Until now, history has not been kind to George Pangburn.
“Eccentric” is about the nicest word attached to him over the years. “Downright loony” is more like it, owing in large part to his alleged habit of talking to inanimate objects.
“On one occasion, he became angry with a neighbor, and naming a fence post for his enemy, extracted satisfaction by roundly abusing it,” one text recalled. “In a great rage one day, he struck the post and broke a knucklebone.”
Not even his obituary, that last bastion of journalistic politeness, was kind.
“Pauper sister is heir,” said The Spokesman-Review’s headline. “Rich brother who refused to care for her is dead.”
Pangburn was so cheap, the 1901 obit said, that not even the county commissioners could convince him to cough up the money to keep his sister out of the county poor farm.
Crazed reprobate or not, Pangburn’s image is due to be buffed Saturday as state and county officials honor him as the Palouse region’s first farmer.
Starting with a sod hut and six apple trees brought on saddle horse from Walla Walla, Pangburn, in his own way, helped make the Palouse the bountiful region that it is.
“Whitman County is the breadbasket of America,” said Les Wigen, chairman of the Whitman County commissioners. “We raise more wheat in this county than any other county in the United States. We’ve always been in a class of our own.”
Wigen will be one of several dignitaries to unveil a bronze plaque at Pangburn’s homestead Saturday and to declare June 14 Whitman County’s Agricultural Heritage Day.
“More than the guy, it’s the farm,” said Wigen. “In my viewpoint, it’s the first farm designated and platted and deeded. That’s the significance. Not George or whoever it is.”
Area historians figure someone else easily could have been the first farmer in the area. But a three-year search by Washington State University professors Ed Garretson and Kathryn Meyer and former graduate student Robert Hadlow pointed to Pangburn as the first to officially make the claim.
In an 1875 hearing at the U.S. Land Office in Walla Walla, fellow pioneers Ben Scissom and Joseph DeLong attested to Pangburn already being there when they settled in 1868 and 1870, respectively.
“He broke some of the land in 1867,” said DeLong, who signed his affidavit with an X, “and has raised crops on the land every year since.”
Scissom recalled stopping by on his way through the area in 1867 and eating “green corn of (Pangburn’s) raising for supper.”
The land was wide and flat, a major attraction for Eastern-bred riverbottom farmers who had yet to discover the better windblown soils of the Palouse hills.
And it had a spring.
Pangburn lived in his hut until 1870, when he moved into a log cabin. He later built a house and fenced off 100 acres.
Years later, he sold the land for $5,000.
On Jan. 26, 1901, after a hearty dinner at Hook’s Hotel in Endicott, he got up and keeled over, dead.
History notes little else about him, leaving his reputation to the bad press of his day.
Pangburn does have his apologists, though.
“He was different,” said 79-year-old Auggie Luft, who moved to the Pangburn site in 1937 and still farms it today with his son, Gary. “When you talk about a man living alone and talking to himself, he has to answer once in a while or he isn’t talking to himself.”
In a 1987 letter to historian Richard Scheuerman, Eva Harris, who grew up on a farm near Pangburn’s, recalled her family buying cherries, apples and pears from Pangburn before their own orchard bore fruit. At times, her father would bring his violin by Pangburn’s home and he would sing to the children.
“We liked to hear him sing,” she said, “and we all loved him.”
For years after he died, the family would travel to Endicott and put flowers at his headstone, one of the biggest in the cemetery.
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