The Columbia Plateau Grain Empire

| March/April 1994

Reprinted from Columbia, quarterly magazine of the Washington State Historical Society, Summer 1992 issue.

Wheat, oats, barley and other grains have been a staple of mankind for millennia; their intensive cultivation was a primary building block in the development of civilization. Grain was no less important to the Pacific Northwest's early pioneers who depended on it for more than sustenance. Hard cash and coin were rare in the old Oregon Country, and little of it circulated through the frontier economy. Consequently, grain substituted as a medium of exchange in fledgling communities, much as gold dust served mining camps. Recognizing this fact, the Oregon Provisional Government in 1845 declared wheat a legal tender at its market value.

Obviously, such basic agricultural products as grain and livestock were the pioneer's main source of wealth. And, of course, it was the staff of life. Biscuits, bread and boiled wheat were main foods on the table, and roasted wheat grains, brewed in pots, served as a substitute for coffee. Wheat is a durable low-bulk commodity, making for cost efficient handling, storing and shipping. For the pioneers, it was an ideal agricultural product for selling in distant markets where demand was high.

Farm residence of James W. Foster, Walla Walla County, Washington. The Walla Walla country's earliest mechanization is evident in this 1882 lithograph showing a horse-pushed header, angled header box wagons and a steam tractor powering a thresher.

In the frontier era extensive grain growing occurred on both sides of the Cascade Range. By the late 1800s, though, its main focus had shifted eastward to the Columbia Plateau where growing conditions were excellent. In fact, prime wheat land in the Palouse Hills along the Washington/Idaho border would prove to have a higher per acre yield than acreage in any other major grain-growing region in the nation. Wheat production, in its many facets, profoundly affected the landscape, city and town development, and the very economic and social fabric of the Columbia Plateau.

Settlement of the Columbia Plateau came in a century of 'agricultural revolution,' when great changes in farming techniques swept through the world's vast grain belts. Homesteaders in the mid 19th century plowed with single-bladed 'foot burners,' hand-broadcast seed during planting, and harvested with cradle scythes.