Interview with Ken Silliman
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Silliman_Ken
Camera man: I'm recording.
Robert Bauman: All right. So I'm going to get the formal stuff out of the way first, and then we’ll talk. My name is Robert Bauman, and I'm interviewing Mr. Ken Silliman. And today is July 2nd of 2013. Interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. And I'll be talking with Mr. Silliman about his family's history about growing up in Kennewick and about his memories of the area and the impact of Hanford on the area and so forth. So Mr. Silliman, I'm going to start by just asking you to talk a little bit about your family and how and why they came to Kennewick.
Ken Silliman: Well, my mother's family was Case, and the Cases came in 1894 to the state of Washington. They came to Goldendale and then down to the Prosser area. And my granddad homesteaded then on Rattlesnake. When my mother and dad got married in 1914, Dad farmed a section of Grandpa's land for a year. And then he went out to the Weller Ranch and leased that. And he farmed that I believe until 1928 as close as I can figure. Couldn't afford to farm any more on dryland wheat on Rattlesnake, so he eventually took a job at Farmers Exchange. And that's how we got down to Kennewick. And then bought one of the partners out in '34 and the other one in '43, and we've had it since then.
Bauman: Okay. And so you moved into Kennewick in the 19--
Bauman: 1930, Okay. And then you were born in Kennewick?
Silliman: Yes. My brothers were all born on Rattlesnake. I was born in Kennewick in 1931.
Bauman: Okay. And what sort of memories do you have of Kennewick as a young boy growing up? What sort of community was it like? What sorts of things did you do for fun?
Silliman: Well, it was a very, very small town. Even in 1940, it was probably a little under 2,000 people. If anything happened in town and you got in any kind of trouble, well, your parents already knew about it by the time you got home. I learned to swim in the Columbia River and the irrigation canal there. Kennewick was very small. 10th Avenue was the boundary line of it on the south, Olympia on the west, and just past Gum Street on east. So there wasn't much town here.
Bauman: And so was it mostly an agricultural area then?
Silliman: Definitely, definitely ag. Both fruit and dry land wheat. Dry land wheat controlled a lot of the money that was spent in the area in that.
Bauman: Okay. I want you to talk about Farmers Exchange a little bit. I know your--was it your grandfather or your father who bought part of the business?
Silliman: My father.
Bauman: Your father.
Silliman: Yeah. Carl Williams and Alfred Amon, who were two dryland wheat farmers, started it either in '23 or '24. I can prove both dates there. [LAUGHTER] They came in towns, started--Alfred was mayor in Kennewick four different times. I believe it was in four different decades. And Carl Williams I believe was one of the trustees for WSU a period of time there.
Bauman: And so initially, what sorts of things did Farmers Exchange do?
Silliman: Well, it started as a livestock trading outfit. Trade horses for pigs or chickens for cows or just whatever you wanted to trade there. And then they got into the feed business a little bit to feed their own livestock and to sell a little bit. Got into garden seeds just a little bit. They were located right behind Washington Hardware on what at that time was Front Street. It's now Canal Drive. And our livestock pens were between us and Washington Hardware. They finally decided that, the city did, they did not want the livestock there a half block off Kennewick Avenue. So we moved our livestock down to behind Church's Grape Juice there on some leased land. And then when that Dad bought Alfred out, the last partner in '43, he couldn't go out and trade livestock and run the store, too. So we did away with the livestock at that time. Other than we still given into chickens, and rabbits, and wild turkeys, and things like that yet.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] So did you help out at the store when you were growing up?
Silliman: Oh, sure. I worked the store. I was small for my age, so I didn't start right away there. And at that time the feed was all 100 pound bags except for wheat. It was in catch weights, which was just whatever would fit in the bag. It could be 125, 130, 120 there in that. Yeah, I worked there as a kid. But when I say how long I've worked there--which is 59 years--I don't count when I worked there as a kid because I probably wasn't worth much.
Silliman: But also of course we know we worked in the orchards there. So we cut asparagus after the war started. They let us out early. They started school late so that we could go out and cut asparagus in the morning. Then we'd have to go to school some on Saturday to make up that time.
Bauman: Hm. Interesting. So what was school like in Kennewick in the 1930s, 1940s?
Silliman: Well, it changed considerably from the '30s to the '40s. They built the new high school in Kennewick in '36. And the first graduating class was '37, one of my brothers that I was later in business with was in that class. And I started first grade in the fall of '37 there. But very, very small. You knew everybody until about '43. Then things went nuts. People have asked us, didn't we resent all of a sudden, the class was just being overflowing and having to use extra rooms and storage buildings and stuff like that. We didn't think about that too much. Just more kids to play with. And a lot of those kids that came in the '40s are still my very, very close friends.
