Tieton -- Thumbnail History

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 8/06/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20615

The name Tieton derives from Taitnapam, the name of a local Indian tribe, and was chosen for the town in Yakima County by the U.S. Postal Service in 1909. Located on the north fork of Cowiche Creek -- about three miles from Cowiche and five from Naches, some 19 miles northwest of Yakima -- the Central Washington townsite was initially known simply as North Fork. The first homesteader arrived in 1879 to a stretch of rocky sagebrush desert. New settlers raised livestock and hauled water from springs or rivers until a massive project funded by the federal Reclamation Act brought irrigation to Tieton in 1910. A vibrant agricultural economy sprang up, helped in 1917 by the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway, allowing farmers and orchardists to easily transport their crops. The town incorporated in 1942. The latter half of the twentieth century brought a period of decline. However in 2005 two Seattle men saw opportunity in abandoned warehouses and brought a new vision. Tieton began reviving as an artisan town, with a Book Arts studio, mosaic shop, printmaking facility, art exhibitions, the annual LiTFUSE poetry workshop, and Dia de los Muertos celebrations.

Saga of a Western Town

The story of Tieton, like that of so many Western towns, is a saga of happenstance, misfortunes, successes, shifting names and locations, and the inevitable cycles of boom and bust. Before non-Indian settlers arrived, Native Americans for thousands of years had lived in and used the Yakima Valley and its rich resources. In particular, they relied on salmon runs along the Yakima River and its tributaries -- the Tieton, the Naches, and Cowiche Creek. In the summers, people traveled higher up the Cascades slopes to cultivate and harvest berries and other crops, avoiding the heat of the valley.

In Governor Isaac Stevens's (1818-1862) 1855 treaty negotiations, tribes of the Yakima Valley and surrounding regions were pressured to give up some 10,000 square miles of land in exchange for a reservation. But Indian rights, such as they were, were disregarded from the start, as "whites were invading the territory promised to the Indians before the X's on the treaty were dry" (Shawver, 19)

In 1856 Colonel George Wright (1803-1865) built a fort along the Naches River, near present-day Naches a few miles from Tieton. A West Point graduate, Wright was not opposed to killing Indians. But he was a practical man who understood that for Native Americans to subsist they needed to maintain access to the resources across their lands. His recommendation: "The whole country between the Cascade Mountains and the Columbia River should be given to the Indians; it is not necessary to the white people" (Shawver, 20)

Needless to say, his advice was ignored. The Indian Wars ensued. For Native people who had long used it, the area that would become the town of Tieton was a resting place along a trail that would soon be closed to them.

The first non-Indian settlers in the region began arriving in Naches, in 1865, led by J. B. Nelson. Then John W. Goodwin set roots in the Cowiche area in 1867, followed by A. J. Tigard in 1869. Louis Lanch was reportedly the first to homestead the Tieton area, in 1879. He married Melissa Weddle, daughter of a pioneer family, in 1883.

Many early settlers in the Upper Yakima Valley were lured to the region by marketing for the Northern Pacific Railway, which reached the Yakima Valley in the early 1880s. Hoping to sell off extra land and recruit customers for its projected rail lines, the company advertised a land of milk and honey, with instant farming success. As one local historian put it, "In order to fatten its bank account, the Northern Pacific could become almost lyrical in describing the heaven that awaited ..." (Shawver, 23). The first wave of new settlers instead found themselves stranded in the desert, with challenging winters and hot, windy summers. Annual rainfall averaged just 9 inches.

Building Community in a Harsh Environment

The harshness of the environment took a toll. Philande Kelley, among the first to file a homestead claim in the Tieton area in 1880, set out to rescue some horses that first winter and froze to death in a blizzard. He was 35 years old. Kelley became the first person buried in the Cowiche-Natchez cemetery.

Those early "dry farmers," as they were known, devoted all their energy to survival. They cobbled together log and plank shelters, hauled water by horse and wagon, and raised cattle, sheep, horses, chickens, and hogs. They dug up acres of sagebrush to grow what fruit and vegetables they could with limited water. Those who built conveniently along the rivers found their houses deluged in spring floods and had to move to higher ground.

From the start, women took the lead in building community. One early chronicler, Margaret Crews, homesteaded 63 acres on the plateau above the Naches River with her husband, Wesley, and three sons in 1904. Before they could support themselves farming, Wesley had to hitch up the team and drive the wagon to Naches, where he spent the week laboring, leaving the 90-pound Margaret alone to fend for herself and the boys. She fought off rattlesnakes, rationed water, cared for livestock, and hauled gunnysacks of laundry for miles over steep terrain to wash it in river water. When she began suffering from terrible toothaches, the only solution she found was to get "all the darned things pulled" (Crews, 43). She hired out as a hop-picker to pay for her dental plates.

