Zillah -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 4/23/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10371
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Zillah is an agricultural town in Yakima County surrounded by the lush orchards and vineyards of the Yakima Valley. It was founded in 1892, when irrigation first watered the dry sagebrush flats. The townsite was named after young Zillah Oakes (ca. 1872-1953), the daughter of the Northern Pacific Railway president. The town soon became a residential and commercial center for one of the richest agricultural regions in the state. The town incorporated in 1911 and had a population of 647 in its first census in 1920. It made national news in 1922 with its Teapot Dome Service Station -- a whimsical architectural commentary on the national Teapot Dome Scandal. The Great Depression hit Zillah hard, but its agricultural economy soon recovered. The town soon became known for its wineries, numbering in the dozens. Its population began to accelerate in the 1970s -- especially among its Hispanic population -- although Zillah would not need its first stoplight until 2009. As of the 2010 census, its population was 2,964.

Before Zillah 

The Yakima Valley was an important hunting, gathering, and fishing area for the region's tribes, known collectively as the Peoples of the Plateau. For millennia, the Yakama Tribe, in particular, had lived in the valley, including the area around Zillah. In the 1850s, Chief Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877), an influential Yakama chief, was known to have camped "a few miles below the present town of Zillah" (Lyman, p. 237).

White settlement of the region came slowly, because the dry sagebrush land overlooking the Yakima River was unsuited to agriculture. Beginning in the 1860s, a few cattlemen were scattered along the lush grasslands in the river bottom. By 1870, some townspeople had settled 16 miles upstream at Yakima City. Yet the future site of Zillah was still dust and sage.

The Sunnyside Canal

The town as we know it today owes its existence to irrigation, which came with the Sunnyside Canal. Early historian W. D. Lyman called the canal "truly one of the great works ever wrought" -- which was not an exaggeration, at least for the Yakima Valley (Lyman, p. 795). When the Sunnyside Canal began flowing in early 1892, it opened up 25 miles of the Yakima Valley to agriculture -- later expanded to 60 miles. Thousands of acres were suddenly converted from sagebrush into lush orchards and hop fields. Walter N. Granger (1855-1930), the originator and superintendent of the canal, and Thomas F. Oakes (1843-1919), the president of the Northern Pacific Railway -- which owned much of this land -- realized that this newly irrigated valley would need townsites.

In April 1892, Granger and Oakes went on a townsite-scouting expedition and came upon a likely looking site high above the north bank of the Yakima River. It was "near the rushing river, with its groves of cottonwoods and birches, but is elevated upon a bench," with a "superb view of the glistening domes of Adams and Takhoma (Rainier)" (Lyman, p. 795).

Naming Zillah 

Oakes's 19-year-old daughter, Zillah Oakes (ca. 1872-1953), had accompanied her parents on this trip. According to one widely repeated, but probably fanciful, story, young Zillah Oakes was riding with the party when the wagon tipped over in a stream. Zillah became so hysterical that Oakes tried to "pacify his panicky and pouty daughter" by promising to name the town after her (Courtney).

However, the evidence indicates that the wagon likely overturned on an earlier townsite-scouting trip that Zillah wasn't even on. More reliable accounts say the name was suggested during the April 1892 trip by either Granger or Paul Schulze, simply as a way to honor the youngest member of the party. "Then and there, the party adopted this pleasing and rather striking name," says a 1904 account (Illustrated History, p. 233).

"Blossoming as the Rose": The First Decade

The new town got off to a slow start in 1892. Reuben Hatch built the Zillah Hotel that first year, and the Northern Pacific & Yakima Irrigation Co., which operated the Sunnyside Canal, built its headquarters in the new town. It slowly acquired a few stores, a post office, a blacksmith shop, and a saloon. By 1893, the town had only about 50 residents. Floods and fires briefly set Zillah back, yet the agricultural region it served was booming.

