The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Terry Lawhead
the Times 

Book Review: The 1919 Walla Walla Tractor Show

Blue Mountain Land Trust’s Centennial Anniversary Commemoration by Linda Herbert


December 5, 2019

Consider one hundred years ago.

We talk about the speed of technology nowadays and yes, it is racing, but imagining the staggering impact of the disruption caused by the introduction of motorized equipment to farming is almost impossible for most of us.

Those of us passing by field operations stare with wonder at the tractors and combines, but mostly we drive on unaware of the accomplishments of farming.

The charm of this informative and all-too-slim book—it is loaded with amazing photographs—isn’t just about the leap in technology, but also about the incredible accomplishment of hosting such a large event in our rural location. Of course, residents were excited at the time, this was an incredible moment for anybody involved in agriculture, as ranchers moved from harvesting their wheat using 30-36 horses to pull a combine, to these new gas-powered machines.

Every kind of tractor getting built in those days made an appearance at the April, 1919 event. Tractor companies Fordson, Trundaar, Case, Leader, Beeman and many others demonstrating technological advancements in power farming were displayed, as well as new conveniences for the home.

There is a tendency for historical books to get lost in the weeds of so much information coming from the past. Author Linda Herbert did an astounding job covering the complexities of this tractor show and the corresponding events in entertaining, clear language without veering into the many side stories residing in people’s memories and archives.

And there were fascinating stories. One of my favorites is about how to feed and house the 60,000 to 75,000 guests—newspaper estimates vary—in remote and tiny Walla Walla. Entire books of interesting anecdotes could be generated about how that was accomplished, but just the idea of borrowing dishware and utensils from residents, and then returning them to the rightful owners, feels almost preposterous in view of our modern throw-away lives. Along with the three meals provided a day, there was also world-class entertainment: concerts, operettas and musicals.

It is an overused phrase, but locals indeed “rolled up their sleeves” and generated civic responsibility to ensure people were treated with the utmost attention, service and hospitality. A self-designated group named themselves Member Courtesy Squad and made themselves available in every conceivable way for rides to sites, directions, food and lodging. The civic outpouring was breathtaking.

The overall reaction nationwide to the tractor show, from technical demonstrations to the consistent examples of good will, was extremely positive for Walla Walla’s reputation and, as hoped for by manufacturers, sold a lot of machinery. This subsequently generated entire new professions for sales and servicing and contributed to the need for education and training for the enormous changes in how farmers got their field work done.

The story is utterly compelling. The technical drama of the show captivated audiences following behind the demonstration plowing—the immediate consequences were profound in terms of changing approaches to farming and domestic activities.

The last chapter explains what happened to the large teams of mules and horses, trained and cared for and loved by all members of a farming family. Actually, the changeover was at a hospitable pace for finances and sentiments and the biggest decrease in animal power wouldn’t happen until the mid to late 1930s. It wasn’t until 1954 that tractors outnumbered horses and mules in the nation. Some animals went to logging and other productive agricultural operations elsewhere, but there was sadness for many locally who watched their beloved animals leaving their land.

There are those among us who remember wheat farming with horses and mules. Some nearby places, such as the Whitman County Fairgrounds, do demonstrations of plowing and harvesting with horses every year. And there is Mule Mania in Dayton in June. The past is never past.

The short film that accompanies the book will be shown at the Hometown Christmas celebration on Saturday, December 8 at 11 a.m. at Town Hall.


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