Palouse -- Thumbnail History

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 4/22/2020
  • Essay 21016
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Palouse is the second oldest town in Whitman County. It is located on the north fork of the Palouse River, about 15 miles north of Pullman and less than two miles from the Idaho state border. Founded in 1874 and incorporated in 1888, the town was once the lumber capital of Eastern Washington, thanks to the Potlatch Lumber Company and several railroad lines. A massive fire devastated Palouse in 1888, but over the next few decades, its Main Street was rebuilt and became one of the region's largest pioneer-era commercial districts. One of these buildings houses the Roy M. Chatters Newspaper and Printing Museum, a collection of printing-press machinery and newspaper archives spanning more than 125 years. There were fancy hotels, an opera house, banks, and a public library established in 1920 with 20 donated books. Palouse was the childhood home of inventor and industrialist Richard A. Hanson (1923-2009), who in 1942 built an automated self-leveling attachment for farm machines that revolutionized harvesting wheat on steep hillsides. Area farmers grow cereal grasses such as wheat and barley along with peas, lentils, and garbanzos. As of 2017, Palouse had 1,055 residents, many of whom worked or attended school at Washington State University in nearby Pullman.

The Founding of Palouse City

The first non-Native settler on the north fork of the Palouse River was said to be William Ewing, who arrived in 1869. Others followed, including Joseph Hammer and A. Towner and their families, and by 1873 a community had begun to form on land homesteaded by James A. "Modoc" Smith. The town of Palouse was founded in 1874, when William P. "Pap" Breeding (1819-1881) established a flour mill. Breeding hired a surveyor to plat the town the following year. The derivation of the word Palouse is unclear. One theory is that it was the name of a Native American tribe called Palus, Pelusha, or something similar. A second theory is that French-Canadian fur trappers, upon seeing the lush rolling hills, called the area "pelouse," meaning lawn or grass in French.

In 1875, William Powers opened a general store in Palouse, and a post office was established the next year. By 1877, the town was home to a "flour mill, three steam sawmills, a steam planing mill and sash factory, two general merchandise stores, a drug store, a millinery store, two blacksmith shops, two hotels, a saloon, a meat market, a livery stable, a barber shop and a boot and shoe shop" (Whitman, 216).

Soon, the little town outgrew its original borders and a new site was created about one-eighth of a mile away across the river. A duo called Wiley and Beach platted the new community around 1882, and it prospered thanks to nearby dense forests of pine and modest mineral deposits along the Palouse River. Three large lumber mills opened in town and three others were established about 10 miles away.

The Railroad Arrives

By the late 1880s, it became clear that better transportation options were needed if the town were to continue growing. The Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company offered the closest railroad terminal in Almota, Whitman County, some 27 miles away. Timber and other goods from Palouse meant for rail shipment had to travel by wagon over rutted roads to Almota, while passengers and the mail went by stagecoach. It was not an efficient system.

In 1888, the Spokane and Palouse Railroad, part of the Northern Pacific Railroad, arrived. This line gave the locals greater access to manufactured goods and allowed businesses and farmers a faster and more cost-effective way of shipping their crops and lumber.

But the arrival of the Spokane and Palouse Railroad did not happen without a struggle. The first engineers sent out to survey the area advised a different route -- one would have cut Palouse out of it entirely. The railroad's chief engineer agreed. Luckily for the town, Anthony McCue Cannon (1839-1895), a prominent Palouse banker and former Spokane mayor, quickly made his way to New York, where he met with railroad executives and asked them to rethink their decision. He promised that a railroad line to Palouse City would be an economically sound business decision. Evidently, his argument was convincing: The Spokane and Palouse Railroad began service in 1888.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, five bridges spanned the Palouse River, including a new steel bridge later known as the F Street Bridge. "The new steel bridge was not only a source of pride for the community, but the choice of its placement also indicated the river crossing's importance to the local transportation and marketing network, particularly in terms of agriculture ... Oldtimers in the community remember farmers in horse-drawn wheat wagons lined up across the bridge at harvest waiting their turn to unload grain at the Palouse Flour Mills, a practice which continued until the early 1920s" (Bruce).

