Mansfield -- Thumbnail History

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 7/23/2021
  • Essay 21257

Mansfield is a town in Douglas County, about 75 miles north of Wenatchee. It sits on a plateau in the heart of Central Washington wheatlands in a region once known as Big Bend Country. Settled in 1889, the town was named after Mansfield, Ohio, the hometown of settler Robert E. Darling, who arrived in 1900. A railroad, the Mansfield Branch Line, arrived in 1909, and Mansfield was incorporated in 1911. But prosperity in Mansfield didn't last: Fires in 1914 and 1922, a drought in 1917, and the Great Depression changed the boomtown forever, though its people persevered. As of 2021, Mansfield was still a wheat town, with a population of about 345.

Early Mansfield Settlers

Before the 1890s, Big Bend Country consisted of four Central Washington counties: Lincoln, Franklin, Adams, and Douglas. Waterville was the only platted town in Douglas County and became the county seat in 1886. In 1889, a few cattlemen ventured some 31 miles northeast of Waterville to settle in the area that became Mansfield. German-born Henry Gustaf Yeager (1840-1916) and his family settled just west of the future townsite. Soon after, Valmor E. Caille Sr. (1850-1928) and two Marchand families arrived to each homestead 160 acres nearby. Water was hauled from a spring called Alkali Wells a mile east. The settlers told of high bunchgrass and gave glowing accounts of the wheatlands; warm, dry summers, and mild winters. But Mansfield was still barely a dot on the map, and no mention of the town was made in Richard F. Steele's 1904 volume An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country

Meanwhile, the Great Northern Railway (Great Northern) was making its way through Washington, offering one-way tickets going west as an incentive. Every day 10 to 15 homestead seekers would arrive by rail in Wenatchee, many of them headed to Douglas County. In 1900, friends Robert E. Darling (1874-?) and Earl Albert Freeman (1879-1948) came from Mansfield, Ohio, to settle in the area. The same year widow Lucy Blanche Hatch Laymance (1858-1944) moved her family west. She would purchase her 160 acres for $1,920 ($12 an acre). In 1906, the Great Northern purchased a section of Laymance's land for $4,000. That land would become the site of Mansfield.

In 1901, Darling began homesteading southeast of town. On February 1, 1905, he became the first appointed postmaster for the growing community, which he named Mansfield after his hometown. The post office was on the northwest corner of First between Main and Douglas streets. Darling hoped the railroad would find its way to town so the community could grow and prosper. Land was cleared, wheat was planted, and soon accounts of bountiful harvests spread like wildfire. From 1901 to 1906, 96 homesteads were recorded in Douglas County. Fourteen of the 96 were in and around the Mansfield area. 

For spiritual sustenance, the early settlers were visited by circuit-riding preachers on horseback. Reverend John Alexander Glessner (1848-1933), a 1901 homesteader and Civil War veteran, was known as a fire-and-brimstone orator. He and Reverend George Edward Barrows (1855-1910) travelled through the region carrying the bible and spreading the gospel. Later, churches became central in providing the community with social events, activities, Sunday school, and support. Barrows ended his circuit riding in 1909, settled in Mansfield with his wife Pauline Barrows (1896-1984) and built a Christian Church, which was completed in 1910. Until then, services were held on the second floor in the CH Knox Store. 

St. Mary's Catholic Church was built in 1909, and a Reverend Ross came to 1910 to build the St. John Lutheran Church by the end of the year. Methodists met generally at the Hamilton family home, and the Methodist-Episcopal church was built in 1911 with Reverend B. J. Smith as the first pastor.

By the fall of 1909, there were enough children to justify a school. Blanche Laymance donated an acre of her land and volunteers quickly built a schoolhouse. Pauline Barrows taught eighth grade. Six weeks later another one-room schoolhouse was built and Ada Bayer was hired to teach there. In 1910, Eunice Thompson Fisher (1877-1945), a county superintendent, was hired as the principal. First and second graders were taught in the St. Mary's Catholic Church.

People Get Ready, There's a Train a Comin'!

