The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Beka Compton
The Times 

Waitsburg shines, despite 2020

As scary as it is, the COVID-19 virus has nothing on Waitsburg's spirit


December 31, 2020

Lane Gwinn

Nearly sixty classic cars drove through Waitsburg on the third weekend in May. The weekend's big event, Waitsburg Celebration Days, was one of many canceled due to COVID-19 restriction.

WAITSBURG - "Two weeks to flatten the curve."

In March, Washington State enacted a "Stay Home, Stay Safe" mandate as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the globe. Now, as 2021 knocks loudly, we are still staying home, and Waitsburg has done what Waitsburg always does in a challenging situation: Rolled with the punches It became apparent early that two weeks might have kept the local hospitals from being overwhelmed and kept cases low in our little town, but it wasn't going to stop this virus. Our lockdown would have to continue to keep the virus out of our town.

As the weather grew warm and schools closed, kids and parents became restless with few regular spring activities allowed. Locals, Matthew and Krystal Wyatt, jumped into action by painting a few rocks and hiding them around town during their walks. The duo took to Facebook to announce that anyone finding one of the rocks would earn a gift certificate to Ten Ton Coffee.

In April, the town saw the first of a new trend, drive-by birthday celebrations. Deanna Tipton planned a birthday parade to celebrate her mother Doris Huffman's 90th birthday. Friends and neighbors drove by her Orchard Street home with signs and merriment to celebrate.

And as we began to feel isolated, an effort took hold to recognize deserving people as Hero of the Day. Once again, the Wyatts took the lead by accepting nominations of Waitsburg residents like DeJay Meyer for being an "inspiration, sweet spirit, and always smiling." Jessika Chapman-Bannerman was chosen as a Hero of the Day for her support of young artists at her shop, Ju's Traveling Pages, and being the "book fairy" during the early months of the pandemic hiding books around town for kids and families to find. Gift cards and certificates to local businesses, totaling $1,500, were given out to community members recognized each day.

The Waitsburg Resource Center (WRC) flourished in its mission to help the community. They helped make summer meals happen for kids in Waitsburg and remained open to serve families in need. It wouldn't have been possible without the numerous food drives and monetary donations that occurred throughout the year.

The world of business was thrust into unknown waters, as well. Some businesses deemed 'non-essential' by the statewide-mandate struggled to make ends meet, and they, too, adapted as the situation unfolded. Local restaurants and salons were hit particularly hard, as capacity restrictions limited indoor dining, and salons were closed altogether. Hairstylist, Brooke Mikesell, owner of Blush Salon and Spa, was dedicated to her clients and created home-hair-care kits in hopes of avoiding the dreaded Quarantine Hair.

Waitsburg-based restaurants Whiskey C's and Laht Neppur Brewing Co. began offering take-out-style meals and beverages for patrons; soon, they were joined by the Millstone Cafe & Bakery who offered many family-style meals to-go. Ten Ton Coffee rolled up their large glass bay door and retrofitted it as a walk-up window to keep the coffee flowing. Customers ordering outside not only kept the baristas safe, but it gave coffee lovers an excuse to socialize safely, masked, and socially distanced while they waited for their brews.

Essential businesses had to make plenty of changes, as well. With bank lobbies closed, the friendly folks at Banner Bank's Waitsburg branch made it work by serving their customers, in cars or on foot, at the drive-through window. And as always, they never missed a chance to share a smile before and after transactions.

Masks were no match for the jokes and laughs shared at Sam's Corner this year. The gas station and convenience store kept plugging along, keeping high spirits, snacks, and cold beverages for all!

The team at the Waitsburg Post Office was busy delivering ballots, emergency home-schooling supplies, and an influx of Amazon packages ordered during quarantined-impulse buying. Extra measures by the staff to sanitize the lobby and shared spaces, along with the community's cooperation wearing masks and social distancing, made for a safe, smooth operation and timely delivery of school supplies.

