The History of Hancock Springs
This summer, we completed a multiple-year conservation easement project with the Allison Family on 314 acres west of the Weeman Bridge. Much of the land is known as “Hancock Springs,” as the land encompasses the year-round spring of that name. The three contiguous easements, completed over six years, protect this spring, the creek that flows from it to the Methow River, river frontage, large areas of intact riparian land and actively worked farmland. It is a vast and structurally complex easement, and it helps create a link between other easements upstream and downstream - truly a jewel of the upper Methow.
We thought it would be interesting to not only share the conservation story of this dynamic property, but also offer the human, historical story of the land. Part One of the “History of Hancock Springs” was featured in our 2011 Fall/Winter newsletter. Here is the entire piece, prepared by Mary Kiesau, including endnote references.
On Thursday, February 18th, John McKinney boarded a freight train for Spokane, spending just $2. Upon arrival in Spokane, he bought a new pair of shoes, perhaps knowing how many miles lay in front of him, and started out for Coulee City, and then Waterville. From Waterville John took a stagecoach to Wenatchee, only to find, “No water. Wood 6 miles distant, $4.50 per cord. Coal 8 miles southwest. Poor sandy country.” We can only assume that he didn’t like the area because he immediately began walking back to Waterville, covering 26 snowy miles the first day. All on foot, looking for a land claim he liked, McKinney went to Badger Mountain and Chelan City, which he says was, “quite a shantytown,” then “started for Methow,” via way of Malott. He went over the Chiliwhist Trail to the lower Methow Valley and then started making his way up the Methow.2
On his way, we learn that McKinney met and stayed with many of the early and long-lasting pioneers of our Methow heritage. There were evenings with Mr. Malott, Mr. McFarlane, Mason Thurlow, Mr. Sullivan in Winthrop, and the Ventzke brother’s, whose homestead was in today’s Big Valley area.2 White people had only just begun to arrive in the remote Methow Valley, which had opened to homesteaders in 1886, so none of these folks had been in the Methow long. (Washington became a state in 1889 and land surveys began in 1894.)
Finally, on March 23rd, McKinney found a spot that felt right. Though his journal entry didn’t show any emotion for the place, he seems to write with a favorable tone, “Go 3 miles up the river to Mr. Hancock’s. Snow too deep to hunt land in timber. Saw butterfly. Frogs croaking.” He waited until April 1st to stake his claim. Then, “Together with Mr. Hancock, Mr. Williams and T. Wolfe, we pace off my claim, lying west of Mr. Hancock’s.”2 The claim they paced off was 80 acres, and it’s the parcel, along with Mr. Hamilton Hancock’s (originally spelled Hancox), that is the focus of our story.
It took him two full days to walk to Ruby, only to find that there was no work. His journal shows that he was frequently on the go between Ruby, Loomis, Conconully and Palmer Lake for several weeks, finding little to no work until early May when he began work on the boarding house for the stamp mill at Ruby City. McKinney had solid work for six weeks, and the only notable scribbles in his diary were about the weather – it was a very cold, wet spring. On John’s return to the Methow Valley, he noted “millions of flowers” and “alfalfa 2 to 4 feet high,” but also that someone else’s garden seemed late. McKinney, who later became known in the Valley as an avid gardener, even going so far as to grow many unusual crops including peanuts and artichokes, may have been wondering how his April 6th garden was doing. 2
Back at his place, McKinney immediately began slashing and clearing brush and timber from his land. From his diary notes, it appears that he did this virtually every day for nearly two months, perhaps clearing the land for crops and animals (other old-timers remembered him raising chickens and selling eggs). The cold spring continued into early summer – there was a frost on July 6th that killed his potatoes and beans. Another frost on July 13th damaged Mr. Hancox’s potatoes, and yet another frost appeared on August 2nd. These must have been quite a shock but McKinney, as usual, only writes down what happens not what he thinks. On August 8th, John left for Ruby again, on foot of course. On August 31, 1892, the entire downtown core of Conconully burned to the ground. All the neighboring towns donated money, food and supplies to rebuild Conconully and McKinney was able to find work in construction. It wasn’t until October 18th that John started walking back to the Methow. Winter was coming, but John may not have realized just how early it could potentially arrive because on October 24th McKinney began building a more permanent log cabin next to Hancock Spring. The structure is still partially there today. McKinney proceeded with tremendous energy, filling his days with hard labor and watching the weather. The first snow came on November 7th, and John noted that it lasted for just 15 minutes and the ground was white for a mere one hour – all of which sounds much like our first snowfalls today. By late November, it was snowing daily and the cabin was not yet tight – there was nothing he could do but continue at a feverish pace. On December 15th, with the snow piling up outside, McKinney indicates that he is done as he notes that the chimney is finished and he proceeds to fell a tree and chop wood for the next two days. John spent the last two weeks of 1892 in the company of others, in Winthrop and around his homestead, mending shoes and clothes for several people.2
