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Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma.
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Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society.
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Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society.

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

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

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.

In the 1870s and 1880s elaborate horse- and mule-powered
machines of amazing complexity and diversity replaced the simpler
tools and implements. These newer machines could only be operated
by large crews. Ironclad steam tractors, looking somewhat like
off-track locomotives, appeared in the last quarter of the 19th
century. The heyday of animal-powered technology, however, was yet
to come in the 1910s and 1920s, when teams of as many as 33 horses
or mules pulled great combines over the steep hills. Gasoline- and
diesel-engine tractors and Caterpillars took hold in the late
1930s, replacing the dutiful draft animals.

The Columbia Plateau

The great grain belt of eastern Washington overlaps into
adjoining parts of Idaho and Oregon. The region’s borders are
the Cascade Range on the west, the Okanogan Highland to the north,
the Bitterroot Range on the east, and the Blue Mountains to the
south. The mostly treeless and hilly Columbia Plateau receives 20
inches or less of precipitation on its more elevated eastern and
southern portions. Deep, rugged basaltic canyons of the Snake and
Columbia river systems bisect the region’s high prairies.

The soil of the Columbia Plateau is largely fine-grained,
yellowish-brown, extremely fertile loam ideal for ‘dryland’
wheat farming (i.e. without irrigation). This loess soil apparently
was deposited over many millennia by prevailing southwesterly winds
blowing across the Cascades and central Washington and Oregon.

Though this region sears in heat and drought during long
summers, lush clumps of native bunch grass flourish nearly
everywhere. Blue-bunch wheat grass (normally just called bunch
grass) is most common, but giant wild rye, Idaho fescue, and
Sandburg bluegrass are also present. Beginning about 1725 large
bands of Indian horses grazed on the bunch grass plains, especially
in the southern plateau and the Palouse Hills. A little over a
century later pioneer cattlemen eagerly drove their herds onto this
rich range. Incidentally, the name for the famous spotted-rump
Indian horse known as the ‘Appaloosa’ came from the
expression ‘a Palouse’ horse.

Frequently described as treeless, the Columbia plain actually
has some timber such as cottonwood, willow and pine lining
watercourses, particularly in the more moist eastern and southern
sections as well as in the Horse Heaven Hills of Klickitat County.
A comparative shortage of wood posed a problem for pioneers in most
areas, however, and families resorted to burning cow chips,
sagebrush, and dried wild sunflower roots in stoves. Firewood
frequently was hauled from the forested ridges surrounding the
Columbia Plateau. Log or sod cabins were rare; more typical were
board and batten houses made of lumber cut at sawmills in the
peripheral mountains. Fencing a claim could cost as much in time
and materials as erecting all the other structures on a homestead
combined, including the cabin and barn.

Early frontiersmen never doubted that crops would thrive in the
moist flats or ‘bottomland’ next to streams. When gazing
upon the boundless dry hills, however, their common farming
experience (derived in the much wetter conditions of Oregon’s
Willamette Valley, or in the Ohio Valley and other areas of the
East) made them believe that no crop could grow on the waterless
plateau. They thought the rolling prairies were too dry for
planting and thus suited only for grazing livestock.

In due time, it came as a great surprise when the
‘barren’ hills proved exceedingly fertile, despite the lack
of summer rain. Wheat yields per acre would be the highest of any
major grain district in the nation, despite lower precipitation
than in most grain belts. In the latter part of the 19th century
this revelation caused the United States Senate to order an
investigation of ‘the rainless regions of Oregon and
Washington’ to explain the unexpected fertility. The Columbia
Plateau’s great productivity was no mystery, of course, but was
due to ideal growing conditions and the scientific and
technological advances of the farming industry.

Frontier Agriculture

First plantings of wheat in eastern Washington occurred during
the earliest phases of white settlement. Beginning in the 1810s and
’20s, American and British fur traders raised grain,
vegetables, fruit and livestock at Spokane House, Fort Walla Walla
(originally named Fort Nez Perce), Fort Colville, and probably
other locations. Parallel developments occurred at posts west of
the Cascades. Eventually, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)
planted extensive gardens along the lower Walla Walla River. The
site of one of these farms (near present-day Walla Walla) later
came to be called ‘Hudson’s Bay’ by early American

By 1837 missionaries likewise tilled soil. Marcus Whitman, at
Waiilatpu, also near present-day Walla Walla, tried converting
free-roaming Indians into sedentary Christian farmers. In this,
Whitman and the other early Protestant and Catholic missionaries
generally failed. The mission, however, did help prove that crops
could thrive east of the Cascades.

