Money, Marriage & Mergers

By Rodger Nichols

From top: John C. Ainsworth; a $5 bill issued by U.S. National Bank of Portland; Abbot Low Mills Jr.; a $5 bill issued by First National Bank of Portland. Images courtesy of Michael Mills

Sometimes, simple objects come with complex backstories. A frame matted with 2 photos and two $5 bills is one of those objects.

The top photo shows John C. Ainsworth. John and his wife donated 40 acres in the western Columbia Gorge, which became the basis for what is now the 180-acre Ainsworth Park.

John’s father, Captain John Ainsworth, worked on steamboats on the Mississippi River until the California gold rush. He soon headed north and was a founder of the Oregon Steam Navigation Co.

The company operated steamships between San Francisco and ports along the Columbia River at Astoria, Portland, and The Dalles, serving the lumber and salmon fishing industries.

The company also operated the portage railway at Cascade Locks and controlled much of the shipping up and down the river.

In 1885, the captain founded Ainsworth National Bank of Portland. In 1902, the bank merged with the U.S. National Bank of Portland. Although Ainsworth was the larger of the two companies, the board decided to adopt the U.S. National name as being more prestigious.

The second portrait is that of Abbot Low Mills Jr. His father was also an Oregon banking pioneer.

Mills Sr. was born in Brooklyn and educated at Harvard. He came to the Northwest in 1882 and held jobs with Perkins & Mills Bank of Colfax, Washington, and Security Savings and Trust Co. of Portland before becoming president of First National Bank of Portland in 1903.

As banks merge, so do banking families. On August 4, 1924, Abbot Low Mills Jr. married Katherine Ainsworth, daughter of Alice and John C. Ainsworth. In 1952, Abbot Jr. was appointed a governor of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Family ties between banks may have proven handy just a few years later, during the Depression. Michael Mills, grandson of Abbot and Katherine, shares a family story illustrating this.

During the Great Depression, rumors of a bank in financial trouble could cause a run on the bank, with customers rushing to withdraw all their money and causing the bank to go under. Michael says the respective bank presidents of First National and U.S. National came up with a scheme to shore up confidence.

As panicked mobs gathered, officials at one bank took bundles of cash secretly out the back and loaded them into armored trucks. Reaching the other bank, the drivers would haul the bundles of cash through the crowd, saying, “There’s plenty of money here, no need to worry.”

Then the second bank would do the same for the first.

Michael’s father, John Ainsworth (Jack) Mills, also became a banker with U.S. Bank. He was a civic leader who convinced the bank to create an urban affairs department and to connect directly with inner-city communities that were vulnerable to unfair loan and real estate practices.

Jack was president of the Urban League of Portland and Portland Art Museum, commissioner of the Oregon Arts Commission, and director of the Oregon Arts Foundation.

After moving to Parkdale at age 45, he served on the board of the Maryhill Museum of Fine Arts and as president of Friends of Timberline. His business ventures included the Full Sail Brewing Co., Dee Forest Products, Mt. Hood Railroad, and Mt. Hood Country Store.

Jack’s partnership in the store with Luis Dominguez helped build the foundation for Juanita’s Fine Foods in both Hood River and The Dalles. He also served 2 terms as a Hood River County commissioner.

On his mother’s side, Michael is related to Henry L. Pittock, former publisher of The Oregonian and founder of Columbia River Paper Co., which was incorporated in 1884 and became Crown Zellerbach following a merger in 1928.

Although Michael did not go into banking, he inherited the civic spirit of his forebears.

In 2019, he retired as project manager for Oregon Solutions at Portland State University, where he worked with regional leaders to identify agreements to accomplish community priorities.

Michael was appointed by Mayor Vera Katz as the first ombudsman for the city of Portland in 1993. Before that, he was an ombudsman for Anchorage, Alaska.

Michael Mills serves on the Columbia River Gorge Commission. He is a descendant of 2 local banking families. Photo courtesy of CRGC

Michael also served as dispute resolution coordinator for natural resource agencies under the Oregon Dispute Resolution Commission and the Department of Land Conservation and Development.

While still enrolled at Evergreen State College, Michael heard about plans to relocate the town of North Bonneville, Washington, to add a second powerhouse at Bonneville Dam. He planned to do a cultural study on the impacts on a community with an uncertain future.

To immerse himself in the culture, he joined the city staff as a planner.

“I taught as the school’s assistant teacher, and I joined the North Bonneville Fire Department,” Michael says. “It wasn’t supposed to last for very long, but I got so wrapped up in this whole effort that I stayed there seven years.”

Michael says people were willing to move but wanted to stay as a community.

“We got the help of Sen. Mike McCormick to pass the Uniform Relocation Act, which for the first time gave communities a say in the design of their new community,” he says. “We hired a landscape architect firm to design the town. And if you’ve been to North Bonneville with its walkways and winding streets and trees, it looks a lot different than earlier relocations like Arlington or Boardman.”

These days, Michael manages family business interests and serves on the Columbia River Gorge Commission, representing Hood River County.

And what of the bills in the frame? They were issued by U.S. National and First National Banks of Portland at a time when nationally chartered banks were allowed to issue their own currency