Tiny Tieton: Mighty New West?

The health of rural towns is important to the sustainability of our Pacific Northwest. Tieton is one example of a community working to redefine itself.

Tieton's Town Square, Yakima County
Photo by Glenn Nelson

A former apple warehouse stood like a dinosaur, a 40,000-square-foot beast at the lip of town and the town itself—tiny, empty, atrophied—needed something.

That missing element turned out to be Ed Marquand, an art book publisher from Seattle. Marquand was out bicycling one April day in 2005, through orchard country in the Cascade foothills, when his tires struck a bunch of goathead thorns. The incident occurred in Tieton (estimated population: 1,200) at the top of the Yakima Valley Basin. Stuck, Marquand considered where he was.

“I’m in an abandoned parking lot and I saw all these For Sale signs,” Marquand recalled. “And I imagined what artists would be able to do in these spaces.”

Now before you dismiss this story as a bunch of outsiders storming in and taking over, consider what Tieton used to be. Two taverns, three grocery stores, a bowling alley and movie theater. “Gene Autry movies,” Tony Pottratz remembered. He grew up here, just a few miles from the town square. He was a teenager in the 1950s and after high school and the Army he returned to help run the family’s local telephone company. He was one of the few to stay. “Unless your family had an orchard or a business there wasn’t a lot to attract young people here,” Pottratz said. He’s 74 years old.

Pottratz is the rare local who can remember when Tieton used to be mostly white; when a kid could get a job setting up bowling pins; when business folk enthusiastically populated the Lions Club. But when the economy tanked and the price of apples plummeted, when family-owned businesses couldn’t compete with the big chain stores, Tieton sagged. “I read about towns where the same thing happens,” Pottratz said. “It’ll never be the old Tieton again.”

Enter Marquand, who, after patching his bicycling tires, peddled back to his partner, lawyer Mike Longyear, with a vision of sowing something artistic. “I grew up in a small town, an agricultural community in upstate New York. For me this is a similar place,” Longyear explained.

We aren't developers. We wanted to be in a community and be organic.
Mike Longyear

The pair initially spent $500,000 to purchase three buildings. They worked with architect friends to construct a series of loft condos (securing the first building permit in Tieton in three years). They shopped at the one business in town, Mexican-owned Santos Bakery, which had a steady stream of customers. Between 1980 and 2000, Tieton’s population not only had doubled, it was mostly Latino, agricultural workers who worked in the fields or in packing houses of fruit companies that were willing to build new state-of-the-art plants but not rehabilitate once-functional buildings.

“We’re creative people who want to do things that are rewarding, stimulating, engaging,” Longyear says. They christened their endeavor “Mighty Tieton” – the little thing that could. Creatives from west of the Cascades bought up the lofts and also launched businesses: a printmaking studio, a goat cheese creamery, a cidery. Out on the square, Marquand started a fine press shop and trained locals such as Maria Solorio. She used to clean houses. Now she manages a bindery.

Tieton’s tax base, according to Marquand, has increased 50 percent. The Post Office, he also said, has had to add staff. Marquand says there are two big reasons why Mighty Tieton has been able to take off: The longtime Anglo community wasn’t resistant; this wasn’t a town of historic buildings that people were fighting to preserve. And second, the Latino community is relatively new and hungry for opportunity. To connect with Latinos, Marquand insisted the flyers announcing all sorts of new community events—art shows, poetry readings, cello concert—were in Spanish. (The once 40,000-square-foot dinosaur of a warehouse is now exhibition and studio space). Except for El Dia De Los Muertos, however, event audiences remain white. That fact initially bugged Marquand until he acquiesced to something pointed out by Solorio, his employee: Because everyone saw him as a good employer, a good neighbor, a supporter of Tieton, they’d already bought in.

  • Glenn Nelson

    Glenn is a journalist, photographer and Web entrepreneur in Seattle who is currently developing The Trail Posse to encourage diversity in the outdoors.