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Waitsburg - One of a Kind

Waitsburg

HISTORY OF WAITSBURG

Set amidst bountiful rolling hills blanketed with wheat, barley and peas, Waitsburg was pioneered in Historic Old Homes on Main Street the early 19th century. Lewis and Clark passed through this area in 1806 on the return from their historical expedition. Years later, along the banks of the Touchet River, the first grist mill was established to serve farmers in the area. The enterprising owner of that mill, Sylvester M. Wait, was honored as Waitsburg's namesake when the town was founded in 1865.

Stability is a key to life here. The railroad that was built in 1881 continues to run today. The city government was organized that same year. Currently, it is the only city in the state of Washington which still operates under the terms of its Territorial Charter. In 1878, the Waitsburg Times newspaper began publication. Readers have delighted in the weekly paper ever since

History excerpt from the City's Comprehensive Plan: From the year of its birth in 1865, the town of Waitsburg, Washington, has owed its existence to the productivity of the surrounding wheat lands. Like many towns in eastern Washington's famed Palouse country, Waitsburg sprang up around the site of a small gristmill. The mill was built in 1865 on the banks of the Touchet River and in its earliest years was owned and operated by the town's founding father, Sylvester M. Wait. Greatly stimulated by the coming of the railroad in 1881, Waitsburg rapidly evolved into a prosperous agricultural service center. The community's chief industry throughout much of its history has been the storage, milling, and shipment of wheat and flour.

White settlers had arrived at the juncture of the Touchet River and the Coppei Creek only a few short years before Waitsburg made its appearance there. The first claims were made in 1859. In that year, Robert Kennedy settled in the forks of the two streams and within a few months, 17 other families had joined him. A dozen or so more arrived in the following year. Initially, these pioneer farmers worked the bottom lands along the river banks, raised a little grain, and reared large numbers of cattle and horses. Many also hauled supplies to the booming mining regions of Idaho. When it was demonstrated that the high bench lands, covered with native bunch grass, were suitable for agricultural purposes as well as for stock-raising, settlement in the area rapidly increased and the fledgling town of Waitsburg grew in size and importance.

Sylvester M. Wait, founder of Waitsburg, was an energetic millwright and dairy rancher from Rogue River, Oregon and Lewiston, Idaho. Recognizing the opportunity for a profitable milling business in the Walla Walla area, Wait surveyed a site on the north bank of the Touchet River. To encourage enterprise, ten acres of land was donated to him for a mill and residence by pioneers Dennis Willard and William Perry Bruce, who also gave the right-of-way for a millrace. Wait erected a mill on borrowed capital and credit, at a total cost of $14,000. The original mill structure measured approximately 40 by 50 feet and was framed with hand-hewn timbers reportedly cut in the nearby Blue Mountains and hauled to the site by wagon. Wait's mill opened for business in the spring of 1865, grinding with a single set of buhrstones. One year later, Wait sold a half interest in the business to William and Platt Preston. The Preston Brothers were quick to capitalize on the gold mining boom in Idaho by selling flour at the mill's door to pack trains bound for the mining camps.

The original name of the little village which grew up around Wait's mill was Delta, until it was decided by popular vote in 1868 to rename the post office of Waitsburgh. Delta blossomed rapidly owing to the growing stability of its modest industry and to the Walla Walla-Lewiston stage route which ran through the village crossing the Touchet by ford. In 1865 and 1866, several frame buildings from Coppei, a short-lived settlement five miles upstream, were transported to the site of the new mill. Soon a general store, a saloon and a schoolhouse were in full operation. By the fall of 1866, Wait had enlarged the mill structure and built for himself a large dwelling near the mill. William N. Smith added to his general store and a log "hotel" was erected by G. W. Cantonwine on the river bank. In 1867, a third schoolhouse was constructed at a cost of $2,400, the money raised by subscription. The same year, the citizens of Delta constructed a bridge across the Touchet at the foot of Main Street. Until 1869, no attempt was made to plat the town site. William Perry Bruce was the largest contributor of land and money to the mill, the school, the river bridge and other community projects, but he was for some time uninterested in converting his property into a town. When Bruce realized the inevitability of Waitsburg, he filed a plat on February 23, 1869, encompassing only Main Street and a single block to either side. At the close of the decade, Waitsburg was a firmly established little town with a population of 109, some 35 dwellings, and a handful of frame businesses and houses lining Main Street.

