Waterville -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 6/08/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9357
Waterville, the county seat of Douglas County, 28 miles northeast of Wenatchee, sits on the high plateau of the Big Bend of the Columbia above the "breaks," a jumble of rugged canyons leading down to the east side of the river. At an elevation of 2,650 feet, it is the highest incorporated town in Washington. The site on the vast, undulating plain is dramatic, with views of massive, brooding Badger Mountain to the south and the Cascades peaks to the west. By the time of pioneer settlement during the 1880s, Indians who traditionally had crossed the Waterville region en route to the Columbia during salmon season no longer enjoyed unrestricted access, most having been removed to the Colville Reservation in 1872. The town of Waterville was incorporated in 1889, during the waning months of Washington Territory and re-incorporated under the laws of the new state in 1890. Today Waterville, with a population of 1,180,  is a scenic, friendly, historically significant, and civic-minded community.

Early Days

Even into the early twentieth century, many Indians continued to use Waterville as a place for assembling and trading. Some continued their seasonal migration to dig camas roots in the area as late as the 1960s. A professional town builder from Kansas, J. W. Adams (1861-1939), attempted to establish a community called Okanogan (no relation to present Okanogan) seven miles east of the eventual site of Waterville. Deep wells came up dry, forcing pioneers to haul water from great distances. Since this unpromising proposed town was the only potential settlement in the area, in 1883 it was named county seat of Douglas County. Soon Douglas, a more viable community, began to develop some five miles east of present Waterville. No trace remains of Okanogan, but Douglas survives as an unincorporated hamlet. The actual townsite of Waterville was first a squatter's claim taken out by Stephen Boise in 1883. Albert T. Greene (1854-1933), called the "father of Waterville" bought the claim in 1885 and, with Joseph M. Snow, a surveyor and judge, platted the town in 1886. They named it Waterville because, in contrast with Okanogan, its wells produced a plentiful supply of water. In 1887 the town became the new county seat.

One of the most important early settlers was a Norwegian immigrant, Ole Olsen Ruud (1847-1928), who arrived in the vicinity of future Waterville in 1883. Ruud was a graduate of a distinguished agricultural college in Norway, where he studied subjects from the liberal arts and sciences as well as agriculture. He emigrated because “The narrow surroundings [of the family farm in Norway] and my roaming disposition brought upon me the ‘American fever'" (Stradling, 8). He spent several years working and learning English in the Midwest before settling in Washington Territory. His memoirs and letters home to Norway recount decades of Waterville-area life. About his squatter’s claim, he wrote: “On the 16th of May, 1883, I stuck up my notice and plowed a small patch of land in Section 4, Township 24 N. Range 22 E.W.M.” Although Ruud claimed “This, I believe was the first time sod was turned in the vicinity of Badger Mountain and the present town of Waterville” (Stradling, 26), Platt Corbaley and some of his family had arrived in April a few weeks ahead of him. Ruud’s land was blessed with good soil, a spring flowing down from the mountain, and plentiful timber nearby for building his cabin and barns. In 1884 Ruud was elected surveyor for Douglas County and, in addition to farming, spent the next 18 years laying out most of the roads in the county and surveying in such towns as Ephrata, Coulee City, and Wilson Creek. In 1888 he became a United States citizen. His successful farm, soon enlarged beyond the original 160-acre homestead, was far more enduring than most, earning recognition in 1989 as one of Washington’s “Centennial Farms” -- territorial-era farms still owned by the same family at the time of the Washington State Centennial. The original farm is still (2010) in Ruud family hands.

Although Greene and Snow had surveyed and filed a plat in 1886, and it was approved on the county level by Douglas County trustees John C. Brownfield (1841-1922), James H. Kincaid (1851-1905), and Judson Murray on October 26, it was not until May 1890 that the official patent of the townsite was issued. The problem was that Waterville was what was called a “government townsite” (Steele, 571) under which claims had to be filed through the United States Land Office and approved in Washington, D.C., just as was required for rural homesteads. There was a huge backlog of all kinds of claims throughout the West, with the result that Waterville’s plat approval was delayed. This situation resulted in considerable claim jumping, as original claimants who had not yet put up buildings had trouble defending their lots. Newcomers even started construction on lots designated for the public good, such as streets, parks, and civic buildings. Once clear title had been granted on the national level, Waterville was free to grow, with settlers confident of clear title to their property.

