A news item in the Walla Walla Bulletin on Friday, April 25, 1919, reported the following:
Probably the country’s surpassing tractor show, the record-breaker anywhere, is being staged in the Walla Walla valley this week. Fifty or 60 machines are seen demonstrating at the same moment. The landscape, as far as the eye can rove, seems animated with their powerful movements, ranging from a colossal 75 that turns a swathe 10 feet wide, to the bantam type that is content to turn two or three furrows at once.
The Walla Walla valley is a fitting place for this impressive exhibition of twentieth century cultivating methods, for it was one of the earliest nurseries of agriculture in the Pacific northwest. At old Walla Walla, where the river joins the Columbia, the Hudson’s Bay company started gardens and grain fields 100 years ago ...
About that time Dr. Whitman, along with his missionary colleagues, Spalding and Gray, and guided by Mr. Pambrun of the fur company, was scouting up the valley in search of a location for his mission. ... Gray, thus describes a historic scene that makes a vivid contrast to the present day setting of the tractor show:
“... Spalding, Whitman, Pambrun and Gray discussing the quality of the soil, the future prospects of the mission and of the natives it was contemplated to gather around ... unanimously concluded that there was but a limited amount of land susceptible of cultivation, estimated for the place at the mission at about 10 acres. Along all the streams and at the foot of the Blue mountains there might be found little patches of from one-half an acre to six acres suitable to cultivation for the use of the natives.”
If their survey had been correct, no tractors would be needed in the Walla Walla region today. A single machine could plow in a few hours all the land by them thought tillable as they sat by their campfire and tried to look into the future of the beautiful wild land ... Walla Walla had become the chief town in the territory. Over those luxuriant uplands grazed the herds and flocks of the Hudson’s Bay company, and it was long thought that the uplands would be grazing forever.
It is a long, long cry from Dr. Whitman’s single plow, drawn by cayuse ponies, tilling a few acres at Wailatpu 80 years ago, to the Walla Walla tractor show of 1919. Long in years, but longer in the bewildering progress that has come with the passing decades.
Tractors would, indeed, become necessary in the Walla Walla region. As Randy Leffingwell wrote in 1993, the agricultural tractor brought the Industrial Revolution to the farm. Today, tractors are essential for sustaining current rates of production — though a few farmers in the Valley are returning to using horses for a variety of reasons (see Page XX).
Tractors, with their new technologies, make it possible for a single farmer to cultivate thousands of acres, on land that would have been deemed inaccessible or unsuitable for farming 100 years ago (see more on precision agriculture, Page XX).
Visionaries of the region in 1919 saw the coming need for mechanization and urged the Pacific Northwest Tractor and Power Farming Association in Spokane to bring the next big tractor demonstration to Walla Walla.
News reports at the time state that the demonstration was going to happen in Spokane until a representative of the Walla Walla Truck and Tractor Association told the gathering that “Walla Walla and Umatilla Counties have more tractors in use than any other counties in the two states, and there are a hundred more farmers here who will buy just as soon as they decide which machine is best suited for their purposes, according to a book on the exposition being published by Blue Mountain Land Trust that will be available at the trust’s event Aug. 17 commemorating the 1919 tractor show (visit ubne.ws/2YmON3G for more information).
And so history was made. The tractor show, with its dozens of models from among the 180-200 manufacturers at the time (today only a handful are left), came to the Harvey Yenney Farm from April 23-25, 1919 (more on Page XX).
Here at the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, time had buried the long-ago tractor show beneath the weight of many years. We recently learned about it through the team at Blue Mountain Land Trust including Executive Director Tim Copeland and board President Linda Herbert, who did extensive research in her enthusiasm to learn more about the historical event and commemorate it with a new community gathering.
Her passion for the story of this 1919 exposition inspired our news team to dive into the history of tractors in the Walla Walla Valley, presented here in these pages. You’ll find stories on what was happening on the farm and in the home in the year 1919, what crops were being grown then and what’s in the dirt now in the Valley, how tractors changed farming, even how tractor enthusiasts are working to restore antique machines for collecting.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Carroll Adams, a man who sold tractors in Walla Walla (and at various times had stores in Baker, Hermiston and John Day) from 1950 until he and his son, Bob Adams, sold Carroll Adams Tractor Co. to Tumac Machinery in 2006. Carroll will celebrate his 104th birthday this October. He was 4 years old when the tractor expo came to Walla Walla, and though he hadn’t yet moved to the Valley, his father was one of the first tractor salesmen in Spokane and was involved in a similar demonstration in that region the year before, in 1918.
When we met in early August, Bob told me all about watching the tractor industry in Walla Walla come of age over the 60 or so years the family was in business here (Carroll was interviewed by the U-B in 2005, and that story is on Page XX). Bob was born in 1941. He started working in the Walla Walla tractor shop, helping sort nuts and bolts and other small tasks, at 8 years old.
Much has changed over the years, Bob said, though many of the older tractors are still in use in the Valley. “You shouldn’t think of a tractor by its age,” Bob likes to say. “A tractor is a tool, so if you take care of it, it will just keep on doing the job.”
The Adamses sold small tractors, so newer technology such as GPS and such didn’t impact their business much. But, contrary to what some might think, “farmers are among the fastest to adapt to new technology,” Bob said. They have to if they want to stay ahead of the curve and operate the machines they rely upon for survival.
Crops in the Valley have also changed. Most of the land west of College Place was once overflowing with onions; now few will grow there. “A nematode (or round worm) changed all that,” Bob said. And in 1949 and 1950, probably 50 dairies operated in the Valley. Now one or two artisanal dairies do a vastly different type of business here, he said.
He also remembers a time when 75-80 Italian farmers, great customers of the family’s tractor shop, worked 10-15 acre plots, growing enough produce to live on. And peas, peas, peas galore were grown across the Valley. Pea harvest was labor intensive, Bob said. After the viners removed the peas, the vines fermented in pits, and you could smell the vines being hauled away for cattle feed for miles away.
“That’s one of the smells you don’t smell anymore here,” he said.
Also larger grain yields over time meant finding ways to deal with the straw. Traditionally it was burned, mowed or tilled back into the ground. “They never used to bale as much straw as they do now,” Bob said. Now farmers often cut and bale their straw to sell to mushroom farms or to Columbia Pulp, which will begin operating at Lyons Ferry in Columbia County sometime this year, turning straw into pulp for secondary uses such as disposable plates.
And then there’s the wine industry. Smaller tractors are often used in vineyards for light tillage, spraying and other tasks, he said.
One thing his outfit offered in the 1980s and 1990s that was a “win-win” for all was a leasing program. Infrequent users, such as orchardists, could lease a new tractor for two to three months for harvest or some other big job, and then bring it back to the shop. Bob or Carroll could resell the tractor, still within warranty, at a lower cost.
“It made for great business,” Bob said. And business was great. Bob and Carroll sold something like 150-200 small tractors per year while they were in business. Many are still out working the fields of the Walla Walla Valley and beyond today.