Clashing Interests

The Potlatch Lumber Company, a subsidiary of Weyerhaeuser, had a huge influence on the town of Palouse during the early years of the twentieth century. Incorporated in 1903, the company bought out several mills and timber stock in the region, including the Palouse River Lumber Company. Determined to get direct access to the forest reserves in Idaho, the company broke ground for the 47-mile-long Washington, Idaho and Montana Railroad on May 10, 1905. The new rail line ran from Palouse to Purdue, Idaho. Capacity at the old mill nearly doubled, which generated an economic boom as well as a housing shortage. The Potlatch saw mill and dry kiln employed about 100 men and was the town's largest employer.

But the new sawmill owners' interests soon competed with the old Breeding flour mill. "The millers occasionally refused to open the dam for Potlatch logs destined for sawmills downstream. In 1905, Potlatch Lumber Company solved this conflict by buying the ... flour mill and converting it to electricity. This action ended dependency on water to generate power for the grist mill, while concurrently assuring control of the river for the company's log drives" (Bruce).

In 1906, an electric interurban line called the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad began in Spokane, passed through Palouse, and ended in Moscow, Idaho. "The town's many railroad and highway bridges were vital connecting threads in the fabric of the town's status as a regional transportation network" (Bruce). In Palouse in 2020, a lone pillar and cement retaining wall from an old railroad bridge stand as a historical marker with photos and signage recalling the town's early railroad history.

Fire and Water

A massive fire in 1888 dealt Palouse a heavy blow. Nearly all the principal businesses were destroyed and the region suffered more than $300,000 in damages. Financier Anthony Cannon, who helped broker the railroad deal, again came to the rescue, helping to finance the rebuilding of the town. But more disasters were right around the corner. In 1893, heavy rains prevented farmers from harvesting their crops, which led to several bad years for the community. Three banks failed and the principal lumber company, Palouse Mill, fell into receivership.

Despite these setbacks, the town bounced back and by the early 1900s, Palouse had 1,800 residents served by five doctors, three lawyers, two dentists, and an undertaker. There were also a candy store, four saloons and a brewery, bank, bakery, and two restaurants, among other businesses. A brick schoolhouse with eight classrooms was filled to capacity, and some students had to be taught in another building. Seven churches catered to the residents' spiritual needs.

Running water was available in the late 1880s but residents were told it would be turned off by the volunteer fire department whenever the fire alarm rang. Other ordinances from that period specified the marshal's salary ($45/month), the fine for driving a horse or mule on the sidewalk ($10), and the levying of a fine up to $50 (or jail time) for using vulgar language in a loud tone on public streets.

In 1903, land close to town cost about $50 an acre, while property 15 miles away was being sold for $5 an acre. Wheat was the main crop, along with oats and barley. Fruit cultivation, cattle ranching, dairy farming, and some mining also contributed to the local economy. Palouse Pottery Company, one of two pottery plants in the state, began commercial production in 1904.

Bars and Brothels

At the turn of the century, Palouse had a broad Main Street lined with brick buildings. (After the 1888 fire, local ordinances decreed that buildings had to be made of brick, stone, or corrugated iron.) But the town also had its share of houses of ill repute. Lonely railroad construction workers, loggers, and sawmill employees had five such houses to choose from, clustered on the south side of the Palouse River. Residents also enjoyed knocking back a few drinks. In 1901, Palouse supported a brewery and at least five saloons. As the Palouse Republic noted in 1904: "The police force has been busy the past week looking after drunken harvesters and hobos. Many will go to the harvest fields and work a week, then draw their wages and come to town to get drunk. Many have been driven out of town and others have been given time to reflect in the city Bastille" (National Register of Historic Places, 16).

In 1910, the Potlatch Company closed the big sawmill, ending Palouse's history of 35 years of lumber operations. The Breeding flour mill helped keep the community going, but times were tough. "In 1907, Palouse, Washington, giddily rode the crest of Potlatch's boom. The town grew; people got work; businesses opened. ... Then Potlatch pulled out of town. ... The town gradually shrank, but it did not disappear, finally stabilizing as a quiet agricultural center" ("In Historic Palouse ..."). The construction of Route 95, Idaho's north-south route built around 1920, diverted more traffic and commerce from Palouse City.