Becoming County Seat

In 1885 there had been an attempt to move the county seat from Okanogan to Douglas by a direct vote of the county commissioners, but the plan was defeated. In an election in 1886, Waterville won by popular vote. On May 2, 1887, the county commissioners officially declared Waterville the county seat. As happened in so many county seat disputes, the rival town did not give up the records without a struggle. The Douglas County auditor, R. S. Steiner, refused to relinquish them, so the sheriff had to intervene to secure them for the new county seat. The new court was housed temporarily in a small, multipurpose building hastily thrown together by J. M. Snow. Then the civic-minded Greene not only donated land for Waterville’s first actual courthouse, but built the distinguished two-story wooden building in 1889 and sold it to the city for one dollar. Another boost came in November 1890, when a United States Land Office was established at Waterville. Before that time, homesteaders from the region had to travel all the way to Yakima to conduct any business related to their claims. The pride of the town was, and remains, the final courthouse, a brick and stone building designed by architect Newton C. Gauntt and built in 1905. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.

In November 1887, the town secured a post office, with A. T. Greene as the first postmaster. During 1887-1888, mail arrived at “odd times” (Steele, p. 569) by stagecoach from Spokane over 150 miles east and from Ellensburg, 75 miles southwest across the Columbia and the Kittitas Mountains. During the severe winter of 1889-1890, the stages could not get through the deep snow, so sporadic mail delivery had to be brought by toboggan or on snowshoes. Normal delivery did not resume until April 1890.

In 1888 Waterville and the surrounding area suffered a mysterious epidemic from which upwards of 30 people died and many more were seriously ill. It was variously referred to as “malaria of a virulent kind,” “typhoid,” or “mountain fever” (Stradling, 53). Dr. Colin Gilchrist (1861-1924), typical of pioneer physicians, rode horseback to tend his widely scattered patients, many of whom were too poor to pay for his services.

Wide-Awake Merchants and Beautiful Women

Amazingly, Waterville briefly entertained hopes of becoming the capital not only of the Big Bend, but of the entire Washington Territory, soon to become a state. To promote the idea, the Big Bend Empire of December 27, 1888 made the following inflated assertions:

“Waterville is approximately the geographical center of the Territory; it is so accessible from all parts of the Territory that three different railroads are breaking their necks to get here first; it is midway between the Queen City of the Sound and the ‘Minneapolis of the West,’ Spokane. Three months ago Waterville was nothing, now it is a booming city with over a hundred fine buildings the shingles of which are not discolored by wintry storms. Among the enterprises under contemplation for spring are a system of waterworks, street cars and electric lights. It has the most wide awake merchants and greatest number of beautiful women of any town in the United States. It is a boomer; it is a bird; it’s going to be the capital” (Steele, 572).

Obviously, Waterville did not succeed in this goal. But the town was incorporated on March 22, 1889, during the waning months of Washington Territory, and reincorporated on April 14, May 3 or 12, 1890, (sources vary) under the laws of the new state. And improvements resulted from the effort to make it the state capital. A group of Seattle capitalists formed the Waterville Improvement Company, receiving about 600 acres of nearby agricultural land with the proviso that they would install waterworks and electric lights, both of which happened in 1892. The 1900 census put Waterville’s population at 482, but by July of 1904, it had risen to 1,000.

A possible factor in Waterville’s growth was its first newspaper, the Big Bend Empire, which newcomer Lucien E. Kellogg founded in February 1888 after hauling a printing press from Spokane by rail to Ritzville and then by freight wagon during a harrowing December snow storm. Kellogg had already established papers in Colfax and Cheney and was looking for another promising location. The Waterville Immigrant and the Douglas County Democrat soon provided competition. Typical of many early newspapermen, Kellogg regarded the local paper as a means of attracting settlers who then would become subscribers. However, cash proved so short among his readers that Kellogg often accepted wood or produce instead. In the florid journalism of those days there was little effort to separate genuine news from opinion or advertising: It was up to the reader to do so. In 1921 the Big Bend Empire combined with a later newspaper, the Douglas County Press, to form the Waterville Empire Press. The local newspaper currently serving the Waterville area is the Douglas County Empire Press, a weekly published in East Wenatchee.  

