O'Neal's Bluebird

Bluer Than Blue: Bickleton, Washington — The Bluebird Capital

Bickleton is a tiny, unincorporated town high on a plateau 3,300 feet above sea level ands 20 miles north of the Columbia River in south-central Washington State. The population hovers around 100 people, most of whom are involved in the predominant industries of Klickitat County: wheat farming and cattle ranching. The town includes a tavern, a school, a church, and, for about three days out of the year, a historic carousel.

Bickleton is named for Charles N. Bickle, who came to the area in 1879 to establish a trading post. But while the town bears Bickle’s name, it owes its fame to a couple named Brinkerhoff. And to the Brinkerhoff’s love of bluebirds.

Eastern Bluebird.

Bluebird Beginnings
Around 1960, Jeff and Elva Brinkerhoff of Richland, Wash., took a picnic out to the Bickleton Plateau to view the wildflowers. The Brinkerhoffs were surprised and charmed to find a large population of bluebirds on the plateau, both Mountain Bluebirds, which have white breasts, and Eastern and Western Bluebirds, which are orange-breasted. Jeff nailed a can to a fencepost in hopes of making a home for some of the colorful birds. His conversations with Bickleton residents led to the installation of more bluebird dwellings by the Brinkerhoffs and the locals.

The Brinkerhoffs were amateur birdwatchers and knew that bluebirds were fairly rare in eastern Washington. While the weather in the region is well suited to maintaining bluebird populations, intensive farming over many decades had cleared away much of the materials required for bluebird habitat. Who knew that a tin can nailed to a fencepost could be the start of a long-term relationship of bluebirds to the Bickleton Plateau?

The next spring, the Brinkerhoffs returned with more birdhouses they had made over the winter. The first birdhouses were already inhabited and the residents of Bickleton were eager to assist with encouraging the birds. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the Brinkerhoffs built and mounted hundreds of bluebird houses in and around Bickleton. Bickletonians did their part, too, forming a “bluebird brigade,” involving church groups, families, Scouts, and darned near everyone in town.

Some sources call Bickleton the “Bluebird Capital of the Pacific Northwest,” others the “Bluebird Capitol of the World.” Whichever moniker you prefer, Bickleton is definitely home to a lot of bluebirds.

What You’ll Find Today
In many ways, Bickleton today is the same as it was before the Brinkerhoffs “discovered” the bluebirds and, indeed, the way it was before Bickle opened his trading post. A high desert plateau at the edge of the timbered Cascade Mountains, it soars above the mighty Columbia River, affording views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, and even the Blue Mountains of Northeastern Oregon. It has hot summers and cold, snowy winters. You’ll find range cattle, wheat fields, and miles of fences. On many of those fences, you’ll find birdhouses.

Welcome to the Bluebird Inn.

Birdhouses also grace trees, telephone poles, and the sides of buildings. Bickletonians and fans of bluebirds throughout southeastern Washington build, mount, and maintain the birdhouses, including an annual cleaning each fall. And the efforts have paid off. Each spring bluebirds return by the thousands. Tourists come, too, but it’s never a throng. Bickleton doesn’t have a lot of big-city services, and it’s pretty remote. But those who make the drive to the tiny town on the plateau are treated to the sight and sound of the bluebirds as they seek their insect diet, hovering gracefully and chirping out their calls.

Other Things To Do
Bickleton is home to a beautiful Presbyterian church that provides a nice photo opportunity. It’s also home to a restored 1905 Herschell-Spillman carousel, one of only three carousels of this type still in operation. Alas, the carousel is in a long process of restoration and is mothballed most of the year. But it operates on Bickleton’s Pioneer Picnic and Rodeo weekend, which falls on June 12-14 this year (2009). If you’re fortunate to arrive that weekend, a mere 50 cents gets you a ride.

More popular by far than the church or the carousel, however, is the Bluebird Inn. This charming tavern/café has the distinction of being the oldest inn in Washington State. The antique 1903 Brunswick pool table is still in use. And, I might add, they grill a mean burger for a fair price.

Local ranchers’ cattle brands grace the bar at the Bluebird Inn.

Getting There
Bickleton is about three hours from Portland, Ore., and about 3.5 hours from Seattle, Wash. The nearest town of any size is Goldendale, 50 miles to the west via the Bickleton Highway.

From Portland, go about 100 miles east on Interstate 84, take U.S. Highway 97 north across the Columbia River into Washington state. Shortly after crossing, turn right (east) onto State Highway 14. After 33 miles, turn left onto East Road/Roosevelt Grade Road and continue 23 miles to Bickleton.

From Seattle, take Interstate 90 east toward Spokane. Just after passing Ellensburg (about 110 miles from Seattle), take the Interstate 82 East exit toward Yakima. After 50 miles on I-82, take State Highway 22 East. Continue on Hwy 22 to the town of Mabton. In Mabton, turn right onto Main, which becomes Glade Road, then becomes the Mabton Highway, then becomes Goldendale/Bickleton Road, taking you into Bickleton.

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