Brewster -- Thumbnail History

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 5/05/2022
  • Essay 22473
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Brewster is a small city in Okanogan County, located on the Columbia River where the Okanogan River flows into it. The town was originally named Bruster after John W. Bruster (1840-1902), who platted it in 1896. The name was changed to Brewster when the post office opened two years later. Brewster incorporated on April 29, 1910. The Great Northern Railway's Oroville-Wenatchee Branch Line through the area was completed in 1914. With an economy supported by acres of fruit orchards surrounding the town, Brewster's population has grown slowly but steadily to nearly 2,500.

Where the Columbia and Okanogan Meet

In the fall of 1811, John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company built "the first American outpost in what is now the state of Washington" near present-day Brewster ("Fort Okanogan Thumbnail History"). Although named "Fort Okanogan," the fur-trading outpost on the Okanogan River near its mouth at the Columbia was just a 16-by-20-foot cabin made out of driftwood. A few years later, the Canadian North West Company took over the Pacific Fur Company's Columbia River posts and began expanding Fort Okanogan, which by 1816 included a 15-foot-high palisade with two blockhouses protecting a number of buildings.

The British Hudson's Bay Company took over the North West Company's operations in the region and, in the early 1830s, moved the trading post to a new Fort Okanogan built a short distance away on the shore of the Columbia River, with various stables and sheds on the outside of the fort. By the 1840s the fur trade had dwindled and Fort Okanogan was abandoned in June 1860. Beginning in the 1950s the Fort Okanogan Interpretive Center and Fort Okanogan State Park were developed on a bluff overlooking the historic fort's two locations, near the intersection of U.S. Highway 97 and State Route 17 a few miles east of Brewster.

In 1862, gold was discovered at Rich Bar, on the south bank of the Columbia River five miles below present-day Brewster. Washington pioneer Andrew Jackson Splawn (1845-1917) said that in 1863 he saw an estimated 500 miners in the vicinity. Many of the miners were Chinese immigrants, who combined agricultural and mining skills to build a reservoir above Brewster to store the overflow of fresh spring water from Whitestone Lake (now Rat Lake). The Chinese miners planted gardens at the reservoir but left the area by 1895. Years later, early Brewster-area settler Ulrich (or Ulrick) E. Fries (1866-1956) wrote:

"Although the name Rich Bar has been lost, there is still reason to believe that a layer of pay dirt underlies the town of Brewster as well as some of the other flats along the river" (Fries, 216).

According to Fries, "six men had settled" in the Brewster area before 1886 -- "James Neylon, John Riley, Michael Proff, Henry Rowell, William (Billy) Yeagin, and Frank Lumsden," but he adds that "within a few years these men had died or moved away, so the first permanent settlers of the area were Andrew Zeller, Frank Haddorf [1855-1908], Anton Kowalsky, Fred Deffland [1859-1930], and myself" (Fries, 95-96). Other early pioneers in the area included William Saul (d. 1936), Barney Noland, John Titus (1845-1911), Leonard Coatsworth Malott (1843-1920), Charles McIntyre, and John W. Bruster. They would later affectionately be known as the old-timers.

Attempts at Towns

With settlement increasing and most travel in the region by water, a new town near the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia was needed as a transfer point for passengers on the rivers. Over a five-year period, four attempts were made to establish this goal with the following towns: Port Columbia in Douglas County and Swansea, Virginia City, and Brewster in Okanogan County.

The first attempt occurred when the Port Columbia Townsite and Land Company obtained 400 acres on the banks of the Columbia River opposite the mouth of the Okanogan River in Douglas County. The small town was initially called Foster City but the name was quickly changed to Port Columbia. The future townsite was a squatter's claim in 1888. Port Columbia was platted on July 24, 1891, by Henry William Bonne (1850-1922), Walter H. Gerson (1862-1926), and Irving Webber Matthews (1857-1908). The town had a small hotel, a real-estate office, and a store. Matthews was appointed postmaster on November 30, 1891. Inflated assertions promoting the new town were published in The Spokane Chronicle:

"The Metropolis of the Upper Columbia! The Next Terminus of the Washington Central Branch of the Northern Pacific Railway. The Gateway to the Okanogan. The Head of Navigation on the Upper Columbia. The present Night Station for the Daily Stages to and from the Okanogan Mines. The sale of lots is now under way" ("Port Columbia, Washington").