Bauman: Growing up, do you remember any community celebrations, picnics, 4th of July parades, any of those sort of community events?
Silliman: Oh, yes. We're right on 4th of July right now. And they always had a big to do it at the Keewaydin Park there. The Brandland wheat farmers would normally maybe make one round around outside of their field to make sure their machine was working. Then they'd take a break and come to the to-do downtown here. And then right after that, they'd usually start harvest there. Then there was the Gape Festival in the '40s I would guess, '46, '47. I remember that one specifically. They had two different entertaining groups. They had Spike Jones here and Jack Teagarden. And when Spike Jones sent them their contracts, there was two different contracts. And there were different amounts of money. So they took the cheaper one. So he put on the same show for three days in a row. That was right in the street there in the 200 Block on Kennewick Avenue. But some of the other Grape Festivals were held up around Keewaydin Park in that. We used to have rodeos up where the high school, Kennewick High School is now in there.
Bauman: And so you were born in 1932?
Bauman: '31. And so you, when you were growing up, in the Great Depression, did you have a sense that there was an economic depression going on? Or as a young kid, were you not really fully aware of this?
Silliman: I probably wasn't fully aware of it. We had a great big garden. We had a couple milk cows. We had chickens. We were pretty self-sufficient there on it. I got a new pair of shoes usually the start of school, new pair of overalls. So I was doing fine, yeah. Probably the folks were having to scrape and stoove for it.
Bauman: So going back to talking about the Farmers Exchange a little bit more, you mentioned that your father was partners with--
Silliman: He went to work for Carl and Alfred. Then in '34, he bought Carl out. And he and Alfred then were partners until '43 when Alfred wanted to go run his cherry orchard. And so Dad bought him out there. Things were simpler then. They wrote the contract with an indelible pencil and half a piece of paper and tore the bottom half off. And I still have that contract.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Didn't have a roomful of attorneys there--
Silliman: [LAUGHTER] No, no.
Bauman: --to do the contract. So you mentioned one thing you noticed when, at some point, in the 1940s, suddenly there were a lot more students in schools in Kennewick. I wonder if you could talk about any other changes you noticed or impact the Hanford site on the town of Kennewick?
Silliman: Well yes, there was a lot of things. Avenue C went from the Old Grain Bridge to Benton Street and then as Columbia Avenue down to the river. And that was houses, basically. All of a sudden, any space that had a place where you'd put a trailer or any building that you didn't have rain coming through it was rented out. I remember one time, I think it was in '43, that we lived at 603 North Everett which was down by the river about half a block off the river. And we were out in the yard on a Sunday. This car drove by several times, a little coupe with a man and woman in it. And finally the man got out and came and said, do you know any place we can rent a bed and bath there? We've lived here for a week just in our car and we just can't find anything. My dad said why don't you sit down and have some iced tea. And I'll call around, surely I can find something. He came out about a half hour later and said you're right, there just nothing for rent in Kennewick. He said you might as well stay with us until you find something. And they lived with us for about a month. He was an engineer from the East Coast and his wife.
Bauman: Right, so it impacted your family directly, at least--
Silliman: Oh, yeah. And the schools and everything else there. The road, when the workers would come home there at quitting time, the roads would be so full you couldn't even get on Columbia Avenue and that. I remember Newman's Grocery, finally they had—most of the groceries closed at 6 o'clock. He started a second grocery on the corner of Benton and Kennewick Avenue. It was a cash and carry rather than a charge and fill your order for you. But he had stayed open late so the Hanford workers could get back and get some groceries there. Entertainment, I remember the folks would take their car over Saturday sometime and park on Kennewick Avenue, leave their car there. And then they'd go over in the evening and people would walk down street and visit. And women would sit in the cars and men would walk up and down the street and visit to different guys. It was a different time.
Bauman: You mentioned more students in school. Were more schools built then?
Silliman: Well, not right away. My favorite thing to do as a little boy was to go with my dad when he was trading livestock. And he'd go to Wallula, or Pasco, or Connell, or Benton City, or Richland. And I always had to ask him, when we crossed the river, whether we were going into Benton City or Richland because they were both very, very, very small towns there. I think Richland had a store in it run by John Dam, if I recall right. And his daughter was our sixth grade teacher there, Geri Dam was her name.
Bauman: So you did occasionally—you did go to the other towns sort of in the area at times?
