Small Town, Big Idea

Tieton is a tiny farm community in Central Washington. Can a collective of artisans turn it into a creative enclave?

On a muggy Saturday in late June, Ed Marquand stands at the center of the Mini Maker Faire—a gathering of artists, craftspeople, engineers, scientists and various DIY types who have traveled from around the state to gather and share their work. Clad in shorts, with a fancy camera hanging from his neck and a flashing red LED button pinned to his shirt, Marquand is flustered. People keep stopping him to chat while he guides me through the Mighty Tieton warehouse—an outpost for his ambitious attempt to build a “creative incubator” in the tiny Central Washington town of Tieton.

Marquand launched Mighty Tieton six years ago as a project to support artisan businesses and craftspeople, helping foster endeavors such as a goat creamery and a kite production facility, as well as providing rental cabins for artist residencies and visitors. The Mighty Tieton Warehouse—a former fruit packing and storage space—hosts events throughout the year, including art exhibitions.

At the Maker Faire, the warehouse is packed with printmakers, beekeepers, metalsmiths, potters, a 3-D printer, cider tastings and baby goats—only $40 each, or $70 for two. A scale model of R2-D2 zips around, followed by an ecstatic group of children. A former apple storage room is filled with the Seussian-looking contraptions made by Seattle sound artist Trimpin. Push a button and a hanging mobile of Dutch wooden clogs knocks out a charming, hollow tune.

I meet a man named Darrell who moved to Tieton because he was tired of the rain on the Oregon Coast. He and his family have been here for 10 years. A thin man with glasses and long gray hair, he’s a former juvenile justice system employee turned rock hound. “I love cutting the stones open and seeing what’s inside,” he says, handing me a few gems. “After that I could really care less.”

In another room, a man named Jerry works several 100-year-old printing presses, adjusting vintage type blocks from London to produce cards with a brightly colored Maker Faire stamp. He’s been in the printing industry since he was 18, and laughs that 60 years later he’s back to using the same kind of machines he used when he first got started.

Outside, despite gathering clouds and errant drops of rain, the line at the taco truck is constant. A middle-aged Hispanic woman rolls out tortillas on a hot griddle. Creativity of all sorts is everywhere—glimpses of what Marquand thinks is possible in this small town.

“When I discovered Tieton [in 2005], there were so many empty spaces,” he says, “There are so many creative people who are priced out of space in Seattle, so I thought maybe this could be a good place for people with lots of creative ambition.”

Beyond the busy gaggle of the Maker Faire, the streets of Tieton are quiet, lined with small tidy houses and spacious yards. Two blocks up and half a block over, City Park sits at the center of it all—a rectangle of grass, trees and picnic tables. On evenings, weekends and holidays, the community gathers here for pop-up markets, Bible camps and the annual Christmas tree lighting. Each side of the park is lined with a block of businesses and empty storefronts with For Rent signs fading in the windows, just a few blocks away from several abandoned warehouses and the local minimart.

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Founded in the early 20th century, Tieton’s heyday came between the 1940s and 1960s, following a major irrigation project that turned it into an agricultural town. Small family growers produced fruits such as apples and cherries, and Tieton flourished. Boom times led to decent wages for families as well as amenities, including a bowling alley, a pool, a hotel and two taverns. According to Marquand, when the fruit packing industry consolidated, it left a few companies owning thousands of acres of land, instead of dozens of families each owning 20 acres. As the new millennium approached, the town suffered economic decline. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population was growing; it now makes up about 70 percent of Tieton’s population.

My friend and I explored all of Tieton—one square mile, home to 350 households—in a single afternoon. Johnny’s Pizza is the town’s only restaurant, a casual, un-airconditioned spot with Pac-Man by the counter and pies made from a 35-year-old family recipe. Johnny, mustached and gruff, runs the oven and the counter. When a new waitress writes down our order wrong and it takes more than an hour for our pizza to arrive, Johnny apologizes personally, offering to knock the sales tax off our bill.

A few storefronts up from Johnny’s is a colorful Mexican store filled with Hispanic candies and snacks. It’s attached to Santo’s Bakery, a no-fuss room with lighted cases against one wall filled with baked-that-morning cookies, conchas (Mexican sweetbread), some sort of flakey baked goodness stuffed with jalapeños and cream cheese and empanadas full of creamy custard or fruit. We walk out of the little panaderia with a bag of baked goods for less than $5.

A block away is the Tieton outpost of Paper Hammer, the Seattle-based publishing and papermaking operation Marquand owns. Inside are handmade notebooks and letterpress cards, plus a bookbindery where pricey, beautiful paper products are finished. Marquand, 60, has been working in the publishing industry for more than 30 years, and founded Marquand Books, a company specializing in the production and printing of art books.

On the sidewalk, the mid-afternoon temperature has spiked to the drowsy mid-90s and huge, dark rainclouds roll in from beyond the curved hills in the distance. The occasional lightning bolt cracks the sky, but the rain is holding back.

