Pullman -- Thumbnail History

  • By Happy Avery
  • Posted 9/24/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11116
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Pullman is by far the largest city in Whitman County, with nearly 30,000 residents, and is home to the county's largest employer, Washington State University. The city is located at the confluence of Missouri Flat Creek, Dry Creek, and the South Fork of the Palouse River, approximately 10 miles west of Moscow, Idaho. It stands at an elevation of 2,552 feet in the heart of the distinctive Palouse region that spans Southeastern Washington and North Central Idaho. Pullman enjoys a colorful early history rooted in legend, while agriculture, commerce, and above all the university have ensured the community's success over time. Since its first non-Indian settlers took up residence in the 1870s, Pullman experienced largely consistent, and at times explosive, growth in population and economy. Agriculture remained a key factor, but development and expansion of WSU was the driving force in Pullman throughout much of the twentieth century. After 1980, high-tech industry also came to Pullman, employing thousands and adding to the community's longstanding enterprising spirit. In the twenty-first century, the bustling college town continues to offer a unique combination of small-town comforts and big-city amenities that serve a dynamic community amid rural Southeastern Washington's "wheat belt."

The Hills Were Alive

From its earliest days to the present, Pullman's relatively mild climate and natural resources have made it an ideal place for raising livestock and cultivating an array of crops, especially wheat and lentils. Rolling grassland rooted in fertile loessal soils distinguishes the site of Pullman and the surrounding Palouse, which sprawls across some 4,000 square miles from Eastern Washington to North Central Idaho. The region's intriguing geological history dates back to the late Miocene Epoch when a wave of major volcanic activity began the process of filling in a canyon 2,200 deep that ran through what is now Pullman. Between six and 17 million years ago, successive lava flows through fissures across the Columbia Plateau produced an immense bedrock shield up to 10,000 feet thick. The deep, rich topsoil that covers the region's ancient volcanic rocks blew in, likely from the Pasco Basin, through a series of massive dust storms over thousands of years. Over time, the environment in and around Pullman evolved to become one of the richest agricultural regions in the United States as well as a sight to behold. While Upper Palouse and Nez Perce Indians long recognized the utility of the landscape and its soils, immigrants entering the region, starting in the early nineteenth century, were slow to catch on.

Before waves of grain took over the landscape in the 1870s, the region's earliest inhabitants used the area for hunting, gathering, gardening, and eventually grazing. Pullman currently stands within the original homelands of Upper Palouse and Nez Perce Indians who for centuries moved throughout the region seasonally from villages established along the lower Snake River, running approximately 15 miles southwest of present-day Pullman, and its tributaries. By the mid-eighteenth century, hilly bunchgrass prairies around the confluence of Dry Creek, Missouri Flat Creek, and the South Fork of the Palouse River made the area an attractive stopping point for Southeastern Washington's Native communities and their vast herds of horses. When non-Indian explorers, traders, and missionaries entered the Pacific Northwest in the first half of the nineteenth century, however, they either inadvertently bypassed the site of Pullman or mistakenly deemed it unsuitable for settlement. Given its location just off the beaten path of major waterways and overland trade routes, early newcomers easily missed the place that would become Pullman. Thousands more crossed the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest from the 1840s through the 1850s, but potential settlers dismissed the seemingly barren hills of the Palouse as nothing more than an extension of the arid and semi-arid expanse of land west of the 100th meridian on the Great Plains known as the "Great American Desert." Most moved on to the more apparently lush and arable Willamette Valley and Walla Walla country.

The Stevens Treaties of 1855 removed many Nez Perce and Upper Palouse communities from most of Southeastern Washington, but the site of Pullman landed just inside the northwest portion of the newly established Nez Perce Reservation. The discovery of gold within the reservation's boundaries a few years later attracted prospectors and fueled the push to decrease the Nez Perce land base further. Another treaty in 1863 removed any portion of the reservation from Southeastern Washington and reduced it to an area in North Central Idaho. Many Nez Perce and Upper Palouse bands relocated in accordance with the new boundaries, but several opposed the treaty and refused to leave the land guaranteed to them in 1855. Meanwhile, in the early 1860s, the cattle industry expanded from the Walla Walla area into the Palouse near Pullman, where ranchers pursued the seemingly endless supply of sturdy and nutritious bunchgrass to nourish their stock. Sheep herders and swine raisers also found their way into the Palouse. Yet the wealth in the soil beneath remained unknown to these and other newcomers for the time being.

