Mabton -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan Stein
  • Posted 6/24/2013
  • Essay 10419
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Mabton is a small farming community located south of the Yakima River, midway between Yakima and the Tri-Cities.  Founded in the late 1800s, it became a city in 1905 just as the community was rebuilding from a devastating fire. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Mabton experienced a large increase in Latino population due to the influx of Mexican-American farm workers.

Named for Mable

In the 1880s, the Northern Pacific Railroad built a section house for track maintenance workers on a small plot of land next to the eastern edge of the Yakima Indian Reservation. Originally, the depot was unnamed, but one day a train stopped carrying Mabel Baker Anderson. Anderson's father, Dr. Dorsey S. Baker (1823-1888), built the railroad between Walla Walla and Wallula.

Anderson disembarked to chat with the track workers. One of them, Charlie Sandburg, was so impressed with the kind words she had for the work they were doing that he later suggested that the railroad name the depot Mableton in her honor. In 1892, when Ted Howell became Mableton's station agent, he shortened its name to Mabton.

Once the section house had a station agent, Sam P. Flower -- a businessman from nearby Bickleston -- saw potential in Mabton as good place to open a store, since Bickleston was not located on the rail line. Flower built Mabton's first general store, which also housed the post office. Within a few years, Mabton had several stores, a hotel, a saloon, and a schoolhouse.

Water and Fire

Mabton's early growth can be attributed to the construction of the Sunnyside Canal, which brought irrigation water to nearby land. The resulting increase in farm production brought more people to the burgeoning community, and they were looking to buy homes. 

The first plats for the town were filed in 1901, by which time the Sunnyside Canal had greatly increased nearby farm production by bringing irrigation water to the fertile but arid land. Mabton continued to grow.

Just as the town was experiencing a boom, disaster struck in 1905 when a fire broke out at the Oxford Hotel. The flames spread to nearby buildings, and although a bucket brigade formed to douse the conflagration, most of the downtown business district was destroyed.


While the embers were still warm, members of the business community began to rebuild, and consolidated the new business district one block north of the wreckage. As work progressed, the townsfolk held an election to incorporate Mabton. It passed unanimously.

Ted Howell, who had recently left his job as the Northern Pacific Railroad's station agent, was elected mayor. Before the new town hall was built, council meetings were held in a back room of the Mabton Hotel.

Although the town's main source of income was related to the farming industry, the founding fathers soon found other ways to supplement the town's coffers. Because Mabton allowed the sale of liquor, unlike nearby communities in the valley, a lot of money flowed in and out of saloons. Once a month, a representative from the city would visit bar owners and ask for a cut, as payment to keep the saloon running for another month. The same method was used for bawdy houses and gambling establishments.

Boom Times

One of the first orders of business for the new town council was paying for new sidewalks and graded streets. And because the 1905 fire was so devastating, they purchased a fire cart and hoses. Next up were improvements to the town's water system.

Within the first year of incorporation, the population of Mabton more than doubled. Many new residents had families, necessitating an addition to the four-room schoolhouse that had been built in 1904. In 1911, a brick high school was built just outside city limits.

1911 also saw construction of a two-story city hall, built of brick. By this time, the town was in a boom. More than 50 businesses lined B Street, including a meat market, a movie house, a dentist's office, a hardware store, a bank, and several drug stores. The highlight of 1911 was when former President Theodore Roosevelt made a short train stop and spoke to a gathering of Mabtonites at the rail platform.

In 1912, after years of pleading with the Northern Pacific to move the rail depot to a more centralized location, the railroad reluctantly moved it to a spot closer to downtown. Around the same time, Mabton got rid of its wooden sidewalks, replacing them with sidewalks made of concrete.

The Hay Palace

By 1912, irrigation water had reached the land south of the railroad tracks, and alfalfa hay had become the area's main crop. So much hay was being produced that farmers had a hard time selling it at a good price, until in 1915 they came up with the idea of holding a Hay Fair to promote their bumper crop.

The centerpiece of the fair was a Hay Palace, built out more than 1,000 tons of hay bales. The massive building, which looked like a medieval castle, was filled with farming exhibits, and also housed a theater and auditorium. The Northern Pacific provided a special car to transport visitors from North Yakima (now Yakima), the county seat, to the fair.

During its first year, the fair took in $10,000 in gate receipts. When the fair closed, the hay bales used to build the Hay Palace were auctioned off, with the stipulation that every bale make market price. The event was such a success that Mabton built a new Hay Palace every summer until the 1920s, when local crops became more diversified, and alfalfa production dropped off.

Down Times

The 1920s also brought an end to Mabton's heyday. By this time, the nation had entered the auto age, and the newly built Inland Empire Highway passed far north of town, closer to Sunnyside. Many of Mabton's younger residents moved away to seek employment elsewhere. The population dropped precipitously, and even more so during the Great Depression.

After World War II, Mabton began to grow again, and its population doubled in the 1950s to more than 1,000 people. New farming techniques meant better crops, and also new crops, such as hops -- which had been rarely grown in the valley since the 1880s. One Mabton hop farmer, Irv Newhouse (1933-2013) was elected to the state legislature in 1964, and later, in 1996 became Senate president pro tempore.

Another boost to Mabton's growth came from the influx of Latino farm workers after the war. By the 1960s, more than half of Mabton's population was Mexican American.  In 1968, Mabton elected Ray Cortez as mayor, and at the time he was the only Mexican American to hold elective office in the Yakima Valley.

Grapes and Wrath

Mabton's continued growth in the late twentieth century was aided by increases in grape production for the valley's burgeoning wine industry. Hops production also continued to increase, and the area is now considered one of the most important hop-growing areas in the world, after Germany.

In 2003, Mabton came under intense media scrutiny when the nation's first confirmed case of mad cow disease was made at a nearby dairy farm. More than 450 calves from the herd had to be killed, and although Mabton's farming industry took an economic hit from the news, the economic effects were short term, and the city bounced back.

In 2010, Mabton had a population of 2,286 residents, 92 percent of which were of Hispanic or Latino origin.

Sources: "Mabton Now a Town," The Seattle Times, January 11, 1901, p. 15; "Town of Mabton has Big Conflagration," The Yakima Herald, November 1, 1905, p. 2; "Mabton Is Growing," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1906, p. 5; "Hay Palace Fair Promises Success," The Seattle Times, August 15, 1915, p. 16; "Just One Mexican-American Holds Office," The Seattle Times, July 22, 1968, p. 2; "450 Calves Killed in Mad Cow Scare," The Seattle Times, January 7, 2004, p. B-1; Katherine Trembley Wernex, It Did Happen Here: A Living Story of Old Mabton (Prosser: Perfect Printing, 1979); Maurice Helland, Our Valley, Too (Yakima: Maurice Helland, 1976); Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1985).

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