Histories of Wilbur & Sherman
Special thanks to Evelyn Kunz Gaffney, who wrote the largest portion of this section.
The town of Wilbur, Washington can trace its history back to the arrival of Wild Goose Bill (born Samuel Wilbur Condit or Condon) who drifted into Washington Territory in about 1860. He worked in the freighting business, packing supplies from Walla Walla to the mining camps in eastern Washington, western Idaho and the Okanogan area. The area was crossed by miners on their way to the famous Fraser River mines. Hundreds of stalwart men passed through on their way to the gold fields. In 1875, Bill sold his pack animals, moved to a site on Goose Creek in what was to become Lincoln County, and started to ranch with cattle purchased from the Natives. The meadow seemed to spring out of sheer basalt. The area is interspersed with aspens, willows and cottonwoods and settles between rock walls on both sides. Miles of bunch grass made wonderful grazing lands that stretched in all directions.
While his herd grazed on rich land, Bill ran a store on the south bank of the Columbia River. He distributed staple groceries, some utensils and implements, overalls, blankets, calicos and a variety of items that appealed to the Indian residents of the area who traded their furs, hides and trinkets. Condon bought his merchandise in Sprague and hauled it across the country in four-horse freight wagons. Before the railroad reached the area in 1889, Condon contracted with a townsite and investment company for the establishment of the eponymous town of Wilbur on the site of his ranch. The arrangement guaranteed a railroad station for the new town.1
In 1882 and 1883, Lincoln County suffered from a most peculiar pest – the cricket scourge. Myriads of large black crickets, measuring from one to two inches long, swarmed out of the earth and up through the snow, and devastated the fields for two seasons. Settlers combined their forces and dug ditches surrounding their farms. Men and women worked day and night with brooms, sweeping the pests into the ditches and destroying them. The bulk of their crop had been destroyed year after year. Just about the time that the settlers were on the verge of yielding in despair, there was a heavy rain, succeeded by frost. The crickets tumbled into the pits to rise there from no more. Great was the rejoicing when it became known that the cricket pest was exterminated.
The birth of Lincoln County dates from December 18, 1883, with Davenport named as the temporary county seat. A considerable number of people were collected around Davenport, Harrington, Mondovi and other points, while Sprague was a growing town with a population of 600 or 700. In the general election of 1884, the people were called upon to vote on the location of the county seat. The election was hot and furious. In the end, the majority vote declared that Sprague was to be the county seat. Charges of fraud were brought forward. One thousand votes had been cast in Sprague – despite the fact that this was nearly double the number of eligible voters in the town at the time.
In 1886, Dr. and Mrs. B.H. Yount, a physician and his wife, moved to the Condon Ranch and lived in a board shack with a dirt floor and mud dripping into the little room during the infrequent rains. Mrs. Yount, her sister Cora and Mrs. Dave Cole were the only white women living at the Condon Ranch. Doctor Yount was called to care for patients from a distance of 25 miles or more. Year after year he served Wilbur and the surrounding territory beyond – bordered by Creston on the east, Coulee City on the west, Wilson Creek on the south, and Keller on the north. Doctor Yount also served as official physician for the Northern Pacific Railway Company in Wilbur area until the time of his death. His son, Dr. Glen Yount, carried on his practice until he too, died following World War II.2
Wilbur’s boom began in 1888. That year, the community had a hotel, two stores, feed stables, blacksmith shops, a saloon and a drug store. A newspaper, the Wilbur Register, was founded in early 1889. A post office was established in 1885 and a tri-weekly mail route began. Three large lumber mills were kept running at full capacity in order to supply the lumber necessary for the building of the increasing number of homes and businesses. Wilbur was incorporated under territorial law on May 25, 1889. The district court of the Fourth Judicial District, sitting at Sprague, issued the decree incorporating the new town.3
While not the first businessman to establish himself in the new town of Wilbur, Marion E. Hay did become its best known merchant, rising to serve as Washington’s governor from 1909 until 1913. Hay arrived in Wilbur early in 1889 and set up shop. His store prospered and eventually became one of the largest country retail mercantile businesses on the West Coast.4
Hay’s Department Store, founded in the early 1890s, developed into one of the largest stores in eastern Washington. It was unique, handling everything from a needle to a threshing machine. A bookkeeper’s cage was to be found on the mezzanine. Inside the store people could go directly from one department to the next – from furniture to hardware to the grocery store. From groceries, one went directly into dry goods. In the back of the dry goods section hung ready made dresses and coats in the clothing department with its millinery shop. Full length mirrors in golden oak frames reflected the people who passed in front of them. Hats were back there too, and the shoe department. Those departments, with the many aisles and tables for the bolts of cloth and linens took up, the largest area of the complex. Shoes for the family, coats, dresses, overalls, work shirts, underwear, patterns hats, bedding, and needles and pins were staples.