Hard Times

Waterville had been set to become the commercial center of a thriving cattle-raising area when the disastrous winter of 1889/1890, which killed livestock throughout the Northwest, convinced many cattle ranchers to change over to raising wheat. Then no sooner was wheat established as a cash crop than Waterville was hit with the nation-wide economic depression known as the Panic of 1893. Threatened with foreclosure on his farm and prime wheat selling for only 30 cents a bushel, Norwegian homesteader Ruud wrote to a newspaper in Michigan:

“Times are so hard and money so scarce here in this good wheat country, the Big Bend of the Columbia, that property can hardly be sold for money. A band of horses was sold the other day at sheriff’s sale for one dollar a head, and if times done’ change, more sheriff’s sales will be made at the same rate ... Farms and other real estate are passing over to the money loaners. I expect to hear of many foreclosures before the year 1894 is out” (Stradling, 71).

When the Big Bend Empire became aware of this article, it published a lengthy refutation accusing Ruud of disloyally defaming Douglas County: “And now this ex-official [county surveyor] and prosperous farmer attempts to injure the county that has given him his prosperity, by publishing to the world an article that is false in many and misleading in all particulars” (Stradling, 73).

The Tramway Era

By 1895 Waterville was beginning to pull out of the recession and was confident enough of its prosperity to host the first Douglas County Industrial Exposition in early October. An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people “swarmed the streets and pushed and jostled and jammed the exposition grounds. The stock parade took place at noon and the free barbeque was an immense success. The people assembled at the grand stand and Congressman S. C. Hyde of Spokane delivered an address ... . The exposition was in every respect a grand success financially and socially” (Steele, 555). Samuel Clarence Hyde (1842-1922) was one of Washington State’s two congressmen at the time.

Wheat farming was not without some continuing problems, transportation being a major one. Waterville’s position high on the plateau above the Columbia made access to the river ports barely possible for heavily-loaded wagons. A solution was found in 1902 when the Columbia River Tramway Company began operating trams from the edge of the bluff down the breaks to a steamboat landing three miles north of Orondo. Large steel buckets on cables supported by wooden towers carried wheat sacks the two miles down and returned laden with freight and merchandise for Waterville stores. At first gravity operated, it soon became obvious that the tram needed a steam engine as well. There are local tales of a few intrepid souls riding the giant buckets, on one occasion being stranded for many hours because of a mechanical malfunction. The tram operated until 1910. One of the buckets salvaged by helicopter in 1973 is on display outside the Douglas County Historical Museum at Waterville next to murals depicting the tramway era.

Railroads and Roads

The tram was no longer needed when in 1910 a standard gauge railroad spur line began providing shipment via the Great Northern connection at Douglas. The Waterville Railroad was built by local interests when it became clear that the GN did not intend to extend its Mansfield-Douglas line into Waterville. The Great Northern did agree to loan ties, rails and fastenings, with the stipulation that they could be reclaimed on short notice. At less than five miles, the Waterville Railroad was certainly one of the shortest in the West, if not the nation. Its most dramatic incident occurred on February 26, 1920, when a lone passenger coach with five passengers aboard was waiting on the tracks while freight cars were loaded with wheat on a siding. Somehow it began to roll down the tracks, reaching a speed of 40 miles per hour, and not stopping until it had crashed into the depot at Douglas. Miraculously, no one was hurt. The Waterville Railroad, which was never in debt, continued in operation until the great flood of 1948. During early June, the Columbia and other rivers in the Northwest were already flooding. Waterville seemed safe on high ground, but a series of cloudbursts beginning on the 16th sent the canyon creeks raging, washing out bridges and a mile of track along Douglas Creek.

