By Clifford Peterson, SDA Promotions Committee
Mine isn’t exactly a well-known name around town, but many folks will recognize me as that guy at just about every community event without shoes on. While I’ve been going around Selah barefoot for the past forty years or so, I wasn’t the first. I remember reading one historic account in which it is implied that a couple of Augustan Cleman’s sons were barefoot as the family entered the Wenas Valley in 1864. The Cleman family is credited as being the first white settlers in the area and you may recognize the name from Cleman Mountain, which was named for John Cleman, one of those barefoot sons.
While early history of the Selah and Wenas Valleys is a fascinating story, Selah didn’t really start to become a town until the arrival of Gus Remington and Olaf Larson. By the early 1880’s, George S. Taylor had enlisted the help of a railroad engineer to build an irrigation ditch to bring water into the valley which enticed more settlers to the area. In early 1905, among little more than alfalfa fields and hop yards, Frank Charbonneau built a small store at the “Selah Valley Crossroad.” He made arrangements that mail for everyone in the area could be delivered to his store. It was officially known as Charbonneau Rural Station of North Yakima and if Mr. Charbonneau had chosen to stay in town, it has been speculated that we might all be living in Charbonneau, rather than in Selah. In 1907, A. E. Treat built a second store right across the street on the southeast corner. Enter Gus Remington and Olaf Larson.
Gus Remington was born in Sweden as Nels Gustof Olsen and came to America when he was five. While working for the railroad in Minnesota there were so many Nels Olsens working there that his paychecks kept getting mixed up, so he changed his name to Gus Remington. After quitting the railroad he moved to Seattle and was good friends with Olaf Larson, who lived in Tacoma. The story goes that one Sunday afternoon they were visiting with some other Swedes, who just happened to be real estate men. They sold the two friends on investing in new land north of the Yakima. When Gus and Olaf arrived in 1907, one of the first things they did was to buy 10 acres in the Extension and then tried buying the Charbonneau and Treat stores. Not being able to agree on a price, they bought 10 acres of land from H. H. Schott and had it platted for business and residences; before the end of the year they had built the Selah Trading Company on the northeast corner of the Crossroad, the third business in what would become Selah.
Several other businesses soon followed, but on July 31, 1908 a fire of unknown origins burnt most of the fledgling town to the ground. The only two structures that survived were the Treat and Charbonneau stores and it was the general opinion that the town would never recover. “General opinion” under-estimated the determination of Gus Remington. Within a month after the fire, Selah Trading Company was rebuilt and renamed the Selah Mercantile Company. Gus Remington, along with other early Swedish settlers, placed ads in Midwest Swedish language newspapers extolling the future of the Selah Valley. Much of the business and residential growth in those early days was due to the enthusiasm and efforts of Gus Remington. The Swedish heritage was so prominent in those early days that others in the Valley would refer to everyone in Selah as Vikings, even before the school adopted it as their nickname. Within eleven short years following the fire, Selah had grown sufficiently enough (that’s another whole story) to incorporate as the Town of Selah, a municipality of the fourth class, on March 17, 1919.
It would be another 50 years before I barefooted my way into Selah. I was a lifeguard at the James Francis Memorial Swimming Pool (named in honor of the town’s first butcher) so nobody thought much about me being shoeless in those days. Much had changed since the days of Gus Remington, but the intersection of the old “Selah Valley Crossroad,” which we now know as First and Naches, was still the only traffic light in town. We continue to grow and to change. That’s the nature of a strong community. I think Gus would be proud of what he started.
In a lot of ways, the Selah Downtown Association is continuing the legacy of Gus Remington. SDA is a group of enthusiastic residents and business people, proud to be a “Viking” and extolling the future in Selah. While we haven’t been placing ads in Swedish language newspapers, like Gus, the SDA partners with other community minded organizations to promote activities and events in Selah, celebrating and sharing what we currently enjoy. Like Gus, the SDA’s goal is to strengthen Selah’s business community and economic base that is needed to maintain a strong, vibrant community. Like Gus Remington, the Selah Downtown Association has “Viking Pride.” We know we live in a great community and want to share our love for Selah with others. We also know Selah has an even greater future, so we build upon what we have, with an eye to the future. What will that future look like? We can only speculate; I’m sure the early pioneers never envisioned today’s Selah. I know that my vision of Selah in the future includes remembering our heritage and, of course, ample parks and walkways for people to be barefootin’ about Selah for years to come.
Clifford Peterson is a volunteer with Selah Downtown Association and a member of the organization’s Promotions Committee. He can be seen around town exploring the city sans shoes! If you see him around town, remember to stop and say hello!