Adams County is a predominantly rural county located in southeastern Washington, with Ritzville serving as county seat. Since 1952 Columbia River water brought through the Columbia Basin Project has irrigated region's fertile volcanic soil. Adams County measures 1,925 square miles, ranking it 14th in size among Washington's 39 counties. It is bordered to the north by Lincoln County, to the east by Whitman County, to the south by Franklin County, and to the west by Grant County. As of 2005, Adams County has a population of 17,000, two-thirds of whom live in rural parts of the county. Othello (population 6,120) and Ritzville (population 1,730) are the largest towns. Agricultural pursuits include dry-land wheat farming, irrigated apple orchards, and field crops (primarily potatoes). The vegetable- and fruit-processing industry, especially potato processing and French fry manufacturing, provides most of the county's industrial employment. As of 2006, Adams County's population was52 percent Hispanic, with most Hispanic residents being of Mexican heritage.
Geology and First Peoples
Adams County experiences relatively mild winters and a long growing season. Much of the county lies within a shrub-steppe ecoregion, a type of grassland marked by sagebrush, rabbitbrush, greasewood, hopsage, bitterbrush, and buckwheat, and the landscape also has coulees (prehistoric ice-age flood channels), all of which contrasts sharply with irrigated fields.
Ice Age floods more than 14,000 years ago shaped Adams County, creating a landscape of deep ravines (coulees). Volcanic eruptions yielded a soil rich in minerals. Basalt formations are found in the Columbia Basin Wildlife Refuge and the Potholes region. These columnar formations surround the Potholes, a series of small lakes in volcanic craters that are home to a variety of waterfowl including Sandhill Cranes.
The land that would later make up Adams County was part of the territory of the Palouse tribe. Noted for their skill with horses, the Palouse ranged horses throughout the area. Without natural resources such as water, furs, minerals, or timber, however, the land that would become Adams County served both Indians and the earliest non-Indians as a place to be passed through on the way to somewhere else.
George Lucas, an Irish emigrant, was Adams County's first permanent white settler. He established a way-station at Cow Creek along the road to Fort Colville in 1869. Lucas also raised cattle and horses. Pre-irrigation Adams County's treeless bunchgrass prairie was well suited to range cattle and sheep. Crab Creek and Cow Creek provided water for the herds. Although a handful of ranchers ran herds in the vicinity, shipping their bunchgrass-fed beef to Montana by rail from Sprague, settlement remained extremely sparse.
Adams County was carved out of Whitman County on November 28, 1883. It is named in honor of John Adams (1735-1826), the second president of the United States.
Roads and Rails
The earliest roads through the county were the White Bluffs Trail between The Dalles, Oregon, and Fort Colville, the Mullan Road between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton, the Colville Road from Walla Walla to Fort Colville, and the Ritzville Road between Ritzville and Lyons Ferry. The R. J. Neergaard Road between Grant County (then Douglas County) and Ritzville was established in 1884. State Routes 17, 21, 26, and 261, US 395, and Interstate 90 are the main routes through Adams County today (2006).
The Northern Pacific Railroad began laying track through Adams County in May 1881. The Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad laid its track in 1907, and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad did so the same year.
In Adams County, the genesis, location, and eventual fate of nearly every town hinged on the railroads. Othello, Hatton, Ralston, and Marcellus, along the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad; Twin Well, Providence, Lind, PaHa, Ritzville, and Keystone along the Northern Pacific Railroad; Washtucna, Hooper, Benge, and Lantz along the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad: all sprang into being for the convenience of railroad construction crews and persevered as station stops and wells or water towers to feed the boilers of steam trains. Population and businesses (mercantile, hotel, warehouse, post office, church, school, and perhaps a flour mill) grew up around this nucleus. Unless a town had another artery of support (as in Othello after the Bureau of Land Reclamation located their offices there), the decline of rail shipping and rail travel meant the decline (often unto death) of the town.
Wheat and Water
Early farmers found the volcanic soil in Adams County rich in nutrients, but an arid climate where average rainfall was only nine inches per year made growing most crops difficult even in moist years and impossible in dry ones. Wheat, however, can be raised in arid climates and without irrigation.
