North of Spokane along Highway 395, the city's suburban sprawl peters out somewhere near Deer Park and the road opens to rolling fields and tree-covered hills. Near the aptly named village of Valley, the highway enters the Colville River Valley, a deep flat bottomland within the surrounding Selkirks. This is the heart of Stevens County, its Main Street. Pine and cedar scent the air; log trucks rule the road and cars sport bumper stickers that say, "Hug a Logger." The flag colors of Republican candidates abound on the political signs that dot the landscape, with nary a Democrat in sight.
Past Chewelah, past Addy and its huge idle magnesium smelter, ten miles beyond Colville's bustling commercial district, the highway rises into the headlands above the Columbia and straight into the unassuming little city of Kettle Falls. Signs on the highway greet visitors: "Welcome to Kettle Falls, home to 1,535 friendly people and one grouch." Clearly this is a community with a sense of humor.
"They said I won hands down," cracks Lisa Brozik, owner of the Little Gallea restaurant, who captured the honors this year. The hotly contested campaign for Official Grouch raises funds for the annual Town and Country Days festival. "But if I'm the grouchiest person in town, then it must be a pretty nice place to be."
Just past the only traffic light in town sits Karen's Kitchen, a cozy gathering place for locals and travelers alike, set in a converted cottage. Owner Karen Diepeveen, who runs the place with her husband, Rollo, gives an impromptu weather forecast while pouring coffee.
"You're lucky to be here today," she says. "Yesterday, we had 105. Today, it's supposed to be cool, only about 80, with a 50 percent chance of rain."
Karen's is the kind of place where regulars choose their own coffee cups and help themselves to water when it's busy. Workers from the Boise Cascade sawmill next door call in their orders in advance, then walk through the door just as the steaming plates land on the table. It's not the only place in town, but the regulars are a loyal bunch: the Lindseys, Bill and Ethel, drop in for lunch a couple of times week and Ruth Stone walks a mile from her home in the senior housing complex every morning for breakfast. Sometimes she comes back for lunch.
"Karen's a wonderful person, and she has good food, too," says Stone, who worked in the restaurant business for many years in Inchelium and Kettle Falls. "If you want [your food prepared] a certain way, she'll fix it up for you. You can't get that in restaurants much now, and people appreciate it."
There's nothing mass-market about Kettle Falls. If you want to shop in a big box store or eat franchise fast food, drive back down the road to Colville, because you won't find any here. Instead, in Kettle Falls, you can grab a burger at the Bulldog, buy groceries at Harvest Foods or Meyers Falls Market and pick up most everything else you could want at McIntosh Hardware on Meyers Street by the railroad tracks. Many Kettle Falls residents drive to Colville for the low prices of Wal-Mart, but others make a point of shopping locally. Stone says her daughter will drive her Colville, but she prefers to walk to town.
"I try to shop at home [in Kettle Falls] as much as I can, to keep it here," she says. "We need it."
While the national chains may have bypassed Kettle Falls by choice, the city now wants to maintain its retail independence. In addition, residents gathered last Monday night for the first meeting of a committee to revitalize and beautify downtown. Long-time resident Dave Keeley just started working for the city as project manager after several years with the Tri-County Economic Development District in Colville, and he is the staff liaison for the effort.
"All of our businesses used to be on Meyers Street, but in the last 10 or 15 years, more businesses have moved out to 395," he says. "The highway is becoming our new Main Street. We want to work on both Meyers and on 395, to make it more pedestrian-friendly and to draw people into downtown."
Some of the ideas include adding sidewalks along the highway, making more crosswalks for walkers and bikers, and sprucing up the storefronts along Meyers Street. There's talk of beautifying the city park, Happy Dell, and plans are in the works for a new wading pool and skate park.
"Skateboarders travel all around to visit different parks," says Keeley. "We want to make something that'll be a professional-style destination skate park, for tourism"
On the corner of Meyers and Highway 395, by the traffic light, Joe Petrucelli opened Meyers Falls Market two years ago in the old apple warehouse. Originally intended as a retail outlet for local organic farms and orchards, the market has grown into a full natural foods grocery complete with juice bar and deli. Antique and gift dealers, a sporting goods store and a massage therapist occupy the rest of the space in the landmark old warehouse.
"I have a certified organic orchard - a small one, five acres," he says. "I really believe in sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture, and by selling the fruit from both of those industries, I can do something to help it. The store's been getting busier, too. We've seen a steady growth increase. More and more people are changing their lifestyle, catching on."
The market is always busy and the clientele is diverse. At the deli, graying back-to-the-landers and itinerant musicians share space with soccer moms and Meyers Street merchants. Whether they choose the vegan soup or a turkey sandwich, everyone seems equally comfortable.
