On one of the highest rises on the 3,400-acre plateau that constitutes Five Mile Prairie sits the oldest inhabited house there – the J.F. Strong house. Original construction began in 1879.
In remarkable shape and with much of its original interior woodwork intact, this Queen Anne-style structure was built by John F. Strong, the man considered to be the first settler on the prairie – that is, his attempt in 1879 was successful after an earlier group of would-be settlers was not able to overcome hardships in their 1872 effort to locate there. By the end of 1879 six other families also settled on the prairie.
According to the nomination form for listing the home on the Spokane Register of Historic Places (1998), it is said that when Strong first laid eyes on the area, he exclaimed: “Beautiful land! Glorious in prospect! Grand in environment! Salubrious in climate! Rich in soil! Where is thy equal?”
Strong came to the area from Illinois with his brother Alfred, who became county assessor and United Land Office registrar. But John Strong, who is credited with establishing some of Spokane’s first apple orchards, remained on the prairie as a homesteader, and his family maintained the home there for 33 years, enlarging it as his family grew.
The original house was a two-room, two-story structure consisting of a basement, kitchen, enclosed stairway and bedroom. In 1900 it was added to and completed in the characteristic Queen Anne fashion and, according to current owner Beth Fairfax, has remained remarkably unchanged ever since. Certainly, there have been some alterations and updates – “I couldn’t bake and do laundry without tripping a breaker when we first moved in,” she said – new shingles installed, a porch enclosed, etc.
“But you’d be surprised at the original red fir front staircase that has never been painted, the original Eastlake doors and decorative hardware that are all in place,” Fairfax said. And that’s what attracted Fairfax and husband Robert, a physician assistant at Cancer Care Northwest, to the house, which now sits on a one-acre lot with some old walnut and black locust trees surrounding it. The structure is about 30 by 50 feet with a one-story porch wrapping around the front. A cutaway bay window is featured on the east side.
“We prefer older homes and the romance of them,” Fairfax said. “It’s wonderful to imagine what was happening in the world when a home was being built,” The family moved to the Strong house from their 1904-era home in the Empire-Garland area in 1997. Robert Fairfax and their eldest son, Jonathan, are currently restoring an old home in the Shadle area.
The evolution of the Strong home during its first few decades paralleled the development of Five Mile Prairie itself, from simple grassland to a series of 160-acre homesteads and accompanying farms where fruit trees, berries and grains were grown. In 1927 a serious freeze killed off most of the orchards, though a few apple and plum trees can still be found here and there on the prairie. During the Great Depression, many residents became truck farmers, selling their crops in downtown Spokane.
Today Five Mile Prairie is largely a residential area, and just a very few of the original homesteader homes remain.
“One of the great things about this house is how many people I meet who are connected to it,” said Beth Fairfax, who is a parent liaison to Five Mile Prairie School and serves as a county at-large representative to the Spokane Historic Landmarks Commission. “One person told me his parents lived there in the 1940s, and someone told me he used to stay there sometimes because his teacher lived there.”
And then Fairfax learned of another connection even closer. “I found out that my husband’s grandfather, William Fairfax, actually painted the house sometime in the middle of the last century. Isn’t that something?”