In 1892, a second attempt was made by Charles Henry Ballard (1858-1934), a civil engineer who decided to establish a town called Swansea directly opposite Port Columbia in Okanogan County. Ballard purchased a homestead from Civil War veteran John J. Argue (1846-1918) and Jack Manigan, which included a 16-by-20-foot cedar log cabin. It was apparent that education had to be provided for children in the area, and Ballard offered the cabin, which had not been used, as the first schoolhouse in lower Okanogan County. The building was moved to Brewster Flat on the north end of the James Henry Curtis (1849-1923) homestead; thus, the school became known as Curtis School. Children walked or rode horseback to school. On July 4, 1892, the school held its first class at a picnic. Seven days later on July 11 Ballard platted the town of Swansea.

Between 1893 and 1894, a nationwide financial depression delayed development of the town. The fate of Swansea is described in a 1904 history of Okanogan and nearby counties:

"Practically nothing was done toward building up the town of Swansea with the exception of the sale of a number of lots, regardless of the fact that the walls of nearly all the real estate offices in the country were decorated with blue prints descriptive of its attractions. Streets, alleys and parks were profusely laid out, wharves of great capacity for rail and steamboat traffic covered the water front; the great Columbia was dotted with steamboats hastening to unload freight and passengers at the docks. To the brain that conceived and the hand that executed this work to much praise cannot be accorded. Of course, all this was conducive to the sale of quite a large amount of real estate. But owing to disagreement between two partners interested in the project the enterprise of building up the town of Swansea was abandoned" (Steele, 557).

In 1893, Frank Greene (or Green) from Minnesota made the third attempt to start a town in the area. Greene gave the name Casimo to a site on the Columbia between the mouth of the Okanogan and that of the Methow River a few miles down the Columbia. Soon the Wenatchee and Okanogan Transportation Company was making two trips per week between Wenatchee and Casimo, which served as port of entry for steamers. A house, barn, livery stable, restaurant, blacksmith shop, and some tents were all that existed.

The name changed to Virginia City in June 1893 when a small trading post opened. The next month, on July 10, John C. Covington (1835-1901), a colorful man known as "Virginia Bill" because he claimed descent "from the first families of Virginia," and Greene, a part owner in the Wenatchee and Okanogan Transportation Company, platted the town of Virginia City a half mile south of where Brewster would soon develop ("City of Brewster Marks ...," 1).

On October 3, 1893, Greene was appointed postmaster for Virginia City. The town grew as a port for steamboats on the upper Columbia. A hotel was built with unused materials from the Swansea Hotel and two abandoned saloons at Conconully farther north in Okanogan County. Anton Andersen (1858-1942), from Denmark, and his brother Christen Peter Andersen (1855-1932), established the first store, known as Andersen Brothers. Water was brought from the Columbia River in barrels.

From Bruster to Brewster: The Making of a Town

The fourth and final attempt to start a new town began on April 10, 1896, when John W. Bruster platted the town of Bruster. Born in New York State, Bruster is considered the town's first homesteader, having staked a claim along the banks of the Columbia River three miles west of the Okanogan. A widower, he planted 10 acres of orchard, then raised and sold horses with his son John B. Bruster (1872-?) and his wife Kate. Bruster's son later moved to northern Montana where he had a cattle business.

The new town came into existence because the Okanogan and Columbia Steamboat Company wanted to change the steamboat landing location from Virginia City. Bruster's homestead was the ideal place because he had landing rights at a deepwater cove a short distance upriver of the old landing. Bruster deeded Captain Alexander D. Griggs (1838-1903), a native of Wisconsin, and prominent steamboat man of the Columbia and Okanogan Steamboat Company, half his land. Canadian-born Peter McPherson (1860-1932), a prosecuting attorney, drew up a contract between Griggs and Bruster on July 6, which was filed and recorded on July 7, and approved by the Okanogan County Commissioners. On August 13, Bruster received a land patent for 163.25 acres in Okanogan County. This included his plat of Bruster.

In 1897 David Luckey Gillespie (1867-1933) and his brother Albert Clarence Gillespie (1856-1918) opened the first general store in Brewster. On March 25, 1898, the town secured a post office with David L. Gillespie as the first postmaster. Although the application was for a post office to be named Bruster, the postal service changed the spelling of the name from "Bruster" to "Brewster," and the town's name changed accordingly.