Crews later recalled how months could go by without her encountering another woman: "It frightened me at times to be so lonely" (Crews, 102). She reached out to others by starting Tieton's first Sunday school in 1907. She organized the Tieton Mother's Club -- the first rural woman's club in Central Washington -- and later a boys' club that, with its motto of "Head Hand Health Heart," likely served as a model for 4-H clubs (Shawver, 55).

Education and Irrigation

Education was a makeshift enterprise in the early years. The first school term of Tieton School District No. 14 was held in 1884. Fanny Strong taught the two-month session in an outbuilding on the Tom Weddle homestead, now the site of Tieton. Five or six students showed up for instruction most days and Strong was paid $40 a month.

In 1908, local residents constructed a wooden schoolhouse and in 1912 a stone structure was added to serve as the Tieton High School. A three-story red-tile elementary school replaced the old schoolhouse in 1927 and by 1939 the graduating class of Tieton High, overseen by school superintendent Ralph Strand, boasted 23 students. Eight of them had been together since the first grade. The Tieton School District was absorbed into the Highland District in 1944.

Under the Reclamation Act of 1902, the federal government approved funding for the extensive Tieton Irrigation Project in 1906. The new public system of reservoirs and canals, which employed some 800 men to construct, would make agriculture feasible on large tracts of desert land. Irrigation water reached Tieton in 1910 and the project was completed the following year.

With irrigation on the way and business opportunities ripe, a new wave of settlers began arriving. In 1908 Bill Shenk bought the Weddle homestead house and converted part of it into a blacksmith shop and part into a store. Another portion of the Weddle property, two blocks east of the present town, changed hands a few times and was then set aside as a townsite in 1914. Two years later, J. E. Madsen and D. H. Dresser of the Tieton Townsite Corporation donated a 200-by-175-foot property to be used in perpetuity as a park. Existing commercial buildings were moved two blocks and situated around the new town square.

Shenk built a two-story structure there to house his mercantile and applied to the U.S. Postal Service operate the town's post office. The application form requested that three possible names for the town be included, in order of preference. To Mr. Shenk, the name Shenkville sounded sweet to the ears, so he placed it first. The old name North Fork was his second choice. He added Tieton as the third option. The Postal Service granted him the post office, under the name Tieton.

Among the next wave of settlers was Jacob Pelto, a Finn who arrived in the Yakima Valley from Minnesota in 1913 and began growing fruit on a 10-acre site. He bought more land in Naches Heights and soon his sister and brother-in-law arrived from Astoria to join him. Others Finns followed and the settlement became known as Finn Hill. Each of their homes included a traditional sauna, and they introduced the concept of steam baths to their new community.

As the irrigation project progressed, expansion of the railroad was also underway. The Northern Pacific line was extended from Yakima to Tieton, with stops at Brace, Weikel, Garretson's warehouse, and Cowiche. By 1912 trains were running as far as Cowiche and in 1917 the line was completed to Tieton, with a Y-shaped switchyard where trains could be turned around.

With irrigation water flowing and a climate favorable to growing apples and pears, Tieton blossomed as an agricultural center. Huge storage and packing warehouses sprang up in the landscape. A Tieton extension of the Yakima County Horticultural Union arrived in Tieton in 1913, soon followed in the area by F. H Cubberly, Perham Fruit, Richey & Gilbert, A. D. Strand, and Washington Fruit & Produce, among others, shipping their crops to distant markets by train.

Train travel changed the lives of everyone living in the area. Before rail, a shopping expedition from Tieton to Yakima by horse and wagon would take days and was viewed as an annual journey. Families would stock up on 100-pound bags of flour, buy bulk supplies, and stay in a hotel a night or two to see a movie and enjoy the amenities of town before starting the long wagon ride home.

A Bustling Town Incorporates

In 1942, Tieton incorporated and elected Bill Newland the town's first mayor, with Ed Wutke (pronounced Whit-key) as clerk-treasurer, and a five-member town council.

Wutke was a colorful character who made his fortune as a bootlegger during Prohibition. After serving in France during World War I, he retired to his mountain cabin and fired up a 30-gallon still. A dozen 50-gallon whiskey barrels kept his moonshine mellowing before he sold it off for $1.25 a quart. His customers included many upstanding citizens, not to mention Tieton's sheriff, who Wutke later recalled as a "good guy -- give him a gallon once in awhile -- he was alright" (Shawver, 116). With his proceeds, Wutke bought a corner property next to the Horticultural Union in 1925, paying $500 cash, and built himself a substantial brick house.

