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1800s barn still in use among remains of California Ranch

Doug Scott closes the gate to a pasture at his Mica/Valleyford farm off Jackson Road. The three-story barn was built on what began as the California Ranch in the 1870s. It was used as a way station for the Kentuck Trail. (J. Bart Rayniak)
Doug Scott closes the gate to a pasture at his Mica/Valleyford farm off Jackson Road. The three-story barn was built on what began as the California Ranch in the 1870s. It was used as a way station for the Kentuck Trail. (J. Bart Rayniak)

Just outside the town of Mica in the Palouse country of Eastern Washington, at the intersection of Jackson and Belmont roads, sit a barn and granary that date back to the 1800s. In addition to their historic value architecturally, they are also the visual remains of the famous California Ranch along the Kentuck Trail, both of which played crucial roles in the expansion and development of Washington Territory.

Much has been written about the famous Mullan Road and its significance as a route for pioneers from Fort Walla Walla to Spokane and the Montana gold mines beyond, but in fact the lesser-known Kentuck Trail was the more direct path and shorter by 35 miles, making it a popular route beginning in the 1860s.

Named for Joseph “Kentuck” Ruark, who operated the Blackfoot Ferry on the Snake River, the Kentuck Trail lay some 20 or so miles east of the Mullan Road. From Walla Walla it went north through what is now Waitsburg, over the Snake River near the current Little Goose Dam, on through Dusty, Endicott, St. John, Rosalia, Plaza, Spangle, Freeman and Post Falls where it joined up with the Mullan Road.

There were no towns or settlements along the way, so travelers stopped at a way station north of California Creek, just a day’s ride from the Spokane Bridge. There, at the California Ranch, they found rest at the log cabin on the hill, and the horses and wagons could be tended to in the three-tiered barn. The log cabin is long gone, but the barn and original granary remain.

But they are not relics. They are still in use today at what is deemed the oldest continuously occupied farm or ranch in Spokane County. Records show it was settled in the early 1860s, several years before the first group of permanent settlers came into the region.

According to the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places, on which the California Ranch was listed in 1980, the barn was built against a sloping hillside, allowing entry to its three levels from the outside, with braced frame construction of hand-hewn timbers that were notched and pegged. The lower level, accessed from the back, housed horses in the various stalls. Hay chutes from upper levels allowed for easy transfer of hay to the basement, where a spring was tapped by a well, also giving convenient and sheltered access to water for the stock.

The granary, about 100 feet north of the barn, was likely built a bit later than the barn, though no dates are available for the construction of either structure. The granary contains lumber studs held together with big square wooden pegs, though flooring and siding are connected by square nails. Interestingly, the upper floor of the granary was used at times as living quarters or for social events, including weddings.

Original owner of the California Ranch appears to be a man named Knight, but the name most associated with it is the French-Canadian Maxime Mulouine, who purchased it in 1871 and who was known for tending to his guests’ comforts (hence the addition of a large rock wine cellar).

There is also some question about the size of the ranch during its heyday, with local legend stating that it extended from the Rockies to the Columbia River, Canadian border to the Snake River. More conservative estimates place it at about 15 square miles between Saltese and Mica. Around 1904, Mulouine began platting portions of the land for sale.

There have been other owners, but in 1947 the considerably smaller site was purchased by Archie and Wilma Scott, who opened a dairy and grew hay. The Scott Dairy was in operation through the mid-1990s.

The ranch, some 480 acres today, is now owned by the Scotts’ sons Doug and Dwain and their sister Linda Koback. The siblings live in separate homes on the property with their own families about three-quarters of a mile apart from one another, and they continue to grow hay and grass. The rest of the land is in pasture and timber. No more dairy cows, just eight head of beef cattle.

“We feed them in the basement of the barn, and we continue to store hay on the main floor, but no longer the 200 tons of hay we put in there when I was a boy,” said Doug Scott.

The family nearly lost the barn in the 1970s when an electric fence shorted out, catching basement timbers on fire. A passer-by saw the fire and called the fire department. “A few minutes longer and the barn would have been history,” Scott said. “We’re reminded of it all the time because one wall is still charred.”

The barn’s roof has been replaced, but much of the original structure remains … well, original.

“I wish I were a rich man,” Scott said. “The barn needs work, and certainly paint.” However, it’s still a favorite for people who enjoy photographing old barns – and for high school students who ask to take their graduation pictures by it.

“We’re glad to have them come by and see the old barn. We love sharing its history.”