In 1898, Daniel Starritt Gamble (1867-1939), from Nova Scotia, Canada, began his career as a leading business man in Okanogan County. He opened the three-story Gamble Hotel with forty rooms, an office, kitchen, and more. Following the change in the steamboat landing site, the residents of Virginia City, with their businesses and most buildings except the post office, gradually moved to Brewster. Thirty-six horses were used to move the Gamble Hotel to its new location. The hotel went on to attract all kinds of guests, including Louis W. Hill (1872-1948) of the Great Northern Railway, Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933), Chief Moses (1829-1899), and Chief Long Jim (1859-1931), to name a few. The hotel would serve as the center of the town until March 1941, when it burned to the ground due to a defective electrical outlet.

Frontier Town

Brewster was a typical frontier town of the era, with no paved streets, frequented by a diverse assortment of cowboys, gold miners, outlaws, farmers, Native Americans, and more. Drunkenness was not seen as a disgrace, gambling was considered respectable, and a house of prostitution was located outside the center of town.

A few African Americans drifted into the Brewster area. In general they were treated with kindness but occasionally some white settlers displayed their prejudice. John Banks (1842-?), born a slave and raised near Richmond, Virginia, arrived in Brewster about 1897. When slaves were freed during the Civil War, Banks left his plantation and headed to Richmond to work. The Union Army drafted him and he traveled to many places. Banks worked in Braidwood, Illinois, where many African Americans were recruited by the Northern Pacific Coal Company in 1888 to work the coal mines in Roslyn, Kittitas County, where a strike initiated by the Knights of Labor was in progress. Some 50 African Americans, many of them former slaves, were recruited from the East and relocated to Roslyn to replace the striking miners.

At age 46, Banks was among them. Not wanting to work inside the coal mines, he worked in Roslyn as a mining camp policeman. In an incident, Banks was ordered to arrest an African American miner. The miner was sentenced to serve time in jail, then fined. He threatened to kill Banks when he got out of jail. Banks quit his job and moved to Okanogan County. He first worked for Charles C. Guthrie (1845-1907), a former Confederate soldier. Hearing that Ulrich Fries needed a worker, Banks asked him for work. Fries offered Banks a salary and allowed Banks to stay in his home and eat with his family.

Fries's young son Jergen Jacob Fries (1895-1961) developed a close relationship with Banks. Jacob would sit on his lap, delighting Banks, and always kissed him good night, to which Banks would respond "God bless you" (Fries, 406). Banks moved to Waterville in Douglas County where he died. Searches on identify only five African Americans living in Brewster between 1910 and 1970, two were born in the town.

For spiritual sustenance, religious activities were held periodically. Many early settlers were German Catholics. There were no church buildings in the new town before 1912. In 1898, Reverend A. J. Rogers became the first pastor in Brewster but he did not hold regular services.

Brewster Firsts

Daniel Gamble and his wife Cora Mae Munson Gamble (1874-1964) welcomed their daughter Martha Ursula Gamble (1899-1970) on April 7, 1899, as the first child born in the new town. In 1910 Gamble planted the town's first apple orchard on Brewster Flats. Martha Gamble married John S. Gebbers (1897-1982) in 1928, and they had one child, Daniel Gebbers (1930-2014). The family turned the apple orchard planted by Martha's father in 1910 into Gebbers Farms. The company went on to plant some of the first Granny Smith apple trees in Washington. Owned in 2022 by the family's fourth generation, Gebbers Farms remains a Brewster mainstay.

In 1899, David Gillespie, serving as editor and proprietor, started the town's first newspaper, the Brewster Herald. The weekly newspaper served the community for 42 years and its successor, the Quad-City Herald, remains the local newspaper for Brewster and the surrounding area.

The first funeral in Brewster was held in 1899. Joseph Daniel Ives (1858-1899) was buried in a canyon. Ives at one time owned a meat market in a former saloon in Brewster, selling meat for five cents a pound. His body was found on November 26, 1899, between Brewster and Monse, a few miles up the Okanogan River. John M. Wilson was accused of killing Ives, but was found not guilty by a jury due to lack of evidence, and the murder remained a mystery.

In Okanogan County before 1900 communication with the outside world was limited. Mail was delivered and received from stage lines, steamboats, and even ferries. In November 1900, a telephone line was extended to the area from a switchboard installed by Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company in the town of Loomis. By 1902, a telephone building with an office opened in Brewster.