In 1894, the Northwest Magazine raved that the Zillah country "is beyond question the best fruit country in the United States for the raising of apples, grapes, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, prunes, berries and melons ... also a better hop country than the famous hop valleys on Puget Sound for the reason that the hop louse cannot endure the Summer heats" (Lyman, p. 797). This was not mere boosterism. Farmers were discovering that the entire irrigated Yakima Valley was perfect for many of these crops.

Soon after the Sunnyside Canal started flowing in 1892, one of Zillah's most prominent early citizens, Freeman Walden, planted what proved to be a model fruit orchard on 80 acres. By 1902, he had 5,000 apple, pear, cherry, plum, prune, and apricot trees. He reported that he netted the extraordinary profit of $10,000 in 1902 and that his fruit ranch was "not for sale at any price" (Lyman, p. 795).

"If ever the desert has 'blossomed as the rose,' it is in the region around Zillah," said the 1904 Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas County (Illustrated, p. 233). The Seattle Times reported in 1907 that "the great Zillah fruit district" was "the largest under cultivation and bearing in the whole Yakima valley" ("Toppenish").

This agricultural boom did not translate into a commercial boom for Zillah, which -- despite the Oakes connection -- lacked a railroad line. The main Northern Pacific line was on the other side of the river, through Toppenish. However, in that first decade the town grew slowly and steadily.

By 1894, Zillah had organized a school district and built a "comfortable frame schoolhouse" (Illustrated, p. 233). By 1904, the town was home to three churches: Episcopal, Christian, and Methodist. It also had two stage lines and two telephone lines, local and long-distance. The town's commercial district in 1904 had added several grocery stores and drug stores, a jeweler, a milliner, a barbershop, and a hardware store. Zillah's population was estimated at about 150 in 1904.


By 1910, the town had grown big enough to consider the next logical step: incorporation. Citizens filed a petition with the county and on December 31, 1910, the townspeople gathered at one of the biggest lodge halls in town, the Woodmen Hall, to vote on the incorporation proposal. It passed by a resounding 94 to 6 margin. On January 5, 1911, the papers were filed with the state, making Zillah an incorporated town of the fourth class according to Washington law.

In the same election, E. J. Jaeger was elected town mayor. He was later succeeded by one of the founders of the town, Granger, who was elected mayor following his retirement as superintendent of the Sunnyside Canal. Granger, it is worth noting, made his residence in Zillah instead of another town he'd helped found: Granger, Washington, about eight miles downstream.

"One Continuous Fruit Orchard"

By the beginning of 1911, Zillah acquired a main railroad line, the North Coast Line, soon to be renamed the Oregon-Washington Railway and Navigation Co. It ran up the north bank of the Yakima River and "has become a great factor in the growth of this magnificent region" (Lyman, p. 343). Ton after ton of fruit, hops, and other produce rolled out of Zillah to markets all over the country.

By 1919, Lyman reported that Zillah and all of the irrigated land upstream and downstream was nearly one continuous fruit orchard. A traveler, he said, would traverse "miles and miles of apple and pear trees, scarlet and yellow with the autumn hues, which face him on the way through Parker Bottom, through Zillah and Granger to Sunnyside and Grandview" (Lyman, p. 794).

The Dome and the Leopards

The town itself, in 1919, was served by the Zillah Free Press -- "Republican in politics" -- as well as "first-class schools, well-housed and equipped" (Lyman, p. 797). Zillah High School students were in a modern brick building, built in 1917, which also boasted "one of the best gymnasiums of its day to be found in all of Yakima County" ("High School"). In 1919, Zillah High School graduated its largest senior class yet: 12 students.

The new town's first official census in 1920, showed a population of 647. In 1922, one of Zillah's most enduring landmarks made its debut: The Teapot Dome Service Station. Jack Ainsworth, a Zillah businessman, built this gas station in the shape of a jaunty white teapot, complete with handle, spout and red dome. It was a wry architectural joke about the Teapot Dome Scandal, which dominated the news in 1922. This bribery scandal was not a local issue -- it involved Wyoming oil-field leases and the Warren G. Harding administration -- but Ainsworth's whimsical commentary got national attention and became a well-known Zillah novelty. Tourists posed for photos and purchased Teapot Dome Service Station postcards.

