Woods, Rufus (1878-1950)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 12/17/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8391
Longtime owner, editor, and publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World and a major instigator of the Grand Coulee Dam, Rufus Woods was a titan of twentieth-century Pacific Northwest development. He was the epitome of the crusading small-town newspaperman whose "lifelong preoccupation [was] the economic advancement of North Central Washington" (Ficken, 215). He was a relentless promoter of the Grand Coulee Dam and used his newspaper and personal contacts with local, state, and national leaders to pursue his goal of bringing hydroelectric power and irrigation to Central Washington. A nominal Republican all of his life, he never let party affiliation stand in the way of the interests of Wenatchee and the four counties encircled within the "Big Bend" of the Columbia. He came to realize that huge projects such as the Grand Coulee were beyond the capabilities of private enterprise, requiring bipartisan government participation on the federal level. The completion of the great dam in 1941 only led to more fights for Woods to bring some degree of regional control and economic benefit to the Wenatchee area.

For Washington and For Wenatchee 

But the Grand Coulee was not Woods’s only cause. His editorials railed against the longstanding domination of the West by Eastern financiers who drained from local communities the profits that should have been theirs from timber, mining, land, and railroads of the region. He maintained: “All too long have we been a colony of the East” (Ficken, xi).

On the state level, Woods resisted the economic and political dominance of Western Washington, particularly of Seattle. In fighting for these varied causes, Rufus Woods soon became a figure of regional and national consequence, with easy access to governors, senators, and even presidents. He was not parochial, as evidenced by his world travels and editorial opinions on national and international affairs. It is hard to imagine a newspaperman who was, at the same time, more locally focused and broadly involved.  

Early Years

Rufus Woods and his twin brother, Ralph, were born on May 17, 1878, in Surprise, Butler County, Nebraska, to Lebbeus and Mary Woods. Typical of many children of the time, Rufus grew up in a farmhouse that lacked running water and indoor plumbing. Yet “the children learned the importance of books, education, and moral standards” (Ficken, 3). These standards included the prohibition of tobacco, alcohol, cards, and dancing. For their elementary education, he and his siblings rode horseback or walked several miles across the prairie to the nearest one-room country school. The occasional visit to Lincoln, the nearest large town, was always a long-anticipated treat.  

At age 8, Rufus and Ralph (1878-1944) had their first experience of a traveling circus by sneaking under the tent wall. They went home to begin staging their own barnyard circus. One feat of daring, a leap from the hayloft, left Ralph unconscious for a time and brought their boyhood circus to an end. However, Rufus’s childhood fascination with the big top continued throughout his life. 

The twins were always curious about the broader world beyond Surprise, especially the West. Also, in 1893, they went alone to the Chicago Worlds Fair. That same year, the Woods’s already precarious homestead existence was made worse by the Panic of 1893. In 1898 the twins graduated from high school, with Rufus as valedictorian of his class of 11. The following year, he taught in a country school. 

The seeds of Rufus’ political views were sown during these early years: “Alcohol and the relationship between government and business remained lifelong preoccupations ...” (Ficken, 4) and fellow Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), the Great Commoner, became his hero. 

Logs and Gold

The twins interrupted the next stage of their education, a business course at Grand Island College, for an adventure in the Puget Sound area where an uncle had settled. They secured work on the Skokomish Valley Railroad operated by the Simpson Logging Company. Rufus became acquainted with Grant Angle, publisher of the Mason County Journal and a member of the Washington State Legislature. This contact led him to speculate that politics and newspaper work might make a good combination. 

From Puget Sound, the brothers embarked on their real and intended adventure, the Klondike gold rush. Rufus spent four consecutive summers in the Klondike, where he did not strike it rich but learned indelible lessons by observing the greed, debauchery, and suffering that characterized the gold rush. 

During this period, the brothers returned for most of the school year first to Vashon College, a Puget Sound Academy, then to the University of Nebraska Law School. Upon graduation, they returned to Puget Sound in 1903 to practice law. Ralph stayed on to become a successful Tacoma attorney. In January 1904, Rufus abandoned law and moved to Wenatchee, the Central Washington town whose potential he had noted during a visit to law school classmates in 1903.

Rufus Woods and Wenatchee

The Wenatchee Rufus Woods encountered was still a frontier town with streets that were muddy or dusty, depending on the season, lined by typical wooden taverns, brothels, and livery stables. Its potential lay in its location on the Columbia River, served by seasonal steamboats, and the main line of the Great Northern Railroad. It was already the hub for the Okanogan area to the north and the Big Bend region of the Columbia Plateau, with easy rail access to Seattle and Spokane. In 1900 Wenatchee had a population of only 461.

