Thurston County pioneer William Owen Bush takes top prize for grain at nation's centennial exposition on September 27, 1876.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 8/22/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10457

On September 27, 1876, grain grown by Thurston County pioneer and farmer William Owen Bush (1832-1907) is awarded a top prize at the nation's centennial exposition in Philadelphia and judged among the best in the world. Bush is the eldest son of George Washington Bush (1790?-1863), of Irish and African American descent, and Isabella James Bush (1809?-1866), a German American. In 1845 the family completed an arduous wagon trek west, settling at what came to be called Bush Prairie near present-day Olympia. Four years before the Philadelphia exposition, Owen Bush and other family members were instrumental in creating the Western Washington Industrial Association, which organized fairs for the display and promotion of the region's agricultural products. The success of Bush's grains at local fairs persuaded the territorial legislature to fund his appearance in Philadelphia in 1876. Bush proves a good ambassador for Washington and its agriculture, and he will make subsequent appearances at three other American expositions, winning prizes at each.

A Remarkable Family

William Owen Bush's grandfather was Matthew Bush, a black man who was most probably born in Africa but ended up in India in the mid-1700s. How he came to be there is not clear, but slavery of Africans was not unknown in India at the time, and other blacks landed on the subcontinent from Africa as sailors or were recruited as mercenaries. In India, Matthew Bush met a wealthy British merchant and sea captain named Stevenson, and a few years before the American Revolution started in 1776 came to colonial America as a servant (but apparently not a slave) to the Stevenson family. Here he married the Stevensons' Irish maid, and subsequent events indicate that the couple came to be treated more as family than as hired help.

Matthew and his wife, whose name is not recorded, had one child, George Washington Bush, who was classified in the manner of the time as a mulatto. He was given a Quaker education by the Stevensons and in 1831 he married a white woman, Isabella James, the German American daughter of a Baptist minister. They settled in Missouri and became successful farmers, their success no doubt facilitated by the fact that the Stevensons, childless, had left their entire estate to Matthew and his wife, which then devolved to their only son upon their deaths. The first 11 years of the Bush marriage produced five sons: William Owen in 1832, Joseph Talbott (1833-1904), Reilly Bailey (1836-1866), Henry Sanford (1839-1913), and January Jackson (1842-1888).

Aided by the inheritance, but greatly enhanced by his own efforts and those of his wife, George Washington Bush became an uncommonly wealthy free black man in America at a time when the economy of the southern states was still entirely dependent on slave labor. Even though he was indisputably free, and a man of means, Missouri was a slave state and not a particularly welcoming place for a mixed-race couple. It became less so as abolitionist sentiment increasingly threatened the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Early in the 1840s, the Bush family began planning to move west, with hopes of settling on the fertile land of the Willamette Valley in Oregon Territory.

Together with several white families, George and Isabella Bush and their five sons left for the West in wagons and oxcarts in 1844. Bush and a white friend, Michael T. Simmons (1814-1867), led the party. Their hopes of settling in the Willamette Valley were dashed when, in 1845, the Oregon Territorial Legislature banned settlement by blacks (while also, much more admirably, outlawing slavery in the vast territory).

Choosing to stick together, the Bush family and most others in the party decided to move farther north, into Puget Sound country. All of what is today Washington was still part of Oregon Territory, but the grip of the black-settlement ban was considerably looser the farther north one traveled. Once in the south Puget Sound region, the Simmons family founded a town called New Market (soon renamed Tumwater), and the Bush family settled a few miles south, establishing a successful farm at what would become known as Bush Prairie.

Shortly after their arrival in what would become Thurston County, Isabella Bush gave birth to the couple's sixth son, Lewis Nisqually Bush (1847-1923), his middle name a tribute to Chief Leschi and members of the Nisqually Tribe who had befriended the family and helped them in the first lean months of settlement. All of the sons stayed close to the Bush Prairie homestead their entire lives, and only two, William Owen (most commonly called "Owen") and January Jackson, ever married.