James G. Bennett harvested a small wheat crop near Ritzville in 1880. Russian-German settlers (Volga Germans) who arrived in Adams County in 1883 had farmed wheat in Russia and planted it in Adams County. Seeing their success, other settlers also planted wheat. Adams County wheat farmers soon found that the region was so dry that they must let their fields lie fallow every other year to conserve enough moisture in the soil to raise profitable crops.
In 1897, Adams County produced its first bumper crop of wheat, marking the beginning of wheat farming's eclipse over cattle ranching in the county. The 1897 crop inspired a major influx of new settlers. In 1901 Ritzville exported more wheat than any other town in world -- two million bushels filling nearly 2,000 boxcars. By 1904, Ritzville was the largest initial shipping point for wheat in the United States.
By 1909, giddy with prosperity, Adams County published a pamphlet to be distributed at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. The pamphlet reads, "Adams County, Washington, the bread basket of the world. A land of wonderful resources where courage, intelligence, strenuous and persistent efforts of the hardy pioneer have wrested the hidden wealth from mother earth ... [a] golden wheat belt which has pushed its way steadily into the wilderness of sage brush which the pioneers found when they came. The gold has gradually absorbed the brown ... the history of Adams County is a song of wheat" (title page and p. 1).
During a severe drought in 1928-1931 that resulted in dustbowl conditions, many people left the area. The remaining wheat farmers consolidated the abandoned farms and worked thousands of acres to produce a commercial crop. Before the invention of the gasoline-powered crawler tractor in the late 1920s, teams of mules or horses performed much of the labor.
In 2004 Adams County produced 15,451,000 bushels of wheat, the third largest yield in the state after Whitman and Lincoln counties.
Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942 and by 1950 construction on the Columbia Irrigation Project reached the Othello area, bringing the water of the Columbia River to irrigate Adams County's dry land in 1952. The water travels from Potholes Lake behind the O'Sullivan Dam (completed in 1949) in Grant County into Adams County through the Potholes Canal.
Philip Ritz, a subcontractor on the Northern Pacific Railroad, arrived in Adams County in 1878. The railroad gave him permission to name the railroad station on the section of land he was grading and he chose Ritzville. A group of families from Canton, South Dakota (then Dakota Territory), arrived the same year. In 1881 William McKay erected the town's first building, an eight-room house that served as a hotel for rail construction workers. Ritzville residents got their water from the Northern Pacific's water tank or else from Sheep Creek eight miles away -- there was as yet no well.
Fire destroyed much of Ritzville on June 6, 1888, but residents managed to rebuild. By 1900 freight trains from Ritzville shipped more wheat than any other inland shipping port in the world. Many buildings in the town date from this period of economic prosperity and have survived into the twenty-first century with little modification. In 1990 a four-block section of downtown Ritzville, from Railroad Avenue to Broadway and from Division Street to Adams Street, was added to the National Register for Historic Places.
Daniel Buchanan (1820-1903), a local wheat farmer, donated more than 550 volumes of his personal library to the City of Ritzville to be used as a public library for all residents of Adams County. Philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) provided funds to construct the library building, which opened in 1907. As of 2006 the building continues to house the Ritzville Public Library.
Othello: Cranes and French Fries
Brothers Ben and Sam Hutchinson built a cabin on lower Crab Creek in 1884. Tom McManamon, a cattle rancher, arrived about the same time. The first homesteaders arrived in 1901. Crab Creek was the only available water and so became the nucleus of settlement in the Adams County panhandle.
Settlers were granted a post office in 1904. The Post Office was named Othello at the suggestion of Nettie B. Chavis, a settler from Tennessee, in honor of a post office called Othello that existed in Roane County, Tennessee, from 1883 to 1890.
In 1907 the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad chose the tiny Othello settlement as the location of a major rail division point. The Milwaukee Land Company platted a townsite in 1907, keeping the name Othello, and began to build houses for workers, railroad yards, and a wooden roundhouse.
The first business in town was a saloon. Another followed, along with two hotels, one of which featured the town's only bathtub. The railroad dug a well to furnish water for the trains and residents. The first train reached town in June 1909. Othello was incorporated in May 1910. William W. Lombard was the town's first mayor. Electricity became available in 1931.
