Friday, March 24, 2023
March 24, 2023

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Things have changed in Tieton, a small town that brings together agriculture, artists and families


YAKIMA — From a bench in Tieton City Park, John Kobli had a 360-degree view of the town square that holds a million memories. A lifelong resident of Tieton, the 71-year-old could point to any spot in the area and recall what used to be there.

That orange barn-like structure that now serves as an events space for quinceañeras? That was a movie theater. Paper Hammer Studios used to be a pharmacy with hand-mixed sodas for a nickel. And Santos Bakery’s building used to have a beauty salon, barbershop and tavern. Kobli laughed as he recalled getting his hair cut as a kid and trying to peep inside the tavern.

Among Tieton residents, including those who moved there a few years ago and those whose families were among the first in town, the consensus is clear: Things have changed.

“What’s going to be the next change? We don’t know. It’s not going to go back to the little farming community it once was,” Kobli said.

Change is the story for most towns in America. But in Tieton it’s so plain to see. A dying farm town revived by an influx of artisan manufacturing businesses, as the tale goes.

For those who have watched the change happen, those who were part of it, those trying to preserve its history, the town seems more alive today than ever and primed for future growth.

Town Square

The smells of local favorite Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant Don Mateo waft to the sidewalk on the northwest side of the town square.

Owner Francisco Ochoa said he does good businesses in town, even though the summers can be slow, and he has to close early before it gets too hot. On the weekends, his restaurant attracts tourists coming to check out Tieton’s art scene. During the week, his customers are mostly warehouse and orchard workers, as the agriculture industry continues to play a vital role in Tieton.

Ochoa used to work in the Evans Fruit Warehouse, where he met his wife, Bessy, about eight years ago. They would work in the orchards and warehouses then she would cook food for their fellow laborers. They opened Don Mateo about three years later.

Their family lives just outside Tieton. The restaurant is named after his son, who attends the local schools. Ochoa likes the area and says it is a good place to raise a child.

“I can leave the doors open and nothing happens,” he said.

He plans to stay in the area until he retires.

Don Mateo is one of several booming businesses outlining the town square. It’s near the popular Santos Bakery. The Ochoas are friends with its owners. Other restaurants include Fernando’s Mexican food and the upscale 617. There are two convenience stores, an events space and artists’ studios.

It wasn’t always like this. The town was hit hard in 1980s and 1990s. Smaller orchard owners packed it in and sold to bigger companies. The proximity to Yakima made it easier to drive down to shop at bigger retailers. Local businesses could no longer survive.

“The town was dying,” lifelong resident Kobli said. “It was gonna dry up.”

Then Mighty Tieton came to town.

Mighty Tieton

The story of Mighty Tieton has traveled past the point of being just a local legend. In 2005, Seattle-based art books publisher Ed Marquand was riding through the area when he punctured his bicycle tires with goathead thorns. While he patched the wheels he looked around the empty storefronts of the once vibrant orchard town and was inspired to turn the economic trajectory of Tieton around.

Over a decade later, Mighty Tieton has served as an incubator for over a dozen small businesses, many in the artistic sphere, and attracted folks over from the west side.

Several locals credited Marquand and his partner Mike Longyear with reviving the town by encouraging and supporting new businesses.

A few artist spaces are housed inside the Mighty Tieton Warehouse, a former apple warehouse built by Kobli’s father near the town square. There’s the sound space of artist Trimpin with one-of-a-kind instrumental sculptures. Then there’s Tieton Mosaic studio, which worked on several public art projects for the town. Marquand leads tours of the warehouse each Saturday.

Inside the mosaic studio in July, artists were in the middle of two large public arts projects. One is a series of mosaic murals for Sound Transit meant to evoke the subway art in New York City. The other is a collection of welcome mats, signs and artistic “selfie stations” for Miller Park in Yakima.

One of the largest mosaics for Miller Park is a pair of butterfly wings made of about 6,000 pieces of black, orange and red glass. The swirling, sky-like blue glass used for the background let out a screech as mosaic worker Serena Martian scored it with a diamond-edged tool.

When someone stands in front of the mosaic it will look like that person has wings, she explained. Martian has worked at the studio for eight years. She grew up in Naches, but lives in Tieton now.

The studio is packed full of mosaic letter tiles, tools, glass scraps, plans, scale models and re-creations of famous art pieces using glass. There are also oddities like the sculpted head of tree-like Marvel superhero Groot, which won her father and fellow mosaic artist Steve Morgan, a prize at Yakima’s Central City Comic Con a few years ago.

“We’re running out of storage space,” she joked as she as she searched for a book of Portuguese tile art.

Walking around town, Martian recalled the creation of the fruit label mosaics installed in the past few years. The large mosaics recreate old apple labels, like Moon Brand Apples from the Lloyd Garretson Company, complete with a winking yellow moon. The mosaics blend the town’s agricultural history with its burgeoning artistic scene. At least one is visible from nearly any spot in the town square. Some were partly commissioned by orchard families who still work in Tieton, Martian said.

Martian herself recently bought an orchard with her husband and a friend. Some of the orchard owners who helped pay for the label mosaics have grown into her agricultural mentors she said. And she’d like to buy a home one day.

“We don’t mind putting down roots here,” she said.

City Hall

The growth of the town is a frequent topic of discussion at city government meetings. The town saw a 16% bump in residents between 2010 and 2020. That brought the total population to 1,389 people according to the Census.

