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Tour the Palouse

MONDAY, AUG. 18, 2008

Wheat country has much to offer

It’s harvest time on the Palouse. Almost anywhere you stop amid the rolling, golden wheat fields, you can hear the hum of combines and see the white harvest dust clouds rise on the horizon. Heavy grain trucks rumble by on narrow roads, tractors scramble back and forth, coolers sit in the shade of old trees.

But there are many other things going on around the Palouse besides farming. Here’s a “Palouse loop” that includes art, great food, 100-year-old newspapers, a science center and a view that will take your breath away.

A two-hour and one latte drive south on U.S. 195 from Spokane, you’ll find Uniontown, which is the home of the Dahmen Barn and its artists.

Surrounded by a fence made of old farm equipment wheels, 19 artists maintain working studios at Dahmen Barn.

“Summer has been really busy, and we were a little surprised by that, I mean with gas prices and all,” said Julie Hartwig, who’s managed the daily business and the store at the barn for the past two years.

Art classes are offered, and the second Saturday of each month there’s a demonstration, class or performance. During the school year, barn artists offer after-school classes on Thursdays.

“On the fourth Saturday of every month we have a barn dance,” said Hartwig. The Aug. 23 dance features the Hog Heaven Big Band at 7:30 p.m.

Steve and Junette Dahmen donated the barn to the nonprofit Uniontown Community Development Association in 2004.

“All the work that’s been done here, restoration and everything, has been done by volunteers,” said Hartwig. “And not a day goes by without someone stopping in to see if I need anything done. It’s pretty amazing.”

At the shop, you’ll find pottery, jewelry, photos, paintings, birdhouses and purses, all made by local artists.

“More than 100 regional artists are represented here,” said Hartwig. “I can honestly tell you we get more traffic here than if we were located on Main street in Lewiston.”

If you plan your trip to the Dahmen Barn on a Friday or Saturday, Sage Baking Company in Uniontown is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The rustic breads and rolls will remind you in the most delicious way that you are in the middle of wheat country.

Hit the road again and go north to Pullman, where there are lots of restaurants to choose from – including the newly opened Cooky’s European Deli and Market on East Main Street, with lunch specials like schnitzel with potato salad and a great selection of salami and cheese.

Head north once again, but this time take State Route 27 to the town of Palouse.

Not only is the drive gorgeous – there’s a reason why they call it the Palouse Scenic Byway – the little town seems to be thriving.

It’s home to a quilt shop and an antique shop, a grocery market and gallery, a couple of restaurants and the Palouse Community Museum and Roy M. Chatters Newspaper and Printing Museum.

Bob West was the tour guide, answering the obvious question: Why a newspaper museum in Palouse?

“Well, there was a paper just down the street, and it closed,” said West. “They were just gonna take all the equipment and take a sledgehammer to it, I guess, so my dad donated this building for the museum.”

The museum was dedicated to J.B. and Olga West when it opened in 1976. According to the museum’s Web site, Roy M. Chatters was a nuclear engineer from Washington State University who retired and began collecting antique printing equipment. His dream was to open a working museum.

“What we have here is letter-presses,” said West, showing off an old Linotype machine – which produced one solid line of type at a time, using a keyboard, a complicated system of molds, spacebands and molten metal heated to more than 500 degrees.

“I’m afraid I can’t work it, but it’s quite an amazing piece of machinery,” West said.

Born and raised in Palouse, West’s family ran the grocery store in town, and as a kid he helped with the press at the paper.

“Imagine that, I fed it one piece of paper at a time,” West said, chuckling, patting the metal contraption. The press was located on the second floor, across the street.

“I don’t know how they got it up there,” West said. “We just about gave up getting it out of there.”

The museum features another piece of grand lithographic equipment affectionately known as the “finger snapper press.” And it works. Community members occasionally come in and use it for small printing jobs, one piece of paper at a time.

In the back is a unique collection of newspapers from the Palouse, from a time when towns like Tekoa, Garfield and Oakesdale all had their own papers.

“This is my favorite,” said West as he pulled out a stack of Palouse Republic newspapers from 1905. “A lot of things happened in Palouse that year.”

Printed on pages now the color of wheat straw and as frail as rice paper, story after story tells of drowning and murder and railroads and schoolhouses to be built and mills to open.

“Many people come here looking for news from their family in the old days,” said West. “I guess I’ve become the town historian of sorts.”

The museum suffered a lot of damage during a 1996 flood and was closed for a couple of years until the state Historical Society came to the rescue with a grant.

“It was all volunteers who cleaned it up and got it going again,” West said. “We still have a lot of dedicated people who help us – and we need all the help we can get.”

Just across the street sits the Bank Left Gallery and Tea House. The gallery features ceramics, jewelry, glass and photography, and the French white chocolate cake is perfect with a cup of afternoon coffee.

Leaving Palouse, cut back across the wheatland following State Route 272 to Colfax or continue north on State Route 27 until you can travel west on Dry Creek Road – either way you’ll be back on Highway 195 heading north to Steptoe Butte.

Follow the signs off the highway, you can’t miss the giant butte sticking up in the middle of the farmland. The ascent is interesting and can be nerve-wracking. To reach the top, 3,612 feet above sea level, follow a narrow road that winds its way around and around, in tighter and tighter turns, until you hit the top.

The view is expansive. The quilt pattern of fields, green and gold, little towns and creeks, trees and hills, spans as far as you can see. On a good day, hawks sail on up-winds at eye level and a warm breeze blows the sweet scent of the wheat fields up the mountainside. Sunset is particularly stunning from this perch.

It’s a great spot to end a tour of the Palouse.

Reach Pia Hallenberg Christensen at (509) 459-5427 or

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