It might sound like the beginning of a Dr. Seuss book, but it is actually a question that many probably won’t have an answer to, unless you joined me on a walking tour in downtown St. Helens this 4th of July. I’ll admit that growing up in St. Helens I never heard anything about Nora Lou Martin and it was just recently that I discovered her remarkable story – a story I think deserves to be shared.
Born Nora Mildred Martin in 1921, her family lived in Prescott before moving into St. Helens when she was a young girl. Her father worked in the local sawmill and the family made their home off of DeSpain Hill on Spring Street (S. 8th). She and her three siblings attended John Gumm Elementary, along with the McNulty School while her family lived in the country for a brief time. Nora developed her singing talent from a young age and it was backstage dressed as a cowgirl that she was discovered by talent scout “Uncle Nate” Cohn of KGW radio. Before long she was a regular on the radio, usually performing numbers that featured her unique talent for yodeling. She and her family said goodbye to St. Helens and their many friends there and moved into Portland so Nora could further her career.
Nora Lou, as she became known, was a hit and not only was she heard by thousands, but her likeness became recognizable as well when she became the face of Portland-based Golden West Coffee. By 1939 she was off to Hollywood and starring in the film Rovin’ Tumbleweeds. Others in the years that followed included Stage to Chino, Laugh your Blues Away, Boss of Hangtown Mesa and The Silver Bullet.
Even though she left her Columbia County roots, locals never forgot Nora Lou and she never forgot where it was she got her start. You can imagine their excitement when it was announced that she would return to the “home grounds” for a brief visit in July 1944 – 75 years ago this week. Upon learning that she would be performing in Portland’s Independence Day bond show, acting St. Helens Mayor Jess Moore sent a telegram to Mayor Earl Riley of Portland which read in part, “Nora Lou is a St. Helens girl… We demand that this city have full honor of welcoming its own girl who is today a star of radio and screen… We want Nora Lou…”
Mayor Riley replied, “I am for you 100 percent. Inasmuch as St. Helens has been able to produce a girl as fine and great as Nora Lou Martin, St. Helens is entitled to take over at the airport. The job must be done in a big way, so we warn you that if you fail to do it up brown we will take over.” Upon arriving at the airport on July 2, she was greeted by a crowd that included St. Helens Mayor Simeral, who presented her with a bouquet of flowers. A playful tug of war followed and was captured by photographers as both Portland and St. Helens mayors claimed her as their own.
Following her big performance in Portland alongside Eddie Cantor, her caravan made its way back home to St. Helens. Unfortunately, the mayor’s old Buick broke down several times after the fan belt broke and the radiator spouted water. They were met at the Columbia County line by city, county and state officials and received a police escort into downtown St. Helens.
It was estimated that between 700-750 people gathered in the Courthouse Plaza on the evening of July 6 for a welcoming reception. Nora was introduced by the mayor and then proceeded to present an hour-long program from the Courthouse steps. She and her companions reportedly presented “a lively program of which Miss Martin’s vocal number were highlights.” She sang four popular numbers and featured her yodeling skill. Upon completion, she was presented with a key to the city and she made her way through the crowd autographing bonds and greeting many of her former acquaintances by name.
Very few who were in attendance that day are still with us to tell the tale of that memorable occasion. Nora returned to Hollywood but her career there was to be brief. Following her marriage, she settled down in the Portland area to raise her two sons. The Chronicle reported her return to St. Helens in October 1966 where she spoke at the Village Inn as a member of the Republican State Central Committee. She took an active role in her community, church and the local PTA. She was a breast cancer survivor and became the first woman president of the Oregon Division of the American Cancer Society. Despite her own health concerns, she maintained a positive outlook and enjoyed sharing her story with others. One of her last journal entries stated, “The joy of giving is truly the joy of living.” She died at the age of 92 in January 2014.