Highlighting Cheney's historical high points

New museum exhibit tracks city from founding through mid-20th century - and hopefully further


John McCallum

Cheney Historical Museum director Joan Mamanakis works on elements of the new city timeline exhibit.

At one point in time in the early to mid-1900s, Cheney had a business that accounted for one-third of all the cheese produced in Washington, another that shipped a locally invented product around the world, and a favorite son who became governor.

If you didn't know these facts, you have a chance to learn about them and more by checking out the Cheney Historical Museum's latest exhibit - a timeline of the city from founding through the mid-20th century. The exhibit, which runs up one side of the museum's center aisle and down the other, is the product of years of accumulating information.

"We've wanted to do something for a long time," museum director Joan Mamanakis said. "This year, we just decided to do it and see how it grows."

The timeline was created through research done by Mamanakis, Cheney High School student volunteer Kalika Ostrander and others scouring the museum archives and those at Eastern Washington University's JFK Library. Photos from the museum's collection, along with others brought in by the public, augment the text.

The exhibit paints a picture of a dynamic city and region very much in flux. For instance, in the 1850s while Washington was still a territory, Spokane County was much bigger than it is today - much, much bigger.

The county stretched north to the Canadian border, encompassing all of Pend Oreille, Stevens, Ferry and a good chunk of Okanogan and Douglas counties while extending west through Lincoln County and south and southwest into Whitman, Adams and Grant counties. However, a few years later an 1863 map shows the county has disappeared, replaced by a larger Stevens County.

Spokane County reappears after an 1879 bill to re-establish it, but is still larger than present day, again taking in Whitman, Adams and Lincoln counties. It's at this time a competition arose between Cheney - which wasn't named Cheney then - and the larger city of Spokane over which community should become the county seat.

Cheney won an election to become the county seat in 1880, but Spokane would not relinquish the county books, forcing Cheney officials to travel down the hill to take them, what Cheney called "The Steal." In 1886, Spokane won an election ousting Cheney as the county seat and the scenario was reversed - Spokane's "The Steal."

The timeline recounts a pair of large fires in the late 1800s, including a devastating blaze that consumed 45 Cheney businesses and homes. Mamanakis said it was a suspicious conflagration.

"They believed it was arson because one of their wells was plugged up and their fire hoses were cut," she said.

By the turn of the century, Cheney had a thriving industrial base. That business that accounted for one-third of the cheese produced in Washington was the Cheney Creamery owned by German-immigrant Fredrick Reuter and located at the site of today's Post Office.

The Bavarian Brewery shipped beer locally as far as the North Idaho mines, and there were eight lumber miles within 10 miles of the city. There was a business for collecting ice cut from Badger and other lakes for storage and use through the summer months, an electric trolley that brought visitors from Spokane and Medical Lake and even a house of prostitution.

Around 1912, local businessmen Henry Kyle and Grover Cleveland Wolfe invented the "rotary rod weeder," a horse-drawn, farming implement that cut weeds off below the surface at the roots. The pair set up a factory that flourished through 1953, selling the weeder throughout the U.S. and overseas.

And, of course, a Cheney timeline wouldn't be complete without the story of Eastern Washington University, beginning with its founding as a state normal school. One episode in the university's evolution Mamanakis points to as significant was the building of the school's first dorm - Monroe Hall.

John McCallum

This panel of the exhibit features photos of Benjamin P. Cheney and his wife Elizabeth, who made their only visit to the town that bears their name in September 1883.

Monroe had many amenities for students, including laundry facilities as well as boarding. This caused complaints because until its construction, a number of "Cheney-ites" had made a good living providing these services to students - business Monroe took away.

"You can look back and say this is where the "town and gown" schism begins," Mamanakis said.

The timeline's information is plentiful until just after World War II when it tails off, likely Mamanakis said because people living during this period look at it more as their current events rather than history. There are a number of panels the museum would like to fill for this period, hopefully up through the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Mamanakis urges local residents to look through their photos of Cheney and bring them to the museum, no matter what they find.

"Look in the background," she said. "You may find taking pictures of your friends but there might be something in the background that will tell us something."

John McCallum can be reached at


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