Thursday, 14 July 2016

Rough Around the Edges: Pullman

Pullman is improbable. Even from a distance, the town looks, not out of place, but out of epoch. In theory it's a typical prairie town: terraced into four loamy knolls, shaded by spreading maple, pine, and spruce, all of it drifted together by steel rails. In its leafy streets and neat switching yards you could believe you're trapped in an HO layout, especially if you throw in a train. Which you often do, in a city named for the man who invented the sleeping car.

But even from the horizon – say, the top of Kamiak Butte, eleven miles north – there's something incongruous about Pullman.

Only on approach does it land: it's the brick. Lots of it. Pullman's ruddy walls rise like the defences of a medieval town, which it also resembles, once you've put your finger on it. But those ancient cities were not walled in factory-made terra cotta, and so Pullman has a futurism, like a robotic eye in a human face, that contradicts and complements the train set and the Templars.

Those red ramparts, rising amidst what Greensiders sneer a cow town, are the source of cognitive dissonance. Because Pullman is nowhere. It's near nothing of consequence in three states, of which it lies outside all but one. Had matters so rested, Pullman would today be what its constituent bits still are: a Gold Side hometown in dusty decent coveralls.

But in 1890 the red came. That year, the federal government extended its network of land-grant agricultural colleges to Washington, and with atypical boldness, the State Legislature sited the new institution, not merely in eastern Washington, but in southeastern Washington. That is to say, in Plutonian space.

And as Pluto was not a real planet, so Pullman was not really a city. Incorporated just four years earlier, its 200 farmers and railroad workers were quickly inundated by a veritable lahar of staff and students. And so the first product of the Agricultural College, Experiment Station, and School of Science of the State of Washington, was that most Washingtonian of things: a mill town. Except that this mill splits from its raw resource, not shakes, but scholars.

In our motherland of apple carts, that was just the first the new college upset. For all the novelty of its location, today's Washington State University serves a region more cultural than physical. Olympia may be capital of the map, and Seattle the money, but Pullman is the capital of nowhere. All of it, (the nowhere), from Sumas to Sekiu to Skamokawa to Scotia, and every backwater between. Country kids statewide aspire to WSU, not just for agronomy, veterinary, and teaching programmes, but also its world-class faculties in media, literature, and archaeology.

And behind the carrot, the stick. Growing up in rural Thurston County I engaged daily with WSU's army of barnyard Green Berets. Their Cooperative Extension ran my 4H programme. They ran FFA. They ran the tansy-ragwort eradication campaign, the artificial insemination service, the whole head, heart, hands, and health consultancy. They answered questions about recycling plastic, feeding babies, canning corn. With an irony I did not remark at the time, they sponsored the marine science summer camp I loved.

From WSU's guerrilla intellectuals I learned as much about war, Watergate, and women as rabbits and razor clams. They wore gumboots and flannel, got our jokes and fears, and saw no incongruity between our podunk ZIP codes and their university degrees.

The Extension Service is the reason a King County town can lie 30 minutes and a million miles from the University of Washington. To those of us in the woods and prairies and mountains, the difference was never about football.

I'd never been to Pullman before that day, but even from afar I knew those brick battlements for the college. As they encadre that city's neighbourhoods and thoroughfares, so too do they gird every small town in Washington.

The bone and sinew of the Academy.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Through Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Joe Mabel and Wikimedia Commons.)
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