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Waitsburg Hardware and Mercantile. Photo by Dominic Black.

Waitsburg Hardware and Mercantile. Photo by Dominic Black.


Waitsburg: When East Meets West

Dominic Black

When east meets west in Waitsburg, Washington, the Cascade Curtain seems strikingly immediate. In a town where 10–year residents are still considered newcomers, we explore the tensions that arise as changes take root in a traditional community.


For KUOW 94.9 Seattle, I'm Dominic Black with the second in a four–part series exploring the myths and realities of the Cascade Curtain — that imaginary line that separates east from west in Washington state.

If there's one town that seems to embody all the complexities of the supposed divide it might be Waitsburg, a town named for Sylvester Wait who built a flour mill there in the 19th century.

Waitsburg rests in a hollow on the edge of the Palouse, that undulating rolling landscape in the southeast of the state. It's incredibly beautiful. It's 20 miles northeast of Walla Walla, and it's perfectly preserved; the kind of small, rural American town you only ever see in films. A dog walks across the street on a sunny Saturday morning. The sign outside the bank squeaks in the breeze. People wave to each other a lot.

Jim German: "The first day we arrived it was extremely foggy."

That's Jim German. With his wife, Claire Johnston, he opened Jim German Bar — a welcoming, modern cross between a wine bar, a cocktail bar and a restaurant.

German: "You couldn't see a block up Main Street. It was just a silhouette of a truck, perhaps. There was no soul stirring. We got out of our car, and through the fog, there was this crackling sound like a an album being put on a turntable."

Scratchy sounds from the loudspeakers on top of the town hall.

German: "'Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Rock,' just kind of floating past us. It was a David Lynch moment for sure, but it was also charming, and we thought this is great. It was an omen."

Jim and Claire are from the Seattle area and since they're artists, they've created a gallery space alongside the bar. This was once the Oddfellows building in town, and with a huge investment of time, it's being restored to its former state with a new roof, original beams, exposed plaster work, wooden floors.

Johnston: "Everything was painted gray when we moved in. To be quite honest, the reason we are here is that we could afford these buildings. We couldn't afford Walla Walla. It was financial. As artists, we typically come into places that are cheap because we don't care about money, but we appreciate beautiful spaces."

The night I arrived in town, I had a beer there in a tulip–shaped glass and dinner of potatoes tossed in cumin with an aioli on the side. A menu billed as Etruscan snacks, says Jim German, because when they thought of calling it "tapas" they were worried folks would think they said "topless."

The other place in town to eat is The White Stallion, where I had dinner on my second night, the daily special of spare ribs, corn, biscuits and gravy, Coke and a coffee. As I struggled out the door feeling very, very, very full, I realized that when you're talking about the differences between the two sides of Washington state, even restaurant menus say something about where you come from and where you belong. And that matters here — what you eat, what you wear, what clubs you join, what church you go to, if you go at all.

John Brett Moser IV: "When I first came here, it was extremely important to the people in this community that I became a member of the Lions Club."

That's John Brett Moser IV, the Presbyterian minister in Waitsburg, talking to me in the Masonic Hall.

Moser: "And I knew that was true because I grew up in Ellensburg, Washington, so I'm kind of halfway in–between. I worked in the Seattle area for five years. The sense of community that's here and the importance that if you live here, you be a part of what they're doing, is not the same in Seattle. You can be pretty anonymous in the west side, if you want to call it that, and you can live anonymously there your whole life. It's impossible to be anonymous here."

People want to know you. That's the way the community here has worked for generations, by people knowing each other's families and stories and pasts. But what if the newer folks who've moved to town don't want to join the Lions Club or the Masonic, what then? Does that mean that no matter what else they might do, they're not contributing to the community?

Moser: "In many ways, in many ways, from their perspective they are, and from their perspective they're coming in and doing great things for us. But from the other side of the coin, the perspective is they're trying to Seattle–ize Waitsburg."

Black: "And what does Seattle–ize mean?"

Moser: "People coming in and having places where they serve only alcohol and hors d'ouerves and, and just a whole different kind of people coming in and changing the face of it. I think it is inevitable, I think it is going to happen."

Jack Millar: "Anybody wants to move here and start a business, I say welcome to them. These small towns are dying, and if someone wants to start a business here, that's wonderful."

Jack Millar; dry–land wheat farmer and avid hunter. We met in the hardware store where there's always a ready supply of hot coffee, cookies and opinions.

Millar: "The minus side is I'm a farmer, and we're more and more and more finding families that the children don't farm. They have their careers, usually elsewhere. They inherit the farm and, for a variety of reasons, they'll sell the house and a few acres and keep the farmland. And everybody wants to live in the country — there's a market for that. So, people move from the city to the country, and the first thing they do is start changing the country to suit themselves."

Like complaining about tractor noise at five in the morning, or too much dust or spray planes or pesticides. Irritants to city folks looking for the good life; everyday realities to a farmer like Jack. Realities ex–city folks would do well to get used to.

Millar: "And that's how it should be. If you're going to live in the country, you gotta be the country."

Going by the people I met, there are plenty of Waitsburg locals who like the changes and think they're great for the town. They see the place coming back to life, as Jack mentioned earlier.

The tensions are happening because Waitsburg is having to redefine what the word "community" means now, and it doesn't mean the same thing as it did 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.

German: "The hardest thing has been to try to convince people that what we're doing is just trying to build a community in an earnest way and not look like aliens or something while we're attempting this."

The irony is that while Jim German talks about wanting to build a community, just across the street in the hardware store are folks who feel they have that already, but that it's slipping away and they're powerless to stop it.

Brett: "Nothing is black and white. The difference between the Seattle–izers versus the locals; again, it's not black and white, it's not us and them. It's just a difference in mentality about what's best for Waitsburg."

As I was leaving on a Monday afternoon, there was bright sunshine and cloud shadows on the hills west of Waitsburg. But I could easily imagine the December day when Jim German and Claire Johnston first came to town. To them, Waitsburg seemed like a place not just frozen in fog, but frozen in the past: untouched. And that's a notion that comes up again and again in this series. That for some reason Western Washingtonians can't cross the mountains from west to east without dreaming that they're drifting back in time somehow. With each passing mile, chasing an idyllic, rural past that's always just out of reach because it's an illusion, however beguiling.

And I was struck by the thought that the very isolation which had first attracted Jim and Claire to town was the one thing that's least likely to survive heading into the future.

For KUOW, I'm Dominic Black.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW