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Walla Walla’s Colorful Past: Prohibition the Depression and Migrant Labor Issues

Walla Walla’s Colorful Past: Prohibition the Depression and Migrant Labor Issues

By Montgomery Buell, History Professor  

Published April 18, 2002 

Walla Walla’s interesting past did not end in the early years of the twentieth century. National issues such as prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II had local repercussions that continued to make life worth remembering in this out-of-the-way corner of the world. 

The urge to make the city a safer, more wholesome place caused some city leaders to attempt to make Walla Walla a “dry” city and county. The outcry among the many saloon owners stalled this initiative, but forces were not on their side. The state prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol in 1917, nearly three years before the federal government would do the same in one of the least successful experiments in Constitutional history. 

It might come as no surprise, then, that Walla Walla had a real jump on the rest of the nation in figuring out how to supply its citizens with illegal elixir. Although the police were generally loath to do anything about these illegal activities, the pressure from groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union made some arrests a necessity.  

When one notorious bootlegger was arrested, his wife went to the McFeely Hotel and sold drinks at 50 cents a glass in order to raise money for bail. Since most speakeasies, like the one in the basement of the Stovall Hotel on 6th Avenue and Rose Street charged $1 a glass, it did not take long to raise bail. 

Soon a more pressing problem than drinking forced Walla Wallans to shift the focus of their energies. Due to depressed agricultural prices, the Depression actually started for local farmers by the mid-1920s. 

Bad loans, fewer deposits, and in some cases, disastrous investments had brought many banks near to collapse by 1932. The first bank to close in Walla Walla was the People’s State Bank. The bank president shot himself. This was the first of the banking panic in the area and caused a run on banks. Most closed their doors and declared a “holiday.” 

The governor of the state made the holiday official, and all banks in the state shut their doors except one-Baker Boyer Bank here in Walla Walla. It took a personal intervention by the governor to get the bank to agree to go on holiday. This overt confidence kept Baker Boyer from having investors withdraw their funds when it did open again, and the bank survived the Depression. 

Although Walla Walla was not on any primary transportation routes by the 1930s, many transients found their way here with the hope of finding work. 

Like in many cities, hobo camps, called “the jungle” by local citizens, sprung up on the edge of town. Some built semi-permanent homes out of scrap wood and tin along the railroad track between Walla Walla and College Place. In step with America’s grand tradition, most people in the valley were consumed by their own problems and paid little heed to needs of the transients and homeless. 

The federal government did decide to try to help bring the country out of depression by making work for people in all sorts of different ways. These New Deal programs reached even as far as Walla Walla. Local boys served in area Civilian Conservation Corps camps making or improving trails and campsites in the Blue Mountains. 

WPA projects also employed local adults. One project was to build bridges by replacing the wood structures spanning local streams and the Walla Walla River with more durable structures. These bridges have the date of construction prominently displayed. Next time you drive around town, see if you can find any. You might also stay awake on your next trip to the Tri-Cities by counting how many WPA bridges you cross. 

What finally brought the country out of the economic badlands was not the New Deal, but the new war. Because of its large number of good days for flying, Walla Walla was selected as a training base for the Air Force. The air base was used to train bomber crews. Perhaps the most famous crew was that of the “Memphis Belle,” although other famous crews included fliers of “Jack the Ripper” and the “Delta Rebel.” 

As might be expected, several planes crashed. A few remains may be found in several locations in the Blue Mountains. Probably the easiest to find is near Table Rock. 

The most spectacular crash, however, only rained remains into farmers’ fields. 

A B-17 carrying live ordnance exploded in the air between Touchet and Lowden. 

In all, about 8,000 men trained at the Walla Walla base. 

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With many men enlisting and construction projects ranging from the new airbase to housing for soldiers, the city almost immediately felt the pangs of a labor shortage. The need for workers was especially acute in the summer when farmers benefited from the demands of war. 

The government tried to remedy the situation by using German POWs as cannery workers. They were housed at the fairgrounds. 

Japanese Americans from an internment camp in Idaho were also shipped in to work in the canneries and fields. At least one family of Japanese Americans working in the valley may have come from Walla Walla. Yuso Shinbo, a resident of Walla Walla since 1922, had owned the Imperial, a popular downtown restaurant. He was forced to sell in 1942 because of Roosevelt’s executive decision to round up Japanese in the West and imprison them. 

Finally, Mexicans were transported north to work in the fields. For the Mexicans, this was nothing new as they had been recruited to take over some of the labor that was missed when Chinese Housing for agricultural workers left in the early 20th century. 

The crisis had grown dramatically during World War I and resulted in the Braceros program that brought agricultural workers from Mexico with the United States government’s encouragement. 

Housing for POWs and interns was the government’s responsibility, but few concerned themselves with housing for the Mexicans. As a result, few, if any, provisions were made and many Mexicans camped along the Walla Walla River outside of town. A few farmers provided land and even bare huts to live in, but without running water or electricity. 

The conditions in which Mexican migrant workers lived shocked the few who bothered to investigate, and the idea for creating a place where migrant workers could live took root. This eventually resulted in the Farm Labor Camp located south of Walla Walla. The graduating class from Walla Walla College made their senior class gift to the camp last year. 

Any town or city that you move to when you leave here will have an interesting past. One only has to look a little bit for it, and the rewards of that learning may be as simple as a greater appreciation for the present. 

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