Pomeroy -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/24/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9578
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Pomeroy is the seat of Garfield County, the least populated of Washington's 39 counties. Located in the Pataha Valley in the southeastern portion of the state, an agricultural region primarily devoted to dry-land wheat, barley, and grass-seed farming and to cattle and sheep ranching, Pomery's population in 2009 was 1,515, out of Garfield County's 2,400 total. Pomeroy's elevation above sea level is 1,850 feet, and it receives an average of 17 inches annual rainfall. Pataha Creek, a tributary of the Tucannon River, flows through the center of town. Pomeroy is the only incorporated city in Garfield County.

The Nez Perce and other native peoples traversed the area near the future town of Pomery using what became known as the Nez Perce Trail.  The trail extended east from Wallula (Walla Walla County) and entered Garfield County about seven miles west of what would become Pomeroy. The trail tracked east to near the site of Pomeroy, then roughly paralleled today's U.S. Highway 12 east to the Asotin County line. From there the trail continued east across the Rockies to the Great Plains. Captain B. L. E. Bonneville surveyed the area on behalf of the United States government in 1834.

Early Settlement

Joseph (b. 1830) and Martha Pomeroy (b. 1842) purchased a ranch on Pataha Creek on the future site of downtown Pomeroy on December 8, 1864, establishing a stage coach station. Pomeroy's station, known to travelers as "Pom's," provided food -- prepared by Martha Pomeroy -- for weary stage travelers during the 1860s and 1870s. Pomeroy also farmed and raised livestock.  

Martha Pomeroy St. George later recalled:

"Our house became the famous stopping place on the road between Walla Walla, Washington and Lewiston, Idaho. When the travel was heavy, we made some money, and when the travel was light I had to work outdoors milking cows, making garden and all kinds of hard work.  My little children almost raised themselves, taking care of the baby, and helping me in many ways.  Work, always thinking of how to make nice things to eat for the traveling public, and how to keep expenses paid" (Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County ... p. 362).

When the Pomeroys arrived, settlement in the surrounding area was extremely sparse.  Parson Quinn (1820-1900) and his family lived along Pataha Creek, and several Native ranchers, including Ta-Moot-Tsoo (Chief Timothy) (1808-1891). By the early 1870s, "Pom's" and Joseph Pomeroy's spread had become the nexus for other settlers, who established farms and began to raise grain. Early settlers planted locust trees, and as these grew they provided shade and softened the formerly stark visual aspects of the settlement. By 1875 there were an estimated 200 farms in what would soon become Garfield County. 

Joseph Pomeroy, Martha Pomeroy, Benjamin Day (b. 1839), and Minnie Day (b. 1848) filed the town of Pomeroy's town site plat on May 28, 1878. By May 1879 at least six businesses had been established there, including a hotel, store, livery stable, blacksmith shop, and a brewery.

In 1877, Joseph Pomeroy and William C. Potter built a flouring mill, using the rushing water of Pataha Creek to power it.  Benjamin Day was the miller.  The mill was a two-story frame building with a granite millstone.  Local farmers were pleased to have a mill close by, and the mill was soon operating day and night. 

During the summer, residents swam in the millpond that formed at the end of the flume that brought water several hundred yards from the creek to the mill.  The mill changed hands several times, and burned in 1903.  A three-story mill was built on a site nearer to the center of town, producing a brand of flour called Pomeroy's Blue Mountain.  In July 1950, this structure (by then no longer producing flour, but used as a warehouse and feed company) burned down.  

Pomeroy (Finally) Becomes County Seat

The Washington Territorial Legislature incorporated the town of Pomeroy by legislative act, on February 3, 1886. On May 28, 1917, residents of Pomeroy voted to reorganize their municipal structure by incorporating as a city of the third class. 

When the Washington territorial legislature created Garfield County on November 29, 1881, Pataha City, (a small town about three miles east of Pomeroy) was designated interim county seat.  The special election to designate a permanent county seat, held January 9, 1882, fostered intense rivalry between (seemingly) every hamlet in Garfield County, with Pataha City, Pomeroy, Asotin City (later Asotin), and Mentor (a tiny settlement north of Pataha City that only existed for a few years in the 1880s) vying for the title.  Pomeroy won, but Pataha City citizens fought the victory in court. The result was that Garfield County lacked a legal county seat for more than two years (although county business was conducted at Pomeroy).

