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Prosser -- Thumbnail History

HistoryLink.org Essay 7900 : Printer-Friendly Format

Prosser, the county seat of Benton County, is a town of about 5,000 people located in the far western part of the Eastern Washington county. The economy is based on agriculture including orchards, wheat, and wine grapes. Prosser is located on the Yakima River and was long home to Native Americans who lived and fished along the river. The Northern Pacific Railroad spurred its development in the 1880s. Prosser is home to Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (opened 1919). Its courthouse, completed in 1926, was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Early Days

Native Americans lived and fished along the Yakima River of Benton County long before white settlers came. They called their home by the river "Tup tat" meaning rapids. They appreciated the richness of the land that eventually attracted settlers. One of those early settlers was Colonel William F. Prosser, for whom the town of Prosser is named.

Prosser, a former teacher and surveyor from Pennsylvania, earned his commission during the Civil War. Prosser surveyed the area in 1879. He claimed a homestead in 1882. The Northern Pacific laid tracks through the area in 1884. This event attracted more settlers, since they now could easily get their crops and livestock to market. Nelson Rich and Jim Kirney opened two general stores. Emma Cobb Warneke opened the Lone Tree School. In 1885, Prosser filed the town plat. In 1886, he was elected Yakima county auditor and moved to North Yakima. He never returned to the town that he founded.

In 1887, Lewis Hinzerling and others built a flour mill at Prosser Falls. This development encouraged a few more settlers to make Prosser their home. In 1893, the Prosser Falls Land Company and Irrigation Company built an irrigation system. About 2,000 acres received irrigation water. Farmers began planting dryland wheat in the Horse Heaven Hills to the south and the Rattlesnake Hills to the north. The settlement incorporated as a city in 1899.

During the 1900s, numerous real estate offices, banks, and mercantile establishments opened to serve the growing number of farmers. Washington Irrigation Company added another 12,000 acres to its irrigation system in 1904. In 1905, Prosser became the county seat when Benton County was formed from parts of Yakima and Klickitat counties.

Town and Country

The Prosser Commercial Club formed to promote the town and develop agriculture and their efforts seem to have brought results. In 1908, the Sunnyside Canal was extended to bring water to another 5,000 acres. It looked like anything could grow in this rich volcanic soil as long as there was enough water: asparagus, egg plant, sugar beets, strawberries, goose berries, beans, corn, and hay all grew very well. Orchard crops brought the most profit, especially apples, peaches, cherries, apricots, plums, pears, and prunes. There were enough crops that a cannery opened in 1912.

The city infrastructure was shaping up too. The Prosser Falls Land & Power Company built a power plant on the Yakima River and began delivering electricity beginning in 1907. Also that year, Dr. David M. Angus opened the first hospital. A new high school was built in 1908. In 1909, Benton Independent Telephone Company bought Prosser Telephone Company, after which telephone service became increasingly popular.

By 1910, the city supported three newspapers: Republican-Bulletin, Prosser Record, and Benton Independent. Also in 1910, the city received a new library, courtesy of Andrew Carnegie, steel magnate and philanthropist. The city also installed a water system and reservoir. Several downtown streets were paved during this time.

In 1911, discussions began on building a college-operated experimental agricultural station in the Yakima Valley that would focus on irrigation. Washington State College officials selected Prosser as the site in 1917. Surveyors came in January 1918 and the station opened in 1919. Ever since then the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (as it is now known) has conducted experiments in the growing and irrigation of row and orchard crops throughout the state.

War Years and Beyond

As with most cities and towns across the country, Prosser helped fight World War I on the home front. Citizens formed a local Red Cross unit, which made 3,000 garments to send overseas. The group also made surgical dressings, socks, and sweaters and held a book drive. Citizens collected pits from peaches, cherries, and other fruits to make filtering devices on gas masks. There was a small economic boom, as demand for farm products steadily increased. Kids stayed out of school to help with fall harvests. Prosser was also affected by the outbreak of Spanish flu that occurred in 1918, when soldiers returning from World War I brought it back with them. In all, 25 people succumbed to the deadly flu.

In the 1920s, the city kept expanding. Running water had been extended to most residents. Apples were being grown in large quantities, especially Winesaps, Jonathans, and Delicious. In 1922, the Prosser Commercial Club designed a celebration in which everyone could register by his or her native state. That celebration evolved into the State’s Day celebration still held on Labor Day weekend. In 1926, a permanent courthouse was completed.

World War II

World War II dramatically changed the face of Prosser. The post office basement was converted to an air raid shelter. Men guarded the dam and power station against sabotage. F. L. Greenough established a flying school that trained pilots for overseas action as well as commercial pilots. Residents raised money to build Prosser Memorial Hospital. The Red Cross made thousands of surgical dressings for soldiers. Men leaving for service created a labor shortage.

In 1942, high school boys picked crops and businesses closed to assist. School hours were adjusted so school-age children could help pick crops. Women began to enter the workforce as teachers and business owners. When the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation began construction in 1943, some workers stayed at the Prosser Motel and the Strand Hotel, which were leased by the DuPont Corporation for the purpose. Some of these people remained in Prosser after the war was over.