Town of Wilbur
The hardware department’s tall moveable ladder, that slid along a track from the front end of the store to the back, leaned against the west wall. The wall was was lined with dozens of labelled drawers holding screws and nails and all the small hardware necessary for the repair and maintenance of farm machinery. Coleman lanterns, coils of chain, and barrels of spikes were part of the stock that farmers could count on finding in the store. Behind the store, the whole area was fenced to encompass large pieces of John Deere farm machinery displayed there.
The store was purposely built several feet off the ground with the sidewalks proportionately high in order that farmers might easily load their wagons from the walk. At either end of the block short wooden inclines led down to the street. Through the spaces between boards of the walk, silt, dust and rain easily filtered through. Under there boys hunted for money that had been dropped.5
"Main Street and beyond had a remarkable variety of businesses. In the west block were Bandy’s Drug Store, Sherman Clay’s, Wilbur Meat Company, the Wilbur Bank, and the Livery and Feed Stable. Lawyer Love had his office above Bandy’s Drug Store. Beyond this block was the Madsen Hotel, with both sleeping rooms and a dining room to serve townspeople and travelers.
"In the east block were Gray’s Newstand and the M.E. & E.T. Hay Department Store, which took up three-quarters of the block. On the other side of the street was Bump’s pool hall. The brick grocery store with the lodge hall above was at the far end of the block. Around the corner was the post office.
"South of Main Street was the Chinese laundry. Beyond that lay the railroad tracks on which the Northern Pacific Railroad brought mail, passengers and freight. The ice house, past the red depot, was where the engines stopped. Freight trains arrived early in the day to load wheat from the grain warehouses bordering the tracks, or to load flour from the Columbia River Milling Company. "6
The financial panic of 1893 hit the Hay business hard, leaving him with little chance of collecting the $400,000 in accounts receivable on his books. He managed to remain in business without the necessity of forcing the wholesale foreclosures on any but a few individuals who actually attempted to escape paying their debts. Farmers in the Wilbur area told how they had gone to Hay and offered to sign their farms to him as a means of paying off their debts. He refused to accept their offers, telling them that their success was his. His faith paid off, and he lost very little of the money owed him.
By the turn of the century, the community boasted church representation from the Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Evangelical Lutherans, and German Lutherans. In 1888 the spiritual needs of the Catholics were taken care of in a store building. In 1900, Sacred Heart Church was built on the south hill of Wilbur. One of the most generous contributors to the building was M.E. Hay, a non-Catholic, who provided a gift of six lots and $200 in cash. The first resident priest arrived in 1906.
In 1908, Sacred Heart Catholic Church undertook to drill a well on its property on the south hill. The well furnished more water than was needed by the church. After a time of disuse, the town negotiated with the church to use the well for domestic purposes. Water patrons joked that they were getting "holy water" ever time they turned on their faucets.7
Town of Sherman
On August 13, 1888, George Sherman signed the township of Sherman and platted out the “streets and alleys” with three distinct main lines: Douglas Street, Sherman Street and Lincoln Street. (This document is sealed with George Sherman’s own seal and is now framed in museum glass in the Wilbur Museum.)
The town of Sherman was 10 miles northeast of Wilbur. The first settlers came about 1880 and by 1885 the Sherman area was rapidly being settled, most of the families locating between Sherman and the Columbia River. Many of the early settlers were Civil War veterans, a large group coming from Virginia. The post office at Sherman was run by George W. Sherman from its beginning in 1884 until about 1898. Rural free postal delivery from Wilbur was established in 1905 when the railroad came to Wilbur so the post office at Sherman was discontinued.
Buildings in Sherman included the post office, a blacksmith shop, two or three family residences and the Redwine store with a dance hall upstairs. Soon after 1885, the Redwine store was sold and the building was moved to Creston. The merchandise was moved to the post office building and George Sherman and his mother ran the post office and the store. George Sherman never married.
In approximately 1888, Arthur B. Cort, his wife and two children moved into the area about 2 miles north of Sherman. Herbert Jones declared Cort to be "quite outstanding in many ways. He taught our school one term and I got the idea that an education might be worthwhile."8 (Jones himself went on to teach at the Potlatch School, where he taught Effie, Joe, George and Maude Kunz. Effie took the 8th grade examination and got a diploma.9) After teaching at the school Arthur Cort got the idea of starting an academy at his place where those who desired could get a little more schooling than was offered in the public school. He made an old log barn over into a school building and a few other cheap places were added where students could batch, bringing food from their homes. He added a few more teachers and the Cortland Academy and Business College came into operation. The first semester opened in 1889, offering a curriculum of commercial studies, a course in teaching, a classical course, and elementary studies for both adults and children. The list of names who attended this school included Jones, Wynhoff, Johnson, but no Simons nor Kunz.