In early 1907 came reports of a proposed railway line to Mansfield. In a 1908 letter about the project, civil engineer A. F. Whitcomb wrote to Great Northern's chief engineer Albert H. Hogeland (1858-1930) that it was his opinion that the line should be extended to a point near Mansfield. "He advised that there was a big belt of wheat country west, east, north, and northwest of Mansfield, and nearly all of it was under cultivation. He further advised that a general store was then located at Mansfield, which was two miles from the present town. Mr. Whitcomb stated that Mansfield was a natural trading post, although most of the trading went to Bridgeport and Coulee City, as nearly all the wheat in this section of the country was then being hauled to these two towns, and unless the line was extended to a point near Mansfield, the wheat growers would continue to haul their wheat to Bridgeport and Coulee City" (McGrath and Jayne, 3).

Surveying for the new line was completed in September 1908. The Great Northern purchased a rail right-of-way and began laying track in January 1909, beginning from Great Northern's main line at the Columbia River near Wenatchee. The new rails stretched 60.58 miles, snaking up Douglas Creek, across the wheat fields of the Waterville Plateau, and into the area near Mansfield. With the efforts of men from Cuba, China, Greece, Italy, Germany, and Ireland, the track was completed on September 15, 1909, after just nine months. Two station houses were built to accommodate foremen and other railroad personnel during construction.

When completed, the new line stopped 1.5 miles short of Mansfield's old town center. Residents then moved buildings using horses, timber, and wagons to the new townsite at the end of the line. Once the track was completed, many rail workers left, while others stayed and settled in the area. The new railroad would change how people lived, and how business would be conducted. As one historian put it, "Wheat brought the railroad; the railroad built the town" (McGrath and Jayne, 107)

On October 9, 1909, the completion of the Mansfield Branch Line was celebrated when the first passenger train -- included Albert H. Hogeland's private car Manitoba, engine GNR No. 1147, and a caboose -- made its run. There were 10 station stops on the line -- Columbia River, Appledale, Palisades, McCue, Alstown, Douglas, Supplee, Withrow, Touhey (also known at Byron), and lastly Mansfield. In 1910, a spur line was completed linking Waterville to Douglas. Using 40-foot boxcars, wheat could be moved the 60-plus miles from Mansfield in four hours. 

The line went into full operation on November 1, 1909, transporting grain to market. Two trains left every day, a passenger train in the morning and a freight train in the afternoon. A roundhouse was built to service engines. In the first year of operation, 405,000 bushels of wheat were hauled out of Mansfield. Trains transported wheat, freight, baggage, mail, and people. The Great Northern voiced confidence that the line would have a bright future; Mansfield was young and growing, with construction going on all over. There were two banks, a blacksmith, the Theodore Radtke harness shop, a post office, two restaurants, two real-estate offices, a lodge house, one hotel, two general merchandise stores, one doctor, Elias C. Utt's (1869-1938) pool hall, and a Mansfield Newspaper, the Mansfield News, published from 1899 to 1922. A telegraph line was installed at the Mansfield Station, transmitting messages connecting the town with the rest of the world via party line. Later in 1911, a telephone was installed in the baggage car.

Growth and More Growth  

The town grew quickly with railroad workers, ranchers, wheat farmers, storekeepers, and families with children. Mansfield had the look of a "typical" Western town with its wooden buildings and sidewalks with decorative store fronts built close together. Perhaps the greatest attraction, along with the completion of the train tracks, was the Cross Hotel built by Robert (Bob) Lee Cross (1878-1962); it provided some of the finest accommodations and dining in North Central Washington. Cross, a contractor, and William Alva Havener (1871-1938) built many houses in Mansfield that are still used today.

Farmers plowed and planted the fields with teams of horses, as many as 20 to a hitch, or mules, or a combination. In the late summer and early fall harvest crews would come through the town. Separated cut grain was placed into sacks for shipment. In 1910, a well owned by Edward (Ed) V. Cook (1871-1950) provided water to the town. The first wooden grain elevator was constructed in 1910 at the west end of town. Owned by the Farmers Union, the elevator was sold in 1917 to the Waterville Union, which operated it until the 1970s.

Mansfield was becoming a boomtown. People flocked in and started more businesses including a butcher shop, a home laundry, pharmacies, a dry goods store, machine operators, undertakers, steam engine machinists, and others. As more people came, more housing was needed. By the end of 1910, the rapid population growth qualified the town for incorporation. According to the 1910 census, Mansfield's population stood at 615, and there were 9,227 people in Douglas County.