Another Zillah symbol made its debut in 1931. The Zillah High School student body voted to scrap its old Zillah Bulldogs name and acquire the more exotic name, the Zillah Leopards. To this day, the Zillah Leopards and their supporters are easy to "spot" at high school athletic tournaments.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression hit Zillah hard. In 1931, the First National Bank of Zillah failed, done in by huge loans to two struggling fruit companies. The Zillah School District could no longer afford to pay its teachers in cash, and instead "paid with warrants, which were often discounted at the banks" ("High School"). One seventh grade teacher, Arthur H. Irwin, recalled that during the Depression his salary plummeted from $1,080 per year to $750. In 1936, the town got a boost from the federal government's Works Progress Administration, which built a new high school gymnasium. The new gym was so fine that it "soon became the headquarters for district basketball tournaments" ("High School").

Zillah continued its trend of slow but steady growth, up to 728 in 1930 and 803 in 1940. By 1940, the population also got a boost, at least seasonally, by the young men at Camp Zillah, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp under the jurisdiction of the Fort Lewis District. It was one of 26 C.C.C. camps in the district, providing jobs for Depression-hit young men. They performed public works projects in the region's fields and forests.

During World War II, the market for the area's produce recovered. Many of Zillah's young men marched off to war. Zillah residents had no way of knowing that, just across the arid Rattlesnake Hills east of town, a top-secret project at Hanford was producing the plutonium that would help end the war.

School Days

Zillah made news in 1951, when 78 Zillah High School students walked out of class to protest the firing of their principal and six teachers. The "noisy demonstration" was part of a long-running dispute between faculty members and the school board ("Walk Out").

A more serious calamity struck on October 8, 1966, when a late-night fire consumed most of Zillah Elementary School. The building was empty and nobody was hurt, but the fire destroyed 10 of the school's 13 classrooms, the library, and the office. The fire was reported at 11:30 p.m. and was contained about an hour later. The building was repaired, but was eventually replaced by a new elementary school.

A 1969 school bond vote opened the way for a new Zillah High School building, which opened in 1970 and was expanded and completed in 1978. The Zillah Alumni Gym on the campus of Zillah Middle School opened in 2007.

In 2013 a Zillah High School science teacher, Jeff Charbonneau, met President Barack Obama (b. 1961) and made the rounds of the nation's morning news shows when he was named National Teacher of the Year for 2013. Charbonneau, who graduated from Zillah High School in 1996, said he "stands on the shoulders of teachers who I continue to learn from" (Shaw). 

Heart of the Wine Country

Beginning in about the 1970s, a new kind of crop began to reach prominence in Zillah's agricultural region: wine grapes. Zillah had grown grapes from the first, but around this time Zillah growers and other Yakima Valley growers began to discover the potential in fine varietal grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Riesling. Zillah vineyards were soon selling grapes to big regional winemakers. Smaller wineries, based in and around Zillah, also began to sprout up.

By 2007, a wine writer commented, "Who would have guessed that Zillah would have stretch limousines zipping between tractors, but that's what you get when you add a couple dozen wineries to this landscape" (Roberts, p. 284). As of 2013, 26 wineries operated in and around Zillah including Covey Run Vintners, Hyatt Vineyards, Portteus Winery, Severino Cellars, Claar Cellars, Bonair, Two Mountain Winery, Wineglass Cellars, and Paradisos del Sol. The Zillah area is in the Yakima Valley and Rattlesnake Hills American Vinicultural Areas (AVAs).

In 1980, Zillah orchardist Sid W. Morrison (b. 1933) was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the Fourth District. Morrison raised tree fruits, Concord grapes, and wine grapes on land that his family had farmed since 1902. He had previously served 14 years in the Washington State Legislature before he won the 1980 race for U.S. Congress on the Republican ticket. He served six terms as U.S. Representative and then ran for governor in 1992, but lost in the primary. In 1993, he was appointed by Governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017) to be the director of the Washington State Department of Transportation, a position he held until 2001.

