On February 11, 1911, the town of Omak, nestled in a curve on the Okanogan River with a population of around 520, incorporates. It is the largest town in Okanogan County and the sixth town in the county to be incorporated. Omak had been established more than four years earlier, on January 1, 1907, by surveyor Ben F. Ross, who platted 20 acres from his alfalfa farm to create the town. His work was at the request of physician and orchardist Joseph Irwin Pogue, who was upset that the small nearby town of Pogue, originally named in his honor, had been renamed Okanogan by a vote of the townspeople.
Omak Votes to Incorporate
On December 13, 1910, the citizens of Omak petitioned Okanogan County commissioners for permission to incorporate. "The land immediately surrounding the town is the most thickly settled district in Okanogan county, as indicated by the fact that the Omak voting precinct casts the largest vote in the county. During the last few months the town has grown rapidly and has undertaken a great amount of civic improvement work. The latest improvement is the installation of a water system" ("Seek Incorporation ...").
When the votes were tallied on February 11, 1911, there were 97 votes for incorporation and two against. It was suggested that the number of votes might have been higher if more women had voted, as women had been granted the right to vote in Washington just a few months earlier.
In earlier voting held in January 1911, W. H. Dickson was elected mayor, defeating town founder Ben F. Ross (1859-1937) by 25 votes. Council members elected were F. H. Keller, W. S. Shumway, Theron S. Stoddard, E. E. Warwick, Ira Graffis, and Dale Rice, who was made treasurer. Although their positions were set, the newly elected officials could not meet until the votes for incorporation were approved by the state and the charter was granted.
Founding of Omak
The town of Omak was founded in 1907 when Ross, a surveyor and engineer, took 20 acres of his farm and subdivided it into 25 lots. His actions came at the request of Joseph Irwin Pogue (1848-1940), a physician-turned-orchardist who was miffed that the nearby town of Pogue, named in his honor, had been renamed Okanogan by the town residents. Pogue asked Ross to help him establish another town five miles to the north.
Ross and Pogue were not the only ones who wanted to create a new town. Others had expressed interest but had not followed through. In 1906, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported "a possibility that another town will be started on the flat. ... It is proposed to lay out a town directly across the Okanogan river from the railroad town. The principal advantage of the new town would be that it would be centrally located on the flat and save nearby ranchers a haul of several miles to Pogue or Riverside to market their produce" ("From Arid Wastes ...").
The new town grew quickly as farmers and loggers moved into the area. "A single store has begun business in the new town and others are building. Property values throughout the county are advancing rapidly and settlers are arriving in numbers" ("Pogue Irrigation Project is Delayed"). The word Omak, derived from a Salishan word meaning "good medicine" or "plenty," was thought to refer to the 300-plus days of sunshine the area sees annually. The name had been in use by another town at the time, but those townspeople gave it up when requested and renamed their community St. Mary Indian Mission.
The newly established town of Omak was popular, and Ross's lots sold quickly. By 1910, there was a school, canning factory, sawmill, bank, hospital, and a variety of shops and services. Six months before incorporation, the Commercial Club of Omak took out a half-page ad in the inaugural six-page edition of The Omak Chronicle that proclaimed: "Best Town in Okanogan County. Why? Because here is the best fruit land in Washington. Because it is in the center of the Government Irrigation Project. Because frosts are unknown and there is sunshine in abundance" (Chronicles of the Okanogan, 9).
Fruits and Trees
Perhaps influenced by the attractive ads extolling the weather, and certainly buoyed by the completion in 1910 of the Okanogan Irrigation Project, many farmers moved into the region to grow fruit trees and alfalfa. Logging, sawmills, and box making were important industries. In 1920, John C. Biles (1871-1932) and his partner Nate Coleman started careers as loggers; within two years, the duo established one of Omak's premier businesses, the Biles-Coleman Mill. When the Great Depression hit, the mill stayed in business, although everyone, including Biles, had to take a paycut. In 1928, Biles became mayor of Omak, remaining in office until his death in 1932.
In 1930, Omak was home to 2,547 residents, second in size to Wenatchee in North Central Washington. On November 11, 1930, it received city status.
In 1933, former ranchers Leo Moomaw (1894-1969) and Tim Bernard (1897-1979) started a rodeo in Omak to help spur the local economy. The first two years were slow, but attendance improved dramatically in 1935 when the organizers built a proper arena complete with grandstands, crowned a rodeo queen, and added the World Famous Suicide Race, a gut-wrenching 45-second display of horses and riders galloping full tilt down a steep embankment, across the Okanogan River and up the opposite side. Despite lawsuits and animal-rights protests, the Suicide Race continues to be run every August.
In 1948, in an effort to spruce up the town, the Omak City Council changed the names of most of the streets and avenues. Streets west of Main Street were named after trees. In alphabetical order, these were Ash, Birch, Cedar, Douglas, Elm, and Fir. All the avenues north of Central Avenue were named for fruit: Apple, Berry, Cherry, Dewberry, and Elder. Mayor R. P. Hamilton approved the renaming, requesting that new signs be installed within two months. The cost was borne by the Omak Chamber of Commerce and the Omak Kiwanis Club.
Omak is governed by a seven-member council and a mayor. As of 2021, Cindy Gagné had served as mayor since May 2008 when she was appointed by the city council to finish out the term of former mayor Dale Sparber (1938-2008), who died in office. An Omak High School graduate, Gagné was the first woman to serve as Omak's mayor. She had been a member of the Omak City Council since 2000.
In 2020, Omak had 4,752 residents and was the largest town in Okanogan County. In addition to the schools in its K-12 system, it is home to a branch of Wenatchee Valley College. The town's economy is still dominated by agriculture and forestry, with recreational tourism a close third.