Tekoa is a farming community in the northeast corner of Whitman County, surrounded by the lush rolling fields of the Palouse, a geographic region encompassing southeast Washington and north central Idaho. The first non-Native settler to arrive in Tekoa was said to be Frank Connell, who set up a trading post in 1875. About a decade later, the railroad arrived, and on March 30, 1889, the town incorporated with a population of about 300. Within two decades, that number had swelled to 1,694. The region boomed as several railroad branch lines carried enormous loads of wheat, barley, bluegrass, lentils, and fruit to markets throughout the United States and for shipment around the world. In 1909, the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul railway built an impressive trestle bridge outside of town, further cementing Tekoa's standing as an important transportation hub. By the 1950s, though, the quantities of goods that traveled by rail through Tekoa slowed to a trickle as trucks and highways bypassed the community. In 1993, Union Pacific abandoned its Tekoa line, which had transported millions of dollars of lentils and peas for local farmers. Despite these economic challenges, Tekoa retained a strong community spirit. Residents renovated the town's historic Art Deco-inspired Empire Theatre in 2000, and the town's Slippery Gulch Celebration, featuring a parade and an egg toss, is well attended each summer.
City of Tents
Inhabited by the Coeur d'Alene people for generations, the area around Tekoa saw its first non-Native settlers in 1875. Frank P. Connell, who had served a decade earlier with the Union Army during the Civil War, set off by ship around Cape Horn bound for Portland, Oregon, where he took a job with The Oregonian newspaper and met his future wife, Mary N. Welch. After the couple married, they traveled east, stopping about a mile northeast of present-day Tekoa to establish a farm and trading post. (The trading post was later purchased by Mr. S. E. Coffin, who went on to own Tekoa's first drug store and became its first mayor after the town incorporated in 1889.)
A few years later, three brothers named Huffman -- David A., George T., and Nathaniel -- established a homestead on Hangman Creek that was later subdivided into tracts and sold. On November 11, 1878, George Huffman filed a claim on 160 acres, just two days after his 21st birthday. His plot was opposite land where his brother David had filed a claim a few months earlier. George married Sarah Elizabeth Anderson and the couple had two children. Huffman grew grain, hay, and fruit, and raised cattle, hogs, and horses. He later served as the community's mail carrier.
Around 1884, Daniel W. Truax leased property from the Huffmans and built a small sawmill along Hangman Creek. Liking what he found, he bought the land four years later and laid out a town grid made up of 20 acres, complete with streets and alleyways. The town was initially called Fork of the Creek because of its location on Hangman Creek. As the pioneer community grew, the residents wanted to establish a post office -- but no one thought Fork of the Creek was an appropriate name for a town. According to city lore, Truax's wife was standing on the front porch of her home one day, looking over tents that had been pitched as temporary housing. She suggested the community be named Tekoa, which means "city of tents" in Hebrew. It was also the name of a village in ancient Judea mentioned in the Bible.
A Union Pacific Railroad branch line, called the Washington and Idaho Railroad, arrived in 1888, helping the little town grow even more quickly. Numbering about 300 residents, Tekoa was incorporated March 30, 1889, with S. E. Coffin as its first mayor, John Marsh as marshal, and Daniel Truax, judge. In 1892, a religious order, the Sisters of Saint Francis, opened Mt. St. Joseph Academy in Tekoa. The school, which closed in 1950, housed as many as 200 boarders at one time and educated many day students.
Critical Railway Hub
A history of Whitman County, published in 1901, described the rapidly expanding town this way: "The first town you enter in Whitman County when journeying southeastward on the O.R. & N. [Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company] is Tekoa ... It has many of the characteristics of a railway town ... When it was definitely known that Tekoa was to be a junction, many places of business were opened under canvas roofs and one or two dwellings of the same temporary character sprang into existence, all in anticipation of the expected transportation facilities" ("History of Whitman County").
In 1901, Tekoa had three grocery stores, two dry good stores, two hardware stores, four restaurants, two hotels, three blacksmith shops, six dressmaking shops, two saloons, two barber shops, two fruit and tobacco stores, two hat makers, two physicians, and a lawyer, among other businesses. The community served not only Tekoa residents but many Native Americans living on the nearly Coeur d'Alene reservation. A marketing brochure circulated in 1905 by the Tekoa Commercial Club extolled the community's bright future. Capitalizing on the origin of the town name, the brochure encouraged readers to "pitch your tent in Tekoa."
