Palouse County

Traveling through eastern Washington’s Palouse Country is like a treasure hunt if you like
finding old barns and homesteads from a bygone era. Quiet little towns with three-digit
populations boast junk and antique stores selling all sorts of memorabilia. An easy circle
drive takes you through the heart of this marvelous country, and as you explore the
backroads within the circle you will discover modern farmhouses with shiny new barns
contrasting with the skeletons of old homesteads. One-room schoolhouses, their bell towers
long silent, lean lopsidedly beside roads traveled today by bright yellow school buses.
Antique farm implements rust in forgotten barnyard corners while modern-day tractors and
combines hum in the distance. Palouse Country beats to an ancient rhythm common in
farmlands everywhere: plant and harvest, plant and harvest, a rhythm that may seem slow to
city dwellers, though in actuality is anything but. Year after year, every facet of life in
this farming community is centered around these two major events and the activities
associated withthem. Named for the Palouse Indians who once lived in the area, Palouse
Country is that 4,000 square-mile region of southeastern Washington comprised of Whitman,
Asotin, Garfield and Columbia counties (except the Blue Mountains). Western Latah County in
Idaho is also included. Unlike the flat farmlands of the Midwest, this country is a series
of beautiful rolling hills that change color and pattern with the seasons and the time of
day. Deceptive in appearance, these hills that look so gently rounded actually make up some
of the steepest farmland in the United States, with some slopes as steep as 30 degrees. The
landscape challenged the early settlers who farmed the region at the turn of the 20th
century as they planted and cut grain with machinery pulled by teams of horses or mules.
But the 1930s brought the hydraulic self-leveling combines that made farming easier and
more profitable. Today, with soils as deep as 40 to 60 feet and topsoil as deep as 4 feet,
these hills yield some of the most abundant crops of grain in the world. Driving the silver
ribbons of asphalt that wind through the valleys between the hills of grain provides a rich
visual feast as the vibrant velvet greens of June change through the summer to a luscious
hue of golden honey by autumn. We often begin our trip through the Palouse by traveling
east on State Route 124 just north of Walla Walla. At Waitsburg, we turn northeast on U.S.
Highway 12 and stop for the night just east of town at the Lewis and Clark Trail State
Park. You won’t be able to make reservations here, so plan to stop early. It was late the
last time we went through and the campsites were full, but a sympathetic ranger allowed us
to park in an overflow area that had no hookups. Located along the Touchet River, this
scenic park is open to motorhomes from April 1 to September 15. Living history depictions
of the story of Lewis and Clark take place Saturdays at 8 p.m., and other interpretive
programs are available on request. We suggest stopping in Dayton for breakfast, then
touring the Dayton Historical Depot, which is open year-round from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tuesday through Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday June through October.
Admission and guided tours are free, but a $2 donation is suggested. Located at Second and
Commercial streets, this building, built in 1881 in the Eastlake style, is now the oldest
surviving passenger station in Washington. The museum features a variety of exhibits on the
history of Columbia County, and a gallery has ever-changing works by different artists.
When you reach the little town of Pomeroy, stop and take a minute to photograph the late
Victorian-style Garfield County Court House with its statue of Justice on top of the clock
tower. This lovely old building is in the National Register of Historic Places. Continue on
U.S. 12 to Clarkston and then turn north on U.S. Highway 195 to the college town of
Pullman, where so many of today’s Palouse farmers earn their agricultural degrees. Enjoy
strolling through the campus and making a stop at Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe; the
old-fashioned soda fountain is sure to increase your waistline. Call ahead to arrange a
tour of the Marc P. Bates observation room, where you can watch students making Cougar
cheese and ice cream. Continue north on U.S 195 to Colfax, considered the heart of Palouse
Country. With almost 3,000 inhabitants, Colfax offers all the small-town friendliness you
could want. We suggest touring the Perkins family home, a Victorian built by Colfax’s first
permanent resident. Refurbished by the Whitman County Historical Society, it is open to the
public Thursday and Sunday afternoons from June through September, or by appointment with
the Colfax Chamber of Commerce. A good place to spend a few nights is the RV campground at
the Palouse Empire Fairgrounds, located 4.5 miles west of town on State Route 26. Another
good choice for camping is the Boyer Park and Marina, on the Snake River just south of
Colfax. From here, you can travel the country backroads and enjoy the old buildings and the
color and texture of the hillsides. Patterns appear and change as the fields are plowed,
