On May 28, 1897, the Methow Trading Company of Winthrop, Okanogan County, is formally incorporated under the laws of the State of Washington. Capitalized by Eastern investors, it is an expansion of a mercantile venture started in 1892 by Guy Waring (1859?-1936), considered the father of Winthrop. The company acquires land and plats the town in 1901. For several decades, under Waring as president, the Methow Trading Company supplies townsfolk, ranchers, and miners with the necessities of life and occupation. It establishes branches in other towns in the Methow Valley and in mining camps in the Cascades. Gradually these fail, until only the store at Winthrop remains. The company loses additional money on Waring's pet project, an apple ranch. In 1916 Waring gives up control of the company and in 1924 resigns altogether. The company goes into a long period of liquidation until its demise in 1934. The failure of Waring's ventures in Winthrop obscures his overall contribution to the survival of a precarious frontier town in the remote Methow Valley.
Another Break for Freedom
Winthrop was actually the family's second sojourn in frontier Washington. In 1884, 25-year-old Harvard-educated Guy Waring arrived in the northern Okanogan Valley with a wife 11 years his senior and his three stepchildren. He had just married the widowed Helen Clark Greene (d. 1906), the younger sister of his stepmother, incurring disapproval on both sides of the family. By 1885, they were settled on a cattle ranch in the northern Okanogan Valley in partnership with Julius Allen Loomis. Here Waring opened his first trading post. He and his wife became disillusioned with the caliber of people coming into the wide-open boomtown of Ruby and the surrounding mining district. In 1888, they returned East for a disappointing three years until, as Waring later said, "I made another break for freedom in 1891 and went to Washington again" (Rohn, 9).
In the fall of 1891, Guy Waring and his family arrived at "The Forks" as the Winthrop area at the confluence of the Methow and Chewuch (Chewack) rivers was sometimes called. With $2,100 worth of merchandise purchased on credit in Sprague (or brought all the way from the East, according to his stepdaughter's much later memory), he set up a trading company backed by Eastern investors. This makeshift operation, first open for business in January 1892, was a boon to settlers whose closest source of supplies had been Coulee City, a four-day round trip by wagon. Waring's hope was to make Winthrop a major trading center for the isolated area between the Stehekin mining camps, to the west of Winthrop, and Conconully to the east. He became postmaster in early 1892 and tried to get the town's name changed from Winthrop, after Theodore Winthrop (1828-1861), to Waring, a move that did not endear him to the local people. The store's first year of operation resulted in a loss of $806.55.
On March 1, 1893, Waring's uninsured store and home burned down, with the result that the family had to return East for Waring to recoup his finances. He arranged for the rebuilding of the store during his absence and hired a local resident, Walter Frisbee, to manage it. Frisbee's lack of zeal for storekeeping under Waring's terms, plus the Panic of 1893, made for another unprofitable year. By August 1893, Waring had replaced Frisbee with Earl F. Johnson as manager, whereupon Frisbee opened a competing store across the river. To top off the bad luck, the spring of 1894 brought floods that destroyed bridges and ferries on the Methow and Columbia rivers, hampering access to Winthrop and other towns. Business continued to be slow, and Johnson wrote to Waring on August 13 that "I am afraid the store business in the Methow is played out" (Rohn, 22). It was not until Waring agreed to the construction of a social hall on his property in 1894 that trade improved.
Returning to Winthrop
An 1895 gold mining boom in the Slate Creek area created additional but temporary business for Waring, who was, at that time, living in Calumet, Michigan, and conducting all of his Methow business by correspondence. He arranged for Johnson to build a cable ferry across the Methow and to install a pressure pump to supply water from the river. Waring soon purchased a Winthrop saloon, which he named the Duck Brand after his cattle brand. He had no desire to be a saloon keeper, but wanted to preempt the sort of undesirable establishments that would spring up to serve miners streaming into the area. In December 1896, Waring and his family returned to Winthrop.
The incorporation of the Methow Trading Company occurred in 1897 as the result of Waring's proposal to Eastern backers for "the formation of a company with a capital subscription of not less than $20,000 which could be drawn out as needed to engage in the general mercantile business in this valley ..." (Rohn, 27). From February to April, Waring was in Boston, where he succeeded in raising $17,500 among his friends. In the prospectus for incorporation of the Methow Trading company, he had predicted that the valley population would double in three years and that a railroad would soon be built linking the steamboat landing on the Columbia River with the upper settlements of the valley, with the result that "a trading company capitalized as above and conducted by men who have already shown themselves capable of building up a snug business in the general store" would net 25 percent per year (Rohn, 31). All of these projections proved to be overly optimistic. Although most of the funding for the new corporation came from Boston investors, Waring was elected president and for years retained almost exclusive control.
