There was promise of open fields and apple trees, of space and manifest destiny.
In 1912, Gentil Dhaenens a Belgian immigrant, packed up his family and moved from Detroit to a 40-acre apple orchard in the southeast Spokane Valley.
After Gentil died in 1937, his son Aziel “Ace” Dhaenens took over the farm - then reduced to only 14 acres along Evergreen Road and 16th Avenue. Ace ran the farm until his death in 1992.
Until Ace’s death, the family of eight children lived in the two-story river rock house on Evergreen Road, turning the soft earth for strawberries, corn and apple trees. It was the same soil so suitable for farming that, ironically, was so conducive to building.
Bill Smith, owner of Smith Signature Homes and a developer active in the Valley for 20 years, said he had always seen the Dhaenens land as a prime development spot.
“I had been after Ace for years,” Smith said. After Ace died in February of 1992, followed by the death of his wife, Ada, seven months later, the remaining Dhaenens clan decided to sell the land to Smith. Smith bought it in 1993.
Now, five years later, 26 small-lot homes - part of Dhaenens Square - sit on the former farm.
The farm-turned-subdivision is a microcosm of Valley development.
Open lands have become subdivisions. Orchards have become office parks. Corn fields have turned to commercial centers. It’s the price of progress and population.
“There’s not much ground left in the Valley,” Smith said. With the state Growth Management Act aimed at curbing urban sprawl, this smaller lot development, Smith hopes, will catch on with other Spokane developers.
“It’s what the county wants to see with the GMA. I just jumped at it,” he said.
The gated community that sits on the corner of 16th and Evergreen was Smith’s brainchild. He was inspired by visits to the East and West coasts, where homes were closer together, had alleys leading to garages and had smaller lots. The 14-acre subdivision will have three parks, an RV storage area and a total of 69 homes when the project is finished.
Homes range in price from $125,000 to $190,000. Sitting on about 4,500-square-foot lots, houses have small porches and ground maintenance, an incentive to singles and married couples who have little time to mess with yard work, Smith said.
Smith has turned the old Dhaenens home into an office. Eventually, he plans to restore it as a private residence and sell it.
It’s a change from the days when Ace and Ada Dhaenens and their eight children worked the fields every summer.
Six boys crammed in to sleep in the front bedroom of the house, which was built in 1913. The two girls slept in private rooms and tended to the smaller babies while their mother worked outside.
Now only three children are left.
Robert, now 70, and sister Doreen Dieckhoff, 64, still live in the Valley. Their brother, Jim, lives in Oregon.
Tom Dhaenens, who operated Tom Hogs Produce south of the family’s farm, died last January. He was the only one of Ace and Ada’s children who opposed developing the property.
“There was lots of vacant land and woods, woods from Evergreen to Pines. It was nothing but trees,” Robert said. “Well, it has greatly changed. No matter where you go you see all this building taking place. It’s houses, houses, houses.”
Robert, who now lives in a duplex on 20th and Herald, said he drives by the development and thinks about how his summers were spent picking strawberries and plowing the fields, how he dug ditches where new sewer lines now run.
Selling the land was the best choice they could have made, he said.
Dieckhoff, who moved back to the Valley one year ago from California, said her father worked the fields with passion and love.
Smith had made a few offers to him, she said. “Daddy said, ‘No way’ at the time.”
But after Ace’s death, Ada put the property up for sale. After her death the children sold the land and divided up the money according to their parents’ will.
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