Border towns have a sensibility that's different from other rural communities. Such towns can be the end of the road or a gateway to a whole new world, depending on one's perspective. The north-central Washington city of Oroville -- population roughly 1,600 -- is the last U.S. community seen by northbound travelers on Washington's Highway 97. And it's the first stop for visitors entering from Canada. The international border and the port of entry have provided the backdrop to Oroville's story ever since the Oregon Treaty of 1846 set the boundary at the 49th parallel.
"The first gold in the state of Washington was found here on the Similkameen River, about four or five miles upriver from [the present site of] Oroville," says Jim Lynch, a native of Oroville who has studied the area's history. "This was in 1859, and it was found by a group from the Boundary Survey party. About a mile and a half from the boundary, they found the first gold nuggets there."
Miners flocked to this valley, where the Similkameen meets the Okanogan. Some 3,000 miners camped in the flats between the rivers hoping for the next big strike, says Lynch. Soon, word filtered in about new opportunities near Rock Creek (just north of the border) and in the Cariboo mining district, and many of the placer miners moved on. That set the stage for Hiram "Okanogan" Smith, who settled on a lovely patch of land along the east shore of Lake Osoyoos and established the first lode mine in the hills west of the valley, mining mostly for silver galena ore. Smith also brought the first apple trees to the state of Washington. His trees did well, thanks to his lakeside location, but the real boom in fruit orchards would have to wait for irrigation.
Although the local mines never brought great wealth to their owners, feeding the miners in the north established a whole new trade. The Cariboo Trail, the main route for cattle drives from ranches in Oregon and the Yakima Valley to the Fraser and Cariboo mines, led right through the Okanogan Valley, bringing livestock farming and ranching to the area. Flume irrigation came in soon after the turn of the century, and with the arrival of the railroad, Oroville's agricultural economy boomed.
Today in Oroville, the economy is far from booming. Only one fruit-packing warehouse remains in business, and vacant storefronts dot Main Street. The railroad spur line runs one freight train per day; all other goods travel by truck. When the market for Red and Golden Delicious apples crashed 15 years ago after the news reports about alar, many orchardists gave up and pulled out their trees.
Unemployment rates in Okanogan County consistently top the national average; during May 2004, at the start of the seasonal increase in local agricultural employment, the rate in the county stood at 7.8 percent, compared to the national average of 5.6 percent. Census figures indicate that many residents in their prime working years left the area while the number of retirees moving in grew. The resident labor force in Okanogan County dropped nearly 20 percent between 1999 and 2002, according to Washington State Employment Security.
"Our problems actually started with the fall in the Canadian dollar," says Chuck Spieth, an insurance agent and Oroville's mayor. "A lot of our business was geared to the Canadian trade for years and years, so that was start of our downward trend. In the orchard industry, most were in Red and Golden Delicious apples. When the bottom fell out of that market, some pulled out, and some tried to diversify into soft fruits or different varieties of apples that had a higher market value. The combination of both of those things has really hurt us."
The drop in the Canadian dollar means Canadian visitors get less bang for their buck at U.S. restaurants and retail establishments. From a high of a Canadian dollar equalling 93 U.S. cents late in 1991, the Canadian dollar dropped as low as 65 U.S. cents 10 years later before a recent rebound to about 75 U.S. cents.
"Sundays in Oroville, it used to be about 90 percent of the trade was Canadians out shopping," Spieth says. "With the change in the dollar, they're just not coming down like they used to."
The fruit growers who diversified into soft fruits and other varieties of apples have survived, and a Canadian-owned lumber processor, Reman and Reload, continues to grow, but the only true growth industry in town is at the U.S.-Canadian border. Enhancements to the port of entry have brought new working families into Oroville over the past three or four years.
"Oroville is changing," asserts local real estate agent Joan Cool. "It's an absolutely fabulous real estate market. It started after 9/11 when [the federal government] started beefing up the border. They hired at least 23 border patrol families, and actually they all came out of San Diego. They had some money, because they sold homes there, and they all bought homes here."
Indeed, the new shared port of entry, dedicated last fall, is an imposing structure with almost 90,000 square feet of space. The border crossing sees about half a million travelers each year and is open 24 hours a day.
