Capturing Images of a Disappearing America:  A Visit to the Palouse

By Jim Chamberlain

The water roared as it plunged down over the basalt lip into a dark pool 180 feet below.  The Palouse River continued its journey along a serpentine path south towards the Snake River and the “Mother of Waters,” the Columbia River.  I was surprised to find such a large waterfall in the middle of dry scablands that had more sagebrush than trees.  Palouse Falls was the first stop on my journey to find a way of life that is quickly disappearing, the family farm.

Palouse Falls

The whole region of the Palouse was created in the monumental Missoula Floods over thirteen thousand years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.  The flood waters carried fine soil called ‘Glacier Flour” or loess.   The flood waters covered the Columbia Plateau all the way to the Willamette Valley in Oregon repeatedly over hundreds of years.  The deposits of loess left behind can be over two hundred feet deep in some places creating the fine farmland and rolling hills that dominate this part of southeastern Washington State.  The name Palouse is taken from the name of a local tribe of Native Americans called the Palus, or from the French word meaning “land with short and thick grass,” theories vary.

Palouse Falls marks the western border of the Palouse.  I followed the Snake River eastward and the land began to change from dry prairie to green pastures.  Dark clouds hid the sun as I drove through Uniontown on my way to one of the iconic places in the southeast corner of the Palouse, Dahmen Barn.  The Barn was built in 1935 by a local farmer who ran a dairy operation in it until 1953.  Steve Dahmen built the famous wagon wheel fence that borders the barn over a 35-year period.  The Barn sat vacant for many years and required extensive restoration to return it to its original stature.  The restored barn now houses artists’ spaces which I wandered around.

Wagon Wheel Fence

I continued along the Palouse Scenic Byway towards the college town of Pullman, Wa.  Just south of the city, I came across one of the most unusual structures I had ever seen.  It was an old two-story hay barn, which was slowly collapsing upon itself, sitting in the middle of open farmland with nothing else around.  I had to stop to photograph it as I was worried it would not be standing much longer.  This structure is one of over a hundred barns, granaries, and old farm equipment locations throughout the Palouse, but they are slowly disappearing.  This one will stay in my memory long after it falls, and the image will remind me of its legacy.

Still Standing

I continued north along Highway 27 from Pullman toward one of the highest quartzite hills in the region.  Kamiak Butte is a “Steptoe,” or a quartzite hill surrounded by lava flows which are covered in loess.  It climbs 3600 feet into the sky and gives you a great vantage point north toward the rolling wheat hills that are the hallmark of this region.  My adventure continued north to a town named for the region.

The town of Palouse was founded in 1869 and retains the feel of a midwest farm town.  If you are here on a Saturday, you can visit the Newspaper and Printing Museum which has newspapers from the area dating back into the 1880s and printing equipment from the turn of the century.   I was not in town on a Saturday, so I turned west along another part of the Palouse Scenic Byway towards the heart of the area, the town of Colfax, founded in 1873.  This whole area was settled by the 1890s, due to the arrival of the railroads and the discovery that dry wheat farming produced abundant harvests in the loess-filled soil.

The Heidenreich Dairy Barn sits just east of Colfax and is a classic vision of Americana.  The owner has an old truck that seems to be in a different location in every picture you see of this iconic red barn.  Most original red barns in this area are not bright red but kind of a burnt or darker red.  Farmers back in the day used to treat their barns with linseed oil mixed with rust or animal blood which created a darker red color but had the benefit of being insect and weather resistant.  When colored paint became more available, the tradition of a red barn was continued and has become an iconic landmark of American farmlands.  Another old unpainted barn greets you as you enter Colfax from the east.  Many of its boards are missing and light seems to stream thru the seams.  These old structures make great images and seem to capture the passage of time so well.

Heidenreich Barn

The early morning sun greeted me as I drove the curves of the road up to Steptoe Butte just north of Colfax.  I stopped at several pullouts on my way up to the 3600-foot Summit.  Steptoe has the best views of the rolling hills of the Palouse.  I could see the famous Whitman County Growers silo and multiple family farms as my eyes took in the view which stretches over a hundred miles towards the Blue Mountains and Spokane Peak.   The rock that forms the butte is over four hundred million years old, much older than the land around it.  Native Americans called the butte “the power mountain.” It was believed that a journey to the summit gave power from the local spirits.  The butte’s present name honors Colonel Edward Steptoe, who led the U.S. Army in a losing battle against the local tribes.  Steptoe Butte once held a hotel built by James S. “Cashup” Davis.  The Cashup Hotel closed in 1896 and burned down in 1911.

Palouse View

This is a must stop on any travels through the Palouse.  The views here are amazing and I spent the morning hours capturing dozens of images of the green rolling hills, barns and farmsteads that surround this mountain.  The best time to visit the Palouse is usually in June.  That time of year the wheat fields are a lush green and reminded me of the green fields of Ireland.  By summer, the wheat has turned golden brown and is nearing its harvest by huge combines that dominate these fields once tilled by lone farmers with horses and plows.  My journey through the Palouse ended that wonderful day at Steptoe Butte but the area has much more to see and appreciate.

Palouse Ridge

Arizona Highways PhotoScapes can help you see this disappearing part of America in June 2022 for five days with award-winning photographer Kerrick James.  You will get to see Palouse Falls, Dahmen Barn, Steptoe, and Kamiak Buttes and even a ghost town.  Let me know if the Heidenreich farm truck is still in the same place.

Jim Chamberlain is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes