheim, who boasted that he was always ‘drunk and dressed up,’” West writes. “When the hour of departure arrived, the roulette wheel, the wheel of fortune, and the red-and-black outfit were lashed securely behind and their owners took their seats within the coach. Little Sam, properly ‘likkered,’ mounted the box, took the reins, released the brake and headed for Hillsboro.”

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The Abraham Tichner house as it appears today. Tichner had it built for his family in 1918. (Image: Eaaumi/ Wikimedia)

Abe was not one of these characters. He wasn’t that kind of hustler. But he probably made more money at the fair than any of them did. He later told West that he usually cleared $2,500 – that’s the equivalent of $57,000 in modern currency – on each fair. His profit margin hovered around 92 percent.

How did he do it? By selling cheap cigars — wrapped in an expensive story.

Apparently working from memory, West paraphrase-quotes an Oregonian article from the 1870s that describes his hustle:

“Heedless of the rain, Abe mounts his showcase on a goods box in the center of the grounds and doesn’t allow bashfulness to trouble him. He sells five ‘pure Havana’ cigars for one dollar, and as an inducement to purchasers, throws in a ‘gold’ watch and a set of ‘diamond’ shirt studs. On this generous plan he manages to do a brisk business.”

That wasn’t exactly right, West added. Each cigar purchaser got to take an envelope containing a number, which corresponded to a piece of jewelry. Not every cigar buyer got a free watch … in fact, most likely none of them ever did.

“In my innocence, I asked Mr. Tichner just what chance the purchaser of his cigars had to get a watch,” said West. “His answer: ‘Just about as much chance as a snowball has to roll through hell.’”

But for Abe, the money-making magic was in the markup.

“Abe’s cigars cost him $15 a thousand – a cent and a half each,” West writes. “His jewelry (plain junk) from a dollar a gross for collar buttons to $5 a gross for watch chains and necklaces. His ‘gold’ watches were white metal, gold plated.”

What Abe Tichner had figured out was that there wasn’t a whole lot of real difference between an average everyday cigar and a “pure Havana,” and people away from their homes and in a new environment were more susceptible to suggestion than they would otherwise be. If they could be convinced that a cigar was a 25-cent Cuban that they were getting for 20 cents, they would not only get a 25-cent-Cuban-cigar experience out of smoking it, but they would enjoy it even more because they’d “saved” 20 percent on it. Looked at that way, Abe wasn’t cheating them; he was delivering an experience that was, arguably, worth what he was charging.

Of course, providing that experience only cost him one and a half cents, plus a little complimentary hot air.

Nor were the “rubes” the only ones falling for it. When one of the other county-fair swindlers, a Buffalo Bill Cody look-alike who called himself the “King of Pain” and sold a patent-remedy painkiller for $1 a bottle (about $25 in modern money), confided to Abe that he was having trouble finding decent cigars, Abe pulled him aside and, with a great show of confidentiality, told him he had a small private stock of “clear Havanas” and would be glad to share a few with him. Thereupon he went to his kit bag, rummaged long and hard, and came up with four or five cigars, which he reverently presented to His Majesty.

“These cigars were, in fact, the same cabbage-leaf variety that Abe was dispensing to his patrons of the fair,” West writes. “But those presented to the ‘King’ were tied with a silk ribbon which indicated quality.”

“Finding them to his taste,” West adds, “he prevailed upon Abe to allow him to purchase others from time to time – the price to be 50 cents each.”

 

ABE TICHNER’S COUNTY-FAIR years were some of his most treasured memories later in his life, which is why he spent so much time reminiscing on them with his friend Os West. The money he made usually didn’t last long after he got back to Portland – the crooked dealers at the faro tables in Portland would get it from him over the course of a few weeks of playing high-roller. Abe was, after all, a very young man.

Abe Tichner went on to a very successful and respectable career in Portland, making most of his money as a financier and warrant broker; he frequently appeared in the newspaper as the successful bidder for various city bond offerings. And his early, profligate years at the faro tables seem to have been a phase he was going through. Later in his life, no matter how rich he got, he watched every dime: in 1902, when a county clerk tried to short him 10 cents on a series of $1 notes, Abe punched him in the eye.

He partnered with Aaron Maegly to build the six-story Maegly-Tichner Building at 610 Broadway in 1911; and in 1918, he had a gorgeous home built for his family (he’d married Mary Baker in 1874). The Abraham Tichner House, located on Southwest Kingston Avenue, is still immaculately kept and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

(Sources: “Reminiscences and Anecdotes of Oregon History,” an article by Oswald West published in the September 1949 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; Portland Morning Oregonian: 20 Nov 1902, 02 May 1920, 07 Nov 1922, and 30 Apr 1935)

 

 

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