Waitsburg -- Thumbnail History

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 8/12/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9862
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The city of Waitsburg, situated in the Touchet Valley near the eastern border of Walla Walla County, began to form in 1865 around a gristmill built by Sylvester M. Wait (d. 1891). Wait strategically situated his mill at the center of a nascent but growing agricultural area, at the confluence of the Touchet River and Coppei Creek, where pioneer farmers were expanding the amount and nature of land being cultivated for wheat. Both the town and mill grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as technologies advanced for farming wheat and for milling and transporting flour. The population of the town remained relatively stable throughout the twentieth century, at some 1,200 residents. Wheat continues to be the town's core industry although the mill ceased operating in 1957.

Before Sylvester Wait

In 1859, following treaty negotiations and battles with local tribes, farmers began filing claims along the Walla Walla River. Robert Kennedy (d. 1920) is the first known to have settled a claim at the juncture of the Touchet River and Coppei Creek, a site recorded in the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition on their return to the United States in 1806. Other settlers quickly followed Kennedy, many of whom had fought battles in the area in the 1850s. After his arrival, one of these former soldier settlers, Albert Gallatin Lloyd (1836-1915), was confronted by Palouse Indians who claimed that they still had rights to the land. Lloyd negotiated a treaty that allowed the Palouse people to camp on his land whenever they liked. (This arrangement, maintained without the force of law, continued into the 1940s.)

Initially these pioneer farmers raised a little grain along the fertile banks of the rivers and reared cattle and horses. In the early 1860s, farmers began dryland farming on the surrounding slopes and the production of wheat began to expand substantially. When gold was discovered in the Clearwater region, a stagecoach, operating between Walla Walla and the new town of Lewiston, passed by the farming community and many began traveling to the mines to trade. In 1864 Dennis Willard, who had claimed 160 acres near the Touchet and Coppei in 1859, was in Lewiston selling supplies to miners and met Sylvester M. Wait (d. 1891), a dairy rancher who was seeking a site for a flour mill. Willard convinced Wait of the commercial opportunity in the Touchet Valley to ship increasingly abundant wheat as flour, and Wait returned to the valley with Willard.

Wait's Mill

Willard and William Perry Bruce donated to Sylvester Wait about 10 acres of land for a mill and residence. Wait borrowed $14,000 for the construction of the mill on the north bank of the Touchet River. His first mill was a 40-by-50-foot wood-frame structure that housed a single set of buhrstones. The mill began operating in the spring of 1865. The next year Wait sold interest in half of the business to brothers William (1832-1916) and Platt Preston, who sold flour at the mill's door to pack trains bound for mining camps in Idaho. Wait enlarged the mill and next to it built a large residence for himself.

A small village began to form near Wait's mill, which included a store, a saloon, and a school. The school, led by William Nesbit Smith, was housed in a frame building that was one of several moved to the town in 1865 and 1866 from a failed settlement upstream called Coppei. Soon the school was part of an official public school district and a new schoolhouse was built. A hotel was built, too, and Wait further expanded his mill and residence. N. J. A. Smith, who took over the school in 1866, said the town was the only place of note between Walla Walla and Lewiston.

In the fall of 1866, William Smith became the postmaster and operated a post office out of his store. Even though the town was commonly referred to as Waitsburg, Smith called it Delta. In 1868, by popular vote, residents renamed the post office Waitsburg. Bruce, who helped develop the mill and school and built a bridge across the Touchet River connecting Main Street with the mill, filed a plat on February 23, 1869. The plan of the town encompassed Main Street with a single block on one side and a couple of blocks on the other.

The Mill and the Town

By 1870, when Wait sold his remaining interest in the mill to the Preston brothers, Waitsburg was a town with a population of 109. It consisted of an assortment of businesses along Main Street and some 35 dwellings. The town's growth continued through the 1870s, including the extension of a telegraph line from Portland and Walla Walla through Waitsburg and on to Dayton and the establishment of the Waitsburg Times in 1878. But significant growth of wheat farms and the mill occurred in the 1880s.