James William Wright (1874-1931), president of the Wright Lumber Company, completed an $8,500 school building that opened in September 1911. The red-brick, three-story building had two rooms on each floor, with an additional small room on the first floor. By the end of 1915, 24 high school students were enrolled. Henry Greenwood (1896-1991) had the honor of being the first person to graduate from Mansfield High School in 1917. In the 1980s, the town spent $2.5 million to update the original school. Today [2021], the Mansfield School District teaches pre-school through 12th grade.

On February 23, 1911, Mansfield was incorporated by the State of Washington and became an official town. On March 3, 1911, the first town council meeting was held. James William Wright was the first mayor, and a city clerk, city attorney, city marshall, and police justice were selected to service the town. Five months later, Mansfield held its first Fourth of July celebration. People from far and wide came to town. A parade marched to music by the Buckingham Band, organized by Frank (Fred) Manke (1883-1955), and the band later played at the Buckingham Hall.

Wheat and cattle rancher James Madison Kinney (1860-1942) arrived from Tennessee in 1902 to settle in Mansfield and started building an elaborate Victorian, octagonal house northwest of town in 1912 as a gift for his daughter, Ruth Mabel Kinney (1884-1954), and son-in-law David Clyde Gallaher (1881-1936). The Gallahers had four children. The eight-sided house was completed in 1914. In June 1975, the house was registered with the National Register of Historical Places and later moved to another location.

On July 13, 1913, the town had its own water system provided by Mansfield Water and Light Company. The water storage tank had a capacity of 750,000 gallons. The little town built by hard-working men, women, and children reached its peak during this period with a population between 1,000 and 1,500. 

Fire! Fire! Town on Fire!

On New Year's Day 1914, the Scully Company Store, the first wooden building in town, was destroyed by fire. With the help of volunteer firefighters, damage elsewhere was minimized. By June 1914, Mansfield had quickly recovered and turned from an agricultural attraction into a destination, luring others from across Central Washington. W. Alexander moved to Mansfield from Wilbur, in Lincoln County, and became the town's official photographer. Alexander built a house on what is now known as Harry Beard Park.

On July 3, 1914, the town was awakened early in the morning to the sound and smell of another fire. The two-story CH Knox Store, once known as "Mansfield's Greatest Store," had erupted into flames and burned to the ground. By the end of the day, high winds had pushed the flames over both sides of the first block of Main Street downtown, causing significant damage. Store owner Clifford H. Knox (1874-1916) was one of the few who did not rebuild or stay in Mansfield. The volunteer firefighters were able to save the railroad depot, post office, and hotel. But holy smokes, four months later in November 1914, fire broke out once again, this time on the west side, destroying the second block of Main Street.

After the devastating fires in 1914, the town council passed an ordinance requiring all buildings to be constructed with fireproof materials and prohibiting the use and installation of wooden sidewalks. New buildings were quickly constructed. Mansfield picked itself up and moved forward. The first Ford Model-T arrived in 1914, used to transport mail to the Delrio and Bridgeport areas.

Where Wheat is King

The wheat industry continued to drive the economy. It was estimated that Mansfield would ship 600,000 bushels of wheat in 1916, about half of the year's crop. At $2 a bushel, it meant a great deal of money to the area's economy. The Mansfield State Bank saw more than $3.7 million in monetary transactions that year. A second bank, the Commercial Bank, was organized and soon absorbed by the Mansfield State Bank. This also marked the year Mansfield's first concrete grain elevator was built, by Christian Friedreich Wilhelm (Dutchy) Schmidt (1873-1947).

The 1916-1917 edition of R. L. Polk & Co's Directory wrote of the town: 

"Mansfield is situated in the heart of the wheat producing section of the state. ... Mansfield has a fine brick public school with five teachers, who furnish instruction to 150 pupils during the school term. There are four churches, Methodist, Catholic, Christian and German Lutheran. Two first class hotels cater to the traveling public, while the mercantile interests are looked after by five well equipped general stores, one clothing store, three hardware stores, two lumber companies, three implement dealers, two blacksmiths and wagon makers, two livery barns, both of which maintain auto service, one drug store, one meat market, harness marker, stationery and book store, one cigarmaker, and the farmers are accorded a ready cash market for their eggs and poultry by the presence of a buyer for the export trade. ... The professions are represented by three physicians and surgeons, two lawyers and one dentist. The postal department has recently made the Mansfield office a postal savings bank, the Mansfield State Bank being the depository" (Polk, 1916). 