planted and harvested. There are barns to see in every shape, style, color and age. Birds
and butterflies flit and perch on fence posts or stalks of grain. A feeling of peace and
timelessness, which you will find in few other places, exists here. Ghosts of yesterday’s
farmers whisper among the stalks of grain that blow in the wind. We like to think they are
nodding in approval as they watch the current generation, with their agricultural degrees,
farming the land in ways that prevent erosion of the precious soils of the Palouse. If you
are very lucky, perhaps you will be offered a ride in one of the behemoth combines that
comb the hills, cutting the grain. If you find yourself at the Palouse Empire Fairgrounds
the fourth Monday in April, you will be in time for the exciting Planting Bee, when
old-time farmers, in their 70s and 80s, gather with friends and families to plant about 15
acres of barley just as it was done decades ago, using dozens of men, horses, mules and
antique machines. Labor Day marks the Threshing Bee, when these same folks gather to
harvest the grain with their horse-drawn headers and haul it by wagon to the stationary
threshing machine run by a huge drivebelt from a wood-fired steam engine. Young men and
children participate in these events, keeping alive the traditional ways of planting and
harvesting. Today, a man and his wife using modern machinery could easily plant or harvest
a field this size in only a fraction of the time spent using old time methods. However, the
camaraderie that took place in the old days, as entire communities came together to help
each other with planting and harvesting, created a bonding network of support that enriched
the lives of all participants. You are welcome to join in the labor and the fun of today’s
events; call the Colfax Chamber of Commerce. Drive north on U.S. 195 about six miles and
turn east on Scholz Road to Steptoe Butte State Park. A drive up the 3,612-foot-tall
thimble-shape quartzite butte allows you to look out over 200 miles of Palouse Country and
into the Blue Mountains in the distance. We can spend an entire day up here with cameras,
tripods and long lenses, photographing the beautiful hills and farms below as the colors
and patterns shift with the turning of the earth. Native Americans called the butte “the
power mountain,” believing that a visit brought a gift of power from the mountain’s
guardian spirit. From Steptoe, continue north on State Route 23. Between mileposts 19 and
20, near St. John, you will pass a curious round barn that has fascinated people for years.
We stopped and talked with the owners and were told that an ancestor, Max T. W. Steinke,
who emigrated from Germany in 1862, had built the barn. After living awhile in Minnesota,
Max arrived in the St. John area in 1904. He designed the barn himself with the thought
that it was the ideal shape to house his horses. Construction took place about 1916. His
descendants made a trip back to Minnesota, thinking they might find further information
about the barn, but they didn’t see any similar architecture. Maybe the answer lies in
Germany, or maybe it was simply something Max dreamed up. Continue your journey north to
Sprague and the junction of Interstate 90. Take the freeway southwest 23 miles to
Ritzville, and turn south on State Route 261. At the junction of State Route 26, drive
through Washtucna, Adam County’s oldest town, and on down to Palouse Falls State Park for a
campsite. This park features a 200 foot-high waterfall and several good hiking trails. It
is a first-come, first-served park, so plan to pull in early. From Palouse Falls, you can
drive south to Waitsburg, completing your circle. Camping can be sparse in the Palouse now
that the large state parks along the Columbia and Snake rivers, such as Lyons Ferry, Crow
Butte and Chief Timothy, have been closed to camping due to budgetary problems, but you
should be well-accommodated at the parks mentioned. Several others are listed in the 2003
Trailer Life Directory. As many times as we make this trip, we always find
something new to enjoy, and we’re sure there are many other old barns and homesteads that
we have yet to discover. Bring your camera and binoculars, and take this treasure hunt for
yourself.


Some of the old barns in the region that we have enjoyed seeing over the years are: •
Located along State Route 23 S. at milepost 10 is an ancient green barn; it was leaning
precariously the last time we drove by. Owners of these old structures try to preserve
them, but the cost, in many cases, becomes prohibitive. • The Eriksen barn is located along
State Route 23 between mileposts 18 and 19. Nels Eriksen came to America from Denmark on a
sailing ship when he was 19 years old and began farming in the Palouse in 1907. In 1915, he
built this barn to house his horses. His grandson owned and operated the farm at the time
of our last visit. • Another nice old barn and windmill stand beside the road just outside
Endicott near milepost 12. Proud but alone, they are surrounded by acres and acres of grain
fields. If ghosts of another era linger in this community, they are surely here. • Sitting
majestically along State Highway 272 near milepost 3 is another grand old barn. With its
coat of red nearly faded to gray, this weathered beauty defies the onslaught of time and
weather.

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