On tap in Smith

Roughly 30 years ago in the same sprawling quarters that the Food For Thought Cafe occupies, students swiftly strolled through the doorway, plopped down with some friends at a table and called out, “We’ll take a pitcher of Miller. No, make it Bud.”

Listed in impeccably neat handwriting on a chalkboard in the Food For Thought Cafe in the basement of the Smith Memorial Student Union are a dozen or so coffee drinks. Espressos. Lattes. Mochas. Americanos. Cappuccinos. They are all there.

The cafe also offers an assortment of fresh Columbia Gorge Organic juices. And hot water is on tap for tea drinkers.

But the question remains, where has all the alcohol gone?  

Roughly 30 years ago in the same sprawling quarters that the Food For Thought Cafe occupies, students swiftly strolled through the doorway, plopped down with some friends at a table and called out, “We’ll take a pitcher of Miller. No, make it Bud.”

The year was 1978 and the place was Portland State’s own Nordicland Pub.

The rest is a tale of student activism, laughs and backslapping amid the ambiance of tasty brews, greasy fries and a host of friends, and the mysterious shuttering of a Portland State landmark that was forgotten quicker than it was founded.

Just getting started
Oregon’s first on-campus tavern crept a bit closer to becoming a reality over the Christmas break—Wrote Doug McKean in the Vanguard, Jan. 6, 1978.

More than a quarter-century later, former Associated Students of Portland State University President Les Morton chuckles when he hears of the words “Nordicland Pub.” They are not words he has stumbled across for a while, but he was instrumental in their pairing.

Even before becoming student body president in the 1978–79 academic year, Morton and his friends were the masterminds behind the notion of establishing the first tavern on an university campus in Oregon.

“We had the idea because we used to always gather at the Cheerful T—and [former Portland Mayor] Bud Clark’s place,” Morton said. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just have a beer on campus.'”

Despite the enthusiasm behind the idea, it would be some time before Morton and his cohorts enjoyed a pint of their favorite brew in Portland State’s student union.

In January 1978, the city council had approved Portland State’s applications for two Oregon Liquor Control Commission licenses—one for the pub and another for theater productions in Lincoln Hall. And this all came after receiving the green light from Portland State President Joseph Blumel.

However, there was one problem: widespread concern from the PSU community.

Meetings, debates and hearings dominated the next few months following city council. Some aired ire with serving alcohol at a place of learning, others worried minors would sneak into the pub and concerns centering on alcohol-induced rowdiness were frequently voiced.

With the tavern’s future looking grim, July 1978 brought hope for supporters. In a two-to-one vote, the OLCC approved the pair of liquor licenses, specifying that the Nordicland Pub could serve alcohol only during the hours of 4 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights.

And with that, fermentation of the Nordicland Pub began.

Pub on tap 

And so it came to pass that a liquor license was planted in the Nordicland and from that seed did flow a brew, and lo the foam was parted by long-thirsty lips—Wrote Tom Gauntt in the Vanguard, Oct. 10, 1978. 

At the Nordicland Pub’s opening Oct. 6, 1978, Morton told Vanguard reporter Tom Gauntt, “After three years, this tastes great,” as he threw back the tavern’s first beer.

Gauntt, assigned the story even though he was only 19, said that there was buzz on campus surrounding the opening of the Nordicland Pub, however, most of the hubbub stemmed from the fact that Portland State was once again different.

“It was more a declaration that this is a different kind of campus. I think that is more what the excitement was about than the beer,” said Gauntt, now a spokesperson for Pacific Power. “We thought it was cool that we had a tavern.”

The tavern was the first of its kind on any college campus in Oregon, which Gauntt said probably happened because Portland State’s student population was much older than at other universities in the state. But the tavern had its growing pains.

While the pub’s profits were minimal, there were disputes between Portland State Food Services and the Cabaret Board, a group responsible for on-campus entertainment. No matter who ultimately received the money, the amount was certainly small.

Reports of the Nordicland Pub operating in the red poured in only about a month after Morton savored its first pint of beer.

“Maybe it wasn’t that popular after a while—maybe after the novelty wore off,” said Morton, who owns a small insurance agency in Portland. “But it was place to hang out initially.”

Morton, who was known as the “student body president that got a tavern on campus,” said the best way to describe the Nordicland Pub’s atmosphere was that is was simply “like walking into a tavern.”

To provide that tavern-like air, Morton specifically ensured the lights were dimmed and requested bar signs to be purchased. He also arranged for musicians to perform regularly at the pub.

But once he left the South Park Blocks, the Nordicland Pub soon followed.

A mysterious conclusion 
The Nordicland Pub, open Friday and Saturday from 4-12:00, has gone from “moderately successful’ to a place where you can hear yourself smoke—Written in the Vanguard, Feb. 15, 1980.

Current Student Body President Hannah Fisher’s eyebrows arched sharply in the shape of half an “M” when she discovered Portland State once had a pub in the basement of its student union.

“I had no idea,” Fisher said with a smile. “I think Food For Thought should serve organic beer.”

Fisher requested to know what happened to the Nordicland Pub, however, it appears no one knows quite knows the answer. Morton said he heard it had closed after graduating in 1980. Gauntt is clueless about its fate. And the last mention of the pub in the Vanguard came in a local tavern guide in March 1980.

It appears Portland State’s pub was stricken by the plague of slow business, limiting hours and the fact that students were already comfortable with bars near campus, as Gauntt tends to believe.

But for almost two years, or possibly longer, it was a place that epitomized a university that has been defined by a substantial older student demographic and has always been at the forefront of student activism.

“It was probably inappropriate for most campuses that have mostly 18- or 19-year-old students,” Morton said. “But it made sense to have a bar on campus.”