In January 1917, a group of 90 business owners got together to form the Mansfield Commercial Club. The Wenatchee Daily World wrote on January 31: "The shacks of the homesteaders who built in the Mansfield country only ten to fifteen years ago are rapidly giving place to the substantial farm buildings of a prosperous country ... Today Mansfield is one of the really substantially built towns of the North Central Washington Country."

With all this prosperity, the town celebrated. A three-day event from July 2-4, 1917 was called the Bluestem Lane Celebration. To promote the festivities, Mansfield's merchants chartered a train to Wenatchee, where they placed a blanket of wheat on the streets to get the town's attention. It worked. The festivities included a parade with bands, floats, a rodeo, carnival, side shows, and dancing at the pavilion. The Mansfield News reported on September 18, 1917, that there were 31 functional and successful businesses in the town of Mansfield, listing them all.

A Steady Decline

The fall of 1917 brought little rainfall, resulting in drought and poor crops. As World War I came to a close in October 1918, grain from Europe flooded the market, contributing to the price of wheat plummeting from $3.50 to less than a $1 a bushel. Lots of wheat and no market. Residents left Mansfield for better opportunities. When the population declined to 478 in 1920, efforts were made to draw in new residents. In 1921, the Great Northern distributed a handbook of information for homeseekers. It mentions cheap land, bright futures in Douglas County, and lasting opportunity with good farmland available among good citizens. Land was cheap because many of the existing farmers were deeply in debt, and unable to pay off their loans to banks or insurance companies.

On November 30, 1921, sisters Pearl May Cross Bellis (1899-1998) and Mary L. Cross Wand (1901-1962), who ran a cook wagon during the wheat harvest, deposited their hard-earned money in the Mansfield bank. That same day a rancher came to town to deposit a $1,000 check. The bank had closed for the day but accepted his check anyway. The next day, on December 1, 1921, the two sisters and the rancher lost all their money. The bank in Mansfield kept its doors closed, never to reopen -- another major blow to the town.

At the same time, farmers found themselves with a surplus of wheat and no profitable markets. They stored the 1921 crop in a warehouse due to mortgages against it, or because transportation was unavailable. The railroad cut its schedule from five runs a week to two or three, as noted in a December 1921 newspaper story:

"We are informed by train men that, beginning next Monday, the trains will make but three trips a week between here and Wenatchee, the crew spending Sunday in Wenatchee and making the down trip from here Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. While there are possibly a thousand car loads of wheat to be taken out, there is little moving now, and extras will be used to move it when ready for shipment. While we hate to see this happen we will have to make the best of it until we are on the map again" (McGrath and Jayne, 111).

Six months later, on July 18, 1922, Mansfield was hit with a devastating fire in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. The blaze started in the O. K. Livery barn. Consumed in the inferno were the Harold Johannsen's Machine and Blacksmith Shop, four homes, the Fraternal Building occupied by Glen Brett's barber shop, Theodore W. Radtke's harness shop, the theater, the old City and Leahy Hotels, an attorney's office, doctor's office, the Mansfield News, and the Mansfield luxury Cross Hotel. The cause of the fire was never known. This time Mansfield did not recover as before. Businesses closed. Many residents left, never to return.

The Town at the End of the Rails

Mechanization arrived on farms in the mid-1930s. Tractors replaced horses pulling combines, farms consolidated, and trucks changed the way freight was hauled. The first wheat fire alarm was installed in 1944. Mansfield Airport was opened in April 1950. Today [2021] the airport is one of several places in the state where a pilot can fly in and walk to a nearby restaurant to have a bite. Mansfield is listed in the book The $100 Hamburger (Purner, 477).

A paved road from Mansfield to the towns of Withrow and Farmer was built in 1950. The highway was renumbered SR 172 in 1964. It passes through Mansfield's main street for three blocks. In 1970, the Great Northern merged with the Burlington Northern Railroad. On March 2, 1985, the Mansfield Branch Line left for the final time after 75 years of service. It could no longer service the communities in the region. Deterioration was considerable and the rails could not handle the newer, heavier hopper cars. The rails were dismantled in 1986.

