In less than a week, all of the Walla Walla Valley will be invited to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an event they might not be aware even happened.
On Saturday, people can head to Farm Day at McKinney Farms (see box for tickets information and other details) for historical accounts, live farming demonstrations, vintage auto and farm equipment presentations, ice cream, bluegrass music and more — all to celebrate the 1919 Tractor Show that took place nearby at Yenney Ranch on Russell Creek Road before many people had even experienced a tractor.
She couldn’t agree with that query more, said Linda Herbert with Blue Mountain Land Trust.
“I think of it as Walla Walla’s best kept secret,” she said with a laugh.
Herbert has a multilayered role in all things Tractor Show. She’s president of the board of directors for Blue Mountain Land Trust, which is sponsoring the 2019 Farm Day. She’s also the sister of Robert McKinney, the farmer who began raising community attention to one of the biggest things to happen to Walla Walla, topping even the Gentlemen of the Road music festival in 2015.
Like the extravaganza that brought global music artists and more to Walla Walla in modern times, the 1919 Tractor Show attracted visitors and businesses to the city. Although there are varying accounts of how many people traveled here by automobile and train, one “scientific calculation” done by the Walla Walla Bulletin newspaper at the time put the number at tens of thousands, Herbert said.
In her research, she learned the paper’s staff counted cars at 3 p.m. on April 25, the last day of the show — 3,000 at the Russell Creek site and 1,000 downtown.
“They averaged four people per auto, figuring the people downtown that day had probably visited the show at least one time. That tabulated at 16,000 motorists in that hour, plus 4,000 folks who had been taxied to the site in courtesy cars (Uber, anyone?) and the estimated 1,000 who had arrived by horse or street cars.”
All in all, the newspaper said, “a grand total was declared at 49,000” and about 15,000 out-of-town guests were estimated, Herbert said, quoting news articles of the day.
Enter the tractor
Internal combustion engines rolled onto the domestic farm radar just a few years before, although the genesis of the new technology was birthed nearly 30 years earlier. By 1919, as the engines were continually improved upon, powered farm equipment and household appliances were gaining tremendous traction across the country.
Whole agricultural communities were both sceptical and eager to see the new inventions for themselves, so manufacturers brought the goods to the people all over America, stories say. There were no YouTube videos, no television to help understand how tractors performed, or how clean the laundry was out of the newfangled motorized washing machine.
Instead there were news stories with static photos, but in 1919 those only went as far as a newspaper or magazine was mailed out.
Thus live demonstrations became tractor marketers’ best sales tool, and Walla Walla was ready to buy, it seems. According to the book Herbert has written for the anniversary, a number of machines were sold. For those who waited, their hunger was amply whetted by the magnitude of possibilities presented.
Manufacturers had anticipated as much, and some brought up to five different tractor models to show off, news reports said.
The tractor show here was a fine example of coordinated marketing effort, said Tim Copeland, executive director of Blue Mountain Land Trust.
“If you look at 1919, that was an interesting year for lots of reasons. We had just come out of WWI, and that had shifted us from animal power to mechanized power. And after the war, that technology became available to farming,” he said.
“And 1919 was a time when farm incomes were pretty high. Farmers had been making a lot of money because of the war. That didn’t last long, but in 1919, they were feeling flush. The technology was there for new investment, and a lot of farmers had the money to do so.”
Still, the industry knew farm equipment purchases were typically a family investment, for every farmer did better with a spouse in the house keeping the ledger.
And those women were looking for ways to make their work easier. Ice boxes for the individual home, electric dishwashers and pop-up toasters were all relatively new to the common household. Motorized washing machines trumpeted a new horizon of less manual labor.
Marketers understood that quite well, Copeland said, and made sure the Tractor Show had something for all.
Rediscovering the past
From all reports, the 1919 venture was a robust success, but the hubbub would not imprint on the wider community’s history for all time.
McKinney, the lifelong farmer who now leases and cultivates the fields where the tractor show took place, was as surprised as anyone when neighbor Lew Sprengel brought over a photograph of long-ago tents and autos on the spot that now bears crops of wheat, garbanzos, peas and seed corn, Herbert recalled.
Her brother and his partner, Sabrina Clinehens, have been part of Blue Mountain Land Trust’s public natural resource education program, “Learning on the Land,” Herbert said.
McKinney has also been restoring vintage combines for years and uses the machines to teach others about the evolution of farming.
The siblings recognized that if they hadn’t known about the 1919 expo, certainly there would be other people who were unaware.
Herbert dove into the archives at Whitman College, reaping everything she could find on the extravaganza of a century ago. She also wanted to know more about what farming meant locally and nationally to America at that moment in history.
In the end, she said, newspapers and magazines of the day yielded much of what she gathered. And nearly every path split off in another direction paved with informational gold.
She quickly came to see the bigger picture, Herbert said — here was not only a chance to teach people in 2019 about the rich farming past of the Walla Walla Valley but also to underscore the work of Blue Mountain Land Trust.
The nonprofit land trust was established 20 years ago to protect the scenic, natural and working lands in the Blue Mountains regions through community and landowners collaboration. BMLT has a presence in 10 counties, including Walla Walla, Umatilla and Columbia.
Since its founding, the land trust has acquired about 6,500 acres of conservation easements.
Sponsoring the celebration of the Tractor Show fits with the mission of the organization, Copeland said.
“It is really an expansion of our interest in farming in the area and of restoration. We thought it was important that the public know about it … It really is one of these event that has almost faded from history.”