A fixture of Hermiston’s Main Street in the 1940s and 1950s is about to be restored to its former glory.
Longtime residents remember it as the RoeMarks building, but those who have been in Hermiston for a really long time might have a story or two about drinking in the Union Club.
A few of them gathered in the space — a two-story red brick building on the corner of Main Street and Northeast Second — to share their memories of the bar with a group of partners planning on turning it back into the Union Club, re-imagined for a new generation.
Those memories might be taken with a grain of salt.
“In the men’s bathroom there was a sign in there that said ‘Please flush the toilet, Umatilla needs the water,’” Bill Meyers said as he ribbed Sam Nobles about growing up in Umatilla.
“Now that’s fake, B.S. news!” Nobles said.
“It was in there for a while,” Meyers insisted.
That particular debate was never settled, but Nobles did say despite being from Umatilla he has fond memories of time spent in the Union Club.
“They had a poker room and it was downstairs,” he said. “I could go down and play poker when I was 18 even though I couldn’t drink.”
Meyers said Umatilla boys like Nobles used to come into town and “try to steal our girlfriends” before being chased back home. The running rivalry between the two towns, which has since faded somewhat as Hermiston has grown, was the subject of some discussion on Wednesday. Meyers remembers an old chamber pot — known by its slang term “white owl” — that a schoolmate found and tied to the back of his truck. Umatilla students stole it (Nobles claims to have had no part in the heist, although he knows who did), and for a while stealing the chamber pot from the other town was a frequent target of weekend teenage hijinks.
The Union Club started in the 1940s as hundreds of men from various trade unions flooded the area to work first on the igloos at the Umatilla Chemical Depot and then on the McNary Dam. Its exact closing date was unknown by the group but they guessed it was in the mid-1960s.
When asked if he had ever gotten kicked out of the Union Club, Meyers said he might have a time or two.
“Sammy knows, we’d get in here and everyone would get louder and louder,” he said. “Every beer you’d drink, you’d get louder, and they’d say you either quiet down or get out.”
Butch Shockman said he remembers the Union Club, but he wasn’t old enough to be drinking there during its heyday.
“I was too young,” he said. “I was just looking in the window.”
His brother Don was old enough to go there but preferred to spend his time at Hale’s, which predated the Union Club and outlasted it too.
The Shockman brothers remembered plenty of other Hermiston history that came up during the luncheon, however. That included the “rabbit drives” that Hermiston used to encourage people to kill hundreds of rabbits that were eating the crops, and memories of “Pop” Swayze, who ran the First National Bank of Hermiston.
“He was a pretty progressive guy,” Don said as the group remembered how Swayze would “repossess” mules, buildings or even entire farms during the Great Depression but would allow the farmers to keep working “his” property, setting the groundwork for families to have a way to pay off what they owed.
“I think everyone on this street owed Swayze money,” Butch said.
The purpose of all the memory-sharing that went on during Wednesday’s luncheon was to help inform a project to turn the space into a coffee-by-day, bar-by-night establishment called the Union Club.
The building, along with the one next door, were combined into RoeMark’s Men’s and Western Wear from 1974 to 2012 before Simmons Insurance purchased both properties in 2016. Simmons has since moved its offices into the eastern side and has been looking for someone to lease the corner space that used to be the old Union Club.
Justin Doyle, one of the partners in the project, said they want it to become a “second living room” for Hermiston, where people can go to spend time together over coffee, wine or craft beers.
“We want to connect more with the heartbeat of Hermiston,” he said.
The Union Club will be completed sometime this year, but Doyle said a timeline hasn’t been nailed down yet. He sees opportunity in working on the remodel at the same time as the city of Hermiston works to turn Second Street into a festival street; plans for the remodel include installing a sliding door on the Second Street side that would lead to patio seating with a view of events taking place there.
Joshua Woods, another partner in the project, is working to gather photos of what the old Union Club looked like, as well as memorabilia from the building such as the old Coca Cola sign they hung up after finding it in a crawl space.
“We’re trying to bring back as much of the original building as we can,” he said.
The upstairs area, which for a while was what Meyers euphemistically described as a “kind of a hotel” that rented rooms by the hour, will be turned into meeting spaces that will be available for public use or classes hosted by the Union Club on subjects like Scotch or specialty beers.
“We want to foster a drinking culture, with both wines and coffees,” Doyle said. “We want to have a real cozy space where people can come and have drinks.”
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.