Henry Spalding, at the Lapwai (Idaho) mission in 1846, had come
to the remarkable conclusion that grain grew well not only in the
moist bottomlands, but also on the dry upland prairies. At that
time, almost everyone else considered the plateau to be nothing
less than a part of the ‘Great American Desert.’ Spalding
was forced out of the region during the Cayuse War (1847-1850),
however, and it was left to others to rediscover the fertility of
the uplands many years later.

A legacy of the HBC and missionary period was that some Indian
groups accommodated basic farming skills into traditional,
seminomadic life ways. Famous Yakima war chieftan Kamiakin kept
gardens near the Catholic mission on Ahtanum Creek in the Yakima
country. Timothy, a Nez Perce headman, maintained crops and an
orchard at Alpowa Creek on the Snake River. The Spokanes continued
cultivating the soil after white traders abandoned Spokane House in
the 1820s, and other Indian groups tilled ground elsewhere.

In the early 1860s a series of gold strikes in the mountains of
Idaho, eastern Oregon, western Montana, and central British
Columbia profoundly accelerated the development of agriculture in
the region. The Columbia corridor, from Portland through Walla
Walla, was a primary route to the gold fields, which swarmed with
at least 20,000 to 25,000 wealth seekers. Commerce stirred to life
as the incoming population demanded food and supplies. Newly
arrived farmers at Colville and Walla Walla responded quickly,
selling foodstuffs in the diggings.

New homesteaders planted the Walla Walla bottomlands while
continuing to regard the hillsides and high prairies as too dry for
crops. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, some Walla Walla
farmers sowed and reaped grain in the rolling uplands. It was
probably the most significant discovery in Washington’s
agricultural history, but, apparently, the names of the men who did
the planting are unrecorded. It is known, however, that one of them
sowed 50 acres on hilly terrain in the fall of 1863 and harvested
33 bushels per acre from the same the following summer. Most
settlers continued plowing bottomland for a time, but widespread
‘dryland’ farming of the broad uplands was just around the
corner. Far-sighted observers now recognized wheat as a new kind of
gold, more long lasting and valuable than the wealth of the mining
districts which by the late 1860s was declining.

The Railroads Arrive

The mines, military posts and fledgling towns created local
markets, but the fact remained that sustained agricultural growth
and prosperity could only come when the Columbia Plateau became
effectively tied into the national marketplace. Railways were the
obvious answer, but little could be done as long as the Civil War
exhausted the nation’s resources. Besides, California, because
of its relatively large population had first priority in getting a
transcontinental railroad. In the 1860s and into the 1870s
Northwest farmers could do little more than wait for the coming of
the tracks.

Beginning in the late 1870s nearly 80 sailing ships a year
hauled Columbia Plateau grain from Portland to California, the East
Coast and England, but high transportation costs cut deeply into
small profit margins. It was time-consuming and difficult for the
region’s farmers to haul their wheat to steamboat landings on
the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Hauling grain by sternwheeler down
the Columbia to Portland was particularly costly due to the
unloading and reloading of freight at the railroad portages around
Celilo Falls and the Cascade Rapids.

Farmers’ wishes were answered in the early 1880s when the
Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific built separate railways to
the Pacific Northwest. Branch lines quickly spread across the
Columbia Plateau.

During the next three decades Northwest agriculture expanded and
was altogether transformed to a degree unimaginable in the early
settlers’ wildest dreams. Not only did railways haul produce
out, mainly to Columbia River and Puget Sound ports, but immigrant
coaches from the East brought great numbers of homesteaders to
stake claims in the Columbia Plateau. Before this time, settlers
had come principally from western Oregon. But with the railroads
arrived immigrants from the East, the Midwest, Canada, northern and
western Europe, and the Pacific Slope.

Urban areas likewise grew rapidly, further stimulating the need
for food production. By the end of this remarkable 30-year period
Washington’s population in 1910 was 15 times greater than in
1880. Railroad-sponsored propagandists and other regional promoters
liked to compare the Columbia Plateau to such famous wheat
districts as the Russian steppe, Sicily’s rich volcanic regions
or the north of China plain.