Nancy's Dream Garden Center expanded, moving from a single greenhouse on a small lot to a sprawling space on Warren Street, adding more retail space, a grower's greenhouse, and covered sales space for landscaping supplies. The lot is large enough to accommodate a rest area, something that Doug Biolo and Janet Lawrence are excited to bring to life in the future.

Then there were the unsung heroes, like Susan Wildey, Eleanora Montgomery, Carol White and Kathy Schirm, all Waitsburg School District employees, who prepared and delivered thousands of meals to the district's students after schools were abruptly shut down in March. The school's paraeducators also jumped in to help prepare as many as 1,700 meals a week. The team continued to deliver meals, even throughout the summer.

"Our para-eds and our kitchen staff... they have been working their tails off this year," said Superintendent Mark Pickel in October. "Last week alone, they put together 1,700 meals to go."

The Class of 2020 had the last half of their senior year abruptly snatched from them, but new traditions may have been created as a result. Waitsburg's seniors were honored with custom banners along Main Street, a Graduation Day tour through town in decked out cars and pickups culminated at the unique, outdoor graduation held at the school's football field. While attendance was greatly restricted, they were one of the first graduating classes to have their ceremony live-streamed.

Summer happened, and kids were kept at home instead of hanging out with friends. This is where Weller Public Library helped out, and Miss Rosie and Jaidyn handed out craft and activity kits in place of the Summer Reading Program. The library also got an interactive new website to browse, read, and check books out virtually.

Many of the town's favorite events felt the impact of the pandemic. Waitsburg Celebration Days (WCD) announced they were postponing the year's events until 2021. With the loss of the year's parade, ATV Poker ride, Sunset Ride, Classic Cars, and Brewfest, local Fred Gonzales helped take the sting out by organizing an unofficial Classic Car Cruise. Gonzales invited the WCD Queen Lena Berens and others on horseback to join the over 58 cars who participated that sunny day in May.

Like Hometown Christmas, many events were canceled altogether, but others, like the Festival of Trees, took to Google for virtual voting while they added a festive touch to Downtown Waitsburg. The fire department did their part to ring in the holiday season with an exceptionally beautiful tree, which was decorated by Waitsburg Elementary students with their handmade ornaments.

One of the biggest annual events for local youth, the Walla Walla Fair and Frontier Days, was canceled, leaving many 4-H and FFA members wondering what they were going to do with their market animals. Cue the Facebook posts, special newspaper editions, and a couple of extra phone calls, and almost all the animals found buyers.

The Columbia County Livestock Sale was able to limit the number of in-person participants and buyers by hosting a virtual event, Market prices were phenomenal, and the added support of businesses and family members set area youth up to recoup animal costs and prepare for upcoming projects.

City Hall closed to the public and has remained closed for months, but administrator Randy Hinchliffe and assistant Brittany Zuger have stayed busy. City Council, Planning Commission, and other city meetings are held through conference calls, the city website is updated to provide citizens with timely information. The City had to handle slowdowns due to the pandemic affecting programs, including essential repairs to the levees and other infrastructure damaged by the floods.

And, finally, a special nod is far overdue to the City's public works employees. From flood cleanup to day-to-day maintenance, there has been no shortage of work around town. Rain, shine, or rushing waters, the public works team has kept the town bright, guaranteed fresh water, kept the streets clean and spiffy, maintained Main Street's flowers, kept public lawns mowed and presentable... and much, much more without faltering. Donning masks and a good mood, the public works department continues to keep our town operational.

On Christmas Eve, the community gathered at the Waits Mill's site for a candlelit service led by Pastor Stan Hughes and Pastor Matthew Wyatt. Immediately following the service, residents of Waitsburg gathered in their appropriate pods to light and send off sky lanterns, many with notes written on them, as they let go of the year or remembered loved ones. The lanterns rose towards the moon and disappeared into the foggy sky, and people of all backgrounds shared a moment of peace.

It's easy to forget the good that happened this year. It's been a wild ride, to say the least, but despite its best efforts, 2020 has not dimmed the heart of Waitsburg. The new year is coming at us, full speed, and comfort can be found knowing that Waitsburgonians will find the good in any situation.


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