By the time Wutke took charge of the town treasury, Tieton was a bustling place. There was Mayor Newland's pharmacy, three restaurants, two grocery stores, a hardware store, shoe store, lumberyard, beauty salon, barbershop, steam bath, medical clinic, several gas stations and a couple of pool halls. Churchgoers had a choice of several churches in the area, including the Pentecostal Church and Tieton Presbyterian. Near the edge of town, part of the old schoolhouse had been moved across the road and transformed into the Tieton Grange Hall. A bowling alley and a movie theater provided entertainment. Thirty-two new streetlights gave a "boost to civic pride" (Wiley).

The Horticultural Union plant employed 225 people in the packing house during peak season, processing around 30,000 boxes of apples daily and more than a million boxes of apples and pears annually. For a time the "Hort Union" boasted it was the "largest packing house in the world," but that claim couldn't be verified (Wiley).

The Tieton State Bank had gone under during the Great Depression and Sodens's Meat Market operated from its place. That corner storefront eventually would be taken over by Vickie's Café, where Tieton old timers continued to hang out until Victoria Ennis retired in 2013, at age 88, after serving the community for some 45 years.

Mid-century was a prosperous time for Tieton. During World War II, area farmers averaged a return of between $500 and $700 per acre on their crops and reportedly paid the government more in income tax than the entire cost of the irrigation project. That meant that by 1947 the Tieton Water Users Association was able to make the final loan payment to the Secretary of the Interior for construction of the system -- becoming the first in the country to fully repay the Reclamation Service Fund.

A Small Town at the End of the Road

But Tieton's fortunes took a downturn as times changed and automobile travel became easier. Small businesses shuttered as malls and big stores elsewhere drew customers away. As residents discovered the amenities of larger cities, the population dropped to around 500 from highs near 1,000. Trains were no longer needed to transport fruit as trucking offered an easy, more direct alternative. Burlington Northern bought the rail line but abandoned it in 1984. The Cowiche Canyon Conservancy purchased the land for $1,000 in 1985.

Empty storefronts and affordable housing brought a new wave of immigrants beginning in the 1980s. They were mostly Latino families, who found a friendly community and work in the orchard industry. Juan and Elidia Delgado were the first Mexican American family to buy a house in Tieton in the early 1980s. Two of the five Delgado children became teachers in the Highland School District.

Even with the influx of residents, Tieton remained a small town at the end of the road. Without a highway running through town, there was no stream of travelers or tourists to fuel small businesses or keep gas stations pumping. The town's annual Community Days celebration didn't happen for a while, nor did the summer art show. A Yakima Herald feature in 1996 ran under the headline "Tieton: A Sleepy Town Poised for a Rebirth, or a Backwater Waiting to Dry Up?" (Green).

At that point the bowling alley and theater had closed, along with most of the gas stations. Storefronts stood empty. Residents drove to Yakima for most of their shopping and entertainment. There was talk of a new development of some 160 residential lots in and around Tieton. Don Willey and his wife Pat, whose family had run a hardware store in Tieton for nearly 60 years, were counting on that to keep the business alive. But development stalled over an inadequate sewage-treatment facility. Café owner Vickie Ennis summed up the problem: "The town just doesn't have anything to offer yet" (Green).

But that was about to change.

Twenty-first Century Changes

One day in April 2005, Seattle art-book publisher Ed Marquand (b. 1952) was taking a bike ride from the foothills cabin where he and his partner, attorney Mike Longyear (b. 1953), spent vacations. As he cruised into Tieton, Marquand punctured a tire and stopped to fix it. He noticed an old for-sale sign on a warehouse. The door wasn't locked, so he stepped inside. A calendar from 1993 hung on the wall.

Marquand hadn't read the newspaper story about a sleepy town poised for rebirth. What grabbed his imagination was all that space: 28,000 square feet of high-ceilinged rooms held up by huge wooden beams. In Seattle this kind of studio space for artists was nearly unobtainable. Ideas began sparking, inspired in part by many visits from creative and entrepreneurial friends from across the Northwest. Soon Marquand and Longyear had purchased that warehouse and an adjacent one, as well as other vacant properties on the town square.

Then began the gradual process of renovation. First, with architect Philip Christofides, they converted the original warehouse into 14 live-work loft condominiums, with 14-foot ceilings and exposed beams. The larger warehouse next door housed a printmaking studio, offices, a metalwork shop, a studio, and storage for internationally known sound artist Trimpin (b. 1951), as well as huge open rooms for banquets, exhibitions, and events. Marquand dubbed the venture Mighty Tieton and his friends Kerry and Karen Quint, both artists, moved into the lofts along with other friends to help get the project up and running.