The Land is Settled

In the late 1850s and early 1860s homesteading in the Columbia
Plateau was focused south of the Snake River in the Walla Walla,
Touchet and Tucannon watersheds. The mid 1870s saw the beginning of
the great wave of migration to the Palouse Hills north of the Snake
which stimulated the establishment of steamboat landings on the
river to accommodate settlers. During the 1880s farmers continued
to be drawn to the moister, more fertile southern and eastern
portions of the Columbia Plateau. After these areas were filled up
by the early 1890s, immigration shifted westward to the drier, less
arable Big Bend and the Horse Heaven Hills. In neighboring Idaho
the rich Camas Prairie country remained largely un-plowed until
1895 when the Nez Perce Indian Reservation was opened by

Claims averaged 160 acres, being the maximum amount allowed by
homestead and preemption rules. Other acreage sometimes was added
by less utilized government programs such as purchasing state
school lands at public auction, or planting trees on barren ground
under the provisions of the Timber Culture Act. Thousands of
settlers acquired farms by purchasing railroad-owned lands at
reasonable rates. The United States Congress had granted alternate
sections to the Northern Pacific as a subsidy for building the
first, and very costly, northern transcontinental railway.
Consequently, the Northern Pacific rivaled the government as a
landholder with vast acreage to sell in the Columbia Plateau. Other
privately-owned companies dealing in large-scale land speculation
were relatively rare.

Economic Maturity

By 1905 the expanding eastern Washington agricultural sector
surpassed California as the main wheat district on the Pacific
Slope. The Columbia Plateau now was one of three major grain belts
in the nation (along with the Dakotas and Kansas). Columbia Plateau
grain production had been fully integrated into the American market
system and, consequently, now was subjected to the ups and downs of
national economic cycles. A prosperous boom period had coincided
with the spread of settlement throughout the 1880s, only to be
followed by the Panic of 1893 which caused farm prices to plummet
drastically. Across the nation, both rural and urban localities
came on hard times. The settlement of less desirable parts of the
Columbia Plateau had slowed significantly during this period,
particularly in the Big Bend and the Horse Heaven Hills.

With the return of prosperity at the turn of the century,
farming became quite profitable again, though many homesteaders in
the drier western sections of the Columbia Plateau still went
bankrupt after just a few years. It became clear that 160 acres
could not sustain a family in the less fertile Horse Heaven Hills,
Big Bend, and western Palouse, where more farmers were defeated
than made good. Those who survived consolidated nearby holdings
until more successful farms of several hundred acres became

It was far different in the fertile arc of the eastern Palouse
and the rolling terrain south of the Snake River. Here prosperity
was a given, though farms had less acreage than the consolidated
holdings farther west. Population densities and the number of towns
were significantly greater; the large number of substantial
well-built barns and other farm structures reflected greater wealth
and abundance. Also, in the moist uplands farmers could plant
barley and oats as rotation crops or alternatives to wheat. Oats
fed draft animals and barley was used in brewing.

Throughout the Columbia Plateau farmers continued to rely
overwhelmingly on wheat as the major cash crop. Wheat monoculture
encouraged the adoption of large horse- and mule-powered machines
to cover extensive acreages. Work animals pulled cultivators, gang
and walking plows, harrows, weeders, drills, hay racks, mowers,
binders, headers, wagons, header boxes, sleighs and other equipment
being produced by a competitive and innovative American implement
industry. After 1900 massive combines pulled by as many as 33
horses or mules became a common sight at harvest time.

Prosperity generally continued unabated into the 20th century
and even accelerated with an increase in demand during World War I
(1914-18). Grain, bringing high prices, was sold to England, Italy,
the Azores, South America, China, Japan, the Philippines and
elsewhere. Prosperity in the Columbia Plateau was at a peak seldom
equaled before or since.

By the late 1930s trucks and Caterpillars had almost entirely
replaced animal-powered field equipment.

Depression Down on the Farm

Following the boom times of the first two decades of the 20th
century, farmers looked confidently to the future, but prices fell
unexpectedly in the 1920sa prelude to even greater depression in
the 1930s. European agriculture had revived after World War I,
resulting in sharp cutbacks on American farm imports. Consequently,
worldwide wheat prices plummeted, a situation exacerbated by
surpluses from the American Midwest, Canada, Australia, Argentine,
and other world grain belts. All sectors of agriculture suffered in
this era.

