The little town of George, Washington, has two claims to fame: it is the only town in the country bearing the full name of a United States president, and its popular Fourth of July celebration features what is believed to be the world's largest cherry pie, weighing in at one-half ton. Located at exit 149 off Interstate 90 in Grant County, George is midway between Seattle and Spokane. The town was built in the mid-1950s by Charles (Charlie) Brown, a pharmacist from nearby Quincy, who placed the winning (and only) bid of $100,000 on 339 sand-swept and desolate acres of land in an auction managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation. Brown put in waterlines, platted streets, sold pie-shaped lots, and built a truck stop he called the Martha Inn. The town was dedicated on July 4, 1957, and incorporated on July 4, 1961. After Brown died in 1975, George was purchased by a group of investors that had big plans that never materialized. Modest development followed in the early 2000s, but George never attained the special status that Brown had hoped for. In 2010, it was home to 503 residents.
And the Winner is …
In the early 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation sought ways to reclaim the arid soil that made up much of central Grant County. As part of the Columbia River Basin Land Reclamation Project, water was brought in using giant irrigation ditches. At the same time, the bureau wanted to create a way to support and resupply the farms that had sprung up between Quincy and Moses Lake.
At first, the federal government was going to build the town itself. A total of 339 acres were set aside, but county residents objected to the plan, so the Bureau of Land Reclamation put the land up for sale, seeking a private investor or group of investors to take over development. The auction was the topic of much discussion around the area, including at the local pharmacy in Quincy, where three men -- an attorney, a contractor, and the pharmacist -- had gathered to talk about the land sale. The trio decided to team up and place a bid; the pharmacist agreed to act as their agent.
Their bid was for $100,000. As it turned out, it was the only offer the federal government received. Shortly before the auction ended, the attorney and the contractor moved out of the area, leaving the pharmacist, Charlie Brown (1903-1975), as the sole bidder. Brown was notified by the Bureau of Land Reclamation that he was now the owner of 339 acres and soon to be the founder of his own town.
George is Born
Charles (Charlie) E. Brown was born in Rockwood, Oregon, in 1903 to parents who owned a small grocery store. He attended North Pacific College in Portland, where he earned a pharmacy degree, and later moved to Quincy, where he worked as a pharmacist. He also owned a shoe store. Descended from a line of hard workers, Brown was not one to walk away from a challenge. He was energetic and optimistic -- Brown's daughter used to say he had a new idea every morning.
The only structure existing on the land he purchased was a rundown and deserted farmhouse. Using his own money, Brown hired M. R. Wolf, a city planning instructor at the University of Washington, to help him develop the town. "Mr. Brown put in water lines, laid streets, planted cherry trees and sold lots -- some of them pie-shaped. Some wheat, corn and alfalfa farmers moved in, along with a few sheep herders and several retired people fleeing the relentless rains of the Washington coast, 160 miles to the west" (Malcolm). Brown envisioned an early American, or colonial, theme for the town, believing this would attract businesses and tourists.
Several stories exist about the origin of the town name. The city's website suggests the idea came from a man from the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who said "somebody should get smart and name a town after the nation's first president. (Perhaps he had never visited Washington, D.C., or another of the over 250 towns, cities, and boroughs named after Washington.) Still, Brown took his advice to heart, and decided that George would be an appropriate name for a town in Washington. Notably, while there are other places named Georgetown in the country, Brown's city is the only one named George in the United States" (Atlas Obscura).
In another version, Brown is credited with coming up with the name himself. It was said he wanted a respectfully humorous salute to honor the nation's first president, although his wife Edith declared it "a dumb name" (Malcolm).
Regardless, the town of George, Washington, was born. To attract business, Brown built a truck stop and called it the Martha Inn. He also built a grocery store, which he named the Bi-George Market. The streets were named after varieties of cherries, such as Bing, Lambert, Royal Anne, Windsor, and Nanking. The town's main street is called Montmorency, said to be the type of cherry tree chopped down by the young George Washington, an act he refused to lie about.
George was dedicated on July 4, 1957, with several dignitaries in attendance including Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011), who planted a cherry tree during the ceremony. This established the town's tradition of giving cherry trees to each new property owner. "Some Hawaiian friends of the Brown's provided the entertainment. Also making its appearance was the first one-half ton cherry pie. A huge Dutch brick oven was built especially for the pie which took three hours to bake and another four to cool" (City of George History).
George was a quiet place from the get-go. "In the early days there was little reason for anyone to drop in on George, Washington, unless his car broke down or his horse went lame" (Malcolm). The Martha Inn, a favorite stop for truckers, farmers, and residents, became the center of town life. "It would be impossible to count all the business deals that used to take place around the tables of Martha's" (City of George History). The inn was demolished in 2009 but the large highway sign, proclaiming Family Dining and Lounge, still exists.
On July 4, 1961, George was incorporated; its population at the time was about 300. The town government operates with a mayor, five council members, city clerk, city attorney, and public works superintendent. Charlie Brown was elected as George's first mayor. The town grew slowly during its first decade or so. There was a grocery store, furniture store, real estate office, beauty and barber shops, and drug store. A small brick mini mall housed the post office, and a community hall, built in 1964, was the site of meetings and concerts.
