The pool is shaded by maidenhair ferns and thirsty red cedars, but his initials, “VTM 1964,” are still visible, etched in shaky script at the bottom of the concrete basin that captures spring water off the mountainside.
Virgil Talmadge McCroskey, a Colfax pharmacist from one of eastern Washington’s most prominent pioneering families, carved his initials into the bottom of this concrete basin at age 88.
Though he passed away a quarter of a century ago, the spring and the forested ridge from which it bubbles up are part of the legacy of land left by a man ahead his time: The wheeling, dealing Whitman County bachelor—one the first graduates of Washington State University—spent his life and fortune amassing thousands of acres for the rest of us to enjoy.
In the beginning, the odds were overwhelmingly against him—state legislators repeatedly refused his gifts, locals gossiped about his eccentric ways, family members were convinced he was squandering their wealth, and there was no end to the red tape and backbreaking labor the parks would require. But by the time he died in 1970, McCroskey’s visionary conservation efforts had made headlines in Life magazine, which heralded him by the nickname locals had been calling him for years: The Man Who Gave Away Mountains.
Today, most residents of the Palouse have benefited at least once from McCroskey’s gift of Steptoe Butte. A narrow road winds several times around the naked peak, which rises abruptly from the soft folds of farmland between Colfax and Spokane. The view from the top spans 360 degrees—from the Palouse Country’s gentle hills, quilted in a colourful patchwork, to the mountains beyond. The requisite scenic drive up to the top of the butte is a ritual for students and their families arriving for the start of school or football games, for foreign students eager for a bird’s-eye view of their new home, for couples searching for the most romantic sunset, for paragliders learning to take flight, for professional photographers from all over the world.
“Steptoe Butte could be developed. There could be houses on top and at the base of it, says heir Lauren McCroskey, who works as an architectural historian for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Center for Expertise for the Preservation of Historic Buildings and Structures. “Instead it is something for everybody to enjoy.”
Like water, open space is an increasingly precious commodity in the West. The yarn goes that Daniel Boone would always move westward whenever he saw smoke from another man’s cabin. McCroskey heard that “me first” attitude knocking at the door of the nation’s most treasured places long before the region’s salmon runs became threatened and clearcutting left scabs of barren land visible to every jet passenger crossing the West. He had plenty of his own property to preserve and improve, but he knew such efforts wouldn’t endure.
“Some folks spend their whole lifetime beautifying an estate,” he once said. “They spend a lot of money, but sometimes all that beauty disappears after they are gone, particularly if the property falls into the hands of someone who has no similar interests.” McCroskey envisioned what he called “enduring projects,” and as the conservation fervor of the early 1900s began to spark state movements across the nation, he wasn’t alone. Like Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Bob Marshall, and other key conservationists who gained prominence in the 1930s, Virgil McCroskey had not only affection for nature, but a utilitarian vision of access for “everyman” and a steadfast determination to save it through his own personal efforts.
Born in 1876, McCroskey traveled west from Tennessee as a toddler with his parents and nine siblings on an immigrant train. The family stopped in Hollister, California, while McCroskey’s father went ahead by boat from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, then by river steamer to Almota, Washington, and finally by stage to Colfax. After locating a 640-acre homestead near Steptoe, he sent for the 11 members of his family. When they arrived at the base of Steptoe Butte, they found their father had already begun constructing a crude, one-room cabin with an attached kitchen and a leaky roof.
They spent the first difficult summers on the Palouse busting sod, plowing under bunchgrass, and preparing the fields for crops. The winters were severe and accompanied by deprivation and illness. Virgil worked the farm until he was college age. In 1892, he joined the first preparatory class at the newly created Washington Agricultural College and School of Science, now WSU. He graduated in pharmacy in 1899, and, after personal encouragement from “Dr. Bryan,” as he called the college’s third president, he went on to complete two other degrees, in history and economics, one year later. He was one of the first editors of the Evergreen and “can tell you all about the early history of the college, especially the potato patch and the rotten egging,” recalled the 1899 Chinook yearbook. He went to work as a pharmacist in drugstores in Walla Walla, Waitsburg, and Olympia for the next five years. In 1903, he bought the Elk Drug Store in Colfax, which he operated for another 20 years, a period in which “it wasn’t too hard to get a prescription for alcohol during prohibition,” recalls one Whitman County resident.
That same year, 1903, McCroskey became a charter member of the Washington Outing Club, qualifying by a successful ascent of Mount Rainier, which had only recently been preserved as one of the first national parks. A series of other inspirational outings to Mt. Hood and other Northwest peaks would follow.
In 1938, he embarked on a formative automobile road trip to Tennessee to see his birthplace. On his way home, he drove across the southwestern U.S. and toured Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Painted Desert, Yosemite, Sequoia National Forest, and Crater Lake. The next year he visited Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons, also by car.
Energized by his visits to America’s new national parks, as well as his world travels—he eventually toured Asia, the South Pacific, and New Zealand—McCroskey felt increasingly called to promote a similar park preservation concept on the Palouse, with hopes of designating the region’s natural wonders as state parks. And unlike today’s conservationists, who cringe at road building, McCroskey placed particular importance on creating access for motorized vehicles to the sites, convinced, as Roosevelt was, that the automobile would revolutionize Americans’ appreciation for nature—simply by getting them there.
Over a 30-year span between the mid 1920s and 1955, McCroskey made a series of shrewd, strategic land deals to patch together parcels of land he was convinced were worthy of perpetual protection.
