Wheat-country blues in Washington's least-populous county

Walla Walla might be flush with the grape, but just down the road the juice runs out in Pomeroy, Wash. It's the land that agri-tourism forgot – or hasn't found yet. Whiskey, anyone?
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The Garfield County Courthouse in Pomeroy, Wash. (USDA)

Walla Walla might be flush with the grape, but just down the road the juice runs out in Pomeroy, Wash. It's the land that agri-tourism forgot – or hasn't found yet. Whiskey, anyone?

Pomeroy is down the highway from Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. This part of the Palouse region is wheat and barley country. The landscape is hillier, drier, the terrain more wide open and empty. This time of year, the fields are brown with golden stubble. It's both a pretty and a lonesome land. There are few farms, there is little traffic, and the car radio sometimes turns to static.

Driving through Pomeroy on Highway 12, the main route between Walla Walla and Lewiston, Idaho, you get the sense of a community in distress. It's almost a shock after passing through towns further west, places like Dayton, the Columbia County seat next door, or Waitsburg and Walla Walla with their wineries, bistros, great architecture, craft breweries, and B&Bs. They carry the whiff of prosperity. By comparison, Pomeroy looks like it's closed for business.

Pomeroy has a lovely old courthouse, but it needs sprucing up. The storefronts along Main Street are drab. Some have architectural charm and potential, but there are too many closed antique shops and empty stores for the town to have curb appeal. There's a food bank and a social service agency on the main drag. Whatever agri-tourism miracles are taking place down the road, Pomeroy isn't sharing in them.

Part of that may be image. There's nothing that says a working farm town has got to be attractive to tourists or cater to foodies. Wheat prices are sky high and some farmers are doing well. Besides, wheat doesn't have the cachet or sex appeal that grapes bring. I recently asked an Eastern Washington farmer what it would take to boost wheat country's tourist appeal. "The only way to get the public excited about wheat," he replied, "is have a naked woman run through the field." Hard-partying Bacchus, the god of wine, is associated with nymphs, not bowls of flour.

For the record, I saw no naked women in Pomeroy. Few clothed people, either. Pomeroy is the seat of Washington's least-populous county, Garfield. (Not, by the way, to be confused with the town of Garfield in Whitman County.) Pomeroy is the county's only incorporated town, with a population of about 1,400. The county's entire population is only 2,350, only 350 more than you need to start a county in the first place. While Washington state grows by leaps and bounds, Garfield ranks 39th out of 39 counties in growth. Deaths outnumber births. The densest community appears to be the cemetery.

Not only is Garfield the least-populous county, it is poorer, older, less educated, and less diverse than state averages. Median age in Washington is 36.6, in Garfield County it's 45.3. The state median income is nearly $57,000, in Garfield it's $35,000. Only 29 percent of adults in the county have a college degree, compared with 36 percent statewide. Minorities make up only 2.3 percent of the population, compared with over 23 percent statewide. There are no black people – zero – in Garfield County. And unlike other eastern agricultural counties, the hispanic population is miniscule.

Garfield, like many rural areas, is deceptive. Looking at the landscape, you'd think everyone is a farmer, but agricultural employment is tiny. Today's modern wheat farms employ few people. They tend to be large, having gobbled up smaller family farms that, today, are economically marginal. "Get big or get out" is the rule. In addition, the government pays farmers not to grow crops. As a result, only 7 percent of Garfield County's workforce is employed in agriculture, forestry (Umatilla National Forest takes up a chunk of the county), and fishing. Garfield's neighboring Palouse counties – Columbia, Whitman, and Asotin – are all in the single-digit range when it comes to ag jobs.

A lot of grain moves through the county on barges working their way through the locks at the lower Snake River dams. The county boomed during the dam-building days, and the traffic is still an agricultural lifeline. Few people here would want to see the dams come down. But the amount of grain moving through has been in decline over the past decade. Still, there doesn't seem to be much sense that Garfield is interested in retooling to a post-dam, pro-salmon link on the yuppie food chain. It's too dry to capitalize much on biofuels, but the hills hold some promise for wind energy.

So what keeps the area going? The largest employer in Garfield is the public sector: the county, the feds, the public schools. Nearly 60 percent of the workforce is employed by government, more than any other county in the Palouse. On average, they're the highest paying local jobs, too. In other words, Garfield County is kept going with public dollars, and a major industry there is taking care of its own needs.

Somebody has to, because Pomeroy is a long way from anywhere else. It is located between the Snake River to the north and the Blue Mountains to the south. The east-west highway is the main route in or out, and it's 64 miles to Walla Walla or Pullman, 35 miles to Clarkston, 112 miles to Spokane, and 280 miles to Seattle. There is no rail service, no airport. But isolated residents can get the basics without crossing the county line, except a hospital that delivers babies.

Pomeroy was once was the power base for Samuel Cosgrove, a Republican who was elected governor of Washington in 1908. His political fortunes were all too ephemeral, however. He fell ill immediately after the election (a heart attack) and served only one day on the job before going on sick leave. He died shortly thereafter. That may have been the peak of Pomeroy's political clout.

So what are Pomeroy's prospects? I stopped and talked with Alesia Ruchert, managing director of the Garfield County office of the Palouse Economic Development Council (PEDC). In terms of tourism, she defined the problem this way: "How do we get the millions of dollars passing through on Highway 12 to stop in this community?"

To that end, the PEDC reports that Garfield County is considering building an eastern Washington Ag Museum. There are plans to start refurbishing downtown Pomeroy with a pocket park, street plantings and murals, maybe a skateboard park. There is some talk of a whiskey distillery, which might be one answer to the sexy grape. There are longer-term goals to attract new restaurants and overnight accommodations, and to make improvements to the county fairgrounds: the Hog Barn needs expanding.

One unexpected advantage: Garfield County attracted a major auto race this fall, the Wild West Road Rally. Cars blasted along the rural road network at speeds up to 120 miles an hour. It's a case where the county's lack of development is a plus: There are few counties with such an extensive series of well-maintained gravel roads.

Pomeroy is also seeking state funds to rehabilitate it's historic county courthouse. Dayton is the model. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation says that the renovation of Dayton's courthouse "touched off a wave of reinvestment" in that town, which is now "a must-see stop for dining, lodging, and shopping in the Walla Walla wine region." Pomeroy has enough turn-of-the-century architecture that a restoration could turn it into an attractive highway stop. The courthouse rehab could be a catalyst. Ruchert, who grew up in Garfield county, said there's a local joke: "When we grow up, we want to be Dayton."

A modest goal for most places, an ambitious one for Pomeroy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.