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Against The Grain Garfield County An Island Of Permanence In Increasingly Mobile Society

Sun., Sept. 14, 1997, midnight

They say that when a siren goes off here the buildings lean toward the street as people rush to look out the windows. The people who aren’t looking sit glued to their police scanners.

“Everyone owns a scanner,” said Peggy Taylor, the Garfield County chief deputy auditor.

This could be because gossip stands to be the only growth industry in the county, which otherwise gets by on the few jobs to be had from wheat, cattle, timber and work on the Snake River dams.

Or it could be that, with so little happening in a county of 2,300 people, gossip rises in inverse proportion to the amount of what usually passes as real news.

“Mostly all there is to talk about is gossip,” said Piper Cox, a high school senior.

More likely it’s that people tend to stay put here more than in any other Washington county. At the time of the last census, nearly one in four residents had lived in the same house for more than 30 years.

That’s more than twice the statewide average and way out of line with the highly mobile West.

Nationwide, said Alan Durning, author of “This Place on Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence” (1996, Sasquatch Books), one in every four residents moves every five years. A place with as little mobility as Garfield County, he said, is like “a lost continent. North Americans are the most mobile people on the planet.”

The result, said Durning, is a sense of belonging being sought out by Americans uneasy with the rootlessness borne from “the pursuit of a career and more stuff and unfettered individual liberty.”

In the homey social boulevards of Pomeroy, the county’s only incorporated town, your neighbor really can be your brother, or at least a lifelong acquaintance. The line between family and community is blurred. One person’s business is everyone’s business.

Mike Peterson, a two-year resident and relative newcomer, draws a comparison to the giant Michigan fungus purported to be the world’s largest living organism.

“That’s this town,” said Peterson, whose brick retaining wall-in-progress is so scrutinized you could call it a very public works project. “They’re all growing together. Everyone’s related. And when you’re not, you’re kind of different. You stick out.”

With all that familiarity comes an outsized sense of hometown spirit. This may be the smallest county in the state, but in a Lake Wobegon way, it is well above average on the civic scorecard.

When the Boy Scouts go on a can drive, said Rick Gallaher, executive director of the Garfield County Mental Health Center, they pull in more pounds of food per capita than any troop in the state.

Pomeroy parents at an out-of-town junior varsity game can outnumber home-team fans. The volleyball and cross-country teams left for last year’s state tournaments with a police escort. The sidewalks were thick with banners.

“We sent 300,” said Terry Brandon, school superintendent.

Then there are the large white letters hung as a semaphore of good will on one of the brown hills surrounding town. For most of the summer they spelled “Tara” in honor of Tara Utke, a 16-year-old seriously injured water skiing on the river. The letters, made of white stones and painted boards, were recently changed to read “Wes” for Wes Ruchert, a 27-year-old killed last month when he rolled his pickup.

“We all talk about one another,” said Dean Burton, a county commissioner who fled Los Angeles in 1973. “But let something happen to one of these people and everybody accumulates there.”

Asked why they like where they live, Garfield County residents recite a mantra: 30 minutes to the river, 15 minutes to the Blue Mountains, friendly people, good schools, nice place to raise kids.

It helps that downtown Pomeroy’s family-owned stores and the county’s 200 or so farms form a core of jobs to keep many residents rooted. Other farming-rich counties, such as Columbia, Lincoln and Whitman, also have a high percentage of longtime residents.

But the number of long-timers also reflects what’s not here: new blood. Garfield County is one of only two counties in the state (Skamania is the other) without a single black person, according to state Office of Financial Management estimates.

And not everyone born here stays. A dearth of new jobs creates a demographic “hollowing out” in which young people leave, said Annabel Cook, a demographer and chair of the Washington State University Rural Sociology Department.

“It’s just tougher for young people to find work in a smaller farming community,” said Mike Tom, the 48-year-old publisher and editor of the East Washingtonian, the local weekly newspaper. “But there are a lot of people that return here, people my age that went away and came back to run their family farming operation, and they’re raising their kids here.”

“There’s no jobs here really at all,” said Zack Lueck, 42. “You kind of bring one with you or wait to inherit one.”

Lueck left town three days after his high school graduation in 1974. After a succession of lounge and restaurant management jobs, including work at the Spokane House hotel and restaurant, he came back here seven years ago to refurbish old buildings and raise his kids as a single parent.

He found he’d returned to a place where everybody not only knew his name but knew how to pronounce it (sounds like “lick”).

“It’s just like having an extended family here in town,” he said while smoking in the alleyway orchard he planted beside his home, the 94-yearold Seeley Opera House.

“When I was a kid, my dad knew what I had done before I got home. When you’re 17, it’s a horrible system. Since I’m a parent, I think it’s an incredibly wonderful system.”

The bulk of Garfield County’s long-timers are old-timers, giving the county the highest percent of elderly in the state.

Among them is Ben Slaybaugh, who left for a while then returned to the ranch his grandfather built after coming West in a covered wagon.

“I wouldn’t feel at home anyplace else,” said Slaybaugh, 78. “I went away to Vancouver. I worked in the shipyards a few years. It never was home to me.”

Decades later, his ranch is a landscape of memories.

“When I was first married I painted that thing,” he said looking over at the barn. A torn wall showed where his mules, part of a herd of stock that numbered 67 when he was packing hunters into the Blues, ate away part of the plywood. They liked the glue.

In front of the house his garden is thick with flowers and loud with bees. Thelma, his high school sweetheart and wife of 56 years, was working there just last month when she had a stroke and died.

Now he fills his days with chores and morning coffee in town at Donna’s Drive-In, where personal coffee mugs hang on the wall and customers take turns refilling each others’ cups.

Evenings are the hard part. He and Thelma used to sit and spend them together. She’d read a book; he’d watch TV. Now, he said, evenings are the lonesome time.

But one of his grandsons lives just up the road. And Lord knows there are plenty of people here willing to look in on him.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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