Tekoa was an important shipping hub, thanks to its location on the main Spokane railroad line as well as two branch lines -- one that went to the mines in Idaho and the other that served the western Palouse. The Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul railway (known as the CM & SP, or more simply, the Milwaukee Road), one of the most important railroad companies in the Palouse, laid out its transcontinental line through Tekoa. "Due mostly to the relatively level topography ... and close proximity to Spokane, Colfax, and Idaho, Tekoa was a gateway to markets east of the Rocky Mountains. Lumber, ore, manufactured goods, grain, and fruit shipments all made Tekoa, from 1900 through 1920, one of the busiest places in the Inland Empire" (Lambeth).
In 1909, the CM & SP built a steel trestle bridge 975 feet long and 115 feet high, just north of Tekoa, known as the Milwaukee Road Bridge. "Although Tekoa was already established and still growing when the CM & SP built its tracks through town, it was made exponentially larger as a result of the construction of the bridge. ... [It] represented not only the success of the town, but signified the success of one of the fastest growing and most agriculturally important regions of the Northwest" (Lambeth).
In addition to the CM & SP, several other railroads vied for supremacy on the Palouse. Three branches of the O.R. & N. (Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company) diverged at Tekoa, connecting the area's agricultural region with the mining and lumber industries of northern Idaho. The O.R. & N., later called the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company, was a subsidiary of Union Pacific.
Roosevelt Comes to Town
On May 26, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled by private railroad coach to Tekoa, part of his historic nine-week swing through the American West. To mark this unparalleled occasion, Tekoa pulled out all the stops, decorating the area around the train station with tricolored bunting and American flags. The streets were mobbed as residents from nearby farms and towns arrived to hear the speeches. Several young men climbed trees to have a better view, while others perched on the rooftop of the train depot, high above the heads of the crowd.
By 1910, town residents and those from neighboring farms could choose from a wide array of Tekoa services. Hotel Tekoa occupied a grand three-story brick building that included a lunch counter and barber shop. The Senate Saloon offered wines, liquor, and cigars, and vied for business with the Eagle Cigar Store. There was a bank, a bakery (Peerless Bakery), and a bath house as well as a livery stable and a farm implement business owned by C. M. Whitehead. A lumber yard and woodworking factory had been established as well as a creamery. Several churches were available for the residents' spiritual needs, including Sacred Heart Catholic Church (built at a cost of $2,500) and the Free Methodists.
Rich Agricultural History
The region's agricultural history began with sheep and cattle grazing but by the 1890s the land had been almost completely converted to wheat farming. Harvesting wheat was tough work and extremely labor-intensive. Plowing was done along the contours of the hills, not straight up and down the slopes. Farmers used massive combines pulled by 32-horse teams that would move from farm to farm as the crops ripened.
By the early 1900s, Tekoa farmers began to diversify. A new creamery in Tekoa, which joined two others built in Pullman and Union, could handle milk from 500 cows. Surrounding farmers took note: "The entire output of these creameries finds a ready market in the mining districts surrounding the Palouse country and the prices paid give both the farmer and the proprietor of the creamery fair profits" ("Palouse Country Men…").
The poultry industry was also gaining in popularity, fueled by increased demand in part from Alaskan miners. A religious sect from Virginia called the Dunkards sent an advance party of two brothers named Glick, who were also Dunkard ministers, to scout out Tekoa. The Glicks paid $25 to $30 per acre, purchasing enough land for 18 families to raise chickens and dairy cows. The Dunkards built their own place of worship, a two-story wooden structure which was dedicated in December 1903.
Other agricultural enterprises sprouted in Tekoa in the first few decades of the 1900s, including one of the area's first cold-storage plants and a seed pea operation in which "about 50 women sorted and packed locally grown peas ... Trackside corrals penned thousands of bleating sheep, which traveled by train to summer pastures in Idaho and Montana" ("Exploring Washington's Past").
The land settled in 1878 by George T. Huffman, one of Tekoa's original pioneers, continued to be farmed more than a century later by members of the same family. In 1989, a survey conducted as part of the state's centennial celebration uncovered the fact that a Huffman granddaughter still farmed 100 of the original 160-acre claim, growing wheat, lentils, peas, and barley. The farm's provenance -- and 411 other so-called Centennial Farms -- came to light when the Washington State Department of Agriculture sought to identify farms in continuous production and owned by members of the same family for at least 100 years.
Mildred Bailey: Jazz Diva Extraordinaire
Two nationally known entertainers were born in Tekoa, both from the same family: Mildred Bailey (1907-1951), born Mildred Rinker, and her younger brother Alton (Al) Rinker (1907-1982). Born ten months apart, the siblings lived their early years on a farm outside Tekoa. Their mother was an enrolled member of the Coeur d'Alene tribe and their father played the fiddle and called square dances. The family later moved to Spokane.