Revolutionizing Hillside Farming

Raymond A. Hanson (1923-2009) was born in Potlatch, Idaho, but grew up on a family farm near Palouse and studied mechanical engineering at the University of Idaho. When he was 19, he got the idea for an automated self-leveling attachment that could be affixed to a harvesting machine. This would not only increase crop yields but also would make the harvesting process less hazardous by safeguarding against tipping or rolling over. Spokesman-Review reporter Mike Prager wrote that Hanson was so convinced that his invention would work that, according to his stepson Eric Redman, "in his early years Hanson hooked up a trailer and went from farm to farm, offering to install his leveling device for a free trial and to remove it if the farmer declined to buy. He never removed one" (Prager). Hanson's invention was produced exclusively for John Deere combines until 1995.

In 1946, Hanson founded R. A. Hanson Inc. (known as RAHCO), which moved to Spokane County in 1968. He obtained more than 100 U.S. patents and sold his equipment in more than 50 countries. Over the years, he branched out to design excavating and land-reclamation machines for large projects such as dams and aqueducts. And the ideas just kept coming: "In 1986, he proposed a garbage sorting, composting and fuel production process as a competitive idea for the garbage incinerator that was eventually built by the city and county [Spokane]" (Prager).

In 2008, his combine-leveling system was awarded an historical agricultural engineering landmark designation from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. His inventions were said to have "brought more than $150 million worth of business back to the Northwest and the Inland Empire" (Jones).

Another Palouse native who excelled in his chosen profession was Darrel "Mouse" Davis (b. 1932), professional football coach and player. Davis was born in Palouse on September 6, 1932, but moved with his family to Oregon when he was a boy. His claim to fame was popularizing the run-and-shoot offense which revolutionized football in the 1960s and 1970s. Early in his career, Davis coached high school and college teams in Hawaii and Oregon, including Portland State University. He was head coach of several professional football teams in now-defunct leagues such as the U.S. Football League and World League of American Football, and was assistant coach with the NFL's Detroit Lions (1988-1990) and Atlanta Falcons (1994-1995).

The Xenodican Club

In the early part of the twentieth century, Palouse was home to a social society called the Xenodican Club. In 1920, the group of about 20 women wanted to be of service to the community and voted to establish a library. "This was a large undertaking as the club had neither money nor books. The Episcopal Guild members offered the club about 20 books ... and also a room in which to start the library. ... Then the women went door to door asking people to give books. The response was generous" ("History of the Palouse Branch ...").

After several months, the library was given space in city hall. To transfer the collection, adults carried books by the armloads and children used their wagons, pulling them down the street. At first, Xenodican Club members took turns staffing the library which was open only one afternoon a week, but the idea proved so popular that in 1925 city officials appropriated an annual budget of $100 for the library. They also agreed to pay the librarian's salary.

Throughout the decades, the community continued to support its library, raising funds not only for books but also for window coverings, reading tables, desks, and landscaping. By 1947, with a collection of 3,000 books, the library joined the Whitman County Rural Library District and later the Whitman County Library system. The Palouse librarian remains a member of the Xenodican Club, which continues to support civic life as of 2020.

Newspaper and Printing Museum

In 1986, a four-block area of downtown Palouse composed of 23 buildings constructed between 1880 and 1920 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of these structures included the Security State Bank (built in 1892 as the first office of the Potlatch Timber Company), Palouse Grain Growers (1916), Fussy Building (1890, home of city hall), Ice House (ca. 1914), and the Oasis Café (established in 1915 as Jess' Confectionary and later renamed the Oasis). In 2016, those buildings were occupied by an art gallery, tearoom, and car dealership.

The Roy M. Chatters Newspaper and Printing Museum, which opened September 18, 1976, is located in the former Collard Building, constructed circa 1915, a long single-story brick building with a large plate-glass storefront and transom windows. Some of its artifacts date back to the 1890s, including a 2.5-ton flat-bed printing press, Linotype and strip casting machines. The museum, managed by the Whitman County Historical Society, is open most Saturdays for visitors; former pressmen serve as tour guides.

Roy M. Chatters (1908-1994), a retired nuclear engineer from Washington State University, came from a family with a history in the printing industry. When he retired from WSU, he began to collect antique printing equipment. Over the years, he also started to collect old newspapers with a focus on Whitman County. Today, the museum's newspaper collection dates back to the 1880s and includes nearly every issue from papers covering the small Washington towns of Endicott, Lacrosse, Garfield, Tekoa, Rosalia, St. John, and Palouse. This extensive archive is available for researchers and historians.