Begun in 1885, the earliest primitive road crossed the plateau between Okanogan, the then county seat, and Waterville. Wagon and later motorized transport to and from Waterville remained harrowing for decades. During the same year, the advent of a steam ferry on the Columbia at the mouth of the Wenatchee River made access to the river more desirable. The fledgling Douglas County assisted in constructing a road along an old Indian trail from the Waterville plateau down to the river through Corbaley Canyon, named for members of the Corbaley family -- Platt, Alvaro Lenhart (1862-1941), and Richard (1820-1903) -- who had begun arriving in 1883 to homestead three miles from Waterville at the foot of Badger Mountain. On this difficult route George W. Blair (d. 1928) and C. C. Rickman established a stage and mail service in 1886, linking Waterville with Ellensburg. It was “a nightmare for men and horses alike, going and coming, steep and treacherous, and winters turned the route into an icy bobsled run. They had to wrap chains around the runners of the loaded sled to prevent it from shooting downhill out of control” (Beginnings, 18). During the 1890s another company, the Broadhead and Buchanan stages, operated on the portion of this route between Waterville and Orondo on the Columbia. The road from the east, roughly following present U.S. 2, was only marginally better, involving steep grades at Moses Coulee and Douglas Creek Canyon. 

Although a few intrepid early motorists did traverse Corbaley Canyon, and as early as 1914 an automobile “stage line” was transporting passengers and parcels in a Maxwell and a Buick, it was obvious that a new route was needed. Accordingly, in 1916, a five-mile road constructed by convict labor from the penitentiary at Walla Walla, was completed through nearby Pine Canyon. It still involved a steep grade and hairpin turns, but was much safer than the Corbaley Canyon route. There were additional improvements during the 1920s, and the road received its first bituminous coating in 1930. It became part of the Sunset Highway linking Spokane with the Puget Sound area. Because of the 1948 flood, the road had to be relocated at a higher level. Further improvements to the road led to the ribbon cutting for the new Pine Canyon Highway on August 4, 1965.

Growing and Diversifying

Meanwhile, the town was growing and prospering. During the late 1880s, brief gold rushes in the Okanogan and Salmon River areas brought packers and outfitters through town. Soon there were many substantial new buildings of brick made in local brickyards. Handsome banks, churches, and mercantile establishments proliferated, many still standing, and the Downtown Historic Waterville District has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988. The charming Hotel Waterville, opened in 1903 and beautifully restored during recent years as the Historic Waterville Hotel and on the National Register since 1984, was built of local brick upon a foundation of basalt boulders hauled by wagon from Douglas Creek five miles to the east. Except for a period of closure from 1975 to 1991, the hotel has been essential to the business growth of Waterville. It provides an ideal stopover for tourists, including many from Europe, “not exactly the Motel 6 crowd ... mostly well traveled people looking for something different but affordable” (Labor of Love).

Although wheat continued to dominate, Waterville was the center of a diversified agricultural area. The Waterville Union Grain Company, incorporated on August 8, 1908, began building grain storage facilities in towns along the branch line of the Great Northern between Wenatchee and Mansfield. During the last two years of operation of the wheat tram, the Waterville Union Grain company had a warehouse at the top and the bottom. Cattle ranching began making a comeback, and potatoes became a major Big Bend crop. Waterville hosted the first Potato Carnival on  November 1-3, 1911, and it became the Douglas County Fair in 1913. Beginning in 1944 it became the North Central Washington District Fair.

Depression Era

After the earlier period of prosperity, the agricultural depression of the late teens and early twenties struck Douglas County, in fact much of the United States, several years before the stock market crash of 1929. Waterville’s agriculture slumped as a result of drought beginning in 1917 and the falling wheat prices and bank failures of the 1920s. The situation continued bleak during the Depression of the 1930s.

During the last years of the Depression, Waterville hosted a unit of the Civilian Conservation Corps, organized by the federal government to provide work for young men and to advance conservation of natural resources. On July 26, 1940, Waterville received Company 6435 from Alabama. Under the supervision of conservationist Charles Bisbee, this unit engaged in stream control, planted trees and shrubs, assisted with contour soil cultivation, prepared the ground for an airport, and cleared brush for the Badger Mountain ski area. For the 200 young men who had never been far from their home towns in Alabama, being transplanted to Waterville was a culture shock, but Maynard Sanders recalled: “It was a wonderful learning experience. I returned south to bring another company to Waterville. Of course I found my true love in Waterville” (Beginnings, 65).