Dr. Charles Robert McKinley (1873-1953) arrived in Brewster in 1901, becoming one of the first physicians in town. Dr. McKinley practiced medicine not only in Brewster but in the surrounding area within a radius of forty miles, traveling extensively on horseback and wearing out his saddle every two years. McKinley also served in a host of other significant roles in the community.

Destruction by Fire

Like most early settlements in Washington, the town of Brewster was built of wood. And like so many others, it was the victim of a devastating fire. On Saturday, August 8, 1903, the business section of Brewster was destroyed by fire. Some reports indicated that the fire was ignited in a blacksmith shop about 2:30 p.m. and spread quickly to other buildings. Other sources assert that someone dropped a lit cigarette stub in the drugstore operated by Dr. McKinley.

Three quarters of the town were quickly wiped out. The telephone office was evacuated and connections were cut off for a few hours. Linemen came to repair the damage. Several residents were injured: Milard Stevens had burned shoulders and hands and both of Albert Gillespie's hands were burned. David Gillespie's neck was cut by glass, as was McKinley's scalp. No lives were lost.

A total of 22 buildings were consumed by fire. Businesses that were destroyed included Andersen & Company's general merchandise store, McKinley's drugstore, the Tumwater Saloon, William C. Wilson's harness shop, Lee's boiler shop, Dean Watson's (1869-1937) blacksmith shop, Red Men's Hall, the Brewster Saloon, Ford's barber shop, Barney Noland's livery stable and warehouse, Mrs. Crout's lunch counter, and three ice houses. The businesses that remained standing were the Gamble Hotel, the Gillespie brothers' general store, and Chandler Bassett's (1849-1918) barn.

Changes Through the Years

Japanese-born photographer Frank Matsura (1874?-1913) arrived in Okanogan County in 1903. Armed with his camera equipment, he lived in Conconully at the Hotel Elliott for four years before establishing himself as a full-time photographer in the city of Okanogan. For a decade Matsura took hundreds of photos in and around Okanogan County, including Brewster, capturing every aspect of life. His untimely death on June 16, 1913, came as a shock to his friends and the community.

In April 1906, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the first automobile in Okanogan County would carry Great Northern Railway officials from Brewster to Oroville near the Canadian border. By 1909, there was only one state-registered automobile in Brewster -- the White Steamer was owned by Roy E. Dorothy (1883-1947). By 1913, nine proud Brewster residents had licensed autos.

The Brewster Irrigation Canal opened on May 27, 1906. Constructed by the Brewster Power and Irrigation Company, the canal watered 1,500 acres of the Brewster flat area that the town was built on. The water was carried from Whitestone Lake seven miles north of Brewster and allowed fruit orchards -- cherries, apples, peaches, and more -- to flourish.

The Andersen brothers, owners of the one of the area's general stores, established the town's first financial institution, opening the Northwest State Bank of Brewster. The bank launched a branch in Twisp on November 1, 1906, and in 1908 the name was changed to First National Bank.

Brewster incorporated on April 29, 1910, becoming an official town. The 1910 census put Brewster's population at 296, with 12,887 in Okanogan County as a whole.

In 1910 Reverend Andrew Franklin Holden (1862-1928), a minister from Kentucky, organized and led religious services in town. In 1912, three churches were built -- Episcopalian, Congregationalist, and Catholic.

The Great Northern Railway finally completed construction of a branch line from Oroville to Wenatchee, a long-awaited occasion, in 1914. Train service began on Wednesday, July 1, when the first train left from Oroville at 5:45 a.m., traveling 135.88 miles over 10 hours to Wenatchee, with stops at 27 stations, including Brewster. Two trains were scheduled daily except Sundays. Brewster's population at the time was estimated at 550.

The railroad's arrival in Okanogan County, along with the steady increase of the automobile, soon supplanted the old system of trails, stage lines, wagons, and steamboats. Eventually railroad service too would become secondary to automobile highways.

In August 1927, construction of the first steel-truss bridge at Brewster began. The bridge, which crossed the Columbia River into Douglas County, was completed the following June and opened on July 3, 1928. Before the bridge was built, ferries regularly crossed the Columbia at Brewster; ferry service diminished following construction of the bridge. The bridge was destroyed in 1968 and rebuilt in 1970.