Silliman: Oh sure. We came up to football games. Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland--Pasco and Richland kind of fought back and forth. Pasco of course was a railroad town and that. But we had friends in Pasco and we had friends in Richland. And we competed against some of them there.
Bauman: Mm-hm. So any other changes or ways that the sort of significant growth seemed to affect Kennewick at all, if you can remember? Obviously it changed some of the business practices. They stayed open later, at least—
Silliman: That grocery store did. Yeah, mm-hm. Things were just chock full. Everything was chock full. For instance, there was a place called Camel's Cabins right at the base of the old Green Bridge. And I've heard stories that at times, he had some CCC camp type places there with boards up about four foot and then canvas over the top. He rented those for eight hours at a time. You moved in, ate, slept, got out so the next family could come in there.
Silliman: So like I say, everything was just chock full.
Bauman: Right, right. Now, do you remember--so you were born in '31. So you were about 12 years old in '43 when the Hanford project started. I guess, first of all, do you remember--going back to 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor-- do you remember--
Silliman: Oh certainly.
Bauman: --that sort of thing. And do you have any memories from that? And then when did you find out about something happening out at Hanford?
Silliman: Well you never knew what was happening in Hanford. If you asked somebody what was happening out there, they said they're building Wendell Willkie buttons or nylon stockings or something like that that you couldn't get a hold of. But of course, everything like sugar and shoes were rationed.
Bauman: And when did you find out what was going on at Hanford? After the war ended, after the bombs?
Silliman: Yes. You just did not hear what was going on. And if somebody did say anything, they weren't there very long. Yeah.
Bauman: You just knew there was some sort of big project that people were working on?
Silliman: Yes, that's all we knew, was a big project.
B. Yeah. And so going back, do you remember finding out about World War II itself, the attack on Pearl Harbor?
Silliman: Oh yeah. As I recall, it was on a Sunday. And it affected me because my brother Clint, who was working for J.C. Penney's up in Palouse, he enlisted right away with the caveat that he be able to bring his stuff home before he went in. So he got to be home for Christmas. So that's the last Christmas he was home for a number of years.
Bauman: Right, so your family was impacted very immediately.
Silliman: Mm-hm. Yeah, all three of my brothers were in World War II.
Bauman: And so then what about yourself? What happened with you after finishing high school? What did you do from that point on?
Silliman: Well, I had grown up with a friend that lived down in the garden tracts with me there. His name was Bill Bryce. We'd gone all the way through--we played together before school. Went to school together. Walked back and forth to school together. Went to college together. Roomed together in college. Then when the Korean War broke out, they weren't giving deferments to begin with. So I enlisted and he sat it out. And finally they gave deferments there. So he went ahead and completed his college there and then went to University of Washington. That was at Central. And then he went on to the University of Washington and got his masters. And then did his service and put in his career with Boeing. In fact, he was responsible for writing the Boeing contract out here a number of years ago when Boeing was doing the computer service out here. He was the sales manager.
Bauman: And then what point did you come back to Farmers Exchange?
Silliman: When I got out of the service, I was considering a job with Fairchild Camera Corporation. I was in a RB-36 reconnaissance bomber outfit that used a lot of cameras. My job was to run the shop to repair and service those. And I got offered a job there. But it would've been travelling. And by this time, I married while I was in the service. And my brother came back to South Dakota where I was stationed at Ellsworth and said, would you like to come back to the store? And that's what I always want to do all my life. So I took him up on that. And when we got out, my wife I came back here and went to work. And I've been there ever since.
Bauman: And what year was that?
Silliman: That was 1954. And Clint and I and Dad were in partnership. Them we bought Dad out shortly after that. Then Clint and I were in partners until '81. His son was going to buy him out, and then he backed out. So I bought him out. And then they shut down Hanford. [LAUGHTER] And boy, did it have an effect on us through the '80s. Just almost busted us.
Bauman: Hm. So again, more impact related to Hanford?
Silliman: Oh yeah. And Hanford still has a big impact on us. We didn't realize, some of these people that traded with us had been trading with us for a number of years. We didn't know what they did. To us, that's Old Joe, you know? And in '81 when they started laying all those people off, Old Joe was coming in and saying hey, I make sure the family gets the feed and stuff they need. I’ll send you a check, I'm going to Texas or somewhere else and see what I can find. So it really had an effect on us in the '80s. Some of the layoffs since then haven't had as big effect. But they still affect us.
Bauman: Yeah, so it definitely says something about the economic impact that-
Silliman: But there's been more diversification since then.