Roadside Zillah

In 2000, Zillah became known for a second roadside attraction: the 10-foot-tall movie-monster sculpture in the parking lot of the Church of God-Zillah. It was a replica of the Godzilla dinosaur, built as an acknowledgement of the obvious pun on the church's denomination. The congregation's official name was more prosaic, the Christian Worship Center, but Rev. Gary Conner decided to show that the church had a sense of humor.

"It's brilliant, really," said Conner in 2000. "And it just fell in our laps. … Different people use different lures to catch fish" (Earls).

However, the Teapot Dome Service Station remains the city's best-known symbol. Over the decades, it has been hit by a car, threatened by freeway development, and moved twice -- once in 1978 and again in 2012. It is currently located at 117 First Avenue in Zillah and is looked after by the Friends of the Teapot Association. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985 and the association hopes to someday move the building to a more prominent location and convert it into a Zillah Visitor/Tourism Center.

Zillah Today

Zillah's population began to accelerate beginning around 1970, rising from 1,138 in 1970 to 1,599 in 1980. The population continued to grow through the next decades: 1,911 in 1990 and 2,198 in 2000. In 2009, growth reached the point where Zillah installed its first traffic light, at First Avenue and Vintage Valley Parkway.

In keeping with larger trends in the Yakima Valley, the ethnic makeup in Zillah was also changing. In the 2000 census, Zillah residents of Hispanic origin made up about 26 percent of the population. In the 2010 census, that had risen to 42 percent. Zillah's total population, as of the 2010 census, was at an all-time high of 2,964.

On May 13 and 14, 2011, Zillah celebrated its 100th birthday as an incorporated town with a special Zillah Community Days Centennial Celebration. The event featured a talent show, a pie-baking contest, and a fireworks display. By this time, Zillah boasted six city parks, a municipal swimming pool, and a city cemetery. The biggest employer was the Zillah School District, which, as of 2011, served 1,340 students in four schools.

Today, the City of Zillah has adopted the slogan, "Heart of Wine Country." The name Zillah has traveled the world on wine labels and fruit crates. But the young lady who started it all, Zillah Oakes, apparently never came back to the visit the town that bears her name. She went on to become a socialite in London and New York -- far from the vineyards and orchards of "her" town. 


W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington, Comprising Yakima, Kittitas and Benton County, Illustrated, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties With an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Company, 1904); "Toppenish Now Assured as to Future," The Seattle Times, July 28, 1907, p. 25; Steve Roberts, Wine Trails of Washington (Mercer Island: South Slope Publishing, 2007); "In the Matter of the Incorporation of Town of Zillah," incorporation documents from the Washington State Archives, Secretary of State, Municipal Articles of Incorporation; "Zillah School Burns Down," Spokane Daily Chronicle, October 10, 1966, p. 6; Rowland Bond, "Couple Ends 42 Years of Teaching," Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 31, 1970, p. 1; "Can East Sider Be Governor Again?" Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 5, 1991, p. B-2; "Zillah High-School Pupils Walk Out to Protest Firings," The Seattle Times, April 13, 1951, p. 12; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Yakima River Townsite of Zillah is named after Zillah Oakes in early April 1892" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 4, 2013); "Teapot," City of Zillah website accessed April 6 2013 (http://www.cityofzillah.us/Teapot.html); "The History of Zillah High School," Zillah High School website accessed April 6 2013 (http://www.zillahschools.org/ZHS/zhshistory.htm); Ross Courtney, "Zillah: A City By Any Name," Yakima Herald-Republic, April 22, 2010, Yakima Herald-Republic website accessed April 4, 2013 (http://yakimathebeginning.com/2010/04/zillah-a-city-by-any-name/); Stephanie Earls, "Church of God-Zillah," The Seattle Times (reprinted from Yakima Herald-Republic), June 10, 2000 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Linda Shaw, "E. Wash. Teacher Captures National Honor," The Seattle Times, April 22, 2013 (seattletimes.com).
Note: This feature was corrected on May 4, 2018.

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