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Washington Voices

1891 warehouse has long past and bright future

 Plans for the Washington Cracker  Company building at 304 W. Pacific Ave. include a facility to sell, store and deliver Washington state wines, as well as an event center with “plenty of parking space.” (Colin Mulvany)
Plans for the Washington Cracker Company building at 304 W. Pacific Ave. include a facility to sell, store and deliver Washington state wines, as well as an event center with “plenty of parking space.” (Colin Mulvany)

The oldest warehouse in Spokane’s East Downtown District now sits quiet, an echo of its former vital industrial life – but poised for a new life in this new century.

The Washington Cracker Company building at 304 W. Pacific Ave. was accepted last month for listing on the Spokane Register of Historic Places. Operated until a year ago as Morrison Moving and Storage Company, the three-story building – built in 1891 and added to in 1905 – served for many decades as part of the biscuit and candy-making empire of entrepreneur Herman Wittenberg, whose holdings in the western United States became a multimillion-dollar endeavor in what in those days was a very competitive business.

The parent company was called Pacific Coast Biscuit Company, which was purchased in 1930 by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco). Nabisco had operations in the Spokane building until 1965, when Morrison Moving & Storage Company moved in, under the ownership of Jack Cronkhite. Morrison has shared space there with many other companies, including Republican Van Lines, Lyon Moving and Storage, Global Van Lines, Interior Design Concepts and Bekins Van Lines Moving and Storage.

In its heyday, the Washington Cracker Company produced assorted breads, biscuits and breakfast cereals on the first floor. Packing and storage occupied the second floor, and candy was manufactured on the third floor.

The building itself is a brick masonry, vernacular structure typical of the kind of warehouses that developed around the Northern Pacific Passenger Depot at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, which is among the reasons it qualified for listing on the Spokane Register.

Morrison closed its doors on the building a year ago, but Joni Nicholson, Cronkhite’s daughter and president of the company, has kept all licenses and permits up to date, as she has plans for the building’s future. She said she learned her work ethic there, starting with jobs filing and cleaning offices when she was in the seventh grade.

“We are working with an architect right now, seeking grants and planning to turn the building into a facility from which we sell, store and deliver Washington state wines,” she said. “It will also become an event center, and we’ll have plenty of parking space available, a rarity downtown.”

Nicholson is doing this largely in tribute to her father, who died just this past August at age 86. Jack Cronkhite, a distant relative of famous newsman and broadcaster Walter Cronkite (who dropped the h from his last name), is regarded by his daughter as the most generous man ever.

There’s story after story about his kindness, she recalled, but she remembers one in particular, when he was at a store buying steak and he saw a woman searching for cheap cuts of meat. The woman remarked to him that she hoped to be able to buy steak some day.

“Dad went ahead through the grocery line and prepaid for all the woman’s groceries, and he left the store before she ever knew who did it,” Nicholson said.

Her father, originally from American Falls, Idaho, entered the Navy at age 16 (“he might have fibbed a little about his age”) and served as an airplane radioman. He later went to work at a moving company in Kennewick and married his boss’s daughter there in 1952. His good friend William Williams (later to become chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court) served as best man, and another pal, Carl Maxey, served as a groomsman. Maxey later became a famous civil rights attorney in Spokane.

In those days of segregation, African-Americans weren’t to be out in public after dark in Kennewick, Nicholson said. “My father said it was OK, he’d walk Mr. Maxey down the street if there was any trouble. They both had a good laugh at that. Carl Maxey, who had boxed in college, was over 6 feet tall. My dad was just 5-foot, 4-inches.”

Cronkhite purchased Morrison Moving & Storage Company in Moses Lake in 1957 and expanded to two outlets in Tacoma and Spokane, where he settled with his family. He wasn’t just the boss; he was the man with holes in his shoes who’d just as often be seen driving one of the company trucks as being in the office.

“Dad came to the building every day until he got too sick,” his daughter said. “This was his work, his passion, his hobby. He always told me never to sell interest in the building or the company. And so I want to continue it with a new life, for my father.”

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