About two and a half hours east of Seattle, Tieton (pronounced TY-uh-tun) was once a prosperous apple town with a railroad link, a bowling alley, a dance hall, a billiards parlor and a soda fountain where folks gathered to shoot the breeze. Even aliens from outer space are said to have visited Tieton. But since its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, the changing fruit industry has left the town behind. Consolidation favored larger cities like Yakima, while backwaters like Tieton were easily forgotten.
Most days when you pull into Tieton, you might think you’ve made a wrong turn. After all, it takes about as long to say the word “destination” as it does to drive through this tiny agricultural blip in the Yakima Valley. But a creative, giddy light flickers just below the surface, and thanks to a small group of Seattle artists and entrepreneurs, you might just catch it roaring to life when you visit.
Giant fruit warehouses loom large over the town of about 350 households. The warehouses sat empty for more than a decade, reminding residents of more prosperous times long gone. Walk into one of them now and you’ll find an unlikely sight: dozens of art installations, including sparkling chandeliers hanging from 26-foot ceilings, made of everything from elegant ceramic antlers to cans of Spam. The Mighty Tieton Warehouse (608 Wisconsin Ave.) also hosts a printmaking studio, a kite-production facility, and a workshop occupied by Trimpin, the sonic-sculpture artist who created the electric guitar tower at Seattle’s Experience Music Project.
The space fills with vibrant energy during juried art exhibitions, craft bazaars, poetry workshops and the town’s annual Mexican Day of the Dead festival, a particularly impressive affair, given that more than half the population is Hispanic. A second warehouse has been converted into 14 condo lofts, which ringleader Ed Marquand and his merry band of creative geniuses have made their second (or third) homes.
Marquand, 58, is the man behind Marquand Books, a small publisher of art books, and Paper Hammer, a letterpress and paper goods store; both are located in downtown Seattle. In April 2005, he was on a bike ride through the Yakima Valley when he hit a patch of goathead thorns and popped his tires. “As I started repairing my tires,” Marquand recalls, “I looked around and saw all these empty storefronts.” They flanked a charming town square, and were surrounded in the distance by gently rolling hills blanketed in orchards. “I was just captured by the feel of this place.”
Marquand returned later with artist and architect friends in tow. Spurred on by their enthusiasm and encouraging talks with Tieton city officials, Marquand and his partner, lawyer Michael Longyear, bought the two warehouses, a former church and six empty storefronts facing the city square. They gave the town a pet name, Mighty Tieton—and website: mightytieton.com—and set out to revitalize the community by recruiting other creative types involved in light manufacturing. What used to be the pharmacy and soda fountain now houses Marquand’s Paper Hammer Studios and Marquand Editions (613 Elm Street), which produce some of his art books and paper gifts sold in both Seattle and Tieton.
The empty space next door has served as another studio for Mighty Tieton artists in residence. Down the road, the Tieton Farm & Creamery (18796 Summitview Rd.; 509.406.3344; tietonfarmandcreamery.com) is making award-winning cheeses that show up on the menus of Seattle restaurants like La Medusa and Lark.
The other buildings? Marquand, who rejects the popular notion that he has become the unofficial mayor of Tieton, says they’re just waiting to find their purpose. “Who knows what kind of creative ambition it will be?” he says. “We need people with dreams and ideas.” And, he adds, people willing to create local jobs.
The town’s mood is one of quiet escape, regardless of whether you’re visiting for one of the many scheduled events or during the lulls in between. There are no television sets at the simple but cozy El Nido Cabins, the sole lodging option in town (206.941.8801; email@example.com). Instead, each small, white cabin offers a bookshelf of stimulating titles, a large window and a well-equipped kitchenette.
Vickie’s Tieton Café (802 Wisconsin Ave.; 509.673.2881), where 87-year-old proprietor Vickie Ennis has been serving up sustenance for more than 40 years, has breakfast and lunch covered, provided you’re OK with fairly standard greasy-spoon fare. The place is closed in the evening, so your best bet at dinnertime is either to cook your own or make the half-hour drive into Yakima.
A good way to start a day of exploring is by grabbing a bagful of the not-to-be-missed Mexican pastries from Santos Panaderia (810 Wisconsin Ave.; 509.673.1121). Nearby, the Oak Creek Wildlife Area in Naches offers scenic hiking, rock climbing and animal watching (think elk, deer, bear, bighorn sheep and bald eagles; visit wdfw.wa.gov/lands and search “Oak Creek”). A jaunt farther west is Tieton River, the city’s namesake. Said to be an Indian word meaning “roaring water,” it now only roars in September, when water is released from the Rimrock Reservoir, creating a haven for whitewater rafting enthusiasts. It’s a scenic drive to The Tasting Room Yakima, which pours flights from five area wineries (250 Ehler Rd., Yakima; 509.966.0686). And if, while you’re there, Tieton inspires any dreams or creative ideas in the artistic corners of your brain, Ed Marquand wants to hear about them.