Pride in Its Roots

The first hospital in town, named McKinley Memorial Hospital in honor of early Brewster physician Charles McKinley, opened on January 12, 1949. Its name changed several times over the years, most recently to Three Rivers Hospital, which serves a large area of Okanogan County and portions of Douglas County.

Brewster is home to one of 10 radio-telescope stations that make up the Very Long Baseline Array. Constructed between February 1986 and May 1993, the Brewster station, located on Monse River Road, is operated remotely from Socorro, New Mexico, as part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

In 1996, the town celebrated its centennial. The Quad City Herald reflected:

"[T]he old town still lives on in memory. 'The old timers were just guessing' where to start a town that would last. 'They made a pretty darn good guess'" ("City of Brewster Marks ...," 12)

Brewster's population has maintained a small but steady rate of increase, reaching 2,463 as of 2021. In the twenty-first century Brewster faces the same challenges as many Washington towns. Some residents remain in the community all their lives while others move to find more opportunities. Brewster leaders continue looking for creative ways to strengthen the economy. The fruit industry, supported by acres of orchards, remains a major part of the local economy.

Brewster takes pride in its historic roots. The Okanogan Historical Society collects and preserves the town's history, making it available to anyone interested.


Joann Roe, The Real Old West: Images of a Frontier (Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 1981), 13-22; U. E. Fries, From Copenhagen to Okanogan (Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1949), 122-437; Bruce A. Wilson, Late Frontier: A History of Okanogan County, Washington (Okanogan: Okanogan County Historical Society, 1990), 11-324; Richard F. Steele, Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties, State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1904), 485-564, available at Washington State Library website (; An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country ... (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1904), 585, available at Washington State Library website (; William C. Brown, Early Okanogan History (Okanogan: Okanogan Independent, 1911), available at Washington State Library website (; "The Very Long Baseline Array," website accessed March 1, 2022 (; "New G.N. Line from Oroville to Wenatchee," Railway Age Gazette, Vol. 57, No. 5, July 31, 1914, p. 202 available at Internet Archive website accessed March 6, 2022 (; Polk's Oregon and Washington Gazetteer and Business Directory 1909-1910 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., 1909), 649-50; "Family Tradition," Gebbers Farms website accessed March 1, 2022 (; "Our History," Three Rivers Hospital website accessed March 15, 2022 (; "Fort Okanogan Interpretive Center," Colville Tribes website accessed March 18, 2022 (; Alisa Weis, "Roslyn's Black Pioneers: Unearthing a History (Part1/4)," February 3, 2022, Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust blog accessed March 15, 2022 (; Ancestry website accessed March 15, 2022 (; "Brewster, Washington," davidhansonfamily website accessed March 1, 2022 (; "Take First Auto to the Okanogan," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 26, 1906, p. 8; "Opening of Ditch to Be Celebrated," Ibid., May 28, 1906, p. 4; "New G. N. Grade is Ready for Rails," The Spokesman-Review, October 12, 1910, p. 8; "Mining Up in Okanogan," The Spokane Review, September 2, 1893, p. 3; "Port Columbia, Washington," The Spokane Chronicle, November 21, 1891, p. 6; "Town of Brewster Doomed by Fire," Tacoma Daily Ledger, August 9, 1903, p. 1; "Railroad Time Table," The Oroville Weekly Gazette, July 3, 1914, p. 4; "Irrigation Project," The Seattle Times, June 28, 1912, p. 13; "First Brewster Bridge Erected in 1928," Quad-City Herald, July 5, 1979, p. 8; "City of Brewster Marks One Hundredth Anniversary," Ibid., August 8, 1996, pp. 1, 12; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Fort Okanogan -- Thumbnail History" (by Cassandra Tate), "Frank Matsura arrives in and begins photographing Okanogan County in 1903" (by Kit Oldham), "Okanogan County -- Thumbnail History" (by David Wilma), and "Roslyn coalminers strike, precipitating the importation of Black miners, on August 17, 1888" (by Jim Kershner), (accessed February 11, 2022); "Decennial Census," Office of Financial Management website accessed February 15, 2022 (; Kerry Gelb, email to Linda Holden Givens, February 2-3, 6-7, 2022 in possession of Linda Holden Givens, Auburn, Washington; Brigid Clift, email to Linda Holden Givens, February 3-4, 10, 2022 in possession of Linda Holden Givens.

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