Since 1890, the history of Newman’s Fish Company has reflected the history and economy of Eugene and Lane County. According to an article in the Eugene Register-Guard, John Henry Newman started in business June 3, 1890, when he was 13 years old. “His father had been injured on the farm, and John ran the new market on Willamette Street where Woolworth’s was located.” At 16, Newman worked for a man who had a small fish market and he delivered fish from a basket walking around to hotels and restaurants. For the next 20 years, John Newman peddled fish from a horse drawn cart along the dirt roads of Eugene and Springfield, often with the help of his brother, Frank.
Long time Eugene resident Clad Washburne remembers, “Sometimes, when John was alone, he would pick me up in the barnyard on 4th Street, between B and C Streets, I would sit on the front seat, ring the large hand bell, and call out, “Fresh Fish” to attract the attention of Springfield housewives.” It is told that Gyp, the horse, knew the route and stopped in front of regular customers’ without a word from Newman. In 1913, Gyp retired to pasture and Newman replaced him and the wagon with a 1912 Model T Ford. The truck, Newman reported, never did manage to learn the route.
Even John’s wife, Cynthia, “Adeline” rode along on deliveries. In a Register-Guard article she recalls, “ I used to ride with Mr. Newman. We’d go to the depot and load up the fish that had just come in. Everyone expected us…we had so many friends to stop and visit along the way.” An article in the 1932 Pacific Fisherman compliments the Newmans for their work as “kitchen missionaries.” “This consists of acquainting housewives with uses of sea foods in cooking. The Newman’s gather information on this subject and pass it on.”
Newman’s had a number of addresses in the early years: 44 W. 6th Ave. in 1911; next to Gray’s at 57 N. Park in 1924; and at 39 E. Broadway in 1929 ; and the fish market took over the site of 9th St. Meat Market in the building constructed in 1887 and believed to be one of Eugene’s oldest brick buildings. In 1927, John’s son, Ralph, joined him in the fish business and soon after, John’s next two sons, Dwight and Delmar, also came to work at Newman’s. By 1929, Ralph was managing the store, Dwight, was in charge of the wholesale side, and Delmar, a clerk. John still loved making his deliveries.
The Eugene Register-Guard said that the Newman family had more than just an influence on fish customers, “The family has long been active in civic affairs and the family figures so prominently in Eugene that the town wouldn’t be the same without the Newmans.”
In 1963, after 73 years in the fish business, the Newman brothers sold Newman’s Fish to Ben R. Bay, a commercial fisherman from Astoria. Ben Bay continued the family tradition of service, quality and variety. The Columbia River, Astoria and Newport became primary supply sources. Bay would make early morning “fish runs” to buy fish filling his pickup with thousands of pounds of smelt, salmon and filleted bottom fish. He was always sharing recipes and cooking tips with customers.
Ben’s wife, Georgene, had to manage the market when Ben left every summer to fish salmon commercially in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Bay’s two youngest daughters, Sally and Cathy, also worked as clerks.
Newman’s Fish Market continued to grow with Eugene. In 1929, when the Public Market opened on Broadway and Charnelton, they opened a second fish counter there. They expanded into the whole building at Broadway in the 1930’s. They delivered fish to most of Eugene’s restaurants including the Eugene Hotel, the Osburn Hotel, Del Rey and Seymores. The University of Oregon, the fraternities and sororities were important customers. Their deliveries extended up the McKenzie River, to Brownsville, Westfir, Oakridge, and past Walton on Route F. In 1961, Newman’s Fish Company moved to the present location at 1545 Willamette Street next to the Stanley Building, the location of a long standing meat market, Longs Meats, a grocery store, L & L Grocery and a bakery. The Bays’ sold the business in 1979 to Dwight Collins and Leonard Odegard. Collins had worked for Bay for 5 years while attending the U of O. Odegard, a retired Navy pilot, had worked at Newman’s as part time help.
Collins was just 24 and Odegard, 34, and under the new, young partners’ direction, Newman’s expanded in the mid 1980’s. With the increased ease in air freight, warm water fish like tuna and swordfish were added to the Pacific Northwest salmon, halibut, bottom fish and crab. Additional varieties and selections from Massachusetts, Maine, Alaska, Hawaii, Chile, Mexico, and New Zealand became seasonal favorites with customers.
In 1982, Newman’s incorporated as Newman’s Fish Company, Inc., and in 1986, expanded in Portland as Newman’s Fish Markets, Inc. with John Cleary managing partner ofc the Portland operations. This expanded the buying power as well as the customer base and made quantity shipping by truck and air more affordable. As in Eugene, the Portland operation has expanded and contracted reflecting the economic trends and now includes a wholesale distribution center and a retail outlet in City Market near Lloyd’s Center.
Collins bought out Odegard’s share of the business, consolidated locations in the Eugene area and opened the Fish and Chips To Go window at the Willamette location in the 1990’s. Newman’s continues to offer the freshest seafood daily from two locations, 1545 Willamette and Newman’s Fish Grotto, 485 Coburg Road. The new Grotto location offers a limited selection of fresh fish and an expanded menu of grilled entrées and sandwiches 7 days a week.