School and a Theater

With the arrival of settlers, one-room schools began to dot the Big Bend plateau. The first town school in Waterville was completed in 1893 on a city block donated by James H. Kincaid at the time he extended Kincaid’s First Addition to the original townsite in 1889. It was a wooden mainly two-story building with a smaller third story topped by a bell tower and cupola. Most farm and ranch children in the lower grades continued to attend their rural schools, but for high school, many boarded with families in town so that they could attend the new school. Sometimes entire families from distant ranches or homesteads would move into town for the school term. Yearly tuition fees for non-resident pupils in 1899 were: high school; upper elementary, $10.50; and primary $9. Before motorized school buses, many farm children, including those of Ole Ruud, were brought to the Waterville School in a long, covered horse-drawn wagon, which in winter became a sled. Waterville’s first large brick school, complete with “well heated, well lighted and splendidly ventilated rooms … water toilets, gymnasiums, shower baths, etc.” (Beginnings, 13) was dedicated in October, 1913 amid much fanfare. In 1969 the present two-story building replaced the 1913 school, which was razed in 1970.

Although there was a prior Nifty Theatre, the present wooden building opened in 1919. In addition to Hollywood films, it featured traveling vaudeville shows, dancers, comedians, even “The Royal Whirlwinds, a Sensational Roller Skating Team,” (National Register) and local entertainment such as school plays. During the Depression of the 1930s, the longtime owner, W. P. Brown, sponsored drawings for groceries and cash. Newsreels shown at the Nifty during World War II provided more current war news than did the local weekly newspaper. Until 1959 this small theater provided Mr. Brown enough income to acquire farm land and to indulge his passion for horse racing. While the advent of television brought its demise as a theater, the building retained its original integrity under a succession of owners and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

Sports and Recreation

Many of Waterville’s amenities are the result of dedicated volunteerism. It was way ahead of most towns its size in providing a public swimming pool. A. L. Rogers (d. 1929) and his wife donated the land, and the community raised money and provided labor. The pool was dedicated on July 4, 1928. Charlotte Mitchell, the first Red Cross certified lifeguard, who began working at the pool in 1930, offered her services for only a dollar a day so that children who could not afford the $5.00 season ticket could swim for free. She continued to manage the pool for many years. Heating and a new bathhouse were added in 1959 with the help of the Lions Club, and on June 19, 1977, a completely new pool was dedicated.

Volunteers were also behind the Waterville’s Pioneer Park, occupying 19 city lots also donated by A. L. Rogers. It was dedicated on September 23, 1939, with Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) in attendance. The Badger Mountain Ski Club, founded in 1939, was a supreme example of Waterville volunteerism, with members operating the rope tow and ski lift, taking tickets, shoveling snow, cutting and hauling wood, and even building a new lodge in 1961 to replace the original homesteader’s cabin. Today, although having to compete with commercial ski areas in the nearby Cascades, Badger Mountain continues as an all-volunteer operation for skiers, snow boarders, and snow mobilers.

A Civic-Minded Couple

One couple who especially epitomized the entrepreneurial and civic spirit of Waterville was William F. Schluenz (1880-1967) and his wife Etta Marie Chamberlin Schluenz (1877-1967). William Schluenz, originally from Wisconsin, arrived in Waterville in 1903 to homestead and work as a bookkeeper at the Rogers & Howe store. In 1905 he established the Waterville Hardware Store, which he owned and operated for 36 years. Its stock, ranging from tools, household items, harnesses to the largest farm machinery from International Harvester, John Deere and other companies, attracted customers from all over the Big Bend. His company even ventured into real estate. In his retirement, Schluenz continued to work on his own ranches and participate in civic activities. He served as State Appraiser for Douglas County and was especially active in the Good Roads Movement.

His wife Etta grew up near Waterville on a ranch started by her family in 1888. She was a local teacher who continued to help her widowed mother with the ranch before marrying William F. Schluenz in 1905. Etta Schluenz devoted her adult life to civic efforts on behalf of Waterville: establishing and enhancing the city park and devoting herself to garden clubs locally and to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs on the state and national levels.