Such an ambitious business venture in the Methow Valley could not have been launched at a worse time. On February 22, 1897, a scant month before the incorporation of the Methow Trading Company, President Grover Cleveland issued an executive order placing the entire Methow Valley within the Washington Forest Reserve. This edict permitted residents to remain but prohibited future settlement. Waring and others mounted a vigorous protest, arguing that the entire valley, unlike the surrounding mountains, was sparsely forested. In 1901, the Methow Valley was released from the Forest Reserve system. In the meantime, though, Waring's predicted population increase was halted, adversely affecting the mercantile business.
From the beginning, it was clear that Waring intended to use the initial capital investment, as well as income from the general store at Winthrop, to help fund additional ventures in the area. In May 1897, the company opened a branch store in Twisp, managed by Waring's stepson, Robert Greene, that showed a profit for three of its first four years. In July the company took over operation of Waring's Duck Brand Saloon. A series of bartenders found it difficult to operate under Waring's strict New England standards imposed to prevent violence and rowdiness. The saloon lost money during most of its 12 years in operation. The next expansion of business was the erection of a sawmill that sometime stood idle because of an erratic supply of logs.
Mining began to revive in the Slate Creek district and, as a result, Waring opened his next branch store at the boomtown of Barron, which could be reached only by a steep, narrow road to Hart's Pass. Because the movement of goods between Winthrop and Barron involved transfer from freight wagon to pack horses for the upper portion of the trip, the increased cost of transportation ate into profits.
In 1901, the company platted the town on land for which Waring had filed a homestead claim in 1896 in the name of his stepson, Harry Greene. Harry relinquished his claim in exchange for two shares of stock in the mercantile company, which filed a townsite claim in 1897. The Methow Trading Company received clear title in 1901.
In 1903, with an increase in capital stock from $17,500 to $35,000, the company was able to buy a store in Pateros on the Columbia and temporarily moved its headquarters from Winthrop to there. New investment increased capital to $50,000 enabling the company to purchase a nearby ranch and townsite property in Winthrop. The year proved to be the most prosperous since the company was incorporated. In 1904, Waring asked for an increase in investment to $100,000 but received far less.
Several grandiose schemes could not be carried out, but Waring was able to purchase an apple orchard, which he called the L5 Ranch. Although the first crops sold well in Boston, raising Waring's hopes, operating the orchard in subsequent years drained income from the mercantile business, and the company was forced to close its remaining branch stores. Then a drought beginning in 1915 spelled the end of this dry-land farming venture.
A 1910 handbill advertising a sale indicates the kinds of merchandise carried at the Winthrop store and conveys Waring's desperation. This "greatest sale the Methow Valley has ever seen" offered such items as baking powder, coffee, stove polish, whips, sleigh bells, axes, hay knives, ammunition, watches, belts, and suspenders. The handbill makes clear the connection between the Winthrop store and the L5 Orchard:
"Read first why we need money! You know we are in the orchard business. You probably know that as fast as money comes into Methow Trading Co. stores, it has gone in improvement on the L5 Orchard ... Every dollar we put into it does that much toward eventually making your own property more valuable ... . We have put so much money into the L5 Orchard that we find ourselves very greatly in need of ready cash. We have not declared a dividend for over four years ..." (Wilson, 100)
Waring lost control of the company in 1916 and returned to the Boston area the next year, never again to seek his fortune in the West. He resigned entirely in 1924. The The Methow Trading Company continued through a long, complex process of liquidation until its total demise in 1934. Guy Waring died two years later at Hyde Park, Massachusetts.
Difficulties and Contributions
The Methow Trading Company, like so many Western ventures funded by Eastern backers, was a victim of bad luck and mismanagement. Mining was sporadic, population did not grow as projected, road transport was difficult, the railroad never materialized, and fires, floods and droughts played their part. Waring's expansionist schemes jeopardized the modest return on investment that might have been realized by concentration on the mercantile venture.
In a 1929 reminiscence about the history of the company, Waring admitted: "... the ability of the manager was not equal to the severe demands upon him as conditions grew unfavorable" (Rohn, 84). Yet, in addition to founding Winthrop, Guy Waring and the Methow Trading Company undoubtedly made life somewhat easier for those trying to wrest a living from the land or the mines of that beautiful but isolated corner of the West.