From an early age, Mildred accompanied her mother to tribal ceremonies where she heard the distinctive rhythms and sounds of Native American music. When she was 17, she moved to Seattle, working as a sheet music demonstrator at a Woolworth's store. She relocated to California, where she got a job at a radio station and later perfected her vocals in speakeasies.
Known as the Queen of Swing, Bailey was "one of the country's most popular blues singers whose sweetly sighing style made her voice familiar to nationwide radio audiences ... With her big name went big money when she sang with Paul Whiteman and the Rhythm Boys, Bing Crosby, Harry Barris and her brother, Al Rinker, in the days when radio broadcasting was in its infancy and people used to sit up until midnight to listen to entertainment via the airwaves" ("Mildred Baily, Singer of Blues"). She retained the name of her first husband, Ted Bailey, after their divorce because she thought it sounded more American. She married two other times: Benny Stafford, rumored to be a bootlegger, and Red Norvo (1908-1999), a xylophonist with the Paul Whiteman band. She had no children.
Over the decades, Bailey's career hit several highs and lows. Her unique vocal style influenced such singing greats as Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) and Tony Bennett (b. 1926), who called her "one of the great improvisers of jazz ... She sang perfect, for me" (Contreras). In the 1930s and 1940s, overweight, diabetic, and out of money, Bailey suffered a host of serious health problems and was hospitalized frequently. In 1951, she became gravely ill after finishing an engagement the day before Thanksgiving at the Four Dukes Supper Club in Detroit. She died December 12, 1951, in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the age of 44. In 1989, Bailey was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, and in 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent stamp in her honor.
Her brother Al Rinker performed as a teenager with Bing Crosby (1903-1977) on gigs in Spokane, and eventually formed the Rhythm Boys, a trio of musicians who sang several numbers in the 1930 movie, "The King of Jazz." Rinker was also a songwriter, writing music for a 1950 MGM musical starring Van Johnson and for the 1970 Disney animated film "The Aristocats," among others. He married Elizabeth Neuberger in 1938. A third sibling, Charles Rinker, was also a lyricist.
By the mid-twentieth century, Tekoa began a long decline. In response to the rapidly expanding national highway system and success of long-haul trucking, the Milwaukee Road closed its Tekoa operations. The railway went bankrupt in 1977 and the state acquired large segments of its right of way in 1982. In 1990, area farmers banded together -- in vain, it turned out -- to fight Union Pacific's plans to abandon 71 miles of track used to ship peas and lentils. With the railroad closing, state officials in 1990 estimated that 40 percent of the state's annual $6.5 million crop of peas and lentils was in danger.
"Tekoa, a town of 650 people, used to have a population of nearly 3,000, and three rail lines came through town. Its broad-shouldered stone buildings on Main Street are a testimony to another, more prosperous era. 'All the towns are struggling to stay afloat, to keep what business they have,' said Gary Heaton of Tekoa, a food processor and shipper. 'You start losing just one or two families who have to move because the railroad left town, and you're in trouble'" (Egan). The railroad line was decommissioned and abandoned in 1993.
Despite its economic challenges, pride in the community and its significant role in regional history remain part of the town’s social fabric. In 2000, residents rallied around the renovation of the historic 280-seat Empire Theatre which began operation as a movie theater in 1940 and closed its doors in 1958. (An earlier movie theater, also called the Empire, was in operation as early as 1913.) With volunteer support, the Art Deco-style theater reopened with its original light fixtures, ticket booth, and black water fountain re-installed, and two vintage projectors mounted in the projection booth. In 2005, the Empire was turned into a regional performing arts center with 240 seats and a new stage ideal for plays, concerts, and school events. The theater, owned by the city, is operated as a nonprofit. As of 2012, individual memberships contribute more than $10,000 annually for maintenance and operations.
Several popular outdoor events are held in Tekoa each year. One is the annual cross-state ride that follows the Palouse to Cascades Trail, once known as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. The 230-mile trail, which uses the Milwaukee Road rail bed, starts at Rattlesnake Lake on the western side of the Cascades and ends at Tekoa. The 18-day ride, held in the late spring, is primarily for horseback riders and teamsters, but each year a few cyclists and hikers join the fun. In mid-June, the town hosts a community event called the Slippery Gulch Celebration, which features an egg toss, fun run, parade, dance, and fireworks.
In 2010, Tekoa had 778 residents, down from 826 people a decade earlier. The 2019 town budget was $2.2 million. There are two public schools in Tekoa that served 191 students during 2019-2020. The town has a nine-hole golf course, a small history museum located in the local library, several public parks, and a municipal airport known as Willard Field.