Welcome to the first post on my new blog The Local History. The following story is an adapted version of an article that will be featured in the next issue of Nostalgia Magazine. I encourage you to explore the links to see the fantastic variety of digital content that is out there for the taking.
Claud Akridge: Merchant Prince of Eureka Flat
Twelve to fifteen thousand years ago flood waters rushed through the valleys and riverbeds of northern Idaho and eastern Washington. The fierce current ripped across the land at speeds exceeding fifty miles an hour peeling soil, boulders, and trees from their resting place. As the waters slowed they deposited rich nutrients along the way. The catastrophic failure of a 2,000 foot ice dam on the Clark Fork River in northwestern Montana caused the floods. The ice dam had blocked the escape of millions of gallons of water that made up Glacial Lake Missoula. The dam thawed and froze dozens of times causing repeated flooding events of devastating proportions.
The water flowed downstream until it reached modern day Pasco. At this location the water began to back up in a narrow valley known as Wallula Gap. The water backed up so far that it formed yet another giant lake, Lake Lewis. This ice age body of water would have covered much of central Washington, stretching from Yakima to Walla Walla. It varied in depth depending on flow, but at times was around 800 feet deep.
Although the floods occurred thousands of years ago, they had a lasting impact on the geography we interact with every day. They formed the channeled scablands and famous Washington Palouse. We can thank the floods for that wonderful Washington wine and those delicious sweet onions. The floods are the source of the rich and fertile soil that has sent farmers and other settlers flocking to the region for the last 150 years.
One of those settlers, Claud May Akridge, heard of the wonderful wheat fields of eastern Washington from far across the country in Missouri. Claud was born in 1884 to a farmer named John Akridge and his wife Eliza. Claud grew up working the family farm with his father but he had high hopes for greater opportunities in the future.
In the early 1900s Claud had a string of hardships that may have caused him to seek out a new beginning. In June of 1907 two travelers stumbled upon a stranded buggy on the side of the road just outside of Fredonia, Kentucky. Inside they found Claud’s grandfather, Frank Akridge, dead to an apparent gunshot wound. The coroner determined that the fatal wound was caused by the accidental discharge of his .38 caliber pistol when it fell from his scabbard. Just two years later another accidental tragedy struck when Claud’s brother, Albert T. Akridge, plummeted 40 feet to his death while working in a coal mine. According to the local paper, another of Claud’s brothers “went down after him and came near losing his life also.”
Life was tough for working folks in Missouri but Claud was eager to move up the ladder. After he left his father’s house he married a woman named Emma and left farm labor behind. By 1910 Claud was working as a janitor at a local school house in Salt River, Missouri. This was a step in the right direction for Claud and his growing family but he had big dreams, dreams of the west. So in 1917 Claud set off from northeastern Missouri with his wife and son and settled in Eureka, Washington, a small town east of Pasco.
Eureka Flat is a stretch of land northwest of Wallula Gap that is noticeably different than the rest of the Palouse that surrounds it. Eureka Flat is, as its name suggests, remarkably flat. A reporter for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in the 1930’s described Eureka as a place where “magnificent distances penetrate wheat fields, and only wheat fields.” These photos from United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information give you a good idea of how flat it is there.
There are no hills in Eureka because they are completely covered with a thick layer of lightweight sediment that was deposited during the floods. But geologists are not confident that Eureka Flat was ever actually underwater due its elevation. Instead, they postulate that Eureka is so flat due to southeasterly winds that ripped through the Wallula Gap for thousands of years. The same winds that spin the wind turbines that dot the hills throughout the region. Those winds picked up soft dirt and suspended it in the air until the force diminished and the particles were deposited to the northwest forming Eureka Flat. (Here is a more detailed explanation for geology folks)
Those rich soil deposits attracted Claud and his family to Eureka. When he arrived in 1917 “the hamlet was paved with gold from $2 wheat” exclaimed a reporter from the U-B. Claud saw an opportunity to provide entertainment and products to his new wealthy neighbors. His entrepreneurial adventures began in 1918 when Claud became the proprietor of a pool hall. Just two years later he owned a cigar store as well. His empire was expanding quickly.
Everything was going well until the onset of the Great Depression. In 1932, wheat prices plummeted to their lowest values since the early 1850s. The once lucrative wheat trade that attracted Claud to the region was now suffering. This interesting 1933 advertisement run by the National Recovery Administration in the Spokesman Review suggests that the situation was not as grim in the “Inland Empire” as elsewhere in the country. The NRA was a New Deal agency created in 1933 to “revive industry and labor through rational planning.” Their primary tactic was to set floor prices by working with industries to sign regulatory codes. This advertisement was targeting those industries that had not yet signed on in Spokane. The program had some early successes but ultimately it failed and the depression dragged on.
The financial hardship forced Claud to consolidate his small empire but he continued to be the central figure in Eureka Flat. In 1938 he applied for a beer license so he could provide local farmers with the bubbly beverage they had been missing since the onset of Prohibition. His request was denied but Claud was still the “merchant prince of the hamlet.” He answered “to the title of mayor, postmaster, information bureau master, general clearinghouse for community news and a good fellow” explained a Union-Bulletin article from December, 1939. This photograph shows the “Eureka Store” on the right which likely belonged to Claud.
Claud was an astute observer of his community. In 1935 he was an integral lead in the hunt to recapture three hardened convicts that had tunneled forty to fifty feet with spoons and knives to escape from the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. One of the prisoners that Claud helped catch was a Spokane criminal notorious for his ability to escape prison walls. He will be the focus of a future blog post.
Like many Americans, Claud saw a path toward greater opportunity in the Pacific Northwest. He settled on land that had been destined to be prosperous for farmers since the floods and winds prepared the soil for agricultural use some ten thousand years ago. Unforeseen forces of market collapse severely stunted the growth of his empire but regardless of the circumstances, Claud remained determined to move up the social ladder until he died in 1945.