The Washington Territorial Legislature established the county seat at Pomeroy in 1883, but because of a clerical error, this decision could not be enacted. In an almost unbelievable move, Garfield County's territorial representative appealed to the United States Congress. On May 13, 1884, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that cured the defects in the territorial county-seat bill. The United States Senate approved the measure, making Pomeroy the legal county seat in Garfield County once and for all. This made Garfield County the only county in Washington state to have had its county seat declared by an act of the United States Congress.

The Garfield County Courthouse, designed by Albany, Oregon, architect Charles Burggraf in the Queen Anne style of architecture, opened in 1901. This building replaced an earlier wooden structure that was destroyed by fire in 1900, and employed stone quarried from Valentine Ridge near the Snake River. The courthouse clock tower is topped by a statue of justice that lacks the traditional blindfold, one of only 20 such sighted justice statues nationwide. The Garfield County Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Fire and Water

The Pomeroy Improvement Company was organized in 1887, and soon built a water system to furnish water for irrigation and fire protection. The City of Pomeroy purchased this water system, which included a large reservoir, in 1888, and began extending the system. 

Pomeroy's fire department was organized on July 23, 1887, and fought its first major fire on February 6, 1890  and another in 1898.  On July 18, 1900, a fire started accidentally in a saloon spread rapidly, destroying nearly half of the town's business district. Despite major damage, half of which was not covered by insurance, Pomeroy businesses quickly rebuilt, this time with brick.

Pomeroy citizens gained in-home access to running water in 1903-1904, fed by springs rather than by Pataha Creek, since that water was not potable. In 1912, Pomeroy constructed a municipal sewer system, and thereafter was able to gradually eliminate the cesspool system by which waste had previously been handled.

Infrastructural Developments

The Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company (a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad) built a line from Starbuck (Columbia County) to Pomeroy that reached Pomeroy in January 1886. By 1946, Pomeroy was the largest grain shipping point on the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1981 the railroad abandoned the line from Starbuck to Pomeroy. The tracks were torn out in 1986 and by the end of 1988 had been replaced with a 13-block-long linear park filled with flowers and trees and named Centennial Boulevard in commemoration of the 1989 centennial of Washington state. The former Union Pacific depot building is currently (2010) used as office space.

Pomeroy's city council appropriated funds to purchase land for a city park in 1900.  Situated on the south side of Pataha Creek, the land was developed over the next few years. The land was cleared of brush, leveled, and trees -- joining the native black willows already present -- planted to provide cooling shade.  Over time a children's playground, swimming pool, and golf course were added. 

Electricity arrived in Pomeroy in 1904, when the Tucannon Power Company installed hydro-electric equipment on the Tucannon River, erected poles, and strung wire to the town. The town gained telephone service that same year.

Pomeroy's Main Street was paved in 1916, and other major thoroughfares were paved soon after.

Leisure Amenities

After years of lobbying the city council, Pomeroy young people won the battle for a community swimming pool, in 1922.  The American Legion, the Ladies' Civic Improvement Club, and the Garfield County Pioneers all helped raise money for the project.  The pool's water supply was Cosgrove Spring, purchased, along with the surrounding land, jointly by the City and the Ladies' Civic Improvement Club.

In November 1912, Pomeroy citizens voted to outlaw the sale of alcohol in the city three years before prohibition was enacted statewide.  Bootleggers went to work immediately, but Pomeroy found a way to turn this illegal activity to the town's advantage: Convicted of bootleggers were put to work building county roads.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built and addition onto the high school and developed the golf course. 

Bluegrass and Green Peas

The Blue Mountain Cannery opened in Pomeroy in July 1942, processing peas, which had recently become a major Garfield County crop. Blue Mountain processed peas for the Jolly Green Giant label for nearly two decades. In October 1960, rising freight rates and stagnant pea prices led to Blue Mountain's closure.

The Robert Dye Seed Ranch purchased the former Blue Mountain Cannery property and plant in November 1960, and began processing bluegrass seed. Within three years it had become one of the largest bluegrass seed processors in the nation.