Mansfield celebrated its centennial in June 2009. The Quad City Herald reflected: "Mansfield calls itself 'The Town at the End of the Rails.' The railroad rails have been gone for nearly a quarter-century, but it's still a good description. Mansfield owes its existence to the railroad" ("Mansfield To Celebrate ..."). 

In 2011, the Mansfield Museum and Historical Society launched a program to collect and preserve the town's history, making it available to anyone of interest. Today Mansfield remains an agriculture town with a population of about 345, 250 in town and more than 50 on surrounding farms. Diana Mickelson, a 46-year Mansfield resident and secretary and treasurer of the Mansfield Museum, writes of a peaceful community, happy to be a little off the beaten path: 

"Many farmers are growing too old to keep farming so some of our 'kids' are returning, bringing their families back with them. We consider ourselves a farming community that will fight to keep it going. We love our town and the quiet peacefulness here, and want it to always be here. Some of our farming kids went to college to learn newer agricultural tricks to try and revive our old soil and get more crops than wheat to help diversify and it's working. Canola is a regular crop now -- not as big as wheat which will be our 'king' forever! One farmer is experimenting with sunflowers and that may spread if it works! Seattle's treated waste products are coming here and being spread to enliven our soil and the wheat is growing thicker and better because of it -- at least if rain happens often enough.

"We love our home and want it here, just as it is. We worry that that will change us, but so far, we just hang on and keep trying to include those people so they want to see us continue, as well" (Mickelson email to author).


John F. Purner, The $100 Hamburger – A Guide To Pilots Favorite Fly-In Restaurants (New York: McGraw Hill, 2007), 477; Guy Reed Ramsey, Postmarked Washington – Chelan, Douglas and Kittitas Counties (Wenatchee: The Wenatchee World, 1992), 71-72, 91-92; Marjorie Pattie McGrath and Helen Weeks Jayne, Mansfield – The Town at the End of the Rails (Mansfield: Mansfield, 1980s), 1-154; Richard F. Steele, An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams and Franklin Counties (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1904), 521-557, 565-577 (Part 2); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "World War I in Washington" (by David Wilma), Waterville Railway construction begins on October 14, 1909" (by Laura Arksey), "Waterville – Thumbnail History" (by Laura Arksey), "Washington Territorial Legislature creates Douglas County on November 28, 1883" (by Paula Becker), "Douglas County – Thumbnail History" (by Paula Becker); "Port of Douglas County comes into existence when the results of a countywide vote are certified on November 10, 1958" (by Jim Kershner); "Hill, James J. (1838-1916)" (by Paula Becker), accessed June 10, 2021; "Douglas County, Washington" U.S. Census website accessed May 6, 2021 (,%20Washington&g=0500000US53017); "Office of Financial Management" Office of Financial Management website accessed May 8, 2021 (; "Gallaher House" National Register of Historical Places Inventory – Nomination Form website accessed May 8, 2021 (; "2019 Data Book," Washington State Office of Financial Management website accessed June 3, 2021 (; "Eight Sided House Of Wonder On the Move," Quad-City Herald access June 11, 2021 (; "Mansfield, Washington," Mansfield Sister Cities UK website accessed May 8, 2021 (; "Mansfield Airport," website accessed May 8, 2021 (; "Great Northern History," Great Northern Railway Historical Society website accessed May 10, 2021 (; "Good Business Chances," The Wenatchee World, May 24, 1909, p. 8; "Douglas On RailRoad," Ibid., September 4, 1909, p. 2; "Hill Road Booms Mansfield," Ibid., September 16, 1909, p. 2; "Track Laying Almost Done," Ibid., September 22, 1909, p. 1; "Road Built To Mansfield," Ibid., October 6, 1909, p. 1; "Passenger Train To Mansfield," Ibid., October 9, 1909, p. 4; "Last Train On Mansfield Line 03/02/85," The Yardbull Newsletter March 2, 1985; "75 Years Of Rail History In Douglas County Ends As Last Train Leaves," The Waterville Empire Press, March 7, 1985, p. 1; "Mansfield Has First Wheat Fire Alarm," Ibid., July 20, 1944, p. 1; Mansfield, Washington Town at the End of the Rails, YouTube video (; 100 Year Celebration: Mansfield Washington United Protestant Church, YouTube video (; Diana Mickelson emails to author Linda Holden Givens, May 13, 25-27, June 7, 2021, in possession of Linda Holden Givens, Auburn, Washington.

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