Just five miles -- or eight kilometers -- from Oroville lies the town of Osoyoos, B.C. The communities share Lake Osoyoos, but the international border is not all that separates them. Osoyoos has embraced tourism, developing lakefront hotels, resorts and restaurants to serve the many visitors who come to experience Canada's desert southwest. Despite its popularity, though, the town is neat and clean, vibrant yet not overrun, and maintains a thriving orchard economy. Osoyoos is also the gateway to British Columbia's wine country, an area rich with vineyards and wineries stretching from the U.S. border northward to Kelowna, on the shores of Lake Okanagan.
The contrast between the two communities is stark, a fact acknowledged by local officials. Oroville grew from resource-based industries: mining, timber, farming and ranching. Although the city sits on the shores of Lake Osoyoos and has not one but two rivers meandering through, the water has been used mainly as a supportive resource for the dominant industries in town. A small state park hugs the southern edge of the lake and the city-owned Deep Bay Park graces a few acres along the western shore, but much of the lakefront property holds orchards. The example of Osoyoos offers a tempting example for Oroville, a chance to see up close what a tourist economy might look like, especially given the number of vacant former orchards adjacent to the lake.
"Over the years, I think we have missed the boat by not utilizing the lake toward that kind of growth," says Spieth. "We would hate to see a major change to our area, but we have to look down the road. Without a change of some sort, we're not going to be here. What's going to be left for our grandkids? I think tourism is an avenue we really need to hit on."
A new proposal from Legend Resorts of Kelowna may be part of the first wave of tourism in Oroville. The company has applied for permits to build up to 280 condominiums plus an inn, a marina and a possible golf course on Dairy Point along the east side of Lake Osoyoos just south of the border. During construction, the company expects to employ 700 full-time workers; after completion, plans call for about 180 permanent local jobs.
"I'm hopeful at this point," Spieth says. "You look at 180 jobs, and even if they're not top-dollar salary jobs, it would still be a shot in the arm for Oroville."
Public opinion is divided over tourism, though. While most people favor more economic activity, many worry about what tourism will do to Oroville's sense of itself.
"There's a lot of resistance to [tourism] here," says Bob Seamans, a volunteer at the Old Oroville Depot Museum. "I think resistance is on the wane, but it's still there. One of the things tourism does is it erodes your small town atmosphere. Can you have tourism that'll spark your economy and give you some of the bread and butter you need, like apples used to, without fully eroding your small-town atmosphere? Yeah, I think so, but not if you get greedy. Like everything else, you have to find a balance."
That small-town atmosphere shows up in places like Linda's Bakery, a small sandwich shop around the corner from Main Street in the old Odd Fellows Hall. Main Street merchants drop by for lunch or to snag one of Linda Darrow's cinnamon rolls, hot from the oven. But it's not just a place for the uptown crowd. After the lunch rush, four men enter, each one tough as a strip of beef jerky. The last one in the door wears spurs and looks like he knows how to use them. These are people who prove that the popular image of the West was -- and is -- based in fact.
Real cowboys still live in Oroville -- men whose years in the saddle have rattled bones and turned skin to leather. Like many small communities, Oroville's family names aren't much different than they were 50 or 100 years ago, and those names are inscribed on the landscape. There's the Eder Road, leading to the Eder ranch; the Jackson boys still hold their family ranch, and Jerry Forney grows cherries on the same land where his grandfather first planted an apple orchard back in the 1930s.
"Rural towns, they struggle so much to stay alive," Forney says. "Pretty soon everybody's going to be living in cities, and then what are you going to do about food? But rural America's going to be rediscovered. People will come here and say, 'Hey, this is a good place to live.'"
In the cherry orchards owned by people like Forney, the trees hang heavy with fruit in midsummer. Remote-control bird guns echo across the valley, small propane-fired explosions meant to scare the feathers off any avian visitors thinking about lunching on the fruit before harvest. It's part of the new technology of orcharding, like computerized processing lines and bar-coded packs.
Cherries grow where apple trees once stood. The land held by Okanogan Smith 150 years ago will soon have a new resort as a neighbor. Life changes in Oroville, but it changes slowly and with much reluctance.
Fact file: Oroville, Wash.
The Oroville School District serves about 800 students in grades PreK-12. Two-thirds of students receive free or reduced-price school lunches; more than 15 percent of students are bilingual.
Elevation: 930 feet
Zip Code: 98844
Median Household Income:
$22,301 (year 2000)
Median House Value:
$73,900 (year 2000)
Form of Government: Mayor-Council
Oroville School District
Reman & amp; Reload
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Inland Northwest Crossroads is a monthly series looking at the small towns of the Inland Northwest.
Publication date: 07/08/04