History and Fiction

Waterville is justly proud of its Douglas County Historical Museum, established in 1959. The original building was a gift of William and Etta Schluenz in order to house some 4,500 rocks and minerals that William had collected over decades. It was expanded with three additions beginning in 1990. The museum, open to the public from late May through early October, houses and displays a wide variety of artifacts from the area’s Native American heritage and the history of the town and surrounding agricultural countryside, including the Columbia Tramway. Visitors can view such curiosities as the first meteorite discovered in Washington (1917), and a stuffed two-faced calf. The archives contain a host of photographs, newspaper files, and family papers essential for historical research.

In the summer of 2000 the museum hosted the “Barn Again” exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Waterville was one of only six Washington towns selected to receive this traveling exhibit that toured the nation for eight years. Sites were chosen for their agriculture heritage, the remaining presence of historic barns, and local commitment to their preservation. Each community selected was expected to augment the traveling exhibit with local displays and activities. In Waterville, as elsewhere, the Barn Again exhibit generated much community involvement and attracted visitors from a wide radius.

Waterville gained some notice in 1999 with the release of a fine movie The Basket, made by a Spokane company, North by Northwest Productions, and set in Waterville during World War I. The completely fictional plot revolves around the animosity aroused in the community, especially a family who lost a son to the war, by the arrival of two German war orphans in the home of the local pastor. Through the efforts of Mr. Conlon, a new teacher from Boston, the wounds are healed by means of an unlikely combination of basketball and German opera. Although most of the filming was done in Lamont near Spokane, the designation of Waterville as the setting is believable. However, because many of its residents are of German descent it seems unlikely that they would have reacted so negatively to German orphans in their midst.

Waterville Today

Today Waterville suffers from the proximity of Wenatchee and East Wenatchee with their big box stores, medical facilities, and other amenities. Fast-growing East Wenatchee even agitates periodically to replace more centrally located Waterville as the Douglas County seat. Waterville’s surrounding agriculture is highly mechanized, with huge farms long since having replaced most of the small, virtually self-sufficient family farms of the past. Ironically, a recent problem for the town is a water shortage, as the water table has lowered in recent years, making it necessary for residents to conserve.

Yet Waterville, with a population of 1,180, remains one of the most scenic, friendly, historically significant, and civic-minded communities in Washington, enthusiastically hosting its summer Waterville Days; July 4, complete with demolition derby and fireworks; and the North Central Washington District Fair and Rodeo. This county seat is still a most worthwhile stop on cross-state Highway 2, a charming remnant of the best of small-town America.

Sources: Eva Anderson, The Spirit of the Big Bend (Reprinted from the Wenatchee Daily World, October 1955); Laura Arksey, “Waterville’s Historic Hotel,” Nostalgia Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 6 (June, 2000), 34-37; Beginnings (Waterville, 1989); Janice Krenmayr, “Waterville’s Historic Barrel of Water,” Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, November 23, 1975;  Guy Reed Ramsey, Postmarked Washington: Chelan, Douglas and Kittitas Counties (Wenatchee: Wenatchee World, 1973), 71-74; Esther Ruud Stradling, American Fever: A Biography of Ole Ruud, Pioneer of the Washington Territory (Bloomington, Indiana, Authorhouse, 2004); 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; Pat Thomson, “The Battle to Be Capital of the Big Bend,” Spokesman-Review, Inland Empire Magazine Section, February 21, 1954, p. 2; “Three Votes Gave Waterville County Seat,” Wenatchee World, October 19, 1945; “Waterville Developed Community Spirit in Days When It Had No Railroad,” Spokesman-Review, October 8, 1916, p. M-5; “Waterville is Center for Vast Wheat Industry,” Wenatchee World, April 16, 1941; “Labor of Love,” Spokesman-Review, May 27, 1997, p. B-2; National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, “Nifty Theater;” Luke Ellington, “The Town of Waterville,” Douglas County PUD website accessed February 8, 2010 (www.douglaspud.org/community/TheTownofWaterville.aspx); “Waterville, Washington” Waterville website accessed February 23, 2010 (http://www.watervillewashington.org/about.html).
Note: This essay was emended on January 25, 2012, to correct the birthdate of Clarence D. Martin. 

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