As an adjunct to his art-book publishing, Marquand set up a Book Arts studio on the town square, with an old-fashioned letterpress and bindery. The studio employed local workers to craft small editions of handmade art books and also to supply Marquand's downtown Seattle shop, Paper Hammer, with greeting cards, postcards, stationery, and other gift items.

In 2007 Longyear set up a nonprofit, Tieton Arts & Humanities (TAH), to sponsor artistic and cultural programs. TAH hosts annual events including the LiTFUSE poetry workshop, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, 10x10x10 art exhibitions, and Art in the Park, with free art classes for kids one afternoon a week.

TAH also initiated the Tieton Mosaic Project. In 2013 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded a $50,000 Our Town grant to the Mosaic Project to create distinctive permanent signage for the town, including a series of historic markers revealing the town's past. In 2017 the NEA awarded funding for Vintage, a series of 9-by-9-foot glass mosaic murals, recreating vintage fruit labels from the area.

In addition, Kerry Quint started Friends in Tieton (FIT) to raise money for a soccer field and basketball court for the town, and promote community sports.

A Vibrant Town

TAH and Mighty Tieton supported and partnered with other businesses operating in Tieton, such as BOXX Gallery, which opened in 2015. The gallery sells work by regional artists and donates proceeds to the local food bank. And the old annual tradition of Community Days was revitalized, with a parade, music, food, and crafts. City employee Jose Muniz organized popular performances featuring traditional Mexican dancing horses.

The year 2018 saw the first Tour de Tieton, featuring 25- and 50-mile bike rides, culminating with craft beer and festivities. Planned to be an annual event, it drew some 200 riders. Along with biking, Tieton is near prime recreation areas for river rafting, fishing, skiing, and birding. As the decade drew to a close, the fruit industry in the Yakima Valley was also flourishing, with new packing houses built in the area around Tieton.

The 2010 census figures showed Tieton's population around 1,200, and more than 60 percent Hispanic, and the town's appeal is vibrantly multi-cultural. Tieton's downtown in 2018 included the Juan Santos Bakery and grocery, Fernando's Mexican Food restaurant (where Vickie's Café once operated), and the Don Mateo restaurant.



John Baule, Tieton history plaques, Tieton, Washington; Sheila Farr interview with Pat Biggers, Cowiche, Washington, May 21, 2018, notes in possession of Sheila Farr, Seattle, Washington; Angela Schuller, "The Story of Tieton" (paper delivered to the Yakima Valley Historical Society), typescript dated May 21, 1961, Yakima Museum of History and Art, Yakima, Washington; Margaret Crews, "My New Hat and I," undated typescript, Yakima Museum of History and Art; David Eugene Shawver, Tieton Trails (Shadow Publications, Auburn, 1993), typescript in possession of Yakima Museum of History and Art; Carol Hilton, "The Way It Was Was Almost Lost," Yakima Herald-Republic, January 12, 1975, news clipping, Yakima Museum of History and Art; Bonnie Wiley, "Cowiche and Tieton Areas Prosper as Fruit Centers," Yakima Sunday Herald, September 5, 1948, p. D-1; Ray Ruppert, "Tieton-Cowiche Area Illustrates Miracle of Water," Ibid., March 15, 1964, p. D-1; "Some Say It's a Boom Town Gone Bust," Yakima Valley Sun, April 15, 1976, p. 16; Aimee Green, "Tieton: A Sleepy Town Poised for a Rebirth, or a Backwater Waiting to Dry Up?," Yakima Herald-Republic, November 24, 1996, p. F-1; David Wasson, "Tieton's Ties That Bind," Yakima Herald-Republic, October 6, 1996, p. A-10; Kenia Peregrino, "Breaking the Chains: You Don't Have to Venture Far to Find Fresh, Local Pizza," Yakima Herald-Republic, June 9, 2013 (http://www.yakimaherald.com/business/breaking-the-chains-you-don-t-have-to-venture-far/article_91531a23-4024-57c8-a9ea-a82ddd0fd649.html); Bridget Turrell, "The End of the Line," Yakima Magazine, November 6, 2016 (https://www.yakimaherald.com/magazine/community/the-end-of-the-line/article_f203b248-a4a0-11e6-a9a3-472d1253e162.html); Tyrone Beason, "The Titan of Tieton," The Seattle Times, June 22, 2008 (www.seattletimes.com); Cody Ellerd Bay, "Travel to the Valley Village of Tieton," Seattle Magazine, June 2011 (http://www.seattlemag.com/article/travel-valley-village-tieton).   

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