ODESSA, Wash. – A lone tumbleweed rumbled across the gravel parking lot Wednesday as a young man driving a red sports car pulled up for fuel at the Cenex.
On a nearby fuel tank, in the shadow of two massive grain elevators, the faded “D.A.R.E to keep kids off drugs” slogan continues to remind locals of the national curriculum, started in the 1980s, to steer kids away from trouble.
A few blocks away, past the ornatebrick bank building that hasn’t served as a bank for about four decades, blue-and-yellow flags waved in support of war-torn Ukraine.
Interspersed between flag poles flying Old Glory, the Ukrainian colors were already waving Sunday on Odessa’s First Avenue when Russian forces hit a fuel depot outside of the other Odesa, half a world away in Ukraine, the coastal city on the Black Sea that is namesake for this out-of-the-way-Washington-farming town.
“I just wanted to show support for the town we are named after,” said Norman Ott, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and saxophone player in the Oom Pa’s und Ma’s Polka band. “I think they look pretty nice.”
Ott said he got the inspiration for the flags while driving through St. John after leaving a recent Washington State University basketball game.
“They had their flags out. They had American flags and military flags. The sun was hitting them on a beautiful Sunday afternoon,” he said. “When I got back to Odessa, I told our chamber of commerce, ‘We could do this.’”
He jumped online and purchased about 10 of the blue-and-yellow flags for $12 each and Amazon delivered them two days later.
“I was hoping to accomplish a great show of unity,” he said.
While the flags have been well received, except for one recent Facebook post arguing that the American flags should be displayed higher than the Ukrainian colors, the town’s ancestors mostly had very little to do with Ukraine.
According to historical archives, the first settlers of the area were known as Volga Germans, who were invited to settle in Russia in the mid-1700s by Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader.
Under the promise of autonomy and fewer taxes, thousands of Germans resettled.
Although some settled in the Black Sea region of Ukraine, most traveled much farther east and formed settlements along the Volga River, deep inside Russia.
Eventually, a century later, Russians passed legislation revoking many of the privileges afforded by Catherine the Great, sparking a wave of emigration out of Russia.
Some of those Volga Germans came to the United States in the early 1880s as families began settling in the Palouse near present day Colfax, Endicott, Walla Walla, Ritzville and Odessa.
Paul Scheller, 69, is the president of the Odessa Historical Society. His ancestors were among those who came to the area from Russia.
“A lot of the people who settled here did come from that area, the Odesa, Ukraine, area,” Scheller said.
However, most of of the settlers were Volga Germans, he said.
“The people who are really aware of their German-Russian heritage, a lot of them are passed now,” Scheller said. “But, I think Odessa is still aware of where its roots came from.”
To honor that heritage, Odessa has since 1971 hosted every year, except for one year canceled by the coronavirus, the Deutchesfest celebration on the third weekend in September.
At its peak, the event would attract about 15,000 visitors to the Odessa, which has about 988 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ott said the chamber sponsors the beer garden. It also gives his polka band a venue to play the Chicken Dance.
“A lot of the organizations in the community do their fund raising during Deutchesfest,” said Ott, a former rancher who retired last year from the insurance business.
Terrie Crosby, 72, was, up until recently, the owner of the weekly-published Odessa Record newspaper. It has since been purchased by the Cheney Free Press, but Crosby continues to work to put out local pages.
Crosby grew up in Odessa before majoring in German in college. She then lived in West Germany from 1977 to 1982.
“I went over to refine my knowledge of the language,” said Crosby, whose ancestors were Volga Germans. “That was quite an adventure.”
She met her husband overseas and they settled in Florida and made a living in the translation business before moving back to Odessa in 2002. Her husband died in 2018.
Despite years of no paychecks as she operated the paper, Crosby said she loves living in a small town.
“There is always something going on,” Crosby said. “There’s a quilt club, a Lions club, things at the school. We have a hospital, a school, grocery store and hardware store. All of our needs are pretty much met in town.”
Crosby, who’s maiden name is Schmidt, said she was “ambivalent” about Ott’s effort to display the Ukrainian flags.
“I know a lot of people would support Ukraine and dislike the thought of all the muscle flexing that Russia is doing,” she said.
Hannah Schmidt, 26, who is a cousin of Terrie Crosby, works in the kitchen at Odessa Golf & RV golf course. Along side rows of signs honoring local holes-in-one, is a plaque honoring the Odessa High School’s 2021 golf state championship.
She called Russia’s attack on Ukraine ridiculous.
“There are better ways to settle things than losing lives,” she said.
Schmidt said it’s comforting to know everybody by name. She especially likes how all the townsfolk rally to help another.
“Everybody steps ups to help them with whatever they need,” she said. “I love a small town.”
She also appreciates Ott’s gesture to fly the flag of Ukraine during its time of need.
“I think most of the town does, too, to be honest,” she said.
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