Denny Ashby Library

The Denny Ashby Library, located on a quiet residential street in a brick residence constructed in 1909.  The library's name memorializes John Denny Ashby (known as Denny) (1876-1904), a Pomeroy resident and grandson of Oregon pioneer John Fletcher Denny (b. 1819), brother of Seattle founders David (1832-1903) and Arthur Denny (1822-1899). On vacation from his studies at New York Homeopathic Medical College, Denny Ashby drowned near Fire Island, New York during an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his fiancée from drowning.  When Denny Ashby's mother, Mary Denny Ashby (1855-1923), died, her will left her home to the city of Pomeroy. 

The library opened in 1928, and the Civic Club operated it until 1935.  The city leased the building to the county, which then established a library board.  Until 1999, half of the facility was used as living quarters for the librarian.  In 2002-2003, the library was remodeled by the Seattle firm Cardwell Architects. As of 2010, it houses more than 10,000 books and multi-media materials.

Schools and Churches

Soon after settling in Pomeroy, local families founded a small one-room school for younger children. Pomeroy built a school building in 1892, expanding it in 1905.  In 1916, Pomeroy High School opened; in 1936 a new building was constructed.  That building was replaced in 1981.  Pomeroy Elementary, Pomeroy Junior High, and Pomeroy High School have a combined enrollment of 407.  The school mascot is the pirate.

Pomeroy's first church was Holy Rosary, organized by Father Louis Paaps in 1878.  The first church building, completed in 1880, was blown down in a storm on January 9, 1880, but was quickly rebuilt.  A new church building went up in 1916.  The parish school was founded in 1886.

St. Peter's Episcopal Church was consecrated on June 10, 1883. A parish hall was constructed in 1948.  Pomeroy Methodist was the town's third church building, erected in 1882.  This building burned down on September 29, 1918.  On April 6, 1924, a new brick church building was dedicated.

Pomeroy Christian Church was organized on November 20, 1887.  The church building was constructed in 1889, and enlarged in 1908.

The Church of the Nazarene grew out of a series of revival meetings held in tents and vacant warehouses.  The congregation was organized on February 19, 1933, leasing the Baptist Church building, which they later purchased.  (The Baptist congregation that built that church was always small, and had by that time ceased to be viable.) The church was dedicated on November 10, 1936.

Pomeroy's Assembly of God congregation also grew out of tent revival meetings.  The church (at that time called the Pentecostal Assembly of God) constructed a building in 1933, and gradually improved the building over time. 

Pomeroy also had Congregational and Seventh Day Adventist congregations, which have since ceased to exist, and now (2010) has an active Baptist congregation.

Fraternal Organizations

Fraternal orders, with their dual benefits of fellowship and community infrastructure, have been important aspects of Pomeroy since the town's earliest days.  The Masonic Evening Star Lodge, No. 30, received its dispensation in 1879, and in 1886, a Royal Arch Chapter was established. The Odd Fellows Pomeroy chapter was founded in 1879, and the Rebekah lodge in 1888.  Pomeroy's Woodmen of the World chapter began in 1892, with a Women of Woodcraft chapter established soon after.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had an active Pomeroy chapter, beginning in 1884. In addition to advocating for temperance and temperate living, the WCTU maintained a free reading room for the use of local citizens.

The Women's Civic Club (also called the Ladies Civic Improvement Club) was organized prior to 1919 and supported Pomeroy's civic maturation by overseeing projects such as the installation of street lights and public drinking fountains, park improvements, and public clean-up days. 

Farmer's Union

The Pomeroy Local, No. 10, branch of the Farmer's Union (a national organization of farmers founded in 1902) was organized on May 4, 1907.  The following year, members organized a warehouse company and built a 50- by 400-foot warehouse with a 200,000 bushel capacity.  Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County ... .(published 1918) states:

"This warehouse has stored the grain of members and corrected many abuses of the grain storage business of Pomeroy, materially reduced the price of handling sacks, coal, posts, etc., and in a general way has been a benefit to every farmer in Garfield County" (p. 391).

In 1942 the Pomeroy Grain Grower's Corporation purchased the Farmer's Union warehouse, expanding and improving it. The Pomeroy Grain Growers, Inc. serves as a clearing house for information about weather, crop prices worldwide, grain futures, and other information crucial to farming in the Pomeroy area.

The Snake River Dams

Construction of the Little Goose Dam (built between June 1963 and March 1970) and the Lower Granite Dam (built between July 1965 and February 1975), the final two dams of four built as part of the Lower Snake River Project, swelled Pomeroy's population and stimulated its economy.  Pomeroy is about 20 miles southeast of Little Goose Dam and about 15 miles southwest of Lower Granite Dam.

