with contributions from Rebecca Pratt and Melissa Stephens
Not quite 101 years old, a Tualatin icon quietly departed her beloved Sweek House on December 7. Just two weeks earlier, she had relished Thanksgiving dinner in the family dining room at the table given to John and Maria Sweek as a wedding gift. Several dishes once used by the Sweeks still sit on a shelf.
Althea leaves a legacy not only in Tualatin and the metro Portland area but statewide and beyond. In her earlier years, she worked at the Medical School (OHSU) in the cancer research lab. From 1964 – 1982, she pioneered individualized education within Canby’s public school district. She created and taught a multi-age open classroom called The Open Learning Center for grades 1 – 8. She also taught at the University of Southern California’s summer arts program, Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, in Idyllwild, CA, from 1967 – 1973. She directed their Children’s Center from 1974 – 1981. In 1982, she founded Willowbrook Arts Camp, which flourishes today at Browns Ferry Park. After she married Jack Broome in 1980, they co-founded the Wetlands Conservancy in 1982. Both were instrumental in planning the city’s urban renewal and guarding against encroachment that impacted the environment. Althea was also very passionate about preserving local history.
Flora Althea Meier was born in Oakland, CA, and spent part of her childhood on a nearby ranch with orchards, where she fell in love with rural farm life. At 8, her family moved to Portland. Althea purchased the John and Maria Sweek House in 1955 from Harry Harding, their grandson. She took advantage of having 3+ acres to buy two milk cows, 100 chickens, and a dozen rabbits. At last, living her farm dream, she learned from the county agent and generous staff at the feed store across the street how to milk cows and care for her animals. Later, she temporarily boarded a pig, sheep, donkey, and horse. She also raised a large garden and preserved fruit from the Sweek’s many trees. She made butter in their churn and used their flat irons and kerosene lamps when the power went out. In her “spare time,” she taught Sunday school at the Tualatin Methodist Church and wrote articles for the Tigard Times.
Althea spent many years restoring the Sweek House to its former glory and filling it with period-appropriate antiques. Sweek House is Tualatin’s only building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Althea applied for and was granted the listing in 1974. Some of the original wallpaper and most of the window glass remain from the 1858 period, as well as other items and significant pieces of furniture. Althea hosted thousands of tours and many events at her home.
By 1975 Althea’s growing concern over the filling and gradual industrialization of Tualatin’s Hedges Creek Marsh led to her commitment to preserving wetlands. She attracted a growing number of community members to the cause. Students, volunteers, and children dressed as wetland birds petitioned to save the Tualatin wetlands. Hundreds attended public and City Council meetings, supporting permanent protections. Together, Althea and Jack’s dedication, enthusiasm, and vision provided the foundation for a remarkable story of grassroots land stewardship and conservation. The Wetlands Conservancy now stewards wetlands stretching from the Portland area to the southern Oregon coast.
In 1978, while teaching graduate classes at Portland State University in giftedness, creativity, and human potential, Althea created the non-profit Willowbrook Center for the Development of Human Potential. Under that banner, she led seminars for her adult students at the Sweek House. Children from her open classroom in Canby participated in “Saturday School” arts and environmental studies on her property. From this seed sprouted a summer program in 1982, “Adventures in the Arts,” with a staff of 10 serving 20 children ages 4-12. It was renamed Willowbrook Arts Camp in 1985. Offerings included nature study, pottery, fine arts, crafts, dance, music, puppetry, and drama. Shakespeare’s plays were an annual favorite. Althea served as Director, wrote plays, made daily snacks, and washed muddy clothes for children returning from nature walks in the adjacent wetlands.
Camp enrollment climbed as word spread beyond Tualatin, and by 1991 included students ages 3 – 18. The camp had outgrown the property! Willowbrook was offered the unimproved Browns Ferry Park site by the City of Tualatin, and moved to the big open field in 1992. Improvised systems of tents, water barrels, and RV batteries for electricity were set up to serve campers attending from one day to six weeks. Families enjoyed weekly performances on an outdoor stage that included plays, a ballet, a Shakespeare production, and a musical.
As the 2000s arrived, offerings had expanded greatly. Summer enrollment exceeded 1,000, and Althea continued to act as unpaid Director. She retired from leadership in 2007 at age 85, and daughter Rebecca Pratt took the reins for the next ten years. Annual attendance grew to more than 1700 campers, and staff expanded to over 200. Althea’s beloved camp continues to provide formative learning experiences and cherished memories to this day.
Rebecca Pratt and Richard Hall, who live in the adjacent historic Smith-Boone House, have kept a close watch on Althea and have had major roles in the care of the home and grounds. Two other daughters, Melissa and Deborah, as well as Althea’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, live in the Portland area. Her husband, Jack Broome, died in 2020.
No public service is planned, but the family suggests any memorial gifts be designated to the Tualatin Historical Society (8700 SW Sweek Dr, Tualatin, OR 97062, www.tualatinhistory.org). Condolences can be sent to The Family of Althea Pratt-Broome, P.O. Box 632, Tualatin, OR 97062.