Uncle Sam took the challenge in the year of ’33

For the farmers and the workers and for all humanity

Now river, you can ramble where the sun sets in the sea

But while you’re rambling, river, you can do some work for me

—Woody Guthrie, “Roll, Columbia, Roll”

In the early 1950s, Washington State College and the Bureau of Reclamation published a Farmer’s Handbook for the Columbia Basin Project. Written for new farmers breaking ground in the newly irrigated Columbia Basin Project, the handbook offered advice on everything from what crops to grow to what kind of windbreak to plant so the soil doesn’t blow away.

The manual advised on how to situate the new homestead with the prevailing wind in mind and explained the irrigable land classification defined by the Bureau of Reclamation and how water allotments are figured. With proper financial credit (also explained) and another extension bulletin or two, the new farmer should be able to create a life for himself and his family on the newly watered Columbia Basin.

Indeed, what is striking about this helpful book is its pioneering implication. Without water, much of the Columbia Basin was merely desert to be crossed on the way to somewhere greener. Only with water did it become “the planned promised land.” The farmers to whom the manual was directed were the last pioneers, and the Columbia Basin was the last unconquered realm of the American frontier.

The land made fertile by the Columbia Basin Project was originally intended for poor farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl. But such best laid plans were disrupted by World War II and subsequent social and economic shifts. The Grand Coulee Dam, long dreamed of by local visionaries, would back up the Columbia River to provide water and power to irrigate an intended 1,027,000 acres. But the war effort required huge amounts of electricity to power aluminum plants and the Hanford nuclear facility, so its original purpose was delayed long enough for socioeconomic realities to change.

Irrigation water did not start flowing until well after the war was over, and for the most part, the displaced farmers from elsewhere never showed up. Bulletin 566 of the State College of Washington’s Agricultural Experiment Stations, The Columbia Basin Settler: A Study of Social and Economic Resources in New Land Settlement, revealed quite different settler profiles than originally anticipated.

By the mid-1950s, 53 percent of the Columbia Basin settlers had come from Washington itself. Another 28 percent were from Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Also, the newly settled farmers were, at least given the original intentions, relatively well-to-do: “The median value of assets was $17,800, and the net worth, $14,000.”

Although the authors concluded that there seemed to be plenty of settlers to occupy the newly available farms, they also worried that, given a further drop in farm prices (or a “new Depression”), the future might see a shortage of qualified settlers.

Clearly, they need not have fretted. Though the Columbia Basin Project has not yet been completed, the effect of existing irrigation on the economy of central Washington has been enormous. Even if the specifics are different from the original intent, one need only glance occasionally from side to side on a drive along State Route 26 between the scablands and the Columbia to understand the effects of public works.

On an altogether different note, we welcome the return of Nature Boy’s “Mini-Me.” The four-foot-tall model for the more familiar 30-foot-tall, 25-ton sculpture on the side of Holland Library that we know as Nature Boy (more correctly, “The Reader”) had been residing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Spokane for the past 63 years. But now he is home (see “Last Words”).


Tim Steury, editor