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Agriculture museum in Pomeroy showcases Eastern Washington’s wheat farming past with help from Spokane man’s collection

UPDATED: Thu., May 25, 2017, 6:59 a.m.

The first three times Jenelle Branson tried to buy a Caterpillar 15 tractor, the owners told him no.

But eventually, he was able to make a deal and relocated the 1929 tractor from its former home in Orange County, California.

“When I saw it, I wanted it because I knew what it would look like when it was finished,” he said. Branson hauled it 1,300 miles to his small farm south of Spokane off the old Palouse Highway.

The tractor, restored and repainted in its original yellow, now sits in the Eastern Washington Agricultural Museum in Pomeroy. It’s one of hundreds of relics from the older days of wheat farming in Eastern Washington, when work was done by hand and kids learned to hitch horses, climb telephone poles and lift heavy sacks of grain.

“I tell guys now: If you want to get in shape, help me cut wood! Don’t pay to go to the gym,” laughed Jay Franks, a museum board member.

The museum, housed in two barns on the county fairgrounds, started in 2009 after some of the county’s older residents expressed a desire to preserve the area’s farming heritage. It’s a mix of machines and farming equipment, household items and displays showing Garfield County history.

Pomeroy, population 1,279, is the county seat for Garfield County and sits about halfway between Dayton and Lewiston, Idaho, along Highway 12. The county is home to an aging generation of wheat farmers and has fewer people than any other county in the state.

Franks hopes the museum will help preserve the mostly oral history of what life was like on the region’s early wheat farms before that generation farms out. Interest in the displays is greater among older people, he said, who remember using butter churns and sewing clothes by hand at home.

“As the generation thins out, the people go through faster,” Franks said.

Wheat farmers ship their grain to market on the Snake River, which sits on the north edge of the county. Before the machines did the work, residents used a series of gravity-fed trams to haul sacks of grain from the bluffs overlooking the river to a loading dock on the banks.

The first attempt, from the late 1800s, was a tube for people to slide grain sacks down, but that quickly proved impractical.

“It got too hot, and it set the grain on fire,” Franks said.

Next came car and bucket trams at three sites overlooking the river. People would load grain sacks into a container at the top, then let gravity pull the full cart down to the docks while an empty cart went up the other side. Those began operating as early as 1891 and stayed in use until the 1940s, according to displays at the museum.

Franks, who works as a mechanic for the Pomeroy School District, said he’s fascinated seeing how people were able to engineer creative solutions without the aid of technology we take for granted today. He’s helped restore much of the machinery now on display at the museum and said the goal is to get everything in running order.

Many pieces are used during the county fair and other events like Spring Farming Days, where farming enthusiasts gather at the fairgrounds to plant wheat using horse teams.

For David Ruark, another museum board member, the connection is personal. Ruark grew up in a wheat farming family and remembers helping his father on the farm.

An old typewritten grain record lists the amount and variety of wheat each county farmer had at the mills around the county. Ruark’s grandfather, Alva Ruark, is listed on the 1929 record, with 1,200 sacks of hybrid wheat and several other varieties at the Pomeroy elevator.

One of the items in the museum is an old phone line tester from Ruark’s father.

“All the county rural lines used to be put in by the farmers,” Ruark explained. When a line didn’t work, the farmers would climb up poles and use the tester to pinpoint the outage, then report it to the utility company.

Ruark said his father tried to train him as a pole climber, but he proved a slow learner.

“It takes a while to pick splinters out,” he said.

Branson, the Spokane resident, was an early part of the museum’s success. He met Franks at a plowing bee in Colfax and happened to mention he collected tractors and other farm equipment. Franks said he had a museum he was trying to fill and sent a team up to look at his collection.

“Four of the guys came and looked at it and said, ‘This is just what we want,’ ” Branson said.

Branson’s parents moved to a wheat farm around Lind in 1936. Back then, they used mule and horse teams to seed and harvest the wheat. Tractors came along when he was a teenager, he said.

“It’s all I could do to throw a harness on a horse because I was so short,” he said.

Now 87, Branson keeps a few cattle on the smaller piece of land he shares with his wife, Louise, who’s also from a farming family. The house, bought in 1956, came with a tractor and a milk cow.

He keeps a photo album with a pink-accented, floral cover, labeled “tractors,” showing all the antiques he’s purchased. Most now sit in agricultural museums like the one in Pomeroy.

Branson’s children and grandchildren are grown and none are especially interested in his collections of farm equipment, he said. He said that loss of memories is to be expected.

“It always is from one generation to the next. That’s why we collect these things and put them in museums,” he said.

Though he has pieces in other museums in the region, he said the collection in Pomeroy is one of the largest and best. He doesn’t pine for the years before modern combines, though he said he has trouble climbing into the cabs.

“I can’t even get up in it. I have a bad knee,” he said with a laugh.

Another piece in the museum is a cook shack that belonged to his wife’s family. It’s a wooden trailer that would be hauled out into the fields during harvest. As the men brought in wheat, the women in farm families would cook enough to keep field hands well fed, saving time by allowing everyone to stay out in the fields.

Like most pieces in the museum, visitors may climb inside the cook shack and walk around. Franks said the museum wanted to be hands-on.

“Most anything you should be able to walk up to,” he said.

In the main building, a truck bed is devoted to a collection of mystery items – things the museum had trouble identifying. Sometimes, they’re able to use patent records or figure things out from interviewing older people. But that’s becoming harder.

“As we get into these things, the older people just aren’t here to tell us anymore,” said Ruark.

Branson said he thinks everyone could learn something by paying a visit to the museum and seeing how hard early farmers worked.

“It’s sure been wonderful to know those people. I told Jay sometime ago it was a marriage made in heaven,” he said.


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