The Story of the Columbia Basin Project
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On May 1, 1948, 3 years before irrigation water was due to flow through the Columbia Basin Project's Main Canal to make large-scale irrigation possible, irrigation water reached some project lands via an irrigation canal from a pumping plant on the Columbia River at the southern tip of the project. Thus was the goal reached that project supporters had envisioned for years. But now that the land had water, it needed people; people to clear and level the land, enrich it, and build and buy farm irrigation facilities to properly apply the available irrigation water. On July 20, 1948, Public Announcement No. 1.1 was sent to 2,500 persons who had previously indicated an interest in the lands of this first irrigation block and, via the press wire services, the announcement was broadcast to the Nation.

For the 15 federally owned farm units in Irrigation Block 1, several hundred inquiries were received and 160 formal, 5-page applications filed by war veterans from half of the States in the country.

Each applicant was expected to have farming experience, be physically and mentally fit, and have good character references and a net worth of at least $3,700. All applications were carefully screened by a 3-member examining board, consisting of a project farmer from the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District, a veteran well acquainted with veterans' affairs (veterans were given preference for farm units), and a representative of the Bureau of Reclamation.

About 3 months later, on November 15, 1948, a public drawing was held in the auditorium of the Pasco Recreation Center, where the applicants received priority numbers. After an interview with Bureau officials some time later, 10 applicants selected their farms, from the available land, signed a land sale contract with the Government, and the land was theirs to develop.

That was drawing No. 1. Since 1948 to date, there have been a total of 35 such drawings held in fire stations, parks, and schools in large and small communities throughout the project area. The prerequisites for purchasing Federal farm units have changed a little—prospective settlers now must have a net worth of at least $8,500 and veterans no longer have preference. But the same basic procedure of selection is still followed.

Development of this land means a larger measure of prosperity for the Nation and a bright future for the project settler and his family.

Announcements are mailed and also published in the press, establishing a 45-day filing period. A drawing is held, and small capsules containing application numbers are pulled out of a goldfish bowl to establish selection priorities. Soon after, there always arrives that day when the lucky settlers, who have several choices of land, travel through the new irrigation block judging the land, imagining the location of their house and the equipment sheds, and digging their hands into the soil.

The proceedings, of course, are no longer observed with the festive aura of the first drawing, and each year when water first flows into newly developed land, the event may go largely unheralded. But interest in these new farm units has not waned. For the 1948 land sale, there were 160 applications for 15 farm units. In a recent sale of 18 farm units in a newly developed irrigation block, 451 applications were received. In a very real sense, this eagerness to obtain project land can be interpreted as an endorsement of the area's irrigated lands—for the present-day settler is not forced to speculate on what the land can do, he needs only look at the crops in a neighboring developed block to see what the land has done. Judging from the number of current applications, the prospect has obviously been a favorable one.

Although the methods and rewards of these Columbia Basin Project settlers are vastly different from their counterparts of many years past, the qualities of the people furnish a historic touchstone. It takes a special kind of person to move his family hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles to farm unproved lands only recently bisected by irrigation canals. Let's take a look at Mr. Average Settler of the mid-1950's and his family as depicted by a 1956 sociological study.

The man is 40 years old and his wife is about 4 years younger. They have been married 15 years and have two or three children. The average settler and his wife came to the project with a good education. He spent 12.3 years in school, while the average educational level for farmers in the State at that time was 8.9 years and the national average was 8.6 years. His wife had an average of 12.4 years of schooling, also far above the State and national level. Overall, 25 percent of the settlers and their wives attended college and about 8 percent had degrees. Chances were one in three that he had studied vocational agriculture in high school and, if he attended college, that he had studied forestry or agriculture. One in every five settlers took part in the veterans farm training program and about the same number had attended short courses at a State college or had been in 4-H Club work.

Pioneer-like living quarters and facilities made housekeeping difficult for many project settlers while they were developing their farms.

Though not more than 1 percent of the early project settlers came to the basin without any previous farm experience, according to the study, 40 percent were not farming just prior to moving to the project. About 94 percent of the settlers and 60 percent of their wives had been reared on a farm. If the settler was one of those who had not recently been farming, he had been away from the farm about 13 years, and there is a 70-percent chance he was in a professional, proprietary, or managerial position, or that he was a skilled worker. The proportion of highly skilled people on the project is well above average for rural areas.

Although about half of these modern-day settlers were veterans, only one in four bought his farm from the Federal Government under veterans preference; many settlers bought their farms from private owners.

The modern-day settler arrives on the project with assets of about $24,000; he is well aware of the cost of beginning a farm enterprise. But, in spite of the efficiency and convenience of our modern equipment that money will buy, developing a farm in the Columbia Basin, as in any other area, still requires a great deal of physical labor. As on most family farms, the settler's wife and children often work almost as hard as he does. In addition to her household work, the Columbia Basin Project settler's wife spends more time doing farmwork than her counterparts in other rural areas. She averages more than eighty 10-hour days during the year in some type of farmwork.

Most of the modern-day settlers of the Columbia Basin Project came from the Northwest and West to farm the newly irrigated project lands. More than half of them had lived in Washington, and two-thirds of these in south-central Washington. Almost a third came from Idaho, Oregon, and Montana, and the remaining Western States account for an additional 10 percent. The remaining 10 percent came from other parts of the Nation, and some even from foreign countries.

With continued delivery of irrigation water to the fields each year, the land has improved and the settler has prospered.

Why did the settler come to the basin? Most of those who came from a nonfarm job said that they came because they preferred farmwork and rural living. Those who had been farming elsewhere said that they felt the project offered more opportunity and a chance to develop a better farm. Others moved here from a tenant or sharecrop farm because the project offered a chance to build a farm of their own.

Surprisingly, the possibility of greater financial returns was a consideration of only a few. According to the study results, the average settler felt that the best part of farm life on the project was the independence and security it offered.

Most of the settlers in the study agreed that the farmer who will be successful on the project must be an adaptable person. Personal characteristics, as outlined by the settlers themselves, were stamina, a willingness to put in long hours and hard work, determination, perseverance, courage, and confidence. Also, they stated that the prospective settler should be willing to learn, to seek advice, and he must keep up to date on farming methods.

Still, in spite of this rather demanding list of virtues, the way of life for the average settler on the Columbia Basin Project is easier than that of the settler in years past on other irrigation projects. Advances in farm methods, wider use of machinery and the automobile, better roads and communications, and better financial resources of individual settlers are some of the principal changes for the better.

The comforts and conveniences of modern living were not neglected in many of the settlers' homes at the time of this study. More than half of the homes had central or electric heating, and 9 in 10 had running water. All but 2 percent had either a gas or electric range, most being electric ranges because of readily available and economical power Nearly all the homes had a washing machine, and one in four had a clothes dryer. About half had a freezer, and practically all had an automatic refrigerator. The settlers kept well informed, too. At least a quarter of the families had television, and better than 99 percent had a radio; four out of five received at least one daily paper, and more than four out of five subscribed to farm publications and to general magazines.

With some variance, there are many of these average people living and working on project farm units today. Each succeeding year since his arrival on the Columbia Basin Project, this settler has had the satisfaction of seeing his investment in time and money and faith in the irrigated land of the basin pay off. And, as the farmer's lot has improved and his number in creases each year as more lands are made available for settlement, the lot of the basin has improved, becoming a better place to work and live and prosper.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008