Charles Francis Adams, a wealthy businessman from Boston, envisioned a perfect city. It was to be clean, well-maintained, and economically prosperous. It could not be too crowded. It had to be close to water. It would be somewhere in the West.

Adams and a group of fellow businessmen created the Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company and in 1896 chose the site of modern-day Clarkston for their garden paradise. There, they built the community of Vineland.

Vineland book cover and exhibit
Vineland exhibit. (Courtesy WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections)

Now, Vineland’s story is being retold by WSU faculty and students.

“Vineland: Shaping Paradise” was installed as an exhibit in the WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC) in April. An online version of the exhibit is expected to be launched late this summer.

The history department at WSU sponsors the Greater Columbia Plateau Initiative, dedicated to exploring the history of the Columbia Plateau. With the support of grants, the group was able to create a two-year seminar that allowed students to research the region.

Students created the Vineland exhibit using MASC’s Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company Records, a collection of 150,000 photographs, maps, and other items recording the rise and fall of the community.

“There’re all kinds of really beautiful maps and photographs,” says Associate History Professor Robert McCoy, one of the faculty members involved in the project.

The history of Vineland is not unusual, but is not something many people are familiar with, says McCoy.

The potential for irrigation along the Snake River drew investors to the area. The Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company built a dam and irrigation systems, allowing agriculture to flourish in the region.

However, like most utopias, interests changed. The company passed to different hands in the 1920s. In the 1940s, a local fruit warehouse and commission firm bought out the company.

Each student researched a different aspect of the community, including a series of photographs taken by Asahel Curtis, Edward Curtis’s brother, and the use of Sir Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” ideals, which emphasized grace and beauty in urban planning.

Unlike a paper that will only be seen by the professor, the seminar allowed students the opportunity to complete a project that would be seen by a large group of people.

“I think the sense was that they were doing history in public,” McCoy said. “They had to make sure that they knew what they were talking about.

“I think it’s always a challenge to push people to do something new, but it’s very rewarding.”