People living in the early 1900s in the Walla Walla Valley saw a lot of changes, including the introduction of automobiles, telephones and electricity.

Machines of many forms — besides tractors — began emerging, the first of which helped farmers communicate.

“In the open reaches of grain and stock country, isolation was as tangible as dust sifting on the wind,” according to The Inland Empire: Unfolding Years, 1879-1929 by John Fahey. “Farm families there lived reclusive lives, one day like another. Men and women turned leathery and hardhanded in their fields.”

And two-thirds of the children didn’t attend school regularly as they had to tend to the family’s farm. They dressed in overalls, usually the same pair, and mimicked their parents’ ways.

Families often ate what they grew and raised, and shared with their neighbors — and they were proud of it.

One Waitsburg resident described a special-occasion meal at a neighboring farm on a page of the book Wait’s Mill: The Story of the Community of Waitsburg, Washington, by Ellis and Elvira Ellen Laidlaw.

“... roasted chickens and dressing, pork tenderloin or fresh sausage fragrant with sage from Mary’s garden, and from a table that fairly groaned beneath dishes of mashed potatoes and giblet gravy, baked squash, sauerkraut, creamed onions, dried corn, celery from the store with its leafy stalks resembling a bouquet in a small glass container, pickled peaches, crabapple jelly, damson preserves, bread and butter, to be followed later with the apple and mince pies, steamed plum pudding and marble cake that waited in kitchen and pantry.”

These meals were created without many of the conveniences of today. Many areas didn’t have running water or electricity until the 1940s, but soon railways, automobiles and telephones began making inroads into farmland.

“The farm husband saw practical use for an automobile and a telephone,” Fahey wrote in his book. “His wife might yearn for running water in her kitchen, but by 1920, when nearly half the farmers owned cars and phones, less than a third had indoor running water and one in 10 had electricity or gas for cooking. In 10 more years, nearly everyone would own cars and telephones.”


The rise in cars caused the electric street railway system owners in Walla Walla to ask officials to lower its franchise tax and allow it to raise fares, according to an issue of Up to the Times magazine between 1918-1919.

“Unquestionably with so many automobiles — clerks, shop girls and day laborers in Walla Walla now ride to and from their daily tasks in autos, you know — the municipal officials had better grant the owners of our railway system what they ask.”

With the increase in cars, roads couldn’t be overlooked anymore. Many still were merely wagon roads, even after the Great Northern Railway and U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored a “good roads train” where promoters would travel throughout Washington, Oregon and Idaho in 1902 and try to show communities how to turn bad roads into good. It was not repeated, as leaders deemed it unsuccessful.

“Object-lesson roads, funded near experimental farms by the Agriculture Department, located in Washington at Pullman and Walla Walla, showed solutions to local construction problems,” Fahey’s book said. “Yet these were fundamentally wagon roads. A decision to design roads for automobiles was not reached until 1909.”

Still, good roads took turns and twists before becoming a reality.

“Our road building has not kept pace with the demand for them,” Walla Walla’s Up to the Times magazine stated. “It is estimated that there are $3,000,000 invested in automobiles in Walla Walla County. On an average of $1,000 each, this would give us 3,000 automobiles … And on such roads as we have in this county, it is estimated that it costs on an average of $250 per year for the running expense of each car … We cannot estimate accurately what the saving would be in traveling over good roads compared with rough ones, but we believe one-third would be a very conservative figure.”


Phones were also becoming a household must by 1919.

Telephone systems grew by mutual or stock companies organizing in areas where farmers wanted to talk to each other or call town, and by the gradual consolidation of systems to provide long-distance calling.

In 1884, Walla Walla installed telephones, according to Fahey, with lines going north as settlement did. Spokane got its phones in 1886, and Yakima by 1889.

“Between 1900 and 1910, telephone systems blossomed like spring flowers,” he wrote. “For a time, Washington was second among states in the number of telephones per hundred citizens.”

Mail service

Around the same time, the federal government tried country mail service on 12 rural free delivery routes, and parcel post started in 1913. By 1915, Washington had 356 rural mail routes. A newspaper article then stated there were “four things essential to the farmer, rural free delivery, parcel post, good roads, and a telephone.”

Mailmen were treated like friends.

“The farmer offered the mailman gifts, invited him to dinner, and gave him messages for others along the route,” Fahey wrote. “Farmers became avid newspaper readers. The mail service encouraged numbering houses in towns and improving country roads.”


Electricity, however, was still lacking.

“Some along electric railroads or transmission lines hooked up quietly, without leave — the farther from the direct-current generating station, the dimmer the lights,” Fahey wrote.

Those near irrigation projects used electric current from water wheels in ditches or water pumps.

Electricity required power plants, unlike the telephone, so few neighbors could create their own systems. Two electrical utilities dominated eastern Washington: Washington Water Power and Pacific Power and Light, with the latter taking Walla Walla.

“Walla Walla sparkled with electricity by 1889,” Fahey wrote.

Some of the reasons the utilities didn’t reach farms were because farmers wouldn’t repay construction costs, and limited current. Then, electricity was mainly for motors, commercial use, store-window lights, and nighttime home lighting. Companies asked people to turn off their lights in the morning and had plant operators who would take note of a carbon-filament lamp that measured the amount of electricity being used or just looked out a window to see lights going on or off. With those measurements, the operator could adjust the water flow on the plant’s power source, usually a river or other water body.

Power companies began advertising electric appliances when they enlarged their generating capacity after 1910, but few homes had electric outlets, and wiring was a single drop-cord from the ceiling in each room. Pacific Power and Light used railroad cars as its platform for electric cooking demonstrations, and a Washington State College demonstration toured the state.

“Speakers at women’s meetings declared that ‘women are not going to milk cows and make butter without modern conveniences with power,’” Fahey wrote.

But still, many farms didn’t have electricity, and some had gas-powered generators, because cities weren’t allowed to sell excess current outside their limits. To avoid raising rates, towns had ratio-to-cost revenue regulations. Farmers who wanted electrical current had to agree to pay for it or buy enough appliances to run up their bills.

“Under such conditions, electric service reached farms at a maddeningly slow pace,” Fahey wrote.

But when farmers got electricity, either through gas generator or power plant, they began to populate their homes with appliances such as washers and wringers.

“One of the most unpleasant experiences in the life of the housewife is the weekly washday,” one magazine stated. “In the cities, the burden of this task has been relieved in various ways ... With the introduction of electricity into farm homes, the women folks there are now getting an opportunity to put away the washboard and the old-style washing machine run with a crank or lever … Washing clothes in the ordinary way is peculiarly trying to the health of the housewife, and one of the finest things that electricity offers, in the farm home, is this easy way of washing.”

The integration of machinery continued into the 20th century. One example including tractors from Experiences in a Promised Land: Essays in Pacific Northwest History: “Columbia Plateau farmers continued to buy tractors even during the worst years of the Great Depression …

“A salesman for Caterpillar Tractor Company estimated that during the years 1931-1937, he accepted 10,000 horses and mules in trade for tractors in the Walla Walla area and adjacent regions. He sold the animals to loggers and buyers from the south.”

Emily Thornton can be reached at or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.

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