During the war, the government urged agricultural counties to increase production of crops. Prosser residents found it difficult to comply since there was a labor shortage and a ration on farm machinery. It was also difficult to get fertilizer. Even so, farmers did the best they could. As a result of this push, wheat, poultry, and milk production have developed into major industries.

At the same time, the Irrigated Agriculture Research Center experimented with feeds and studied plant diseases, soil conservation, and insects, all designed to increase production. The Roza Irrigation District formed in 1942, bringing a new source of water. The War Production Board provided the necessary funding to finish the project, declaring the canal was needed for critical war time production. Farmers planted peas, alfalfa, clover seed, mint, concord grapes, asparagus, currants, soft fruits, hops, and apples.

The labor shortage required women and children to pick up the slack, but in some areas it wasn’t enough. Congress enacted Public Law 78 known as the Bracero Program, which enabled Mexican Nationals to legally come to the United States as "guest workers" to harvest crops. Although Prosser did not participate in the Bracero program (as did towns like Wapato and Yakima), many Chicano (Mexican American) and Mexican people migrated to the region during the war. Prosser's population shifted as migrant laborers came to town, and some stayed permanently. Prosser's population is today 29.1 percent Latino (almost 1,500 out of a total population of about 5,000, according to the 2000 Census). Most are of Mexican origin.

Progress in Agriculture

The city’s agricultural bounty continued into the mid-1960s, when farmers started pumping water from Columbia River to more than 10 miles south to water the high plateau. Orchardists started growing two new varieties of cherries developed at the Irrigated Agriculture Research Center: the Chinook and the Rainier. Several agencies contributed to the research center to study their specific problems, such as the Washington Hop Commission, the Washington Mint Commission, and the Oregon Prune Marketing Committee.

Simplot Soil builders built a bulk fertilizer distribution center in 1965. Kraft Foods and Prosser Packers also employed many people. Potatoes and peas were the most important crops. Seneca Foods opened a juice plant and then expanded into applesauce. Farmers started using tractor-pulled machines to harvest peas.

Elsewhere in town, downtown businesses expanded to try to compete with the new Columbia Center Mall completed in Kennewick in 1969. Western Auto, The Bookmark, and Young Fashions were among those who made improvements. The Benton County Historical Museum was dedicated June 30, 1968, at Prosser City Park. As part of the event, local artist Zanna Williams painted the bicentennial mural, which depicts events from each decade of Prosser’s history.

Prosser Today

In the twentieth century, Prosser’s economy is still supported by agriculture, though grapes, cherries, and wines get most of the attention. Dryland wheat is produced in large quantities. Several annual events, highlighted by the National Chukar Trials and the Great Prosser Balloon Rally, bring tourists to the area. And the city is building the new Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center, named for the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center scientist who worked so hard to develop wine grapes. IAREC is adding a new multi-purpose building called the Viticulture and Enology Laboratory and an Agricultural Weather Network.

A business park including two wineries and a nursery is growing. And FruitSmart, a fruit-products marketing company, is planning a 6,200-square-foot building at the Prosser Airport. Though technology is playing more of a part, agriculture is still at the heart of Prosser’s economy.

Sources:
Beth Gibson, "Prosser, Washington," Women’s Connection Magazine (Kennewick, WA), October 1996, p. 6; Helen Willard, The Way It Was on the Rattlesnake, Roza, Horse Heaven, and in the Valley, Vol. 1 (Prosser: Roza Run Publishing, 1995); Paul Fridlund, Two Fronts: A Small Town at War (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1984); Paul Fridlund, Prosser 1910-20: Going Back (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1985); Paul Fridlund, Prosser, 1964-74: Changing Times (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1987); Scott Keller, "Business Booming for Port of Benton," Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), March 11, 2006, p. F-10; Bob Stevens, "New WSU Facility Will Aid Cutting-edge Research," Ibid., March 25, 2006, p. F-8,; Sara Schilling, "Prosser Continues to Prosper," Ibid., June 25, 2006, p. B-1; U.S. Census Bureau, Profile of General Demographic Characteristics 2000, Census 2000 summary file 1 (SF 1) 100 percent data, Geographic area Prosser City Washington (http://factfinder.census.gov); City of Prosser website accessed September 20, 2006 (http://www.cityofprosser.com/ourtown.html); National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places website accessed September 20, 2006 (http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/research/nris.htm).


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Prosser, 1950s
Postcard


6th Street looking north, Prosser, 1890s
Postcard


Yakama Teepee, Yakima River near Prosser, 1898
Photo by E. E. James, Courtesy Library of Congress (Neg. L93-72.4)


Carnegie Library, Prosser, 1910s
Postcard


Benton County Courthouse, Prosser, 1940s
Postcard


Yakima River Bridge, Prosser, 1950s
Postcard


Benton County Courthouse, Prosser, 1960s
Postcard


Workers in Prosser Fruit Services apple processing facility, Prosser
Courtesy Port of Benton


Prosser, 2003
Photo by Terrence L. Day, Courtesy Washington State University


Quality control inspector checking clarity of a Hogue Cellars wine, Prosser Wine & Food Park, Prosser
Courtesy Port of Benton


 
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