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Early Spokane Valley farmers’ ingenuity, thriftiness lives on in river rock homes

When the late Don Rhodewalt and his wife, Janice Samish, were looking to move from Oregon to Spokane in 1995, a friend who offered to help with house-hunting found them a beautiful Craftsman-style home on North Bowdish Road. It was not only the right size, it also was built out of what’s popularly known as river rock.

Rhodewalt, a retired aerospace engineer, was fascinated by how his new house was built of rocks found on and around the property, carefully sorted – some are the size of watermelons, others not much bigger than golf balls – then stacked on top of each other and held together by grout.

It was a type of construction he’d never seen before.

He quickly realized his house wasn’t unique in this region, and because he was fond of historic preservation, he set out to find all the river rock homes in Spokane Valley.

“He was a busy bee,” Samish said. “He was one of the founders of (the) Covered Bridge Society of Oregon,” which helped preserve dozens of the structures. “He was always involved in something.”

She said Rhodewalt would drive around looking for rock homes and when he found one he’d knock on the front door and introduce himself.

“There wasn’t a shy bone in his body,” Samish said over the phone from her current home in Missouri, laughing at the memory. “No, I wasn’t involved in it. He wore me out with the covered bridges.”

Rhodewalt organized the information about every home he found, and he submitted a column to the Spokane City/County Historic Preservation Office featuring the early results: profiles of about a dozen structures.

He also contacted The Spokesman-Review and on April 12, 1996, the paper ran a story about his efforts, encouraging river rock home owners to send Rhodewalt information on their homes.

After the story ran, he received many letters and phone calls about homes in Spokane Valley – and other parts of the state – but he was never able to finish his project: He died on Sept. 8, 1996, after fighting colon cancer for four years. He documented about 15 rock homes in the months he researched them, likely just a small fraction.

“He was quite ill when we moved to Spokane,” Samish said.

She stayed in the house on Bowdish for another couple of years, before moving to be closer to family.

“I took his notes to the Spokane Valley Museum after he passed away,” Samish said. “I’m thrilled that someone has a use for them.”

Most built from rocks picked out of Valley soil

River rock homes are synonymous with Spokane Valley – just think of the iconic pumphouse at Vera Water and Power – though they also can be found in and around Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene and other parts of Washington.

They became popular around the beginning of the 1900s when farmers began cultivating the Valley. Most of the rocks used for these homes don’t come from the river; they were picked out of Valley soil as farmers cleared land so they could work it with machinery and plant orchards and crops.

Once the rocks were picked off the land – often by the farmers’ children – they were left in piles along the edges of the fields. Resourceful settlers soon eyed them as a potential, and most importantly free, building material.

Einar Fieldstadt, a Norwegian immigrant, built the home Rhodewalt lived in.

Fieldstadt’s grandson Tedd Fieldstadt said the rock homes sometimes have steel I-beams in the floor instead of the usual wooden joists.

“These houses don’t sag,” Tedd Fieldstadt said. “They sit where they were built and you don’t have to do much to them.” He added that Einar Fieldstadt used a technique he’d learned in Norway and that he was very particular about how things were done.

“They were impressive masons,” Tedd Fieldstadt said.

Through his research, Rhodewalt identified Hans Vinge as a prolific rock builder in Veradale, and Dave Hoffard as someone who’d done a lot of rock work in Otis Orchards – but little is known about the two. The walls still, 100 years later, stand straight, even though they are built of hundreds of rocks of which no two are exactly the same.

Spokane Valley resident Jim E. Dahl said his father worked as a rock picker in the 1930s for one of the best rock builders in the Valley.

“His last name was Latterall and he rejected two out of every three rocks my dad brought to him to build the foundation of the family home,” Dahl wrote in an email.

A rock wall looks deceptively simple: the biggest rocks are laid at the bottom of the wall, grout is slathered on top and a new row of slightly smaller rocks is put down. The weight of the rocks and the way they are placed interlocks them and helps keep the wall sound.

Some builders saved smaller rocks to be used in patterns as decoration around windows and over doors.

The rock walls were built with no backing or studs. Some of the homes have an outer wall and an inner wall to create some insulation, but most were simply one rock deep.

Modern rock walls – on the front of homes or around fireplaces – have a solid backing with a metal structure that gives the grout something to adhere to. Builders like Vinge and Hoffard didn’t use any tricks like that.

“They relied on a keen eye and if you look at the structures they built, that really is amazing,” Dahl wrote.

‘My walls are rock, lath and plaster – that’s it’

The river rock homes have an Old World quality to them. They are often built in Craftsman style – sometimes with a front porch – and the bumpy surface of the rock wall is reminiscent of sandcastles covered with seashells or fairy tale cottages.

When Linda Rae Osmonson bought her 1909 river rock home, it was more horror story than fairy tale.

“The place was overgrown with trees and shrubs,” Osmonson said. “We took 600 pounds of ivy off the one wall – it was pretty crazy.”

The home on Valleyway Avenue had a smaller converted barn in the back where Osmonson settled in – the rock home was uninhabitable when she first got it.

“It was such a mess,” she said.

Once the house was somewhat cleaned out, she set out to have it rewired.

And that’s when she discovered that there’s not an ounce of insulation anywhere in the house.

“The electrician was drilling into the wall and it was literally the rock he drilled into,” Osmonson said.

She scraped off and removed decades of wallpaper, down to the lath and plaster.

“So my walls are rock, lath and plaster – that’s it,” Osmonson said.

Is it true the rock homes are remarkably cool in the summer, without air conditioning?

“Yes, that’s true, and they are really cold in the winter, too,” said Osmonson, laughing.

She insulated part of the front of the house, but never considered covering the outside walls.

The house has a partial basement because about one quarter of it is filled with rocks and dirt, contained by a low wall that serves as a support for the front porch.

There’s no water seeping into the basement and no cracks in any of the walls.

“It has settled a little bit in one corner because water has been running off the roof there for 105 years,” said Osmonson, adding that she just put up rain gutters.

Like many other rock home owners, she went to the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum to look up her home.

“They knew so much about it there,” Osmonson said. “I was really impressed.”

She discovered her home was built for the family of Donald K. McDonald, who’s one of the founders of Vera Water and Power.

“His daughter Vera apparently lived here,” Osmonson said. “Veradale was named after her.”

Osmonson has had a few visits by former owners and people who grew up in the house.

“One of them told me it was always so cold in here in the winter that you could see your breath,” she said.

Another former resident told of a hair salon in the back building.

“She had the best memories of the women being out there drinking wine and carrying on,” Osmonson said.

She wasn’t specifically looking for a rock home when she found hers.

“It was sort of a bonus that it had rock walls,” Osmonson said. “I love it.”


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