Othello was a terminal point for electric locomotives from Seattle and for steam (and later diesel) locomotives from Chicago. It was one of six rail-car icing stations west of Milwaukee, and served as a watering stop for livestock. In 1919 the roundhouse burned, destroying eight locomotives. It was rebuilt with brick. The Milwaukee Railroad abandoned the line in 1980 after going through bankruptcy. From 1980 to 1982 the Burlington Northern used the track. During the 1990s, the Othello railyard site underwent an arduous environmental cleanup to remove petroleum contamination from soil and groundwater.
The Bureau of Reclamation located their district offices in Othello in 1947 and built housing for the hundreds of construction workers building the Columbia Irrigation Project. When the first irrigation water from the Columbia Basin Project reached Othello in 1952, most of the town's residents stood by to watch the historic first trickle. Accessible water transformed Othello, bringing farmers and commerce to the town. By 1960 Othello's population had ballooned from about 400 to 2,669.
The Othello Radar Station was built six miles south of Othello in 1951 as the base for the 200 members of the 637th Radar Squadron and served as a defense component during the Cold War. The Othello Radar Station was deactivated in 1973.
Othello Ice and Storage opened in 1958, producing ice for the railroad. Othello became one of the points where the railroad re-iced boxcars of produce being shipped to market. This marked the town's first industry other than ranching or agriculture.
In 1961 Othello Packers, the town's first frozen food company, began processing peas, carrots, and corn. In 1964 the Chef Ready French Fry plant opened.
French Fry processing was destined to become Othello's main industry. Today (2006) about 10 percent of the French fries consumed in America are processed in Othello, many from potatoes grown in Adams County. Many of the shift workers in Othello potato processing plants are from Mexico or the southwestern United States, giving the town a much larger Hispanic population than in most other parts of Washington. McCain Foods and J. R. Simplot have large potato processing plants in Othello. The potato processing industry in the Columbia Basin depends upon relatively inexpensive federal hydro-electricity and irrigation water. Although it generates many jobs, the industry has been criticized for raising the level of nitrates (from fertilizer) in the Columbia Basin's underground water supply, a claim food processors deny.
Seasonal unemployment in Adams County is a bi-product of the agricultural economy. During peak growing and harvesting periods (February to October), unemployment falls by as much as 14 percent, then climbs sharply when potatoes and apples have been harvested. The number of Adams County residents living in poverty has increased in recent years. Many county residents are undocumented seasonal farmworkers who are ineligible for state or federal aid, and this contributes to Adams County's poverty rate, as does the high percentage of county residents who work at minimum wage.
Current crops grown in the Othello vicinity include potatoes, corn, alfalfa, and apples, and a wide variety of other fruit. Othello is home to a Seneca apple juice processing plant.
The Northern Pacific Railroad established a station at Lind in 1881, but settlers came slowly. In 1886 a handful of families petitioned the Adams County commissioners to make Lind a voting precinct. In 1888 two brothers, James and Dougal Neilson, built a residence and store. In 1889 Lind was awarded a post office and built a school. The Neilson brothers platted a four-block townsite in June 1890 and added a 12-block addition in 1898. By 1900 the Lind precinct contained 762 residents. The town voted to incorporate on January 31, 1902. Dougal Neilson was Lind's first mayor.
In 1908 the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad laid tracks on the south end of town, making Lind a two-railroad town and increasing the population substantially. Today (2006) Lind attracts visitors with an annual Combine Demolition Derby. The event, in which competitors ride combines that are no longer fit for field work and crash the vehicles into one another until only one combine remains operational, draws crowds of up to 4,000 and features a barbeque and two parades.
Cunningham was platted on September 14, 1901, by William R. Cunningham, a preacher and land promoter. Earlier, surveyors from the Northern Pacific Railroad called the site Scott. They established a station there in 1881 and drilled a well to furnish water for steam engines.
The town reached its population peak of 500 in 1913 and had general merchandise stores, a hardware store, a school, three grain elevators, a drugstore, blacksmith shop, two churches, a brick schoolhouse, electric street lights, and a newspaper, The Cunningham Gazette. The town shipped approximately one million bushels of wheat grown on surrounding farms each year.