By the 1980s, however, this temporary bolstering was over, and Pomeroy's population (like that of all of Garfield County) was declining.


Historic Pomeroy Today

Blessed with a wealth of older buildings, Pomeroy has an active historic preservation community dedicated to celebrating and maintaining these aesthetic and cultural resources.  The designated Downtown Pomeroy Historic District is a 13.7-acre, eight-block district bounded by 10th Street on the east, Columbia Street on the south, 6th Street on the west, and Main Street (U.S. Highway 12) on the north. Most buildings within the historic district date from between 1887 and 1953.  On August 21, 2003, the Downtown Pomeroy Historic District was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

The Seeley Theatre, located at 67 7th Street, was constructed in 1913, replacing Burlingame Hall, an earlier wood-frame theater located nearby.  The Seeley was designed by Edwin W. Houghton (1856-1927), designer of Seattle's original Opera House, Moore Theatre, and Majestic Theatre, the Spokane Theatre and Clemmer Theatre, and Beck's Theatre in Bellingham. The Seeley was remodeled in the 1950s to accommodate a Cinemascope screen, and the lobby was updated in the 1960s.  By the late 1960s, the Seeley had ceased to operate and the building was used to house a refrigeration and repair shop.  Private investors purchased the building in 1980, after which it was used sporadically for movies and as an event venue.  On December 31, 2009, the non-profit Pomeroy Community Center purchased the Seeley, and full restoration is planned. The theater still retains its original hand-painted advertising screen that was used to curtain the stage and advertise local businesses.

Pomeroy's farm goods, Western wear, and chemical supply businesses, and the Pomeroy Grain Growers cooperative serve farmers in this rich wheat-growing region. 

Pomeroy's picturesque nineteenth century main street and quiet small-town charm, coupled with its proximity to outdoor activities on the Snake River and Blue Mountains, foster tourism.  Residents value and celebrate the town's pioneer heritage, preserving and maintaining historic stores, houses, and farms.

Major employers in Pomeroy include the federal government, Garfield County, the Pomeroy School District, Garfield County Memorial Hospital, and the Dye Seed Ranch.


William Denison Lyman, Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County, Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin Counties Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clark Publishing, 1918); E. V. Kuykendall, The History of Garfield County (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1984); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); HistoryLink.Org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Garfield County -- Thumbnail History" (by Phil Dougherty), and "Fire destroys nearly half of the business district of downtown Pomeroy on July 18, 1900" (by Phil Dougherty) and "New Seely Theatre opens in Pomeroy on November 24, 1913" (by Eric L. Flom) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 8, 2010); Newton Carl Abbott and Fred E. Carver, The Evolution of Washington Counties compiled by J. W. Helm (Yakima: Yakima Valley Genealogical Society and Klickitat County Historical Society, 1978), 138; Pomeroy Chamber of Commerce website accessed August 31, 2010 (http://www.pomeroychamberofcommerce.com/); Denny Ashby Library website accessed August 31, 2010 (http://www.pomeroy.lib.wa.us/); Pomeroy Historic Preservation website accessed September 3, 2010 (http://www.historicpomeroy.com/preservation.htm); Pomeroy National Historic District nomination form accessed September 3, 2010 (http://www.historicpomeroy.com/nomination/Section7Description.htm); National Register of Historic Places website accessed September 3, 2010 (http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/wa/Garfield/state.html); "Municipal Incorporations, Pomeroy," folder "Pomeroy," Municipal Archives of Incorporation, Records of the Secretary of State, Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington; National Farmer's Union website accessed September 10, 2010 (http://nfu.org/about/history); "Pomeroy School District 110" Education Bug website accessed September 13, 2010 (http://washington.educationbug.org/school-districts/16793-pomeroy-school-district-110.html); Pomeroy Grain Growers Inc website accessed September 13, 2010 (http://www.pomeroygrain.com/); Florence E. Sherfey, Eastern Washington's Vanished Grist Mills and the Men Who Ran Them (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1978), 245; Informational signage posted in windows of Seeley Theatre, Pomeroy, observed by author September 15, 2010.
Note: This article was corrected on November 30, 2018.

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