McCroskey, Virgil Talmadge (1876-1970)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 11/05/2006
  • Essay 7989
Virgil Talmadge McCroskey comes closer than anyone to being Eastern Washington’s equivalent of conservationist John Muir. The son of pioneers who homesteaded near the village of Steptoe, some eight miles north of Colfax, Whitman County, in the Palouse hills of extreme Eastern Washington, he became a successful pharmacist and inherited the family farm. Earnings from pharmacy and the eventual sale of the farm enabled him to finance his passion for conserving significant land for future generations. Over the years he patiently bought up property and worked to preserve and improve it. His acquisitions ultimately resulted in two state parks: Steptoe Butte State Park in Washington and Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park (also called Skyline Drive) just over the border in Idaho. Both were areas of natural beauty and interest that he could see from his childhood home. His generosity and hard work preserved them for the enjoyment of generations to come, as he put it: “for all the people, forever and ever” (Petersen, 2). McCroskey’s conservation of significant natural features in the Palouse region of the Inland Northwest was unsurpassed by anyone since, and he made a major contribution to the state parks movement in Washington and Idaho.

Early Years

Virgil T. McCroskey was born on October 5, 1876, in Rockville, Tennessee, the ninth of 10 children, eight boys and two girls, of Joshua Philander Theodore (1830-1910) and Mary Minerva McCroskey (d. 1891). Before his third birthday, the family migrated temporarily to Hollister, California, traveling by “emigrant train with all its horrors. There was no dining car, sleeping couch. Passengers had to provide their own food and prepare it on a big barrel-like stove in the end of the car ... Passengers had to bring bedding and sleep on hard board benches” (McCroskey interview). J. P. T. McCroskey went ahead to scout homesteading land in Whitman County, settling on a valley already known as Tennessee Flats. Mary and the children traveled by ship, then wagon, to join him.

Although starting out in a one-room cabin, the family eventually built a commodious farmhouse on their 640-acre farm at the foot of Steptoe Butte. This natural feature is a pyramid-shaped peak of Precambrian rock (including quartzite and granite) that existed long before the Columbia Plateau formed. The ancient butte rises above the undulating hills of the vast Palouse region of Eastern Washington. It was so named either by French fur traders, from the French word for “short thick grasslands” or from “Palus,” an Indian village along the Palouse River (Shore, 3). The McCroskey family was one of many who broke the native bunch grass sod to transform the rich Palouse soil into one of the world’s major wheat-producing regions. The prolific and influential McCroskeys soon attracted many of their Tennessee friends and neighbors to settle in the area.

Virgil received his first education at a country school near his home. Then his mother moved to Colfax with the younger children so they could attend school there, while the father worked the farm, a common pattern among frontier families. When the Washington Agricultural College at Pullman (later Washington State University) opened a preparatory academy in 1892, Virgil and his brother Milton enrolled and completed their high school education there. Virgil then pursued courses in pharmacy, then economics and history, receiving his degrees in 1898 and 1899.

An older brother had instilled in Virgil a love of reading and, from an early age, he consumed the English classics. In college, instead of pursuing sports, for which he felt himself of too slight a build, he spent his spare time with literary works from the college library. Upon graduation, he became a pharmacist, spending most of his career in Colfax, where he owned the Elk Drug Store until 1920. McCroskey never married, but during the Colfax years, he raised two orphaned nieces and a nephew.

Traveling and Planting

When his father died in 1910, Virgil inherited the family property. In 1920, at the age of 44, he retired from full-time pharmacy to return to the farm, which he began transforming into a showplace of flowers, 60 varieties of trees, and a flock of peacocks. During the same period, he became a world traveler, exploring much of Asia, the South Sea Islands, and Mexico, bringing home more species of trees to enhance his arboretum.

Closer to home, he toured virtually all the Western national parks by automobile. More than his exotic foreign travels, these experiences of American scenic grandeur shaped his environmental commitment. McCroskey had been a founding member of the Washington Outing Club, climbing Mt. Rainier in 1903 as his qualification for membership. He later climbed Mt. Hood and other Washington peaks. Soon, however, Virgil McCroskey wanted to do more than travel and adorn his own property. He declared years later: “Some folks spend their whole lifetime beautifying an estate. They spend a lot of money but sometimes all the beauty quickly disappears after they are gone, particularly if the property falls into the hands of someone who has no similar interests” (Petersen, 5, 6). He eventually sold the family farm to help finance his projects and moved into nearby Oakesdale.