Colonial Farms Steps In
In 1973, Brown was facing financial difficulties and a group of seven investors, primarily doctors and lawyers operating under the name of Colonial Farms Ltd., bought him out. Two years later, Brown died, and his wife Edith became the town's second mayor. Around this time, 600 acres of the town's total 850 acres went up for sale for $2 million. The land offered included the Martha Inn and a cherry orchard. "In the course of time, the early enthusiasm for developing George as a colonial theme town waned, and the George properties simply became a tax write-off for Colonial Farms, and nothing more. By the mid-1990s, restive community leaders convinced Colonial Farms that they should either find a way to develop the town or sell their holdings" (A Little History of the City of George).
In 1994, George was sold to Bellevue developer Louis Leclezio and Jim Trullin of Wenatchee. They wanted to follow through on Charlie Brown's plans to turn George into a colonial-themed town but ran out of money. In 2001, the property was taken over by Quincy potato and fruit growers Mike, Jack, and Larry Jones.
The Jones family hired two developers to inject new life into the town. The city council responded with its own plan to improve the town infrastructure, which included upgrades to the sewer and water systems and some much-needed street repairs. A combination gas station and mini-mart called George's County Place was built that included a large bronze bust of George Washington in the parking lot. (The bust is a copy of one created by Utah native Avard Fairbanks (1897-1987) for the nation's bicentennial in 1976 and now installed on the George Washington University campus in Washington, D.C.)
At one point, the American Automobile Association named the town of George a travel treasure. The Martha Inn was remodeled and a new chef hired. Its menu was refreshed and the restaurant started to pull in some business off the highway. Unfortunately, this too was short-lived.
The two developers hired by the Jones family did not see eye-to-eye and quit the project. The family sued; the lawsuit was settled in 2005. In 2009, some of the property was sold to Catholic Charities Housing Service of Yakima County for a 51-unit low-income housing complex called St Martha Plaza. The $10 million development, home primarily to farmworker families, has the only sidewalk in town. George's Country Place became Shree's Truck Stop. The statue of George Washington still sits in the parking lot.
World's Largest Cherry Pie
George is famous for its Fourth of July celebration which, in addition to the requisite parade, patriotic music, and fireworks, includes the world's largest cherry pie. The event attracts some 5,000 visitors and has been held annually for 62 years.
Forty-five years ago, the pie-baking took some 32 hours from start to finish. People would gather on July 3 to light the fire in the brick oven at the community hall. The recipe used 150 pounds of flour, 72 pounds of shortening, 100 gallons of cherries, 200 pounds of sugar, two cups of almond extract, 75 cups of tapioca, and red food coloring to taste. The gigantic baking pan, which weighed 1,200 pounds when full of pie ingredients, was baked for 19 hours at 400 degrees.
Today  things are a bit more streamlined. The pie is assembled on the morning of the Fourth and ready to eat by 12 noon when it is served with ice cream. (A $1 donation is suggested.) The pie still weighs in about a half-ton and feeds about 1,500 people. Other cherry-themed activities during the Fourth in George include a pie-eating contest, cherry bomb run, and a cherry-pit spitting contest. George also puts on a special celebration for Presidents Day, which is considered the town's birthday. On that day, a large birthday cake, some 6 feet tall, takes center stage.
The Gorge Amphitheatre
The nearest attraction to George is the Gorge Amphitheatre, about six miles to the west. This music venue is known for its breathtaking views over the Columbia River, lawn-terrace seating, and balmy evenings with weather conducive for outdoor music. The Gorge opened in the early 1980s as the Champs de Brionne Music Theatre, founded by Vincent Bryan, a Seattle neurosurgeon, and his wife Carol. The Bryans bought the property in the late 1970s with the idea of planting grapes and building a winery along the river's dramatic basalt cliffs. The latitude, soil and microclimate were similar to the famous wine-growing regions in France, and the couple hoped they could establish a profitable winery. But their plans changed:
"It was during a hike of the 'little gorge' with some friends, as Dr. Bryan decided to stay at the top of the bowl while Carol and some friends trekked to the bottom (over 1,000 feet below), that he realized the natural acoustics the bowl provided. He could literally hear every word that the group was saying below. At that point, the proverbial bulb went off, and the decision to bring music to the vineyard came to fruition. This was more of a tactic to bring people to a local, premier estate winery to enjoy Champs de Brionne wines rather than turn it into the massive operation that we see today, but as they say, everything starts small" (Live for Live Music).
The Bryans built terraced seating and began to host small music gatherings while attendees enjoyed the Champs de Brionne wines. Over the next decade, the venue grew until it was large enough to accommodate 24,000 concertgoers. In 1993 the Gorge, without the surrounding vineyards, was sold to MCA Concerts, and later acquired by Live Nation. On concert weekends, which occur nearly every weekend from spring to fall, the site and its concertgoers become the largest city in Grant County. The Bryans eventually closed the Champs de Brionne winery, and Vincent Bryan went on to invent the artificial disc for the human spine.
As of 2020, there are four churches in George, a city park, and a community hall. George Elementary School, part of the Quincy School District, serves 191 students from K-5. The region has sunny dry summers; winters are cold with an occasional snowstorm. Average annual precipitation is about 8 inches.
Despite the long-standing custom of presenting flowering cherry trees to new property owners in George, most of the trees have been replaced with other deciduous species. The city could not afford to spray for the pests that might destroy the surrounding commercial orchards.