Yet there was agricultural potential if small-scale irrigation could be expanded in the region. In 1903, the Wenatchee Development Company, which had platted the town, aided William T. Clark to complete a 16-mile irrigation canal to bring water from the Wenatchee River down the valley, reclaiming 9,000 acres and opening up the area for growing the famous Wenatchee apples. When Woods settled in Wenatchee in 1904, the apple industry was well established, although irrigation did not ensure a stable prosperity for growers or the community because of fluctuating prices, seasons of over- and under-production, and shipment problems with the Great Northern. As a crusading editor, Woods would always champion the cause of the apple growers. 

A Friend to All

Woods acquired and soon lost his first newspaper job, as an editor with the Republic, for supporting a Democrat for the state legislature. His maverick status in strongly Republican Wenatchee meant that he was not invited to join any of the local fraternal organizations. Yet he seemed oblivious to social snubs, strode about town dressed as a dandy, “a friend to all men and women [believing], despite occasional evidence to the contrary, that all men and women reciprocated the feeling” (Ficken, 14). With a partner, Charles Graham, he purchased and edited a rival paper, the Advance, which, during his visit home to Nebraska in 1906, was sold to the Daily World.  

His newspaper career apparently over, Woods became paid secretary of the Wenatchee Commercial Club (a chamber of commerce), partly on the strength of his anti-liquor stance and previous successful editorial support for local enforcement of Washington’s Sunday closure law. A major achievement of the Commercial Club under his leadership was the opening in January 1908 of the first automobile bridge over the Columbia. In concert with the Washington Good Roads Association, Woods continued to press for modern hardtop roads, especially the Sunset Highway from Seattle to Spokane via Wenatchee. Through the Commercial Club, Woods established regional contacts that would serve him well in the causes to come. 

As well as being an activist for the public good, Rufus Woods was also a private entrepreneur, declaring his intention of “making a barrel of money” (Ficken, 15) in town and rural land development, based on loans from brother Ralph and other family members. These local ventures were very successful, but he lost money for himself and a consortium of Tacoma backers on a scheme to develop dry farming agricultural land in the Quincy Flats region. This experience taught him the necessity of irrigating an area that would become central to the Columbia Basin Project. 

The World of Wenatchee

In 1907 Rufus Woods returned to newspaper work when he and his brother Ralph leased the struggling Wenatchee Daily World, later to own it outright. Rufus as editor and manager boosted circulation, acquired new equipment, and hit his stride as a crusading newspaperman committed to honest reporting and a balanced editorial stance. He declared himself “willing to wear a party name [Republican] but not a party yoke” (Ficken, 18). Civic improvement and moral reform remained paramount, as, in Woods’s view, vice did not contribute to prosperity.

In concert with the Commercial Club, the Daily World took on prostitution and liquor with zeal. Though impossible to drive out, prostitutes were forced to ply their trade less conspicuously, and in 1909, under the new state local option law, Wenatchee became dry. Woods supported the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and refused to run tobacco and beer advertisements in his paper. During the ensuing years, Woods and his paper allied themselves with the progressive wing of the Republican Party, supporting Miles Poindexter (1868-1946) for the House and Senate and Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) for president. 

Rufus Woods’s primary goal was to make Wenatchee a livable, prosperous city, attractive to settlement and business. His editorials soon helped bring about Wenatchee’s first sewer system, improved electrification, paved sidewalks, and better local and country roads.

Family and Tragedy

However, his goal met a tragic and personal setback in 1913. On May 1, 1909, he had married Mary Marcia Greenslit, a Nebraska neighbor. By 1912, they had two children, Wilma and Walter. In the days before mandatory pasteurization, several Wenatchee residents, including these two children, died in July 1913 from drinking tainted milk. The distraught parents left Wenatchee temporarily to travel about Eastern Washington.

Although they never truly recovered from the loss, the arrival of daughters Willa Lou and Kathryn and son Wilfred enabled them to raise a second family. Wilfred would continue the Woods newspaper dynasty now carried on by Rufus's grandson, Rufus G. Woods.  