McCroskey the Conservationist

To identify his first conservation goal, Virgil McCroskey had only to lift his gaze to the summit of Steptoe Butte, rising stark and dramatic to 3,612 feet above sea level and 1,000 feet above the surrounding plateau, affording views for 200 miles. Originally called Pyramid Peak, it was renamed Steptoe Butte in 1858 after Colonel Edward J. Steptoe (1816-1865), who was routed that year by a coalition of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indians in the region. Such geologic features are now called steptoes throughout the world. A plaque at the summit defines a steptoe as “an isolated hill, or mountain, of older rock that is surrounded by younger lava flows.” Virgil and his siblings had climbed the butte many times during their youth. English immigrant James S. “Cashup” Davis (1815-1896), whom McCroskey described as “an imaginative person, a character from Dickens” (Petersen, 6), once owned it and in 1888 built a hotel with a dance hall on top, accessible by a steep, winding wagon road. Although a popular destination, it did not prove lucrative for Davis. After his death it was abandoned. It burned in 1911, and the road to the top soon became impassable.

Virgil McCroskey began to realize the importance of preserving access to this unique geologic feature for future generations. With the help of his brothers George and Fred, as well as of father of Spokane city parks Aubrey White and the Colfax Chamber of Commerce and others, he received backing to acquire 40 acres at the summit and a road right-of-way leading to it, to be held in escrow for eventual purchase by the State of Washington for a state park.

Although the Washington State Parks Commission prematurely listed Steptoe Butte as its newest state park in its 1934-36 biennial report, it took 10 years to become a reality. Ultimately Virgil McCroskey alone had to assume the financial burden of land acquisition, involving laborious dealings with various property owners to purchase the summit, the road right-of-way, and additional land at the base for a picnic area.

A Gift to Washington

Finally in 1945, State Senator Ernest Huntley introduced legislation committing the state to accepting the park as a gift and paying for a road to the top (which does not follow the same route as the old Cashup Davis road). McCloskey donated the land in two gifts in 1945 and 1946. The 72nd park in the state system, Steptoe Butte State Park was dedicated on July 4, 1946. In his speech to those assembled at the summit, McCroskey described the butte as “an island in the sky” (Reed, 3).

A plaque at the summit states that in 1965 the National Parks Service designated Steptoe Butte a National Natural Landmark possessing “exceptional value as an illustration of the nation’s natural heritage and contributes to a better understanding of the environment.” On Sunday, October 30, 1966, McCroskey was guest of honor on at a ceremony making the national designation official. In 1978, the McCroskey estate donated an additional $9,500 for day facilities. Today the park comprises 150 acres.

A World of Fir, Pine, and Cedar

Easily visible from Steptoe Butte is a forested ridge to the east, just over the border in Idaho, “a world of fir, pine, and cedar, interlaced with a thick tangle of wildflowers and ferns” (Petersen, 2) where Virgil had pleasant childhood memories of family outings to pick huckleberries. When logging began to threaten the ridge in the 1930s, he undertook his most ambitious project, to save what later became Skyline Drive and Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park. In 1939, he began buying up land. He was already 63, and the task would consume him for the next 31 years.

By 1950, McCroskey had acquired more than 2,000 acres. During the previous 10 years, he had begun carving out Skyline Drive, 25 miles of narrow dirt and gravel roadway along the ridge. He had learned surveying to lay out the route, and transplanted many trees and flowers to enhance the natural beauty already there. Although the area was in Idaho (barely), the development and maintenance work came from Washington. McCroskey did much of it himself, but also, he would often load Boy Scouts and other Oakesdale youth into his pickup and head for Skyline Drive for a day or two of clearing brush and moving boulders. For some of the road-building, he hired heavy machinery and operators.

McCroskey had regarded himself as a “runt” in college, but his lean 5-foot, 11-inch frame was strong enough for him to continue hard physical labor into his 90s. For Virgil, such work was a pleasure. He claimed “This forest is inhabited by silent and benevolent spirits. I can work all alone in this park, where I spend most of my waking hours, and not see another human being and never be lonely” (Reed, 5).