Making Pullman

As the grazing industries found success in the Palouse, railroad companies began to publicize the virtues of the region throughout the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s. Overstretched lands and crowding inspired settlers from Walla Walla and the Willamette to venture into the grassy hills of the Palouse in recently formed Whitman County. Although most of the pioneers trickling into the region during this time were stockmen, those who tried their hands at farming quickly discovered the superiority of the soil. Word got out and hastened the rate of non-Indian settlement. By the time the first homesteaders arrived at the site of what is now Pullman in September 1877, most of the remaining Native residents had left earlier that summer after residual tensions over the controversial treaty of 1863 came to a head. Many non-treaty Nez Perce and Upper Palouse Indians still living in the area joined Chief Joseph (1840-1904) and his followers in their renowned resistance to the United States government's campaign against them, heading east toward the Bitterroot Mountains and out of Southeastern Washington.

Exactly who founded Pullman and when remain somewhat uncertain in historical records, leaving early chroniclers the opportunity to shape competing narratives that served to create a sense of identity and civic pride. Local histories often credit Bolin Farr (1846-1913) as the first permanent resident, arriving in 1876 near a site where a river and two creeks meet and founding a village he thusly named Three Forks. The name stuck until Farr's supposed friendship with George Pullman (1831-1897) inspired the Chicago railcar magnate to give Farr and fellow residents $50 toward community festivities for the Fourth of July in 1881. In a show of appreciation, a grateful citizenry changed the emergent town's name to Pullman. Other versions of Pullman's founding tell a similar tale, but place Daniel G. McKenzie (1832-1910) at the fore, having arrived first but two years later in 1878. Although public spaces and contemporary renderings of Pullman's founding continue to tell variations of these accounts, a careful reading of remembrances and official records from the time reveals that both Farr and McKenzie most likely settled on the Pullman site in 1877, with McKenzie moving in slightly ahead of Farr in September of that year.

As far as the rest of the story goes, no evidence exists that there was ever a village called Three Forks. Rather it was a geographic reference to the area until June 1881, when newcomer Orville Stewart (d. 1903) established an informal post office in his general store, named it Pullman, and ran it at his own expense to attract business. Before long, Stewart formally registered his post office and became Pullman's first official postmaster. Similarly, George Pullman had nothing to do with the town in 1881 or at any other time. The closest to Pullman, Washington, that the prominent industrialist ever came was in serving on the Board of Directors for the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company (O. R. & N.), the parent company of the town's first railroad, built in 1885. Even though historical evidence dispels the enduring mythology of Pullman's founding, it anchored the community with a tangible heritage as it came of age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

McKenzie worked with neighboring Moscow, Idaho, resident Charles Moore to combine plats drawn in 1881 and 1882 and draft the original townsite of Pullman, which already included a blacksmith shop, a saloon, and a hotel, in addition to Stewart's post office and general store. Commercial growth was relatively slow at first. The agricultural potential of the Palouse had more than proven itself, but shipping was cost-prohibitive for farmers in Pullman, whose relative isolation made them beholden to the O. R. & N.'s exorbitant rates at Almota and Wawawai on the company's Snake River line. However, when the Columbia and Palouse Railway announced its plan to build a line through town in 1883, businesses and especially farmers flocked to Pullman. Excitement over the news waned quickly, however, as delayed construction stalled growth until the first train finally rolled into Pullman in 1885. The Northern Pacific Railroad Company soon followed with the completion of the Spokane and Palouse branch line, running north-south through Pullman, in 1887. The railroads brought the community of roughly 250 people access to ready markets at competitive rates and connections to the outside world.

If the service of two railroads were not enough to assure Pullman's continued growth and development, the discovery of a seemingly endless supply of free-flowing artesian groundwater was. In May 1889 workers drilling a well for M. C. True (1847-?), owner of the Palace Hotel on Main Street, struck liquid gold when they discovered the pressurized supply and dug the first of several artesian wells. The gushers soon flushed any doubts regarding Pullman's reputation as a prosperous commercial and agricultural center as it recovered from a devastating fire that wiped out downtown two years earlier. Although few local histories tell the same story twice on a number of details in Pullman's early history, not just its founding, they consistently point to the fortuitous discovery of artesian water as a key factor in keeping the Northern Pacific, winning a new state agricultural college, and growing its population exponentially all within the space of a couple of years.

