OTHELLO — Each summer, the Othello Community Museum begins the season with a special program designed around the history of the area. This year was no exception as board members and visitors gathered Saturday, June 15, at the museum to hear about the early days of cattle ranching in the channeled scablands outside of Othello.
The event was dedicated to Bill Morris, who was president of the museum board for 30 years. During that time, he was instrumental in putting together a display featuring many of the livestock brands from the area.
Vice chair Fay Coats began the program by talking about Morris and some of the things he did for the museum. Coats also discussed an old newspaper article she came across from 1960 when Clayton Michel was named the Cattleman of the Year.
Current board president Eric Morgan gave a history talk about cattle ranching and how it was what first brought many people to this area. He told how the pioneer ranchers and farmers had to develop their own system of grazing the scablands.
“That meant the cattle industry developed outside the law,” Morgan said. “Once established, ranchers began to look to the law for formalizing and protecting their interests.”
Morgan went on to talk about some of the early ranchers in Adams and Grant counties, including Lord Thomas S. Blyth and the Drumheller brothers – George and Tom – who purchased Blyth’s holdings in 1906. Following World War II, the land was divided and the section closest to Othello was sold to partners Gustav Wahl and Alex Urquart of Lind.
“The house was dismantled in 1950 just before the waters of O’Sullivan Dam covered the area,” Morgan said.
He then talked about branding and its importance to ranchers then and now. Coats introduced guest speaker Devon Michel, grandson of Clayton Michel. Along with his twin brother Darin, the Michels still run cattle on much of the same ground they started with in 1893. They are the fourth generation of Michels in the Othello area.
Michel said his family knew of the free land out west. They came across country from South Dakota with 500 head of cattle in tow, often giving a cow to Indians along the way.
“They could give them some or let them steal,” he said. “They thought it was better to just give them the cattle.”
The original Michel homestead was in the area of Booker and Hermiston roads. He said other families started arriving about the same time, such as the Hamptons in the late 1890s and the Paras in 1911. Others were the Hutchinson brothers, the Drumhellers and Ben Snipes.
However, the advent of irrigation changed ranching. Much land was needed for the new canal system that would feed water to the parched Columbia Basin desert.
“My grandpa (Clayton) said when the government came in, it gave them only 20 days to vacate,” Michel said. “There were no attorneys here at the time and it was unethical, but it was the only way to get it (irrigation) done.”
In 1958, the Michels owned 150,000 acres from Othello to the Columbia River.
“Just after, a lot of land sold to the government,” Michel said. “Between 1958 and 1959, the government took 40,000 acres from Clayton at 25 cents per acre. At the time, the government said it was for national defense, which was driven by the Cold War.”
But the family survived and the Michels continued to be prosperous ranchers. They provided beef for the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II.
As the natural climate changed with irrigation, ranchers had to learn how to adapt to those changes.
“Those that have survived had to learn to conserve the land,” Michel said. “They learned to use this grazing land for winter feed.”
These days, the Michel brothers have 1,300 cows, as well as calves and bulls. They still rope and brand after each yearly roundup. They have also worked with Washington State University on research projects.
“It took a generation to adapt to our environment,” Michel said.
Unfortunately, the history of the Michel ranching may come to an end soon. The brothers are the last of their line.
“If my nieces don’t want to take over, maybe some of my key employees will,” Michel said.
Today, grazing comprises about 7.5 million acres of scabland. The value is seen in the livestock products grown and raised in the Othello area.
“Livestock products are fourth among agricultural products,” Morgan said. “Livestock produces more income (for our state) than potatoes or hay.”
The museum – located at Third Avenue and Larch Street in Othello – is open each Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. until the end of September. Admission is free. To schedule a tour of the building, contact Morgan at (509) 346-3823.