Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 2)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.

The setting of Grey’s novel blends both actual places of the Columbia Plateau like Spokane, Connell, and Kahlotus, with fictitious communities that include sufficient geographical description to suggest likely locations—Ruxton in Golden (Walla Walla) Valley, Neppel (Moses Lake), and Glencoe (Pasco). Grey also references the work of notable agriculturalists like Frederick D. Heald at the State Agricultural College (present-day WSU) and Experiment Station in Pullman. Grey’s original version, now in the Library of Congress, also mentioned the communities of Ritzville, Odessa, and Marlin. Subsequent insight by local historians regarding the book’s principal families also shed interesting light on the influence of particular individuals and farms. Grey is known to have visited areas in Franklin,  Adams, and Whitman Counties in 1917, and comparison of the writer’s itinerary with the Dorns’ and Andersons’ various travels in the book suggest composite figures drawn from families in the vicinity of Wheeler, Connell, Hooper, and Walla Walla.

The Anderson-Owsley House and Farm Today

The Anderson-Owsley House and Farm Today

Much of the book’s action takes place at the Anderson-Dorn farm, a place of Grey’s imagination but likely modeled in part on a ranch owned in 1917 by R. F. Anderson and located approximately nine miles south of Connell. The property was later owned by the Kenneth Owsley family. Connell had been platted in 1883 as “Palouse Junction” for a spur of the main Northern Pacific transcontinental line that tapped the fertile Palouse Hills grain district to the east. Later named Connell for a railroad official and pioneer resident, the town had long served as an important grain storage and transfer point with substantial timbered flathouses along the rail line for storing sacked grain, a thriving main street business district, and local newspaper, the Connell Tribune-Register.

The tableland surrounding the Anderson farm presented Grey with a stunning vista with Oregon’s Blue Mountains to the east and flaming sunsets beyond the grass- and sage-covered Horse Heaven and Frenchman Hills rising in the west. The farmstead included a two-story main house that remains on the site and substantially conforms to Grey’s description of the Dorn home, numerous outbuildings, crenelated water tower and windmill, and a 60´ x 110´ barn that enormous even by Big Bend standards. The property was situated along the area’s principal north-south “Central Washington Road” and had served in earlier days as a way-station for stage coaches who tended and exchanged teams of horses in the large barn.

Pat Boyer, “E. T. Thompson Threshing Outfit” Mural,   City of Connell, Washington

Pat Boyer, “E. T. Thompson Threshing Outfit” Mural, City of Connell, Washington

According to local tradition, Grey stayed at the Anderson place in mid-July to visit with area farmers and experience harvest field labors firsthand. During the time of his visit to the area, the Tribune-Register reported on the commencement of field operations: “Harvest has begun already and will be in full swing here by the middle of next week. While the hot, dry weather has interfered somewhat with the later grain crop, the fields which matured earlier are in splendid condition and promise a good yield” (July 20, 1917). Ezra Thompson farmed land adjacent to the Anderson spread  in 1917 and a photograph of his horse-pulled combine taken in the Twenties shows the kind of threshing equipment Grey described in the novel. The picture was recently transformed into a colorful City of Connell building mural by Pullman artist Pat Boyer.