Even after another fire swept through downtown in July 1890, the "Artesian City" seemed unstoppable as town boosters mobilized to avoid losing two high stakes games running concurrently in Southeastern Washington. The Northern Pacific had announced plans to extend the Palouse branch to Lewiston, Idaho, and was seriously considering a proposal from Moscow that would cut Pullman off by diverting the line at Whelan, a few miles northeast of Pullman, and sending it through Pullman's rival to Lewiston. Meanwhile, the Washington state legislature had authorized the founding of a new land-grant college with its location to be determined somewhere in the southeastern corner of the state. Now numbering some 850 inhabitants, Pullmanites were relentless in their refusal to give up one of the community's invaluable railroads and in their determination to win the new college, the grand prize that would eventually catapult Pullman into the limelight throughout Washington and beyond. Behind the scenes, local government leaders encountered legal hiccups with the new state government after organizing as a municipal corporation on April 11, 1888, but Pullman came out on top in that arena as well when the Washington Supreme Court finally laid the matter to rest in 1894.

The Old College Try

The Agricultural College, Experiment Station, and School of Science of the State of Washington opened its doors in Pullman to 59 students on January 13, 1892. Of the original class, only 13 young men and women were admitted as members of the college's freshman class while the remaining 46 students enrolled in a preparatory department designed to help address the state's shortfall in secondary educational opportunities for its still largely rural population. Although Pullmanites had welcomed news of the town's selection as the college site with great fanfare the previous year, the new institution failed to meet expectations initially. It was to provide a broad and practical education in the mechanical and agricultural arts, but limited course offerings and a fledgling administration coupled with the onset of a national financial crisis in 1893 left the college to stagnate during its first several years. At the turn of the century, however, a recovered economy and the steady leadership of President Enoch A. Bryan (1855-1916) had turned the mocked "cow college" attended by "a bunch of hayseeds" into a respected institution with an expanded curriculum and campus serving approximately 500 students (Bjerk, 54).

As the college grew, so did Pullman. By 1910, the college had changed its cumbersome name, more than doubled its enrollment, developed its campus, and continued to widen its offerings in both liberal arts and the natural sciences. The State College of Washington, or Washington State College, as it was quickly dubbed, was serving 1,016 students and Pullman, with an additional 2,600 permanent residents, was decidedly a college town. An influx of new residents came to join the growing faculty and administrative staff while the student body increasingly drew from beyond the Palouse and others simply moved in to take advantage of the enhanced social life a college affords its surrounding community. To accommodate a burgeoning population, the town experienced an unprecedented boom in residential and commercial construction, which resulted in several new neighborhoods and the development of Grand Avenue, Pullman's main drag.

Except for a dip immediately following World War I, Pullman sustained uninterrupted population growth and economic development through the early twentieth century. Washington State College was the gift that kept on giving, but agriculture too remained a key factor in Pullman's ongoing growth and development. The rich soils of the Palouse, plentiful artesian water, and continued rail service kept Pullman at the fore of the wheat belt. Rising demand and prices during World War I were a boon for growers, who continued to prosper in the 1920s despite wide price fluctuations. Although wheat and other grains still dominated production through the early twentieth century, fruit orchards and legumes, especially peas and lentils, helped diversify the local agricultural economy with high yields and returns.

By 1930 Pullman surpassed nearby Colfax as the largest town in Whitman County but the Great Depression soon brought Pullman's prosperity to a halt for most of the decade. During these years, drastic budget cuts for Washington State College and a severely depressed agricultural economy spelled hard times in Pullman until the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939. As it did for most Americans, the war lifted Pullmanites out of economic crisis and set the community on course toward a new era of unparalleled economic expansion. Money poured into the college to support important research and development in metallurgy and static detection while more than 6,000 army and air force personnel descended upon Pullman for training at the college after the United States entered the war in December 1941. The war effort brought the return of prosperity, but phenomenal development in the post-war period turned the college into a world-class research university and the town of Pullman into a thriving city.

The City upon Four Hills

From 1940 to 1950 Pullman's population grew an astounding 172 percent, a trend in part emblematic of the larger baby boom sweeping the nation in the wake of World War II. In the case of Pullman, however, the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, or the "GI Bill" as it was more familiarly known, played an even bigger role. Guaranteeing free tuition and monthly living allowances to military veterans, the GI Bill opened higher education to millions of Americans who would have otherwise been unable to afford it. College campuses across the United States experienced explosive enrollment as a direct result and Washington State College was no different. In the years following World War II, Pullman received a massive influx of veterans seeking to take advantage of the opportunities provided in the new legislation. The influx in turn generated yet another building boom on campus and in town to address the resulting pressure on Pullman's infrastructure and need for housing as enrollment at the college swelled to more than 7,000 students. The dramatic increase in the college's enrollment along with technological improvements and the continued expansion of its programs sealed Washington State College's transition to Washington State University through an act of the legislature in 1959.