Bauman: Mm-hm, mm-hm. And since 1954, a lot of grown in Kennewick?
Bauman: Changed quite a bit from 1954. What are some of the biggest changes that you've seen since 1954 in Kennewick? Obviously the size is one of them, right?
Silliman: The size, the selection, the competition. You know, every time they open a big box store, they handle something that we handle there. But we find we can compete with them through service and other ways. And we've had to change. We started off trading cattle. Now we trade lawn mowers and power equipment there. We still have the feed. We still have the garden supplies. We've enlarged that. But you wouldn't recognize the store from what it was when I was a boy. We've also bought other buildings around us and expanded there.
Bauman: But still in downtown Kennewick?
Silliman: The same location. Other than the one move that we made there in '39 from behind Washington Hardware up to where we are now.
Bauman: Is there anything I haven't asked you about or that you haven't talked about in terms of, especially in terms of say, growing up in Kennewick or any stories or events that really stand that you think you'd really like to talk about?
Silliman: Well during the buildup of Hanford--we'd always had dust storms here. But during the build up of the Hanford, all the ground was been worked. And we had dust storms--you might as well just close everything down because you couldn't see, you couldn't drive there. It was just really bad. Obviously, part of it was from the dryland wheat farmer. But a lot of it was just from everything building up on that. We were offered some land to collect a debt one time. And my brother and I went out and looked at it and decided it was too far out of town and the town wasn't building that way. And so we said no, we couldn't use that for payment for the debt. That land was at 395 and 10th Avenue in Kennewick which now has got a whole bunch of businesses and PUD and that there, so--
Bauman: Probably a pretty valuable piece of property.
Silliman: Yeah. And you know everything built west to begin with. The city was able to--when Columbia Center came in--was able to slip in there and take a road, make it city property and get that in the city of Kennewick. But now it's building to the south in the downtown area. I've seen it go up and down and up and down. At one time I thought it was going to be just not livable down there. But it's changed again now. New storefronts, the businesses are filling the downtown area. When we came home in '54, my wife was not from here. So I took her around the Tri-Cities. And we start grading the areas. We graded Pasco as the best shopping area in the Tri-Cities. 4th and Lewis just had all sorts of stores around it. Good shoe stores and good clothing stores and that. Richland was nice and clean up there too. Not as many stores though. We rated Pasco first, Richland second, and Kennewick a very--downtown Kennewick a very poor third. We had J.C. Penney and that was about it. And that has changed. I would rate now Kennewick maybe as the top of the older areas there.
Bauman: The downtown?
Bauman: What would you like for someone who maybe decades from now might be interested in watching your interview or something and learning more about Kennewick or about the Tri-Cities or that sort of thing, what do you think is most important for them to understand about the town of Kennewick that you grew up in the 1930s and 1940s?
Silliman: Well, it went from a strictly farm community. Everybody was either involved in farming somehow or dealing with farmers and that. And were the orchards were have been torn out. Now there's houses where the biggest grape vineyard, Concord grape vineyard was in the world. It's now buildings there. Those grapes are gone. So it's just entirely changed. The Tri-Cities is become a metropolitan type area there. And what are they, fourth or fifth in the state as far as there? You got Tacoma, Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and then maybe the Tri-Cities? Good place to live.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. Well, do you have any other things that you'd like to talk about or think would be important to talk about?
Silliman: Not that I can think of.
Bauman: Great. Well thank you very much--
Silliman: You bet. It's been my pleasure.
Bauman: --for coming in today and doing the interview.
Silliman: I'm sorry I didn't have more on Hanford. Oh, there used be a boat that went up the river to Hanford. I believe it's called the Hanford Flyer. And a number of years ago when the Tri-City Herald was repainting one of their buildings and striped the paint off, I noticed on the building, on the east side of the building, there which--and this building is just south of their main building. It had a sign up there for the Hanford Flyer.
Bauman: It was still on the building?
Silliman: Yeah. But they covered it of course when they repainted.
Bauman: Do you have any idea what years the Hanford Flyer was in operation?
Silliman: No, I do not. I meant to ask Tom Moak about that, if he had some information.
Bauman: And so what did it take up?
Silliman: I believe it took mail. And it would take passengers and freight up.
Bauman: That's a great story, and that it was still on the building after all those years.
Silliman: Yeah. There used be a couple horse troughs there in downtown Kennewick too, but they're all gone too. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: Great. All right. Well Mr. Silliman, thanks very much.
Silliman: Thanks for having me, Bob.
Years in Tri-Cities Area