The topsoil in the area, however, began to blow away. The region experienced drought conditions during the late 1910s and a severe fire in 1916. In 1925 Cunningham high school students began busing to Othello for school, and in 1926 the elementary school students were sent to Lind. The Cunningham Post Office closed in 1985. Many vacant houses were moved to other locations. Most of the other buildings were torn down. Today (2006) only a few structures remain to mark the town's location.
Surveyors from the Seattle, Pacific, and Spokane Railroad platted the Benge townsite on May 13, 1907, on land homesteaded by Frank Benge and Mary J. Crouch Benge and their daughters Sarah and Anna, hence the town's name. The Seattle Pacific and Spokane used Benge as a base camp, running rails through what had been the site of the Benge family's homestead house, and built a depot and dug a well. The town was awarded a post office on November 19, 1909.
By 1913 Benge had several stores, a billiard hall, a saloon, a restaurant, hotel, bank, school, and lumberyard. Benge suffered fires in 1916 and 1922, and the businesses that burned were not rebuilt. By 1949 the town had only 30 residents. Downtown Benge today (2006) consists of an elementary school and several businesses.
George Bassett, an Iowan who arrived in Washington by way of Montana, settled the future site of Washtucna in 1878 with his wife Alice Lancaster Bassett to raise horses. Washtucna was granted a post office in 1882 and Bassett was appointed postmaster, the first in Adams County. The Oregon Improvement Company built a rail line through Washtucna in 1886, and by 1891 enough farmers growing wheat had settled nearby that Washtucna station shipped 30,000 bushels. Until 1900, Washtucna was the end point of an annual wild horse round up. The horses were corralled on the Bassetts's land and branded.
The population of the town numbered fewer than 50 in 1902, but a year later it had risen to 300. Washtucna, located about three miles west of the Palouse River at the junction of two coulees, was the site of several failed irrigation schemes between 1892 and 1917. Washtucna incorporated on October 27, 1903. Charles T. Booth was the first mayor.
The Fair and the Rodeo
Adams County has two annual agricultural fairs: the Wheat Land Community Fair in Ritzville and the Adams County Fair in Othello. From the 1930s until 1981 the Wheat Land Community Fair was called the Adams County Fair. The Othello event began in the 1950s and was called the Tri-County Fair or the Adams County Fair West. In 1981 the Adams County Fair Commissioners designated the Othello event as the official county fair. Residents of Ritzville, Benge, Lind, Washtucna, and Ralston rallied together, choosing a new name and raising funds to keep the Ritzville event going.
The annual Othello Rodeo began as an amateur event in 1948. In 1952 the non-profit Othello Rodeo Association was formed and assumed responsibility for the event. In 1962 the Othello Rodeo became a world championship rodeo as defined by the Professional
Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Columbia National Wildlife Refuge
The 23,200-acre Columbia National Wildlife Refuge includes portions of both Adams County and Grant County, with a business office in Othello. This artificial wetlands area, established in 1944, is an important stop for 200 species of migratory birds. The water in the refuge is Columbia River seepage from Columbia Irrigation Project canals and pipes.
The Othello Sandhill Crane Festival began in 1998. The festival attracts hundreds of visitors each March to watch an estimated 25,000 cranes (about 85 to 90 percent of the entire Pacific Coast population) rest and feed at the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge before continuing their migratory journey.
Adams County Today
Some 28 percent of Adams County workers are employed in the farm sector, compared to 3 percent statewide. The vast majority of these work in apple orchards, followed by potato farms and cherry orchards. Wheat remains the county's main crop but is less labor-intensive and thus employs fewer county residents. Industries such as food processing and wholesale trade that support and expand Adams County's agricultural output are an important component of the county's financial potential.
Local governments are the next-largest Adams County employer after agricultural industries. Most local government workers are employed in K-12 education, general government functions, and at Othello Community Hospital and East Adams Rural Hospital in Ritzville. In recent years the Wal-Mart Super Center in Othello has become a significant (but low-wage) Adams County employer. As of 2006, the majority of Adams County's population (52 percent) was Hispanic, largely of Mexican heritage.
This essay made possible by:
The State of Washington
Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation
Harvesting wheat near Ritzville, July 1936
Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy United States Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection