Travel: A Tribute to Wheat Farming: Ritzville, Washington

Among the rolling wheat fields of eastern Washington State, at the junction of Interstate 90 and Highway 395, is a little town with a big history. Ritzville was named for Philip Ritz, who first settled in the area in 1878. In the 1880s, it became a major shipping hub for wheat along the Northern Pacific Railway, growing swiftly in a ramshackle fashion to meet the demands of the burgeoning industry. A fire felled many of the hastily constructed buildings in 1889, but the prosperous little town responded with the careful erection of numerous sturdy brick buildings in 1889 and the 1890s, many of which remain today.

Today’s Ritzville is the seat of Adams County. It occupies less than two square miles and has a population of 1,678.

Historic Attractions
The entire downtown—basically, the two streets of Main and Railroad spanning the four blocks from Division to Jefferson—is considered Ritzville’s Historic District. It was so designated when it was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1990. A walking tour, including 50 historic homes and other buildings, is mapped out on a self-guided brochure.

Pioneer woman metal sculpture.
Pioneer woman metal sculpture.

Among the more prominent features is the Dr. Frank R. Burroughs home, built in 1889. Located at 408 W. Main, the former home of the town’s only physician is maintained by the City of Ritzville as a museum, which is open Tuesday through Saturday afternoons from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It features a combination of original furnishings and fixtures and some that have been added over the years that are reflective of the period.

The Railroad Depot Museum displays turn of the (20th) century memorabilia, a restored caboose, and fully functional telegraphy equipment.

Ritzville is also home to a Carnegie Library, which houses a Heritage Research Center where those with roots in the Adams County area can pursue their genealogy. This eye-catching Neoclassical building at the corner of Adams and Main was built in 1907.

And you can’t help but notice the H.E. Gritman Building at the corner of Main and Washington. This distinctive brick building, built in 1902 to house a drug store, has a conical tower and has housed everything from offices to a billiards parlor to a bowling alley.

Events and Culture
Ritzville’s “Heavy Metal Tour” is not an ear-busting musical event, but rather a series of nine sculptures depicting people and things that put Ritzville on the map: plowing, herding, building, and so forth. The sculptures were created in the 1980s through 2000s and are described and mapped in a brochure.

Bacon Bloody Mary at the Pastime Tavern.
Bacon Bloody Mary at the Pastime Tavern.

Ritzville also has a series of holiday events. Memorial Day festivities include a geocaching event (“Small Town Cache Cow”), a car show and a pancake breakfast. There is, of course, a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Labor Day features the Wheat Land Communities’ Fair, complete with concessions, display booths and a rodeo. The Christmas season includes a bazaar on the first Saturday in December and a tree lighting and caroling party.

Getting There
Ritzville is about 60 miles southwest of Spokane, Wash., and about 75 miles northeast of Pasco, Wash. Spokane is Washington’s second largest city (after Seattle) and Pasco, along with Kennewick and Richland, are known collectively as “the Tri-Cities,” and are at the center of Washington State’s thriving wine industry. Not surprisingly, then, Ritzville is often a halfway-point stop for gas or fast food for those driving between Spokane and the Tri-Cities. Those who take the quick on-and-off for the Golden Arches will miss the historic district.

From Spokane, take Interstate 90 West. Take Exit 221, and go right at the end of the exit ramp. Take your first left onto Division St., past the golf course, and continue about a mile to Main St. From the Tri-Cities, take Highway 395 north out of Pasco. Shortly before 395 merges with I-90, take the first Ritzville exit. Follow W. 1st Ave for about a mile and a half, then turn left on Adams and right on Main. If you’re lucky, you can find a parking spot right next to the Pastime Tavern. And who wouldn’t rather have a Bacon Bloody Mary than a Big Mac?

The truth is that Ritzville—despite the historic buildings and geocaching and metal sculptures—is not likely to be a destination unto itself. But if you find yourself driving through eastern Washington (say, between Spokane and the Tri-Cities), don’t just stop for gas and fast food. Take half an hour or so and swing through the historic downtown. It’s worth the detour.

Do you know of a “hidden gem” little town that’s right off the Interstate? Where is it and what makes it unique?

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