As he became established at Bush Prairie, George Bush proved as good a friend and neighbor as he was a farmer, generously assisting new settlers with goods and money and never turning away those in need. In 1854, one of the first acts of the new Washington Territorial Legislature at its inaugural session was a successful petition to Congress asking that the Bush family be granted an exemption from the strictures of the federal Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which limited property ownership in Oregon Territory to white males, married white females, and "American half-breed Indians" ("The Donation Land Claim Act, 1850"). The petition said of him,"He has contributed much towards the settlement of this territory, the suffering and needy never having applied to him in vain for succor and assistance ... " ("Memorial to Congress ...).

Owen Makes His Way

George Bush had established his expertise at farming while in Missouri, and his oldest son Owen, who was 12 when the family headed west in 1844, learned at his father's side. In 1850, 85 percent of the country's population was described as "rural," and the percentage was considerably higher in the recently settled West. Children, even those of young age, were expected to participate in the operation of family farms, and Owen Bush proved an apt student.

In 1859, while still living at Bush Prairie, Owen Bush married Mandana Smith Kimsey (1826-1899), a widow six years his elder. A white woman, she had come west from Missouri in 1847 with her parents and her first husband, Duff Kimsey. They settled in Marion County (of which Salem is today the county seat) and farmed there for approximately 10 years, until Duff's death. Mandana, now a widow with a young daughter, was experienced in farm life, and her marriage to Owen was to prove durable and devoted, ending only with her death in 1899.

Shortly after they wed, Owen and Mandana Bush established their own farm at Grand Mound Prairie, not far south from his parents' homestead. Their first child, John Shotwell Bush, was born there in 1862. A daughter, also named Mandana but called "Belle," was born in 1865. Now numbering five, including the child of Mandana's first marriage, the family prospered as Owen's agricultural skills soon made the Grand Mound Prairie farm a successful enterprise.

On April 5, 1863, George Washington Bush died from a cerebral hemorrhage, mourned by all who knew him. Owen Bush and his family remained at Grand Mound Prairie while his mother and several of his younger brothers ran the Bush Prairie farm. This would change; in January 1866, his brother Reilly Bush committed suicide by shotgun, and nine months later Isabella died. The farm then passed into the control of three of the five remaining sons -- Owen, Joseph, and Henry. It appears that Owen stayed at Grand Mound Prairie for a few years, but by 1870 he had moved his family onto his parents' homestead, now grown to more than 800 acres. As the eldest son, he took over management of the Bush Prairie Farm and would run it with a steady hand and considerable success until his death many years later.

Famed for Grain

The Bush Prairie Farm grew a variety of crops, including fruits and vegetables, but it was to become nationally known under Owen Bush's management for the quality and yield of its grains. Bush also had good business sense, and he worked to promote the products of not just his family's acreage but also that of other farmers in the region. In 1872 he, together with his wife and brothers Joseph and Henry, helped establish the Western Washington Industrial Association, which staged exhibitions in the region's fast-developing urban centers to show off the products of local farms. Its first fair was held in 1872 at Olympia and the next the following year at Seattle. Farmers from around Western Washington displayed their products, prizes were awarded, and purchase contracts signed. There were also dances, shooting competitions, and other events designed to attract the public. A newspaper account of the 1875 fair, also held at Olympia, described Owen Bush's exhibit:

"W. Owen Bush, of Thurston County, has 80 feet of wall and table filled with his productions; 42 kinds of fruit, among which is a plate of tempting peaches; 44 different kinds of potatoes; 118 kinds of grain. His family also have many fine samples of domestic handy-work" ("The Fair").

