Fourteen miles west of Highway 195, the rolling hills of the Palouse suddenly give way to the town of St. John.
Visitors are welcomed by the grain elevators of Whitgro, a continual reminder of the farming’s importance to this community of 537 residents. Agriculture has been the backbone of this town since long before it was incorporated in 1904.
Anchoring Front Street, the main street in town, are businesses that have been community staples for decades: Lamont Bank of St. John, Empire Foods and St. John Hardware and Implements — the bare essentials you need in a town that’s an hour from the nearest supermarket.
Farm towns have been declining since the Great Depression. In 2003, New York Times writer Timothy Egan described the death of Nuckolls County, Nebraska, which, despite aggressive reinvention and attempts at economic diversification, couldn’t stanch the flight of people and tax dollars to larger urban areas. These stories exist throughout America’s breadbasket, including Eastern Washington.
St. John’s reinvention, though, has fared better.
Just west of town is a nine-hole golf course. Residents and visitors from neighboring areas can be found golfing here any day. Go a little farther west and a patch of prime farmland, transformed into a slough, hosts sprint boat racing. This extreme sport attracts thousands of people to this town twice each summer.
The St. John Telephone Company has high-speed fiber optics going to almost every household and business it serves. Farmers check the market for their crops, people check e-mails, children play online video games. Downtown, a home furnishing store, a day spa and a shop that sells gifts and sandwiches all have opened within the last couple of years. The future is always uncertain in farming country, of course, but as Mayor K.B. Trunkey says, “Small towns in Eastern Washington now — it’s survival, and we seem to be doing pretty good at that.”
It was that spirit of survival that I saw time and again during numerous visits over the last two months, but I also noticed something else: a commitment in the community to continue to grow and flourish.
This year, the town lost one of its two grocery stores. St. John also has a pharmacy, a flower and gift shop, a salon and a monthly newspaper. According to Gifts with a Personal Touch owner Marilyn Hudkins, people come to her for her daily coffee and are disappointed if her shop is closed. This type of local support keeps business thriving in town. In the last couple of years, three new businesses have opened.
Hear Mayor K.B. Trunkey talk about business growth in St. John
In 2006, St. John Telephone Company received a USDA loan to implement a fiber optic network to each home that it serves. The Fiber to the Home Council reports that only about 5 percent of American households have fiber optics physically connected to the house. The St. John project, however, is 95 percent complete, with the remainder to go online by the end of this summer, according to phone company general manager Greg Morasch.
Hear Mayor Trunkey talk about technology in St. John
Back in the 1930s, avid golfers in St. John decided to build a six-hole golf course. Before the course was created, St. John golfers had to travel 25 miles or more to Colfax or Spokane to get a tee time. After the St. John golf course fell into disrepair during World War II, townspeople decided to clean it up in the late 1950s, constructing grass greens to replace the original sand-and-oil greens. In 1993, the St. John Golf and Country Club purchased adjacent land and added three holes. Daily attendance is currently about 20, with the number of golfers increasing over the weekend and during special events.
Every year for the past four years, St. John has transformed itself into a venue for United States Sprint Boat Association racing on two weekends during the summer. The latest race, on June 19, attracted approximately 4,500 spectators to watch the races.
Hear Mayor Trunkey talk about golf and sprint boats