Known colloquially as Wazzu, the university grew to become a first-rate center for higher education and research; by 2015 it boasted branch campuses around the state but still served most of its nearly 29,000 total students at the main campus in Pullman. The university's continued expansion attracted an increasingly cosmopolitan population to Pullman to join its administration, faculty, and student body over the years. Although most students moved on after graduation, Edmund O. Schweitzer III (b. 1947) made the decision to stay and join the faculty after finishing his Ph.D. in engineering in 1977. In 1982, he founded Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, an employee-owned, Pullman-based high-tech company that makes digital relay equipment for the electrical power industry. Starting out in his garage in the early 1980s, Schweitzer eventually developed a global empire that in 2014 reported more than $600 million in sales and employed nearly 3,800 employees worldwide, including approximately 2,000 at its sprawling complex in Pullman.

Meanwhile the city of Pullman, with its core spread across four landmark hills, has remained close to its agricultural roots, even after the artesian wells finally tapped out in the 1970s. Pullmanites found another abundant water supply by digging deeper to draw water from an ancient volcanic reservoir buried beneath hundreds of feet of rock. The Palouse River Watershed, which includes both Pullman and Moscow, is one of the largest in Washington with two aquifers supplying water to more than 56,000 residents and ensuring the sustainability of agricultural industries in the region. Wheat remains pre-eminent in the Pullman area, but lentils too have brought the little star of the Palouse much recognition, as Pullman has hosted the annual National Lentil Festival since 1989, when the region produced 98 percent of the nation's lentils. Although the Palouse grew only 25 percent of the national crop as of 2015, the festival continued to bring together thousands of revelers to enjoy live music, arts and crafts, sporting events, and array of lentil-themed cuisine every August. The annual celebration has morphed into a kick-off event for Wazzu's academic year, affirming the blurred lines between campus and community in Pullman.

Sources: Lawrence R. Stark, "The Founding of Pullman: A Local Folktale," Bunchgrass Historian 9:2 (Summer 1981), 4-12; Thomas Neill, Incidents in the Early History of Pullman and the State College of Washington (Pullman: The Pullman Herald, 1922); Richard Scheuerman and Clifford Trafzer, "The First People of the Palouse Country," Bunchgrass Historian 8:3 (Fall 1980), 3-18; Roger C. W. Bjerk, "A History of Pullman, 1876-1910," (master's thesis, Washington State University, 1965); Edith Erickson, Whitman County: From Abbieville to Zion (Colfax: University Printing, 1985); W. H. Lever, An Illustrated History of Whitman County, State of Washington (San Francisco: W. H. Lever, 1901); Frank T. Gilbert, Historic Sketches of Walla Walla, Whitman, Columbia, and Garfield Counties, Washington Territory (Portland: A.G. Walling, 1882); Robert Luedeking, Pullman (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2010); Richard Scheuerman, Palouse Country: A Land and Its People (Walla Walla: Color Press, 2003); "The Strange Geology of the Palouse," Idaho Public Television website accessed July 22, 2015 (http://idahoptv.org/outdoors/shows/palouseparadise/geology.cfm); Roy M. Breckenridge, "Geology of the Palouse," 1986, Idaho Geological Survey website accessed July 22, 1015 (http://geology.isu.edu/Digital_Geology_Idaho/Module13/Geology_of_the_Palouse_geonote_09.pdf); U.S. Census Bureau website accessed July 8, 2015 (http://www.census.gov/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Whitman County -Thumbnail History" (by Phil Dougherty), "Washington State University, Part 1" (by Cassandra Tate), and "Washington State University, Part 2" (by Cassandra Tate), http://historylink.org/ (accessed July 8, 2015); George A. Frykman, Creating the People's University: Washington State University 1890-1990 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1990); Robert Luedeking, "'War Years' Hard on College Town," Pullman Herald, "The First 100 Years" special edition, November 9, 1988, p. 18; Claire Thornton, "The GIs of Washington State College," (undergraduate paper, History 300 -- Writing in History, Washington State University, December 13, 2014), available at Washington State University website accessed September 24, 2015 (http://libarts.wsu.edu/history/images/TheGIsofWashingtonStateCollegebyClaireThornton.pdf); Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories website accessed August 2, 2105 (https://www.selinc.com/aboutSEL/); Mary Josephs, "Improbable Schweitzer Engineering ESOP Story: Growth Company That Stayed Put," March 30, 2015, Forbes website accessed August 2, 2015 (http://www.forbes.com/sites/maryjosephs/2015/03/30/improbable-schweitzer-engineering-esop-story-growth-company-that-stayed-put/); Ben Herndon, "What Lies Beneath: Pullman and its Water," Washington State Magazine 7:4 (Fall 2008), 24-25; National Lentil Festival website accessed August 2, 3015 (http://www.lentilfest.com/the-festival/).

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