The nation's centennial was to be celebrated in 1876 with a world exposition at Philadelphia, and Washington Territory, seeking wider recognition and eventual statehood, was determined to put on a good showing. One territorial newspaper, lamenting the nation's poor appearance at the 1873 International Exposition in Vienna, warned:

"The entire arrangement of the American organization at Vienna, both state and national, was an utter, entire and disgraceful failure, and it is well to remember at the forthcoming Centennial at Philadelphia, that it is better, much better, not to appear at all than unworthily to exhibit a state or territorial industry or resource at a world's fair. A worthy appearance cannot be improvised; it implies labor, provision and experience ... .

"Washington Territory can be made to take a prominent place in that Exposition, or it can make a most contemptible showing ... " ("Centennial Exhibition, July, 1876").

The paper went on to note that although the legislature had appointed "commissioners" to organize the territory's participation at Philadelphia, those commissioners had done little, perhaps because no money had been appropriated to help them in their efforts. The legislature apparently got the message; money was soon made available. One beneficiary was Owen Bush, whose display at the 1875 Industrial Association fair had won praise and prizes. Based largely on this, he was selected to present examples of the territory's agricultural bounty at the nation's centennial celebration.

The Centennial Exposition

The formal title of the exposition, which ran from May 10 to November 10, 1876, was "The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine." The fair's Agricultural Building (called, by some sources, Agriculture Hall) was the third-largest structure at the fair, with more than 442,000 square feet of covered space. Designed by Philadelphia architect James Hamilton Windrim (1840-1919), it fittingly resembled a series of linked barns. Its size relative to the 505,479-square-foot Machinery Hall was thought by some to be symbolic of the rise of industry over agriculture as the nation's primary economic force.

Territorial press coverage of the exposition seems sparse, given the ink spent exhorting the government to adequately prepare for it. However, The Weekly Argus of Port Townsend did send a correspondent, identified only as "Sphinx," to report, and while not identifying Owen Bush by name, Sphinx did describe the display that Bush had developed:

"Hastening on, we went to Agriculture Hall where all the products of the soil and the machinery therefor is exhibited in the greatest profusion.

"Washington Territory exhibits a large quantity and fine quality of grain -- wheat, oats, and barley -- in stalks, showing the height to which it grows and the size of the heads, together with a large assortment of grain in glass globes, all of which appear to be from a gentleman whose address is in Olympia ... " ("Letter from Philadelphia").

The "gentleman whose address is in Olympia" was, of course, Owen Bush, and his display impressed not only Sphinx but the judges as well. Bush's grains were awarded a "first premium" prize, and his presentation declared to be "the best exhibit of grains made by any section of the entire United States" ("Early History of Thurston County," 324). The awards ceremony took place on the evening of September 27, 1876. Given that there were approximately 12,000 individual awards, they were issued en bloc by country and subsequently distributed to the individual honorees. 

Chicago and Buffalo

So successful was Owen Bush at bringing attention to Washington's agricultural wealth that his appearance at the largest American expositions became routine. In 1892, three years after the territory had gained statehood, the State, Thurston County, and the City of Olympia all kicked in to provide Bush with $2,300 dollars, a considerable sum in those days, to display his products at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. (The exposition celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's 1492 "discovery" of the Americas, but missed the mark by one year.) It is unclear whether Bush mounted his display in the Washington State Pavilion or the fair's Agricultural Building. The latter seems more likely; Bush was said to have returned to Bush Prairie with more than 200 kinds of grain from other displays representing countries around the world, all of which he planted on the family farm in separate, parallel rows. His own grains once again received awards and his peas, corn, and beans were recognized with a certificate.

By the turn of the century Owen Bush was nearly 70 years old, but his efforts to promote the products of his state and county continued. Next up for him and his bushels was the Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo in 1901. His exhibit here was in the Agricultural Building, and once again awards were received. And, as one historian pointed out, he now had help:

"In the planting, selection and arranging of the specimens Mr. Bush was assisted by his young daughter, Belle, who took as great an interest and pride in the exhibit as did her father" ("Early History of Thurston County," 324).