A fire on September 13, 1880, destroyed nearly all of the town's business structures and the town began to rebuild its commercial district with bricks from local brickyards. In the summer of 1881, the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company extended a branch line from Walla Walla to Waitsburg and Dayton. With Waitsburg connected to the regional and also national network of railroads, shipments of flour were delivered to ocean-going freighters by way of Portland and migration into the valley increased. On November 25, 1881, the Washington Territorial Legislature issued a regular charter for the City of Waitsburg. Elections followed the next year. Under the charter, which was revised in 1886 and has been in force ever since, the city began to organize police, fire, water, and other public services.

The mill, which came to be known as Washington Mills, was further enlarged and improved. In 1886, William B. Shaffer, general manager of the mill, replaced the mill's burrstones with steel roller machines. With these machines, the mill produced finer and more uniform flour. By the mid 1890s, the five-story plant was capable of producing 250 barrels of flour a day and its elevators and warehouses could store 150,000 bushels. 

Construction within the city continued after the buildings destroyed in the fire were replaced. One of the most notable structures built during this time was the home of Bruce, constructed at the corner of Main and 4th streets in 1883 (later known as the Bruce Memorial Museum). Between 1885 and 1890, Waitsburg's population doubled from about 400 to 800. In 1888 alone, at least 20 residences and some half-dozen brick buildings were constructed, including facilities for the Waitsburg Times, the Odd Fellows Temple, and the Loundagin Hotel. Main Street was straightened, graded, and graveled and wooden sidewalks and street lamps were added alongside it.

In 1891, Frank Parton of Albany, Oregon, purchased a third interest in the mill, which then came under the ownership of the Preston-Parton Milling Company. The town struggled through and survived the economic crisis of the mid 1890s, and by the turn of the century the mill was producing some 400 barrels of flour a day and Waitsburg was established as a town principally focused on the storage, milling, and transportation of wheat and flour.

The Town after the Mill

In 1908, members of the town demonstrated that wheat could be turned into bread in 22 minutes -- clipped in the field at 9:04 a.m. and served in biscuits at 9:26 a.m. After Parton's death, Shaffer bought his interest and the Preston-Shaffer Milling Company was incorporated in 1911. The Waitsburg milling company continued to expand, establishing mills in Athena and Milton, Oregon. In 1936 the Waitsburg mill was converted from water to electric power. The Preston-Shaffer mill in Waitsburg operated until 1957, when stockholders voted to discontinue the business. In 2005, the abandoned mill was placed on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's list of endangered properties; in September 2009, a fire destroyed it.

During the early twentieth century, the town expanded to the south, away from the mill, and new commercial buildings were constructed. Wheat farming continued to be the core economic industry for the town, even after the closure of mill. The population of Waitsburg at the beginning of the twenty-first century is about what it was at the beginning of the twentieth.

Waitsburg Today

In recent years, following the growth of wineries and vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, Waitsburg has become a destination for wine and food tourists. Charles Smith, who was named Food & Wine Magazine's winemaker of the year for 2009, arrived in the area in 2001 and started a number of wine companies. In 2002, Monteillet Fromagerie, the first farmstead artisanal cheese facility in the area, was established. Three Seattleites opened Whoopemup Hollow Café, a specialty Cajun restaurant, a few years later and two years after that the eponymous owner of the jimgermanbar opened a cocktail bar across the street. Each of these establishments has become a destination for epicures.

With more than half a million in grant funds, in recent years Waitsburg has enhanced the historic district on Main Street by improving sidewalks and adding lampposts and trees. Other new tourist-oriented ventures are in the works, such as a boutique hotel. In addition, there is also an effort to create a museum to preserve the history of the mill.


City of Waitsburg website accessed June 20, 2011 (http://www.cityofwaitsburg.com/);  Elvis Laidlaw and Elvira Ellen Laidlaw, Wait's Mill: The Story of the Community of Waitsburg, Washington (Chicago: Adams Press, 1970); Vance Orchard, Waitsburg: "One of a Kind" (Waitsburg: Waitsburg Historical Society, 1976); Tan Vinh, "Food Lovers Hit the Road for the Sleepy Wheat-Country Town of Waitsburg," The Seattle Times, June 9, 2010 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com).

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