In February 1996, the swollen Palouse River overflowed its banks in the worst flooding incident in more than 30 years. The town saw widespread damage and there was extensive flooding in the museum, where wooden floors were submerged under two feet of water. Volunteers helped move some items to upper floors while other objects were stored at the Bank of Whitman. It took years to raise funds for the restoration, which included replacing the rotten wooden floors with radiant-heat concrete. The museum reopened in 2003 with a new local history section that acknowledged the outpouring of community support for the project.

Saving the St. Elmo 

One of the town's most historically significant properties is the St. Elmo Hotel, the city's only three-story building. The brick hotel, constructed in 1888 during the railroad's heyday, sports a mansard roof with decorative metal shingles, pressed metal ceiling, and its original 1888 elevator built by the J. W. Reedy Company, said to be one of the first electric elevators in the state. The hotel was partially financed by Anthony Cannon, who located his Bank of Palouse City there in 1888.

After years of disuse, Justin and Lindsay Brown purchased the old hotel in 2018. They hoped to remodel it for apartment and event rentals, but the project was just too big and too expensive. The city also tried to save the building, but several pressing safety issues meant costly repairs. In 2020, a group of community members met to stave off demolition. At the time, the building's asking price was $275,000 with renovations estimated to cost an additional $1.2 million. The Browns agreed to wait a year before taking any additional action as long as the building did not deteriorate further.

Palouse Today

In 2017, Palouse had 1,055 residents, making it the third largest city in Whitman County after Pullman and Colfax. Many of its residents work or attend school at Washington State University in Pullman. Others commute to jobs in retail stores and businesses in Moscow and Pullman. It has its own police and fire departments as well as a health center, and is served by privately owned Schoepflin Airport. Favorite outdoor activities include paddling on the Palouse River or exploring the 208-mile Palouse Scenic Byway which meanders through the small towns of the region, including Palouse City. Each fall, the city sponsors Palouse Days, a local community festival with a fun run, parade, and car show.

In 2019, Palouse adopted a city flag designed by local farmer Moses Boone. The design features a knotted rope in blue (representing the Palouse River) and gold (representing wheat) against a field of green, signifying the town's rural setting. At a city council meeting on August 27, 2019, Boone and his wife Amberly offered to pay for the cost of creating several flags for city use.


Honor L. Wilhelm, "The Coast," Wilhelm's Magazine, January 1904, Volume VII, pp. 5-7; Marcus Whitman and James K. Kelly, An Illustrated History of Whitman County, Washington (San Francisco: W.H. Lever, 1901), pp. 215-218; "In Historic Palouse, A Future is ... Coming Back," The Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune, June 6, 1993, website accessed April 13, 202 (; Anthony Kuipers, "Palouse Rallying to Save Historic Downtown Building," Moscow-Pullman Daily News, February 29, 2020, website accessed April 13, 2020 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Whitman County -- Thumbnail History (Phil Dougherty) (accessed March 6, 2020); "History Puts Museum On Hold; Newspaper Exhibits Forced To Close After Palouse Floods," The Spokesman-Review, May 11, 1997, website accessed April 13, 2020 (; Mike Prager, "Hanson was 'In This World to Do Things,'" Ibid., February 23, 2009, website accessed April 13, 2020 (; Joann Jones, "Nearby History: Tippy Combines Leveled by Teen's Level-Headed Dreams," Moscow-Pullman Daily News, August 9, 2014, website accessed April 13, 2020 (; Irv Moss, "USFL Helped Make Mouse Big Cheese," The Denver Post, February 23, 2009, website accessed April 13, 2020 (; "National Register of Historic Places" (nomination form), National Park Service, May 8, 1986, National Park Service website accessed April 13, 2020 (; "Palouse Adopts City Flag," Whitman County Gazette, September 5, 2019, Whitman County Gazette website accessed April 13, 2020 (; "Brief History of the Potlatch Lumber Company" (company archives), University of Idaho Libraries website accessed April 13, 2020 (; "Roy M. Chatters Newspaper and Printing Museum," City of Palouse website accessed March 17, 2020 (; "History of the Palouse Branch," Whitman County Library website accessed March 16, 2020 (; Robin Bruce, "F Street Bridge" (report), Historic American Engineering Record, September 1990, Library of Congress website accessed April 13, 2020 (; Bill Corbett, "Palouse: The Perfect Little Road Trip Town," Marathon Mouth blog post, June 21, 2016, website accessed March 23, 2020 (

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