In 1870, 29-year-old James Perkins came across the confluence of two branches of the Palouse River in present-day Colfax and envisioned a town in the forested valley where the waters met.
Perkins and fellow settler Thomas Smith were tasked with scouring the area for a decent mill site. The assignment was from Waitsburg businessman Anderson Cox, who hoped to be the main source of lumber for the settlers trickling into the Union Flat area. By 1871, the mill opened, cut its first lumber and had its first log drive.
Although Smith did not stay long, Perkins did. He built himself a small cabin on 160 acres he claimed under the Homestead Act, now the oldest building in Whitman County. The town of Colfax sprouted up around him.
Colfax, the seat of Whitman County, will mark its 150th anniversary this year, and the town is celebrating with a two-day festival on July 23 and 24 featuring live music, historical tours and a local vendors and farmers market.
Molly Keogh, director of the Colfax Chamber of Commerce, said the celebration also marks the return of the town’s summer festival after pandemic restrictions prevented large gatherings the past two years. The summer festival has gone by the name Crazy Days and Concrete River Days in the past, and serves as celebration of the town’s heritage.
“It’s pretty exciting, especially since every group in town is involved,” Keogh said. “There’s just so much community support and involvement in this.”
Mayor Jim Retzer will kick off the festivities July 23 with a rededication of the Lippett Fountain in Cushing Eells Park at 9:30 a.m. Keogh said several area lawmakers have been invited to attend the rededication of the refurbished fountain.
Following the rededication, the Colfax Arts Council is putting on an unveiling ceremony for the town’s newest mural, painted by local artist Henry Stinson in honor of the sesquicentennial.
Keogh said the festival has several activities intended for children, starting with a children’s parade at 11 a.m., an obstacle course set up by the Colfax Fire Department, a bounce house at the First Baptist Church and The Free Kid Zone between the Dusty Attic and U.S. Bank. The kid zone will feature family-friendly games, face painting and a dunk tank where visitors can try dunking Colfax public figures.
Tractors during farmers’ demonstration, Colfax in 1977. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)
Meanwhile, the Spring Street Vendor Market will take place from 11a.m. to 7 p.m., featuring goods from local businesses including Indian cuisine from Larissa’s Apron and handmade crafts from Suzan’s Craft Corner. Live performances will take place at the market throughout the day, starting with a performance from the Diamond Joe Band at 11 a.m., followed by a magic show from traveling magician Cecil Lewis at 1 p.m and ending with a performance from country singer Chad Bramlet at 4 p.m.
Keogh said the banner events of the festival for both children and adults 21 and over will take place in the evening. The Corks & Caps wine and beer festival will run from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. in Schmuck Park and features two more live performances as well as a cornhole tournament. The Diamond Joe Band will give its second concert of the day at 5:30 p.m., followed by Seattle country music artist Chance McKinney at 7:30 p.m.
While the adults are hanging out in Shmuck Park, the Colfax Pool will host an all-ages, late night swim event from 9 p.m. to midnight.
The festival will wind down on Sunday, which features more active events, Keogh said. There will be a guided 6-kilometer community walk through downtown Colfax starting at the Whitman County Library branch on Main Street at 9 a.m., and a Frisbee golf demonstration on the newly installed course at Schmuck Park.
There will also be a self-guided historic bike tour starting at the Perkins House at 11 a.m. Keogh said participants will pick up a “Pedal Passport” and then collect stamps at historic landmarks around town. Upon returning to the Perkins House, the riders will be treated to live music, a tour of the house and prizes for completing the tour, including a “vintage selfie” and discounts from local retailers.
“We’re working on an initiative to get the railroad track through town converted into a trail, and we’re calling it the Greenway Project,” Keogh said. “The chamber is really working to increase the visibility of cycling in the Palouse area.
“It’s just a little family ride where they’ll learn a little bit about the historic spots in town, and come back and have a fun event at the Perkins House,” Keogh said.
The Perkins House is the historic Victorian mansion Perkins built for himself and his wife, Jenny, in the 1880s, on the same plot of land as his original cabin. Both are still standing and are maintained by the Whitman County Historical Society, and the mansion operates as a museum on weekends.
“We’ve tried to bring history into everything,” Keogh said. “That’s very important, culturally, to this area. You know, Colfax started with a sawmill that James Perkins put on the Palouse River, and that’s really what brought people to Colfax.”
Colfax, the first non-Indigenuous settlement in Whitman County, would not be the town it is today without Perkins.
Frank White, Whitman County Historical Society member, has lived in Colfax for most of his life. Now retired, he volunteers as a tour guide at the Perkins House.
After Perkins established the sawmill on the Palouse River, Colfax quickly grew around it, White said. The mill turned the pine trees that covered the hills into lumber, and then sold that lumber to the settlers flocking to the Palouse.
Perkins originally named the new settlement Belleville, possibly after his hometown of Belleville, Indiana, or possibly after a former girlfriend named Belle as his wife reportedly claimed. The name was changed to Colfax in honor of U.S. Vice President Schuyler Colfax in 1873.
Perkins sold his share of the mill to his partner Hezekiah Hollingsworth shortly after it opened, and embarked on new endeavors. White said as more and more pioneers came to settle in the valley, it created a demand for a school house, local government, banking and real estate, all of which Perkins was directly involved in. He served as the first county schools clerk, and was elected to the first city council in 1879.
His position as county schools clerk kicked off a long political career for Perkins. He was elected mayor in four consecutive, one-year terms from 1882-1885, and reportedly did not receive one vote cast against him the entire time.
“He was very active in Republican politics,” White said. “He was a delegate to presidential nominating conventions. They wanted him to be state senator, and once even tried to draft him to run for governor, but he preferred staying in town.”
In 1873, Perkins established the Colfax Town Co., where he sold real estate to the new settlers. In 1881, Perkins purchased the Bank of Colfax, which he operated well into his later years. He also dealt insurance. White said that Perkins grew into one of the wealthiest men in Eastern Washington at the time.
“He was a venture capitalist, and pretty much any business or civic activity had him on the board of directors or as a backer,” White said.
White said it is important to keep in mind that at this time, Colfax was a quintessential old-West town, complete with dirt streets, boardwalks and wooden buildings. It was 80 miles to the nearest big town, Waitsburg, a trek that would take multiple days on horseback. White said that allowed Perkins to profit greatly from a number of industries in the still developing town.
The Perkins House was completed in 1887, and Perkins lived there with his family until his death in 1920. The Victorian two-story was reportedly the center of Colfax society for much of the early 1900s. It stayed in the Perkins family until 1968.
“He was one of the richest men on this side of the state, and was also a big wheel politically,” White said. “So he promoted the town and it grew quite a bit because of him.”
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