John R. Lewis plants the first wheat crop in Douglas County one mile north of Coulee City in 1884.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 10/03/2006
  • Essay 7964
In 1884 John R. Lewis (1855-?), an early Douglas County pioneer, plants the county's first wheat crop.  At the time the Big Bend region's shrub-steppe sagebrush-covered terrain is thought suitable only for grazing cattle and sheep. Lewis disproves this theory, successfully raising a crop and providing Douglas County residents with an example of how they can survive economically after the hard winter of 1889-1890 kills the vast majority of the region's range stock.

John R. Lewis was born in Cardiganshire, Wales, and as a young man trained as a stonemason. He married Ellen Jones in 1880 and later that year they immigrated to the United States, arriving in Washington Territory in 1883. The couple homesteaded in Almira in Lincoln County for several years before moving on to Douglas County. They eventually had 10 children.

Their 'Prentice Hand

An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country, published in 1904, described John R. Lewis's decision to plant the wheat as being "merely in the nature of an experiment" (p. 535). Lewis had purchased the wheat seed the year before near Davenport. He sowed 10 acres and apparently had no difficulty raising it.

After the wheat had been cut, An Illustrated History continued:

"He stacked it and built a corral around the stack. Into this he turned a small band of cayuses [ponies] and the threshing of the grain was accomplished by the animals treading upon it, which from time to time was thrown to the ground from the stack in small quantities. In the course of time the entire crop was threshed. Then came the more difficult task of cleaning the grain. This was accomplished by utilizing the wind, the grain being spread out on a smooth surface, and after several weeks of labor it was perfectly clean and ready for market. Mr. Lewis disposed of the yield to settlers ... that was the genesis. Thereafter others tried their 'prentice hand' at grain raising, at first on a small scale, but it was demonstrated beyond a doubt that what had before been considered only stock-raising country, would certainly produce excellent crops of grain" (p. 536).

A Brutal Winter and its Aftermath

During the brutal winter of 1889-1890, Douglas County stockraisers saw as many as 90 percent of their herds starved, frozen, or drowned when cattle seeking water broke through the ice on lakes. As the snow thawed in the spring of 1890, Douglas County residents discovered cattle carcasses jamming lakes and decaying in heaps throughout the area. The settlers were in what An Illustrated History called "a sad plight," adding that "the stench from these [dead animals] was unbearable and threatened an epidemic ... most of the stock had died and there was no seed grain in the country; money was scarcer than that, if possible" (p. 549).

Settlers banded together and together signed a promissory note for $2,500. One settler, A. L. Rogers, set out on snowshoes to Almira, where he caught a train to Davenport and there threw himself upon the mercy of C. C. May's bank. The bank exchanged the promissory note for cash, and Rogers used the money to purchase wheat seed. Upon his return to Douglas County this was divided among those who had signed the note, and these settlers planted wheat. Their crops were successful and the bank was repaid after the wheat was harvested.

After raising the test crop that proved it was possible to raise wheat in the area, John R. Lewis does not appear to have continued to farm. An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country states that Lewis "has given his attention almost exclusively to stock raising, since settling in the Coulee, and he has gained remarkable success in this line. During the year of 1889-90 he lost two-thirds of his cattle, owing to the heavy winter and storms. Since that time, however, he has increased his herds until he has a very fine holding at the present time" (p. 658).

Fertile, Inviting, Attractive ...

Lewis's neighbors, however, were quick to take up the plow. By September 22, 1903, an editorial in the Lincoln County Times reported "A Times representative recently had occasion to make a trip into Douglas County, beyond Coulee City, where the stream of new settlers has been pouring for the last two years. A remarkable and rapid transformation is being wrought in that magnificent farming country ... hundreds of new settlers have located there in the last eighteen months ... the work of converting the prairie into wheat fields is in progress in almost every quarter section ... when well improved it will be fertile and inviting as well as a very attractive wheat section" (An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country p. 587).

The area where John R. Lewis grew his wheat was submerged under Banks Lake after the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. Banks Lake is a 27-mile-long equalizing reservoir filled with water drawn from Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake behind Grand Coulee Dam.

As of 2002 Douglas County wheat farmers harvested 7,122,466 bushels of wheat each year, making Douglas the eighth-highest wheat producer among Washington's 39 counties.

Sources: "History of Coulee City, Washington," Coulee City, Washington website accessed September 29, 2006 (; An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishers, 1904); "Douglas, Washington," United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service website accessed September 28, 2006 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History "Steamboat Lake State Park" (by Cassandra Tate), (accessed September 29, 2006).
Note: This essay was corrected on January 23, 2013.

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