Covering the Region

Regional travel during the next decade confirmed Woods's conviction that Wenatchee could truly be the economic hub of North Central Washington. Such travel also increased circulation of his newspaper and expanded its editor’s acquaintance with leaders throughout that part of the state. A perhaps quixotic venture in 1916 was Woods's traveling office, a Ford rigged out with cameras, typewriter, and dictation machines, enabling him to carry on newspaper work while on the road.  

Ever mindful of the apple growers, Woods took on the Great Northern in 1919 when a shortage of rail cars resulted in failure to ship much of the apple crop. He threatened to form a new railroad, a move that angered his brother Ralph whose law firm represented the Great Northern. The ploy at least resulted in forcing the Great Northern to form the Western Fruit Express in 1923, ensuring a more reliable shipping service 

Moderate and Reasonable

Although Woods did not take kindly to strikes against the Wenatchee Daily World and to labor unrest in general, he was even here moderate and pragmatic. In 1919 when the Industrial Workers of the World and others were calling for a nationwide strike, he wrote in an editorial: 

“And now isn’t it about time for the great middle class, including you and me, to have some say as to whether the extremes of the country are going to head the ship of state into the rocks. Bolsheviks are on the one hand, including the I.W.W.  ...  and a certain percentage of the laboring class who have a legitimate complaint; and on the other hand the great multimillionaire crowd which has no regard whatever for the rights and just demands of labor or any of the rest of us” (Mitchell, Story, 41). 

Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam is such an established feature of the Northwest landscape and economy that it is hard to imagine that it might not have been built. In the days before and during the formation of the idea of a dam on the Columbia, there were several competing schemes for and many proponents of irrigating the dry midsection of the state dating back as early as the 1890s. Before the Grand Coulee proposal, Woods himself had speculated about the feasibility of bringing water from Lake Wenatchee to irrigate the dry central area. Woods considered the year 1918, when attorney William "Billy" Clapp (1877-1965) of Ephrata first suggested the idea, as the beginning of the struggle for Grand Coulee. Construction began in 1933, and the dam was essentially operational by 1941. Like the proverbial success, Grand Coulee Dam has many fathers, Woods being one of several advocates crucial in bringing it to completion.

On July 18, 1918 the Wenatchee Daily World published Billy Clapp’s “audacious high dam proposal,” (Ficken, xii) and Woods soon became its most ardent backer. For many years the idea battled opposition. The most formidable came initially from supporters of a gravity plan to channel water from the Pend Oreille River by means of a dam at Albeni Falls and a gravity canal to the Columbia Basin. Powerful Spokane interests, including the Spokesman-Review newspaper and the private electrical company, Washington Water Power, supported the gravity plan, and Governor Ernest Lister endorsed it in 1918. Even the Grange opposed irrigation of the Columbia Basin by any means, fearing that an increase in the number of farms would further lower depressed agricultural prices. 

Initially very few saw any need for increased electrical power. Of course Washington Water Power did not want competition. Others foresaw only a glut of power for which there would be no buyers. Yet from the beginning, Woods was envisioning the need for both water and electricity: “[I]n the 20s, the 30s and the 40s he had repeatedly raised the alarm of ‘power shortage’ and each time he was opposed and scoffed at” (Cleveland, 17). The pivotal role that electricity from Grand Coulee played in World War II was one of many evidences proving Woods to have been right. His leadership among a group of regional advocates who dubbed themselves the “Dam University” was central to their ultimate success.  

Over several decades, Rufus Woods’ lobbying on behalf of Grand Coulee Dam took him to the seats of power in Olympia and Washington, D.C. His pragmatic political activism and easy access to senators Miles Poindexter and Clarence Dill (1884-1978), governors Clarence Martin (1887-1955) and Arthur Langlie (1900-1966), and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), plus a host of other influential figures, gave a great boost to the cause. Woods consistently threw his editorial support behind politicians who supported the dam, whether Republican or Democrat.  

Wenatchee First

During the 1930s, Woods was able to exert his influence as a member of the Columbia Basin Commission. Despite outright opposition to the dam from many quarters and the complex power struggles between the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation for control of the construction process, the dam did get built. Woods did not regard his work as finished, though, because the ensuing jurisdictional quarrels over the administration of the dam and location of key new industries kept him busy. He resented that Wenatchee, the major champion of the dam, was not to receive its share of control or profits. Woods reacted angrily to seeing Portland, Seattle, Tacoma. and Spokane reap these benefits: 

“If we mistake not, there is going to be one big protest go up over the state on account of the way the new factories are being located by the government in all the larger cities. It isn’t fair ... . It isn’t in the interests of the country generally to pile up more population in the big centers while the smaller places are being hurt rather than helped” (Cleveland, 14). 