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Later in the afternoon, after a quick nap at our hotel down the road in Naches, we head back up to Tieton for an artists’ potluck Marquand has arranged. On our way we stop by a casual cocktail party at a cabin owned and rented by Seattle jeweler Lori Talcott and her husband. We’d met Talcott while perusing her jewelry earlier at the Faire, and she’d invited us to come by for a drink.

Tieton is tiny, but we somehow drive around for 15 minutes to find the place, which Talcott calls el Nido—the Nest. We’re greeted by two dogs, a living room full of metalsmiths and several bottles of wine. After a glass of red and a glance at four homemade salads with ingredients like quinoa and artichoke hearts, I second-guess the plastic tub of macaroni salad I purchased up the road at Slim’s Market—a store where you can buy food, liquor and hunting supplies all in one stop.

The metalworkers at Talcott’s start to pack up for the party, and my friend and I decide to walk over to the Tieton Lofts and search for Marquand. The Lofts are a group of stylish, modern lodgings owned by artists, many of whom are weekenders here. We’re ushered into an art-filled common area where chic men and women drink wine in stemware and eat from cheeseboards. I calculate how to covertly throw the macaroni salad out the window while explaining that we were looking for Marquand, when a woman smiles and tells us that he’s in the warehouse, a few hundred yards next door.

Loud norteño music bursts through one of the open warehouse doors before we enter, and I hear stomping footsteps in rhythm with acoustic guitars. Inside, a large group of musicians and dancers, all close together, laugh, strum and beat out patterns with their feet. A large banquet table is lined with tortillas, carne asada and a giant cake with so much pink frosting my teeth hurt from looking at it. This is a hell of a party, but I don’t recognize anyone in the room.

Standing by the open door we meet another confused wanderer, a guy with a Tupperware bowl under his arm. Turns out our potluck is one room over. Eventually Marquand shows up. There’s a slight panic about napkins and he offers to drive over to the next town to get a pack—but soon wine corks start popping and someone fires up a small grill. A large group gathers around a table where Marquand again explains his vision for making Tieton an arts destination.

A couple of hours later, the two parties start to wind down. Out of nowhere, half of the pink-frosted cake from the party next door appears on our table. People hug, we pack up the last of our beer and I toss the almost-empty macaroni salad container into the trash.

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Like Tieton, Naches is a quiet town. There are a few churches, a restaurant, an appliance repair shop. We’re staying at the Natches Hotel (yes, misspelled) across the street from a pair of bars. Live music is coming through the Country Bar Café’s open windows when we step outside our room, so we decide to check the place out.

The way everyone in the bar watches us walk in, it’s clear they don’t get many out-of-towners here. There are no fewer than nine cowboy hat-wifebeater-camouflage combinations inside the place. We order beers and they arrive in red plastic keg cups. But the music’s great, the dance floor’s packed. Aside from Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley, the band plays mostly Rolling Stones songs, which alleviates the fact that people are whispering and pointing at us.

Two hours later the bartender—a fast-talking woman in her mid-50s with huge curly hair—sets down two tequila shots in front of us and jerks a thumb behind her shoulder to where two men in cowboy hats sit on the other side of the bar. We take the shots. They wave us over.

“What are you two doing in Naches?” the blond one asks. Cowboy hat, wifebeater, camo—check.

“Writing an article about Tieton for a magazine in Seattle,” I tell him. “We’re checking out the arts development happening around here.”

He scoffs and sips his beer.

“I don’t know why you’d want to write an article about Tieton.”

I try to explain the artists, the craftspeople, the Maker Faire. He raises an eyebrow and shoots me a straight look.

“Now, I’m all about appreciating the arts, but we don’t need people to come in here from the city and try to change the way things are. You people get in the way of our clubs and stuff.”

I can’t conceal the snark in my voice when I ask about what kind of “clubs” they have in Naches.

He cocks his head to the side and raises an eyebrow. “Like the gun club,” he says, lifting his bare shoulders. “We have a gun club here.”

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The initial response to Mighty Tieton was puzzlement,” Marquand says over the phone the week after my visit. “The locals couldn’t really figure out what we were doing. But about a year later several of the farmers and orchardists—the old timers—started coming to us and saying, ‘We could never figure out what you were going to do with these buildings, but you didn’t tear them down, and we really appreciate what you’ve done. You’re respecting what was already here.’”

Mighty Tieton is still in its infancy, but the project has produced a plethora of art, and supported steadily growing businesses such as Tieton Cider Works and the Tieton Farm & Creamery. It’s still too soon to tell the long-term effects of the project, or its own sustainability.

Marquand makes it clear that he did not start Mighty Tieton as a community development project, but that ended up being one of the effects. It has also proved to be an economic booster—according to Marquand the tax base for Tieton has increased by 50 percent since they arrived in 2005, which he acknowledges isn’t all from their setup, but because some of the businesses such as Paper Hammer have employed a number of local people.

“There is a direct benefit of hiring local people and providing jobs,” Marquand says, “but it’s also the idea of giving people hope. If we’re investing in the future of Tieton, the locals and the people in the Yakima area will think, ‘Maybe this town isn’t a dead end after all. Maybe it does have a future.’”

Photo by Nate Watters