The large McCroskey family had great influence. Virgil’s father, who was once county sheriff, was credited with drawing thousands of Tennesseans to Whitman County. Virgil’s uncle was a prominent farmer, banker, and state senator and one of WSU’s first regents. One brother became a Superior Court judge, another the mayor of Colfax. Family affairs—weddings, deaths, land deals—made headlines in Spokane.
The family eventually grew so big the joke was that you couldn’t go bird hunting near Steptoe without hitting a McCroskey.
In 1927, Virgil and his brother, George, began lobbying to preserve Steptoe Butte as a historical landmark, a desire shared by the Washington State parks commission, which placed it on its list of proposed parks in 1927. More than a decade later, in 1936, Spokane conservationist Aubrey White traveled to Colfax to pitch McCroskey’s cause to the skeptical Colfax Chamber of Commerce.
“He had a heck of a time,” recalls Lavelle Gardner, an Oakesdale history buff who remembers McCroskey’s battle.
Slowly, McCroskey won over or out-negotiated each and every recalcitra
nt landowner on the butte. The process spanned nearly 20 years.
Yet McCroskey’s fight was only beginning, for one park was not enough.
In 1939, while he was waiting out one Whitman County farmer foe—it was still seven years before Steptoe Butte would become a park—McCroskey, then 63, purchased the first right of way for his next project—a state park in neighboring Idaho, which extended into Washington’s Whitman County. Commonly called Skyline Drive, Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park is today Idaho’s second largest state park, at 5,400 acres. Named after McCroskey’s mother, and dedicated to all pioneer women in the inland Northwest, the forested spine stretches across Idaho’s Latah-Benewah county line and into eastern Washington. As a boy, McCroskey often picked huckleberries and picnicked under the trees there with his family. The views from the top encompass four states.
For the next 15 years, he battled scornful legislators, he worried family members who feared he was squandering their fortune, and he puzzled local townspeople, who remember him as an eccentric playboy driving into Oakesdale in a white Buick convertible upholstered with red leather, his white hair flying wildly in the wind.
Youngsters were fascinated by the tall, weathered adventurer’s exotic travels to Asia and the South Pacific, but wary of his affection for cheap park labor. He often rounded up groups of Boy Scouts and other local youths and hauled them up to the ridge in the back of a pickup truck to help build trails, tables, and roads.
McCroskey was not a strict preservationist. He used chemicals to stop a moth infestation and allowed many non-native flowers, shrubs, and trees to be planted. He logged some of his lands for revenue and labored tirelessly to punch a 26-mile road across the future park’s ridge. He made calculated land deals, even waiting out unwilling landowners and then buying their land at a discount after their deaths, recalls logger and retired shop teacher Terry Doupe of Tensed, Idaho, who knew McCroskey personally. A Benewah County commissioner, Doupe helped found the Friends of McCroskey group and is its acting president. As a teenager, he and his father logged at McCroskey’s request. He once asked McCroskey why he worked so hard on land to give away.
“He said, ‘I have traveled all over the world. I have seen what happened to the land. There will be clearcuts done,'” Doupe recalls. “The joke has always been that we’re 20 years behind around here. But he was looking that far ahead.”
But while McCroskey wanted to give willingly, the myopic bureaucrats working in the state house did not readily accept his gift. He requested two stipulations: that cattle and sheep be prohibited from grazing in the park and that it be named after his pioneering mother. Two north Idaho legislators in particular lobbied fiercely against accepting the land, because they didn’t want it taken off of the tax rolls ($178 a year to Benewah County). They argued it would be costly to maintain and would create a road to “lure tourists away from Idaho into Washington.” They even balked at naming the park after the McCroskey family, grumbling that there must be Idahoans it could be named after.
In 1955, after a series of rejections and fierce lobbying on his behalf by Latah County supporters, McCroskey persuaded Idaho legislators to take the land, but they did so only grudgingly, insisting on a clause requiring him to care for the park himself for 15 years—he was 79 at the time—and give an additional $40,000 endowment for its continued maintenance.
“They thought he would die before the 15 years was up, but he didn’t,” recalls Doupe. “He outlived the contract, so they had to take it.”
McCroskey died just a few weeks short of his 94th birthday, in September 1970, 15 years and three months after Idaho accepted his gift. He managed to expand, improve, and maintain the park well into his 90s.
Unfortunately, the state hasn’t always acted with McCroskey’s interests in mind. From his death until the 1980s, the park gradually fell into serious disarray, its signs rotting, its trails and picnic areas overgrown. Relatives and friends joined together to lobby the state to quit claiming interest off McCroskey’s gift and start keeping up their end of the deal. Since then, the state has erected highway signs and historical markers and has begun clearing roads and trails.
“I wish his work had been better recognized while he was still alive,” says historian Keith Petersen ’73, author of Company Town and several other noted regional histories. Petersen wrote the first official history of McCroskey back in 1983 as part of his WSU graduate studies. The account, co-written and researched with his wife, local historian Mary Reed, was eventually published as a booklet to supplement a traveling exhibit on McCroskey that Petersen and Reed organized between 1983 and 1985.
“He is one of my favorite local characters,” says Petersen. “He seemed to be a person who was unafraid of hard work, not overly interested in flattery, whose heart was in the right place and was determined to do the right thing—even if many people refused to recognize at the time that what he was doing was the right thing. He was, in many ways, ahead of his time. The times eventually caught up with his vision, and the Palouse is a better place for having had him live here.”