A Gift to Idaho

By 1951, McCroskey felt ready to make his donation to the state of Idaho, but the legislators proved grudging recipients, fearing the cost of upkeep and the removal of private land from tax rolls. A Skyline Drive Association organized to assist in lobbying. Then the 1954 the election of Robert E. Smylie as governor tipped the scale. By then the land McCroskey was offering consisted of 4,400 acres. To persuade reluctant legislators, he agreed to maintain it for the next 15 years, a daunting commitment for a man of 79. Over the objections of some Idaho legislators who wanted it named for someone in that state, he insisted the park be named for his mother, Mary Minerva McCroskey, in honor of all pioneer women. It was dedicated on Sunday, August 7, 1955.

Amazingly, McCroskey lived exactly long enough to fulfill his 15-year obligation. He died on September 14, 1970, just short of age 94, and left $45,000 to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to care for the park.

Legend and Legacy

Although most of his neighbors appreciated Virgil McCroskey’s conservation efforts, some struggling farmers resented them; other people regarded him as eccentric or odd. His bachelor status, natty dressing from college days through old age, world travels, his white Buick convertible with red leather upholstery, and his literary and aesthetic bent set him apart from the more conventional of the Palouse folk. Furthermore, he was not much of a churchgoer, claiming that he had had enough formal religion in his childhood to last a lifetime.

McCroskey was a 32-Degree Mason and a lifelong Democrat. He was a long-time scoutmaster and in 1954 received the Silver Beaver Award for service to the Boy Scouts. He also donated 400 acres just north of the McCroskey State Park for a wilderness Boy Scout camp called Camp McCroskey three miles east of Farmington.

As for McCroskey’s place within the broader environmental and parks movements, his conservation philosophy was somewhere between the strict preservationist view of John Muir and the multiple use approach of Gifford Pinchot, founder of the National Forest Service. McCroskey opposed logging and grazing in the Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park and late in life rejoiced that “We have saved trees there that there are none like in this whole vicinity ... I saved them -- saved them from the sawmills ... They are large trees -- beautiful large trees” (McCroskey interview). At one time, he did, however, allow a rudimentary ski facility, which proved to be temporary. Over the objections of some botanists, he introduced non-native trees and flowers. When tussock moths invaded the forest, he did not hesitate to use chemical sprays. Late in his life he deplored the installation of telecommunication relay towers near the summit of Steptoe Butte, which marred part of the view.

Although Virgil McCroskey was clearly influenced by the conservationist impulse initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and others, there is no evidence that he participated directly in such organizations as the Washington State Parks Committee or the National Conference on State Parks. Yet his two parks fit squarely into the philosophy of the state parks movement.

The National Park Service was established in 1916, and under its first director, Stephen T. Mather, laid down strict guidelines that national parks should consist only of areas of exceptional and dramatic natural beauty attracting visitors on a national and international scale. The state parks movement recognized that there was room for a more local or regional category of less spectacular land that was nevertheless worthy of conservation and would, as Harold Caparn wrote in 1921, preserve examples of “average or characteristic scenery of each state” (Petersen, 5). Furthermore, these parks should be easily accessible by automobile. McCroskey’s choice of land for conservation and his road building efforts show him to have been a champion of these views.

Sources: Virgil T. McCroskey, Interview by Louis Livingston, Oakesdale, November 21, 1966, transcription by Keith Peterson, Folder 8, Box 1, Cage 606, McCroskey Research Project Records, 1983-1984, Special Collections and Archives, Washington State University, Pullman; Keith Peterson and Mary E. Reed, "'For All the People, Forever and Ever': Virgil McCroskey and the State Parks Movement," Idaho Yesterdays Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), 2-15; Mary E. Reed and Keith Petersen, Virgil T. McCroskey: Giver of Mountains (Pullman: Washington State University Department of History, 1983); Marshall Belshaw Shaw, Farmington Remembered: History of a Small Palouse Town (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2004), 1-3, 67-72; Andrea Vogt, “The Man Who Gave Away Mountains,” Washington State Magazine Vol. 5, No. 4 (Fall 2006), 30-34; “Popular Park Not Always So; Pioneer’s Gift Became McCroskey State Park,” Spokesman-Review, August 7, 2005; “Donor Had Vision, Recipients Didn’t,” Spokesman-Review, August 10, 2005; Ms. 147, Virgil McCroskey Collection, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane; David D. Alt and Donald W. Hyndman, Roadside Geology of Washington (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1984), 205. See also Andrea Vogt, "The Man Who Gave Away Mountains," Washington State Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Fall 2006) 30-34, as well as collections at the Whitman County Historical Society, Oakesdale Community Library, Latah County Historical Society.

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