World Travels and Worldly Concerns 

Meanwhile, during the 1930s and 1940s, Rufus Woods maintained his interest in a wide range of national and international affairs and his appetite for travel. In 1930 he took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Europe, first touring Germany, then spending the bulk of his time in Soviet Russia, where “Naively, Woods greatly understated the brutality of Stalinist rule and missed entirely the terror involved in the collectivization of agriculture” (Ficken, 107).

In 1936, Woods went to Europe again, accompanying a cargo of Wenatchee apples. He quickly abandoned his intention of studying the marketing of such exports for another trip to the Soviet Union. He applauded construction of the Dnieper River dam, the vast increase in literacy, an increase in the quality and quantity of food, and Stalin’s proposed constitutional reforms. However, he was disturbed by the change in the people – now afraid to talk to strangers -- and the few who did, filled with anti-American propaganda. A visit to Berlin sobered him, as he noted the mounting Nazi persecution of the Jews, and he was relieved to get to London. As one of the self-appointed orators in Hyde Park, he seized the opportunity to extol the virtues of the United States. Woods left Europe with the an ominous impression that “There is a feeling of war in the air” (Ficken, 161).  

Another visit to Austria and Germany two years later cured Woods of any lingering isolationist proclivities. While acknowledging Hitler’s apparent ability to energize the German people, he was appalled at the rampant brutality against the Jews and the censorship of the press. He wrote to his newspaper: “America is no longer a disconnected nation standing by itself with no regard for what is taking place in other parts of the world” (Ficken, 181). 

Woods's growing internationalism expressed itself emphatically in his support of the United Nations. In 1943 he managed to crash his way into the founding convention in San Francisco, even though he was neither a delegate nor a credentialed reporter. When denied entrance, he reported, “I simply slammed down two Wenatchee Worlds and said, ‘Do I get a ticket?’” (Ficken 214). He was admitted and miraculously found a hotel room, as well.  

Fun and Enjoyment

The whimsical side of Rufus Woods was most evident in 1937, when he fulfilled his “heart’s desire . . .  some day to run off with the circus.” (Ficken, 167) When the Cole Brothers Circus came through Wenatchee that summer, they allowed him to join as a guest clown. He toured other cities, made up with the same grease paint, putty nose, baggy clothes as the other 17 clowns and performing the same antics. For the Tacoma parade, brother Ralph joined him in clown garb. Rufus Woods’ brief escape to the world of the circus was reported in the New York Times, Time, and Life.  

As he grew older and began to suffer some health problems, including mild diabetes, Woods continued to put in long hours of work. He said to a friend, “Regarding the pace that I have been going, it has been so enjoyable that I did not realize that I was going any pace” (Ficken, 236). He suffered a heart attack in January of 1950, was hospitalized for a month and spent another at home, working during bed rest.

In May, he and his wife and son traveled to Detroit to pick up a new car, then to visit hydroelectric facilities in Ontario. While in Toronto he suffered a fatal heart attack on May 28. Son Wilfred wrote in an editorial on June 6, “To his last breath, his whole concern was the development of the region. Shortly before he passed, he roused in the night to tell of the marvels of the Grand Coulee Dan and the mighty Columbia River” (Mitchell, Story, 44). 

Sources: Carl M. Cleveland, Rufus Woods: ‘That Dam Editor’ (Wenatchee: The Wenatchee Daily World, 1973); Robert E. Ficken, Rufus Woods, the Columbia River, & the Building of Modern Washington (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1995); Bruce C. Harding, “Water from Pend Oreille: The Gravity Plan for Irrigating the Columbia Basin,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 45, No. 2 (April 1954) 52-60; Bruce Mitchell, “Rufus Woods and Columbia River Development,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 52, No. 4 (October, 1961), 139-144; Bruce Mitchell, The Story of Rufus Woods and the Development of Central Washington (Wenatchee: The Wenatchee Daily World, 1965); Paul C. Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1994); Rufus Woods, The 23-Year Battle for Grand Coulee Dam (Wenatchee: The Wenatchee Daily World, 1944); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Grand Coulee Dam, a Snapshot History” (by Cassandra Tate), www.historylink.org (accessed November 21, 2007). See Also: Rebecca Smith, "Rufus Woods: The Communications Battle for Grand Coulee Dam," Columbia, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 38-41.

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