"It was proposed to build a town to be called Cortland at this college. Forty acres were to be platted and placed on the market. The lots were to be sold to families on the following plan. Those paying $100 tuition to the academy and erecting a building at a cost of $150 were to be given a warranty deed for a lot. No saloons or immoral houses were to be allowed to operate with[in] the limits of the proposed college town."10 A store, owned by Mr. Pendleton, was located in the center of town. A well was dug and a town pump installed, and a telegraph line was built to Cortland in 1891. There were twelve houses, sheltering nearly 100 persons. In June of 1891, the Lincoln County Times printed a flattering endorsement for the Academy.
Sherman (Cortland) Church
Cortland grew into quite a community. (The small Presbyterian Church, built in 1898 in Cortland, was eventually moved and now stands near the Sherman Cemetery.) Sunday school and church were started as Arthur B. Cort was a Presbyterian minister and his wife was an educated woman, especially in music. Mrs. Cort had the first organ in the area. It was just a little thing that one could carry, but it added much to the community.
Despite the hard work of the Corts and the support of the local paper, Cortland Academy was not a financial success and by 1892 it had ceased to exist. Pendleton’s store did not last very long either, and in 1893, the merchandise was sold to the storekeeper at Sherman.
Cortland Academy was not the only school in the region, however. In 1894 a new school house was built at Sherman with volunteer labour. Yet the civic encouragement of education only went so far among the local population. An election in 1897 in this district resulted in an almost 100 % vote against providing free textbooks.
For about 4 or 5 years around 1900 Sherman was quite a lively place. The Baptist and Presbyterian churches were very active. The new people coming from Virginia, including the Copenhavers, were active in these churches as well as in other community affairs. For several years there was a Literary and Debating Society at Sherman. Herbert E. Jones writes of his recollections about the Sherman area:
I remember quite well the first 4th of July we celebrated in Sherman. I suppose there were as many Indians as whites. Indians were camped all around and they had ponies for sale.... The flat up by Bob Houston’s was all open and that was the race track. Indians always liked horse racing. Chief Moses always had good race horses. I saw Chief Joseph a few times and Chief Moses many times.11
A young people’s group known as the Baptist Young People’s Society was organized in Sherman and they, along with the young people’s group from the Presbyterian Church, were responsible for many New Year’s watch parties, skating parties, basket socials and other activities. A Baptist church was built near where the community hall stands. Sunday school and church services were held there until 1898 when it was decided to move to Cortland. The move split the congregation and a minority elected to stay at Sherman for Sunday school. This split led eventually to the church being united with the Baptist church in Wilbur and the church building was torn down.
The neighbourhood was not without its bad times. There was no doctor closer than Sprague until 1896 when Dr.Yount arrived in Wilbur. The situation seemed particular dangerous in the 1890s when a case of cholera was reported at Brents in 1892 and the entire community was quarantined with smallpox in 1899.
But the turn of the century also brought with it the hope of opening Sherman to the larger world somewhat. The railroad survey of 1891 gave hope that the Great Northern Railroad would be coming through on the old Sherman-Sprague route. This did not come to pass, though. The railroad did not pass through Sherman, but reached only Wilbur in 1889.
The Sons of Veterans, a patriotic group, was organized in 1890. In the spring of 1893 the Grand Army of the Republic and the Sons of Veterans erected a hall at Sherman for the use of the two orders and the public. The two organizations with the greatest impact on the community have been the Sherman Cemetery Association and the Sherman Swastika Ladies Club, the latter of which was organized in 1912 to maintain and improve the Sherman Cemetery. ("Swastika" was chosen as a name because the emblem stood for friendship and charity. During the Nazi reign in Germany the swastika no longer carried an untarnished reputation, so the name of the club was changed to the Sherman Cemetery Club.) Bazaars and other entertainment were sponsored to raise funds.
As of the turn of the millennium, the community hall still stands, used as a storage building by Lary Kunz. The old Presbyterian Church dominates the horizon near the cemetery, which is well kept and frequently visited. Although Sherman never grew to be more than a small village and the post office closed its doors almost 100 years ago, in 2005, there is still a sense of community pride among residents of the area.
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1 Donald E. Walter, ed. Lincoln County: A Lasting Legacy. Davenport, WA: Lincoln County Centennial Committee, 1988, p 403.
2 Ibid., p 404.
3 Ibid., p 405.
4 Ibid., p 408.
5 Helen Gray Christopher. Double Entry. PanPress Publishers, 1997, p 10.
6 Description of the town from a 1912 picture and accompanying text from Helen Gray Christopher, Double Entry. PanPress Publishers, 1997.
7 Richard F. Steele and Arthur P. Rose. An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams and Franklin Counties, State of Washington, Western Historical Publishing Company, 1904, p 210.
8 Herbert E. Jones, Early History of the Big Bend Country, 1963, p 10.
9 Ibid., p 21.
10 Ibid., p 10.
11 Ibid., p 11, 13.