The Tieton Planning Commission meets once a month to discuss the future of the town.

“As we all are recognizing, Tieton is poised for some pretty significant growth. So, we have to really think hard about how we’re going to be prepared for that,” said commission member and Mighty Tieton founder Mike Longyear during its July 19 meeting.

For years planned developments sat unfinished, commission member Jenny Korens said. But now new housing developments are going up on the edges of town and rentals fly off the market. Catholic Charities Housing Services also runs housing developments for farmworkers in the area.

But even in a growing town like Tieton, smaller matters still earn significant discussion.

At the July 26 City Council meeting, council members had updates on the upcoming Community Days Celebration. Council member Marquand spoke about his pamphlet about stray and barking dogs that is in the works. And a fallen tree in a disabled community member’s yard prompted a plan for council members to go check it out and see how to remove it.

“We’re a small town still,” said City Clerk and Treasurer Fred Muñoz during the meeting. “We try to help out residents when we can.”

Lupita Carrillo is the only Latino council member in a town that’s about 70% Latino, according to the 2020 census. She knows of only one other Latino council member before her. Most of the current council members are older than she is.

Representation was on her mind when she joined the council three years ago.

“I really wanted the perspective of a parent on City Council, a parent who has kids in school still. I really wanted the perspective from a person of color,” she said.

Services for families with children have sprung up in the past few years, which she was excited to see. There’s a new soccer field and plans for a playground. The creARTe program through Tieton Arts and Humanities offers summer and afterschool at classes for kids and teenagers.

Carrillo grew up in Tieton and knows people all over town. She spends time talking to her neighbors and other residents to get their perspectives on the work City Council is doing and what still needs to be done.

“We certainly have grown a lot, and very quickly,” she said. “I think Tieton is a very special place and I think a lot of people have recognized that.”

Tieton Farm and Creamery

The smell of goats is unmistakable at Tieton Farm and Creamery. Naturally, since Ruth and Lori Babcock keep a herd of more than 40 on their 21-acre farm, plus 60 sheep and additional cows, ducks, geese, turkeys and chickens.

Though summer is their busy season, Ruth Babcock has to take a break from tending to the animals during the hottest parts of the afternoon. During that time, she and Lori focus on the administrative side of the business. Real breaks are rare on the farm where there is always more to do. Ruth Babcock said it’s hard for people who do not do farm work to comprehend how busy it gets.

Still, the former westside tech workers said they love their new lives.

Tieton Farm and Creamery occupies the intersection of agriculture businesses that were historically important to the area and the businesses that came in after Mighty Tieton came to town.

The Babcocks came to Tieton around 2008. They’d been trying to raise some of their own food in Bellevue, but their ambitions outgrew their available space. When they started looking for land to start a small farm, they got on Ed Marquand’s radar. That’s how they learned about Tieton.

“This was the first piece of property we were shown, and we loved it,” Lori Babcock said.

Ruth Babcock grew up near Wenatchee and the farmland in Tieton reminded her of home. It certainly felt like home after the community came to support them on a few occasions.

Marquand and the folks at Mighty Tieton showed them a lot of support early on, Lori Babcock said. A few years ago, a barn collapse threatened to force them to close the farm. The community would not let them.

A community GoFundMe raised about $35,000, which covered a critical portion of the barn rebuild, Lori Babcock said.

Some local friends also stepped in to help run the booth at the Downtown Yakima Farmers Market Sunday mornings, Ruth Babcock said.

“Just the nicest group of people really,” Lori Babcock said. “And that’s what I always think about Tieton.”

She recently joined the city planning commission so she can give back to the community that has given so much to her.

Scout Hall Senior Center

Nowhere is the history of Tieton more alive than in Scout Hall.

Each Tuesday and Thursday morning it hosts a gathering of seniors, some born and raised in Tieton and some “newbies” who moved there this century. There’s coffee and conversation. Mostly it’s a place to gather, said Pat Biggers, who helped organize the group.

She grew up in Yakima but moved to Tieton more than 60 years ago when she got married. Her in-laws lived on a piece of land that belonged to one of the first white settlers in the area. She found herself looking into the old blueprints for the property and wanted to explore more of the area’s history.

The history of the town of Tieton is impossible to divorce from the history of other communities in the Upper Yakima Valley, especially nearby Cowiche and Naches Heights.

She began to talk to folks in town, armed with a notebook, pen and curiosity. One day, she walked into Vickie’s Café near the town square where a few women were already chatting.

“I just walked up to these women who didn’t know me from Eve and said what do you think about doing a history of this area of the world,” she said.

That was about 20 years ago. That proposition blossomed into a meeting place for around half a dozen seniors on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the old Scout Hall, so named because a Boy Scout Troop built it in the 1930s.

The pandemic slowed down their efforts a bit, but the mayor asked her to continue with the group, so she did.

There used to be an abundance of community spaces in Tieton, with Vickie’s Café being potentially the longest-lasting and most popular, she said. That closed in 2013, but Biggers and fellow Tieton local Charlene Bateman felt the town needed something similar.

The group of seniors gathered that day reminisced about the way things used to be. They recalled how everyone used to know their neighbors and laughed over the bitter rivalry between schools in Tieton and Cowiche that dried up once the Highland School District incorporated all area schools.

Biggers wants people to continue her archival and historic work even after she’s gone. But though she may be slowing down, she’s not stopping.

“I’m not giving it up,” Biggers said. “I’m keeping it until the Lord takes me out of here.”