The decade to follow witnessed a major transformation on the hills surrounding Waitsburg. The high grazing lands of native bunch grass were steadily converted to the raising of wheat as an exclusive money crop. As a result, the economic base of the area became more narrowly-defined, and the mill at Waitsburg became a still more significant factor in the economy of the community. Sylvester Wait sold his remaining interest in the mill to the Preston Brothers in 1870. To accommodate their growing business, the new owners again enlarged the mill building, raised the flume, and installed four sets of larger buhrstones.

The 1880's were a period of major growth and progress for the town of Waitsburg, as it was for the entire Washington Territory. Several events which were to profoundly influence the future of the town occurred during this decade. On September 13, 1880, fire broke out in the Pearl House, a hotel on the edge of the business district which was then clustered near the river bank and the mill at the north end of Main Street. Lacking fire fighting equipment, anxious citizens fought the flames with a bucket brigade and wet blankets. In spite of their efforts, the blaze destroyed the entire west side of the wooden commercial sector, with the exception of the Hanford House hotel on the River bank, and damaged a number of buildings on the east side. It was later declared that the conflagration had been caused by a Chinese cook at the Pearl House who, in an opium-induced stupor, had upset a lamp in the kitchen. In all, 37 buildings - nearly all of Waitsburg's business structures - were lost, at an estimated cost of $125,000. The reconstruction, which occurred in the 1880's, 1890's, and into the 20th Century, was the beginning of Waitsburg's commercial district as it appears today. As a result of the devastation of 1880, "fire proof" brick masonry from local brick yards became the preferred material of construction.

The arrival of the "iron horse" in the Touchet Valley was a development of far-reaching significance to the community. The Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, under a traffic agreement with the Northern Pacific, laid its track south of the Snake River and extended a branch line from Walla Walla to Waitsburg, Dayton and Grange City. When the first train from Walla Walla pulled up with a jerk at the Waitsburg mill, the citizenry of Waitsburg was jubilant. The railroad meant an end to the long hauls with wagon loads of wheat and flour over rutted roads to Walla Walla. Moreover, a connecting line from Walla Walla to Portland gave Waitsburg's crops a cheap and direct access to ocean-going freighters. Along with an influx of new settlers in the 1880's, and the continually improving technology in the wheat fields, the railroad provided a tremendous boost to Waitsburg's milling industry.

During the 1880's, the Waitsburg mill became known as Washington Mills, and the building was enlarged and partially rebuilt on a new stone foundation. New railroad box cars lined the sidings in place of pack mules and freight wagons. Four large warehouses accommodated the continuous stream of wagons which passed through town during harvest. The directing personnel as well as the technology of the mill underwent changes in this period. In 1886, William B. Shaffer from Minnesota was employed as general manager. Shaffer accomplished a complete conversion from burr stones to modern steel roller machines. The area's Bluestem wheat was especially well-suited to all-purpose flour, increasingly in demand by the commercial baking industry. Flour from the Washington Roller Mill was shipped to Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, as well as points east and abroad. In 1891, Frank Parton of Albany, Oregon purchased a third interest in the concern, and the firm incorporated under the name of Preston-Parton Milling Company. To a great extent the activity and success of the mill itself characterized Waitsburg.

The local Waitsburg Times reported that:

From early morn' till dewy eve our thoroughfare is lined with wheat wagons and teams, our mills running day and night, and from break of day 'till midnight, a small army of men are kept busy handling grain and loading cars. At all our stores skilled clerks and salesmen are 'on the jump' all day. Waitsburg is indeed a busy little town.

The territorial legislature issued a regular charter to the City of Waitsburg on November 25, 1881. Under it, the City was incorporated with the usual powers for the creation of a police force, fire department and water works, and the enforcement of regulations for the safety, health and order of the City. Waitsburg remains the last city in Washington to operate under a territorial charter, as revised in 1886. The decade of the 1880's also brought a rapid increase in the town's population. By 1890, Waitsburg boasted some 800 residents. Public improvements were undertaken and amenities provided. Main Street was straightened, graded and graveled. Uniform wooden sidewalks were constructed and street lamps were installed. In 1888 alone, 20 or more residences were built and some half-dozen brick commercial buildings, including the Waitsburg Times Building, the Odd Fellows Temple, and the new Loundagin Building (Royal Block), all standing today.


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