The little black book for John McKinney’s 1892 describes a year of big transitions, endless hard labor, innumerable miles of walking, and a new life. We don’t know what he felt or thought, but we do see that he helped many people and that people helped him. He visited with numerous people up and down the Valley in all his comings and goings and must have been well-liked. John McKinney only lived in the Methow Valley for 10 years, or so, and we don’t know much about his life after 1892. Maybe he continued to journal, but why was the little black diary from 1892 the only one found? We may never know. From other accounts from folks who remembered him, we know that he was a bit of a craftsman, constructing chairs and other furniture from willow or rawhide, making snowshoes, creating his own tools and so on. 2 He could sew clothes and cobble shoes. He was a gardener by anyone’s standards but not necessarily a farmer. He may have shared his land with Charlie Briggs at some point (Charlie takes over McKinney’s “claim” when he leaves). 2 And though we don’t have statements to prove it, we can fairly well guess that he left a positive and lasting impression on people. His name has stuck with the Methow Valley for 120 years. Southwest of the Weeman Bridge, between Kumm Rd and Wolf Creek Rd, is the spring and creek that flowed from McKinney’s place to the Methow. These are called Hancock Spring and Hancock Creek for the Mr. Hancock (Hancox) that was John’s friend and neighbor. The mountain that rises above and behind Lucky Jim Bluff is call McKinney Mountain; a nearby one-room school typical of the era, serving the area until approximately 1930, was the McKinney Mountain School; and the whole area was, and still is, locally known as the McKinney Mountain area. John McKinney left the Valley in 1902, or so, to seek care and retirement in an “old soldier’s home” on the coast. He was found dead near the Wenatchee train depot. It’s thanks to Frank Kumm that we are all able to look back in time and imagine John McKinney’s life at Hancock Springs. Frank, who purchased the land in 1923, found the diary in McKinney’s log cabin long after John was gone; it now resides with the Okanogan County Historical Society.
Hancock, along with his neighbor to the north, Ramm, filed a water right claim for the Methow River and its channels in 1904, the first on the Methow. For the next decade, water right claims were made by all the area landowners, and ditches were made, consolidated, expanded, traded, and so on. It didn’t take long for neighbors to start being un-neighborly to each other though. In September 1919, W.S. Pelton, who was upriver a bit, blocked an irrigation diversion inlet on his property, which stopped water from reaching the ditch that was used by many of the McKinney Mountain area homesteaders. A lawsuit ensued with six plaintiffs, including the new owners of the original Hancock property, and one defendant, Mr. W.S. Pelton. 3
On a hot August day in 1920, Judge C.H. Neal was ready to preside over a trial. The large number of participants persuaded the Judge and the lawyers to hear the case in the Methow instead of Okanogan. Originally planned to take place at the Mt. McKinney School, an impromptu decision was made to hold court on the banks of the Methow River. A Sept. 1920 Methow Valley Journal article reads, “A drift log served as the Reporters table and another for the Court’s ‘swivel.’ A large rock was utilized as a witness chair. Borrowing a knife, Judge Neal presided in Pilgrim’s style and reflected on the scene as he whittled a stick.” 4
Judge Neal found that the blocked ditch had been used for many years (since 1904) and that right of way had been duly acquired; the plaintiffs won the right to continue using their diversion, inlet and slough. Pelton had contended the diversion/inlet was recent and artificial, and he was concerned that they might cause spring flooding. It’s interesting to note that Pelton may have been right about the flooding. Though it might have happened regardless of the irrigation diversion inlet, the area in question became the site of major erosion and land loss in the massive floods in 1948 and throughout the 70s, leading to extensive dike building in the 1980s. This first battle about water in the upper Valley was certainly not the last.3
A Changing Land Changes Hands
Adjoining these properties to the northwest was McKinney’s place, which was acquired by Chester Briggs in 1902. Chester’s sons, first Charlie and then Harry, worked the land until 1923 when Frank Kumm bought it from Harry. 3 The Kumm family owned the property for over 50 years (and still own a 20 acre parcel on their namesake road today). The spring, with its constant cool water (about 10 degree Celsius year-round), was always an important part of the property and it was put to good use.