Last Hurrah in St. Louis

Bush's beloved wife, Mandana, died in 1899, and his own remarkable and productive life was entering its final years. After appearing at three earlier international expositions, Bush in 1904, now 72 years old, summoned the energy to serve his state one last time.

The occasion was the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also called the St. Louis Exposition, and Bush displayed his produce, and particularly his grains, in what was grandly called the Palace of Agriculture. Washington did well at this exposition, too, and was awarded a grand prize for a "collection of cereals, forage grasses, and miscellaneous vegetables; grand prize on 'best one-farm exhibit,' and many gold medals" ("State Buildings"). While Bush is not identified by name, it seems certain that that at least one, and probably most, of these awards were due to his efforts. But he did have some competition from other Washington farmers, including a sculpture, carved entirely of butter, of a milkmaid directing a stream of milk from a cow's udder directly into the mouth of an eagerly awaiting cat. Given the material used and the sweltering summer heat of St. Louis, this may have been a rather short-lived exhibit.

Home to Roost

His display at the St. Louis Exposition would be Owen Bush's last direct contribution to the agricultural renown of his state and county. Upon his return, and three years before his death, the Olympia Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution praising Bush's contributions, taking note of his "enthusiastic and efficient work ... in putting before the world a faithful exhibit of the agricultural products of this county at Philadelphia, in '76; at Chicago, in '93; at Buffalo, in 1901, and at St. Louis, in 1904" ("W. O. Bush Honored ... ").  

Addressing the inevitable, the citation went on to say:

"We desire to extend to Mr. W. O. Bush our hearty congratulations on the successful issue of his efforts. We trust that his closing days may be as golden as the beautiful grain he has gathered and that he may come to his final reward 'like a shock of corn fully ripe to the harvest'" ("W. O. Bush Honored ... ").

William Owen Bush died on February 13, 1907, at St. Peter's Hospital in Olympia. In announcing his death, the Morning Olympian newspaper said of this pioneer:

"Probably no resident of the state or territory throughout its history has done more to advertise the state than W. O. Bush" ("Pioneer W. O. Bush ...).


Sources: "1800-1990: Changes in Urban/Rural U.S. Population," Elderweb website accessed August 16, 2013 (http://www.elderweb.com/book/appendix/1800-1990-changes-urbanrural-us-population); "The Donation Land Claim Act, 1850," Center for Columbia River History website accessed July 26, 2013 (http://www.ccrh.org/comm/cottage/primary/claim.htm); "Memorial to Congress for George Bush," Start-Wa.com website accessed July 27, 2013 (http://start-wa.com/memorial_to_congress.html); "Annual Fair," The Northern Star (Snohomish), September 9, 1876, p. 4; "The Fair," Puget Sound Dispatch (Seattle), October 28, 1875, p. 1; "Centennial Exhibition, July, 1876," The Weekly Argus (Port Townsend), August 7, 1875, p. 2; "Letter from Philadelphia," The Weekly Argus (Port Townsend), August 11, 1876, p. 4; Early History of Thurston County, Washington: Together with Biographies and Reminiscences of Those Identified with Pioneer Days" ed. by Georgiana Mitchell Blankenship (Olympia: Publisher unknown, 1914), 320-324; "The Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, PA," The Library Company of Philadelphia website accessed August 22, 2013 (http://www.lcpimages.org/centennial/); "The World's Columbian Exposition," Chicago Historical Society website accessed April 17, 2013 (http://www.chicagohs.org/history/expo.html); "State Buildings: Washington" Lee Gaskins' "At the Fair" website accessed August 17, 2013 (http://atthefair.homestead.com/States/Washington.html); "W. O. Bush Honored by Chamber of Commerce for Good Work," Morning Olympian, June 14, 1904, p. 1; "Pioneer W. O. Bush Is Dead," Weekly Gazette (Seattle), February 14, 1907, p. 1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bush, William Owen (1832-1907)" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 17, 2013); J. S. Ingram, The Centennial Exposition Described and Illustrated (Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers, 1876) 751-753.


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