The 1910s to 1930s were the heyday of the great horse- and
mule-drawn sidehill harvesters.

Despite a national and worldwide glut, Columbia Plateau farmers
held on, particularly those who used good business sense and were
fortunate enough to own good land. Yet, even in the fertile Palouse
some farmers were forced out. In Whitman and Walla Walla Counties,
for instance, there were 15 farms lost in 1921, more than 20 in
1922, and 45 in 1923. Competitiveness and efficiency encouraged
consolidation of smaller holdings into large units. The 160-acre
farm was out-dated, and by 1925 the average wheat grower in Whitman
County had expanded his holdings to 414 acres. For some farmers
barely managing to hold on through the 1920s, the end came during
the Great Depression of the 1930s. In that decade, farm
foreclosures continued at the same significant rates as in the
early 1920s. Drought played a partial role during this period also,
mainly in the Big Bend.

The Modern Era

Full revival came with the greatly increased demand for wheat
during World War II, and prosperity continued into the affluent
post-war decades. Exports to Third World countries were
exceptionally profitable in the 1960s and early 70s. Wealth and
progress during this period were at a peak.

Acreage left in summer fallow to replenish the soil was a common
sight until chemical fertilizers were introduced in the late 1940s.
Since then, the application of modern fertilizers has eliminated
fallowing on most farms, and crops now are planted on the land
every year. Nitrogen fertilizer, which is the most important
nutrient for Columbia Plateau wheat, is literally extracted from
the air at commercial plants. Known as anhydrous ammonia, it is
produced by combining hydrogen (from natural gas) with nitrogen
(from the atmosphere). Special drill-like implements dragged across
the fields inject the fertilizer into the soil. Such agricultural
engineering has made possible harvests of 100 bushels or more per

For more than a century, Columbia Plateau farmers have
experimented with a wide variety of wheat seeds to find the types
best suited for local conditions and needs. The list is a long one,
since experimental strains were constantly adopted. Little Club, or
Mediterranean vintage, was introduced early, about 1859, and widely
used thereafter. Prominent types used in the late 1800s and early
1900s included turkey Red (from southern Russia via Kansas), Jones
Fife (a New York hybrid), Bluestem and Early Baart (from
Australia), Forty fold or Gold Coin (from New York), Red Russian
(from England), Salt Lake Club, Mediterranean Red, Jenkins,
Crooked-Neck Club and others. As their names indicate, these
wheat’s originated in the widely scattered grain belts of the
United States and the world.

By the 20th century various state and federal agencies,
including Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, and
Washington State University, began developing and introducing
specialized wheat types for the region. By the 1920s, new
disease-resistant varieties appeared to counter destructive new
fungi. In the 20th century alone a series of 30 or more harmful
smuts have invaded Columbia Plateau wheat fields. Black,
powder-like smut eliminated grain the husks and could cause
dangerous explosions in combines during harvest. New seed types
have been just as quickly developed to thwart the attackers.

Another innovation of recent decades has been the planting of
dry peas and lentils as alternate crops in the Palouse uplands. In
the 1960s this successful development resulted in the Columbia
Plateau producing more than 90 percent of the nation’s peas and

Agricultural trends, however, are ever cyclical, and after four
decades of unprecedented prosperity, the wheat industry once again
faced depression in the 1980s. The root cause of the modern
agricultural crisis is a familiar theme over production resulting
in falling prices and low demand both nationally and worldwide.

But Columbia Plateau farmers are resilient. Their acreage is
among the best in the world, and they know an upturn inevitably
will come. Today, their huge rubber-wheeled tractors and
self-contained combines roll inexorably over all but the steepest
inclines. Despite this fabulous mechanization, ghosts of the horse
and mule days remain weed-strewn corrals, abandoned water troughs,
and name plaques above empty stalls such as in the Heilsberg barn,
west of Colfax, where ‘Daisy,’ ‘Blackie,’
‘Andy,’ ‘Flossie,’ ‘Flora,’
‘Pearl,’ ‘Bill,’ ‘Fanny,’ and
‘Charlie,’ formerly bedded down in the cool summer
evenings, munching oats after long days in the sun-washed

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