Frank Kumm and then his son, Roy, had a dairy and raised horses. A large barn and corrals were built near Hancock Spring so the horses would have access to unfrozen water in the winter. The corrals were built 10 feet high because the winter snows could come at such depths that a normal corral would have been buried some years. Even in the winter the Kumm family would use the spring to bathe because it didn’t freeze. The Kumms built a little building over the spring – the historic “milk house,” which still stands today next to the big barn – and they kept a large chest in the spring that kept milk cans cold. The structures are well known to cross-country skiers as the Methow Community Trail goes through the property and right by the old buildings. 5
The land used to be more heavily timbered (even though one might assume that John McKinney removed every stick of wood with his energetic clearing). All the wood on the old barn was built with wood from the field. One year, Frank cut all the remaining pines because it was discovered that ingested pine needles caused pre-mature births or miscarriages in cows. 5 The cleared land made great agricultural fields even if it was a bit wetter than preferred at times. Frank expanded the Briggs’ home and raised a family there. After Frank’s death, his son Roy moved in with his family. Roy added onto the original 80 acres, brought electricity to the ranch in 1941, and continued to use the land as a farm. The biggest thing that happened there is still remembered by many Mazama folk today. On January 16, 1957, in 20 below temperatures, strong winds caused a chimney fire and the original homestead house burned to the ground. 1
Over time, the Perrine and Morrow properties, which were the original Hancock property, were purchased by a Mr. Hege. By the mid 1970s, Roy Kumm and Hege were looking to sell. Four doctors from the Puget Sound area purchased the bulk of their properties and consolidated them into one large holding. These doctors, including Jerry Sparling who still lives in the vicinity today, were looking for a retreat but were also interested in keeping the farming going. They upgraded equipment and buildings, put in modern irrigation instead of flooding the fields, and leased the fields to local rancher Steve Devin for hay and cattle. 5
Things could have really changed in the McKinney Mountain area in 1989 when the doctors decided to sell the land. Bob Allison was introduced to the property through the Devins and he made an offer. Suddenly, another offer was made. It was assumed that the other interested party had plans to subdivide and develop the land, and with the offers being relatively equal the doctors sold the property to Bob Allison who they thought would keep it intact. The Allisons still own the property today. 5
Restoring Form & Function to Hancock Creek
Starting in 1999, Steve Devin, who leased the land from Ryan Allison to graze cattle, worked with the Okanogan office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on a Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) plan. Among other things, the CRM effort included fencing the creek from livestock, and drilling a well so that the irrigation water was no longer taken directly from Hancock Creek. 8
In the mid 2000s, local fisheries biologist John Jorgensen of the Yakama Nation began extensive restoration efforts in and around the creek that continue today in the hopes of restoring the form and function of Hancock Creek and re-establishing its place as a key biological component in the Upper Methow River. 8 When the project started, after a century of cows living on the land, Hancock Creek had no banks. The “creek” spread out 30 to 80 feet in places on its way from the spring to the Methow River, and was only a few inches deep. 7 There were no native fish in the creek. But John had a vision and in five years he and others have seen it come to life.
Deciduous shrubs like rose, willow, and hawthorn rebounded exponentially without cattle grazing or deer browsing since fencing the upper half of the creek. In addition, biologists planted hundreds of 14 species of riparian plants, such as red-osier dogwood, mountain alder, and several species of willow. 8 They strategically placed old logs and woody debris, and laid down thousands of grassy mats and sedge and rush plugs grown from seeds collected on-site. 7
The restoration efforts have paid off quickly. In 2007, after just one year of work by hand, 23 steelhead redds (spawning nests) were observed in Hancock Creek where none had been observed in recent memory. 8 Now, the restored creek is just four to six feet wide and has varying depths of inches up to several feet so as to provide a range of fish needs for rearing, spawning and feeding. 7 Hancock Creek is now home to hundreds of endangered steelhead and Spring Chinook salmon, including adults and juveniles, and there are dozens of redds from both species. A new sculpin species (the fifth in the Methow), the piute sculpin, is also now living in Hancock Creek. 8 Jorgensen and the Yakama Nation will continue to restore and study the living laboratory that is Hancock Creek for many years to come.
The “Hancock Springs” easements permanently protect 314 acres of diverse and rich wetlands, riparian meadows and woodlands, active farmland and scenic open space. This vast undeveloped property is not only historically significant and interesting; it supports a structurally complex variety of fish and wildlife, and is well on its way to becoming fully restored. Thanks to the conservation awareness and hard work of the landowners, our members and everyone who donated to the Imagine the Methow campaign, and all of our stewardship partners, including BPA, the Yakama Nation and the NRCS, this gem of a property will be here to benefit the fish, wildlife and people of the Methow Valley forever.
1 Devin, Doug, Mazama The Past 100 Years: Life and Events in the Upper Methow Valley & Early Winters, (Peanut Butter Publishing: Seattle, 1997) pp. 21, 25-26, 54-55.
2 "His Name was John McKinney," Okanogan County Heritage (March 1964): 15-33. (This article includes much of John McKinney’s 1892 diary.)
3 Whittaker, Lee, History of the McKinney Mountain regional irrigation system, (version 0.9, April 2003) sections 1-6.
4 "Judge Neal Holds Court in Shade of Pines," Methow Valley Journal, September 9, 1920 (reprinted in Lee Whittaker’s History of the McKinney Mountain regional irrigation system publication).
5 Devin, Steve, phone conversation, October 2011.
6 Sullivan Cemetery index of records page, available at: http://www.interment.net/data/us/wa/okanogan/sullivan/sullivan.htm
7 Stamper, Marcy, “Hope for endangered fish springs eternal at Hancock Springs,” Methow Valley News, September 28, 2011, A1
8 Bondi, Steve, Methow Conservancy Baseline Monitoring Report for the “Hancock Springs LLC 2 Property”, February 2010.