"We try to get as many things that the locals will want, things you can't get anywhere else," Petrucelli explains. He brings in milk from a dairy near Seattle - real milk in glass bottles, with the cream on top (not homogenized) and free of antibiotics. He carries certified organic coffee roasted locally by Crandall Coffee, a wide variety of cheeses from Quillisascut Cheese Company in nearby Rice and organic unsulfited wines from China Bend Winery. "It's great fun being here," says Petrucelli. "Great employees, great coworkers."
If residents have one universal complaint about their town, it's the trains. Kettle Falls sits at a junction on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe lines to Curlew and Trail, British Columbia. The tracks of the switching yard occupy a swath parallel to Highway 395, separating the highway from the rest of town. Rail traffic depends on the day, but folks say the Meyers Street crossing always seems to be blocked when people are in a hurry. Trains come through when kids are running to school or retirees are heading off to a tee-time, leading to jokes that the train could be an unwitting accomplice to a bank robbery getaway.
"It was always frustrating for us at the hardware store," says Rowena McIntosh, who ran McIntosh Hardware with her husband, Dean, for 36 years. The store, located next to the tracks, is now owned by her son. "We used to have a picture that was painted in 1904, long before the hardware store was there, and the train was sitting across the street at that crossing, even then. We've had our little battles with the train. You can't live with it and you can't live without it."
The other downside to life in Kettle Falls is economics. While the retail shops remain locally owned, the major employer - Boise Cascade - is not. Boise bought out the Avey Lumber sawmill many years ago and added a major plywood plant near Lake Roosevelt. Employment has been steady in recent years, but last month the company sold off its wood products division to a private concern. While the new owners assured local workers that they plan no immediate changes, the sale drove home the point that decision-makers far away control the economic lifeblood of the city.
To diversify the city's economic base, Dave Keeley plans to spend much of his energy on economic development; he sees the downtown revitalization efforts as a step toward that goal.
"We're cleaning house," he says. "Just like you want to clean house before you invite people over. We get a lot of tourists through here, and we hope to convince some of them to come back and relocate their businesses here."
One of the grand ironies of Kettle Falls is that the city is named for a waterfall that no longer exists. Drowned by the waters of Lake Roosevelt in 1941 when the Grand Coulee Dam forever changed the character of the Columbia River, the raging bowl-shaped cataracts now exist only in photographs and the aging memories of long-time residents. The city also moved from its original location when the waters rose behind the dam by annexing part of nearby Meyers Falls over the protests of its residents. Curiously, Meyers Falls - the waterfall on the Colville River for which the village was named - still tumbles through a rock canyon just west of the present downtown Kettle Falls.
Despite all the changes to the landscape, history remains palpable here. Archaeological evidence shows 9,000 years of human activity in the area; the falls drew people to the river for millennia. As fur traders and missionaries arrived, they came to the falls as well, because Kettle Falls was a gathering place, a crossroads for the people of the region. The Hudson's Bay Company chose the falls as the site of Fort Colville, one of the earliest European-American outposts in the Northwest.
The falls reappeared for a brief time during the early '70s when workers built the third powerhouse at the Grand Coulee Dam and drew down the water to pre-dam levels. Rowena McIntosh recalls, "On weekends, there were probably 10,000-15,000 people a day here to look at the falls, and that went on for two or three years."
Since retiring from the hardware store, McIntosh has led efforts to preserve local history at the Kettle Falls Historical Center. She puts the changes into perspective, taking an archaeological or geological view.
"There's enough archaeological proof that this area was under water before from natural dams," she reflects. "There are changes forever. You're always sorry to see things go. People hate change, don't they? But there are a lot of positive things. Look what it's opened up for the whole state, all along the river. The recreation on the river is really great - the boating, the fishermen, the sailboats, the beach areas - and it's wonderful that we have that opportunity. I think it's a good thing."
And herein lies the greatest irony of all for Kettle Falls. With the dam, the area lost a place of great natural beauty and bounty, a place legendary in history and lore. The very thing that first drew humans to this valley is no more. The landscape is mediated by human hands -- some would argue to a point beyond redemption. But despite the changes, the landscape continues to draw people in. Whether for sheer dramatic beauty or recreational opportunity, the geography around Kettle Falls still brings people here and convinces them to stay.
Fact File: Kettle Falls, Wash.
The Kettle Falls School District #212 serves about 850 students in grades K-12. About 45 percent of students receive free or reduced-price school lunches, compared to an average of 36 percent statewide. Another 70 children attend grades
K-12 at Columbia River Christian Academy.
Boise Cascade Corporation Sawmill and Plywood Plant
Kettle Falls School District
Avista Utilities Kettle Falls Generating Plant
Elevation: 1,625 feet
Zip code: 99141
Median household income: $27,031 (year 2000)
Median house value: $87,000 (year 2000)
Form of Government: Mayor-Council
(from www.city-data.com and www.mrsc.org)
"Crossroads of the Inland Northwest" is a monthly feature of The Inlander.