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Thursday, September 21, 2023
Sept. 21, 2023

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LaCrosse residents unite to revitalize downtown and preserve tiny southeast Whitman County community

The Columbian

LACROSSE — After losing its only grocery store more than a dozen years ago, a tiny town in southeast Whitman County is making a comeback.

A group of residents determined to save LaCrosse took ownership of their main street — literally. They formed a nonprofit, LaCrosse Community Pride, that purchased vacant buildings and encouraged new businesses to move in, including a grocery store, a bank and a cafe.

“Extinction was not an option,” said Alex McGregor, a longtime LaCrosse Community Pride board member. “We were going to do something special.”

LaCrosse has lost 80 residents since the 2000 census — a significant decrease for a town now of only 297.

“This little town should be gone,” board president Jeff Pietila said. “Look at the towns around us and they are no longer existing. But we are still here.”

LaCrosse was named in tandem with the nearby town Winona by settlers from two towns with those same names in Wisconsin and Minnesota that are similarly situated. Like many towns in the region, LaCrosse began as a railroad stop in the late 1800s and grew through wheat farming. Mechanization of agriculture over the years led to a drop in population, which peaked at 475 in 1940

Grocery stores are critical lifelines for small towns. When LaCrosse’s store closed during the financial calamity of 2008, the bank and cafe soon followed. A fire destroyed the hardware store during the same period.

Dedicated volunteers and years of work led LaCrosse Community Pride to renovate two historic buildings at the center of Main Street.

Built in 1915, a red brick mercantile building now houses not only a grocery store, but the library (moved from the town hall for more space), a community room, an insurance office and an office for the pride organization.

Jody Carter and her husband took over the grocery store about five years ago and renamed it Carter Foods. It’s thriving.

“LaCrosse has been really good to the store,” Carter said.

It has an old-timey charm, with a high ceiling, stained glass windows and a tall wood bookcase with a rolling ladder behind the counter. An old-fashioned rope pulley elevator that was once used to lift merchandise stored in the basement sits in a nook as an object of curiosity.

The shop is small, just a few aisles, but the snacks and staples it offers as a convenience to some are essential to others.

“We have a lot of elderly people who do their shopping here because they have no way to get out of town,” Carter said.

Across the street, a 1915 art deco building has been the home of numerous financial institutions over the years. A Bank of Eastern Washington branch and the LaCrosse Cafe occupy the building today.

LaCrosse Community Pride also owns a nine-unit apartment for low-income seniors and an industrial building it rents to Bainbridge Manufacturing, which makes plastic hardware components.

All these projects have created 15 jobs in the community.

In January, the pride group hired a part-time executive director, Sarah Kane, to continue the day-to-day work of sustaining Main Street.

Kane moved there from the town of Palouse, Washington, five years ago.

“For my family, best move ever,” she said.

Her daughter’s class has seven students, which is considered big for LaCrosse. “The education is personalized for each kid. That to me is huge.”

The Main Street approach

LaCrosse will at the first of the year be the smallest community to join the Washington Main Street program, a network of communities across the state dedicated to preserving their historic downtowns. The designation will help LaCrosse access resources and benefit from a tax credit.

LaCrosse Community Pride hopes joining Washington Main Street will put LaCrosse on the map as a destination.

“So many people don’t even know we’re here,” Kane said. “We’re 2 miles off Highway 26. Nobody is coming here unless they have a reason.”

The highway once went along Main Street, but it was rerouted to bypass the town in the 1970s.

“Even though it is only a couple miles off the highway, we need to alert people it is a good place to stop,” McGregor said.

The national Main Street movement began in the 1980s by towns facing similar challenges.

“It was born out of this idea that these small historic downtown districts were really valuable and that we could breathe life back into them through local people taking care of buildings, hosting events and volunteering,” said Breanne Durham, director of Washington Main Street.

LaCrosse has been an affiliate member for several years. Hiring a staff person met one of the requirements for full membership, which will begin Jan. 1.

Washington Main Street is a program of the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, managed under contract by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. A perk of joining is a 75% tax credit incentive for businesses that donate to LaCrosse Community Pride.

“It is exciting for us because we believe the approach can work in a town of any size,” Durham said. “And LaCrosse really led the way when it comes to community and economic development in a city that is this small.”

In Washington, Main Street communities range in size from as small as LaCrosse to as large as Vancouver. LaCrosse is also the third-smallest town in the country to join Main Street America. (The smallest is a town in New Mexico with 98 people.)

“I think it’s really important for small towns to see examples like LaCrosse because it makes the daunting feel doable,” Durham said.

Heritage of fire and ice

LaCrosse Community Pride’s next project is to restore a unique collection of houses that was built from basalt rocks collected from surrounding fields during the Great Depression.

LaCrosse straddles the border of the Palouse and the Channeled Scablands, where Ice Age floods exposed and deposited the lava-formed rocks across the region. Readily available, the rocks made cheaper construction material than lumber that had to be shipped into town by rail.

The buildings housed farm hands and railroad crews until the 1960s, when they were abandoned. They deteriorated over the next half-century until LaCrosse Community Pride obtained them.

In 2016, they were listed as one of Washington’s Most Endangered Places by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

This designation opened up grant funding to help with the restoration of the three bunkhouses, two full-sized houses and a service station.

LaCrosse Community Pride tore down the one-room bunkhouses and rebuilt them stone for stone using the same rocks. Two of these bunkhouses will be rented out for overnight stays by the end of the year.

The third is the temporary home of the Ice Age Floods and Heritage Museum, which displays local geology and history.

They also built a new rock building with a bathroom and showers for guests.

For McGregor, the buildings are not only a reminder of recent history, “they are visible reminders of our fire-and-ice past.”

The goal is to convert the service station into a permanent visitor center museum space with a coffee shop. LaCrosse Community Pride is working with the Ice Age Floods Institute to join as a stop on the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail that stretches across four states in the Inland Northwest.

The pride organization also aims to restore and rent out the two full-sized rock houses, which will give families a place to stay in LaCrosse.

“This town has a frontier spirit of get it done, can-do attitude,” Pietila said. “If we all pull the rope in the same direction, we’ll keep it going.”