Working in Twisp (Part One)

The town of Twisp is fewer than fifty miles south of the Canadian border. It spans an entire 1.18 square miles and has a population of 900 living in the surrounding National Forest area. Located in Washington’s Okanogan County, Twisp is surrounded by the Cascade Mountains, the joining of the Twisp and Methow rivers, and over a million acres of federally-protected forests. There is a history of hard-working people who respect the land, and respect the industries that thrive on it – particularly the Forest Service. Twisp is the original Old West town of Washington, and its past is paving the way for a future built on community and creativity.

Here is where there was
The site of the former Twisp Forest Service headquarters building recognizes its historical  importance to the Methow Valley.

Henry C. Glover settled Twisp (originally called Gloversville) in 1897, only nine years after Washington became the 42nd state. The name comes from a modified translation of the Okanagan Native American word twistsp, which is the sound of a buzzing wasp. The byproduct of two small gold mining booms in 1858 and 1880, Twisp became largely dependent on mining, farming, and logging. As people began to migrate into the Methow Valley, Twisp was able to establish a small flour mill and a dairy. “We didn’t have any dams yet, so there was a lot of salmon in the rivers,” a local remembers. Truly a wilderness paradise.

In 1929, the US Forest Service purchased several parcels of land in the Chelan National Forest to establish the Twisp District Headquarters. In the beginning, it was an extremely rough time for the local Forest Service and for the people in Twisp. “The ranger test at the time was: you had to pack a horse, you had to be able to shoot, and you had to be able to defend yourself,” a retired Forest Ranger says. “One old-time ranger asked his boss what he was supposed to do. And the supervisor said, ‘Well you’re a ranger, aren’t you? Go out there and range.’ And those were his orders.”

Around the same time, the Forest Service started buying Model T cars, and the district became much more mobile. “The modern Twisp headquarters is a consolidation of maybe eight smaller ranger stations. So the more mobile we got, the bigger the districts, and the more land area we were administering.”

Twisp is surrounded on all sides by National Forests.
Twisp is surrounded on all sides by National Forests.

Much of the infrastructure that enabled Twisp industry to prosper – primarily roads, bridges, trails and phone lines – were the result of the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works group that brought unemployed young men out West and employ them for the greater good.

Twisp is considered by some to be one of the initial footholds of the Washington apple industry. A local resident remembers:

“The main job was picking in the orchards, all the families picked apples. There were orchard vacations – when it was time to harvest in the fall, school would let out for three weeks and all the kids would go help their parents pick apples in the orchards.”

At the time, cardboard boxes weren’t widely manufactured for agriculture. Many of the local logging mills included a box factory. “A lot of good pine trees went out of this world wrapped around a box of apples.”

Even today, Washington state is the primary supplier of apples in the United States.
Even today, Washington is the primary supplier of apples in the United States.

After World War II, the Twisp Forest Service was responsible for tagging trees for the subsequent lumber boom, as well as the replanting of the forest. The engineering department in the Forest Service grew to accommodate road layout and inspections. “The logging companies would do the actual road building, and got about $1,000 knocked off the price of the wood they hauled away,” says a retired ranger. The tree planting program was equally sophisticated – “When I first started, we would plant 1,000 acres of trees every year. We had to plant 400 trees a day, that was our quota.”

Today, the Forest Service doesn’t leave much to chance when it comes to repopulating a National Forest. The trees are grown in a nursery and brought out to Twisp. Inspectors check the sapling’s roots to make sure they will grow properly, and a contractor bids on the actual planting. The Twisp Ranger Station was considered to have the most efficient timber management program. “There was a strong sawmill operating in town. Both Winthrop and Twisp [districts] were supplying really high quality logs. A lot of local people were employed there, and it was an important part of the community here.”

A US Forest Service map shows just how extensively forested the state of Washington is.
A US Forest Service map shows just how extensively forested the state of Washington is.

As a result of the timber business, brush began to pile up by the side of the logging roads, creating a forest fire hazard. Twisp Forest Rangers would spend the summer season collecting it to reduce the possibility of a fire, but not entirely eliminate it. A lookout would watch for natural or man-made fires and radio headquarters to send a team out to quash the blaze. A current Ranger lookout remembers:

“Things would be really quiet, then the clouds would start moving in. I’d notify the base of the buildup of electricity, and when I saw lightning. When [lightning] hits the tower, you can hear it a whistling noise, and a flash – ka-POW! Everything all at the same time. You can smell the ozone.”

There was a progressive program in place to attract women and minorities to the Twisp Forest Service, particularly within the science fields. This wasn’t difficult because many of the responsibilities of the Forest Rangers included looking at wildlife distribution, observing natural habitats and patters, and spending much of the time outdoors in the Cascade Mountains. There was also a summer program that introduced high school students to the Forest Service.

A group of Forest Service volunteers learning preventative forest fire measures. Photo credit: Ian Haynes
A group of Forest Service volunteers learning preventative forest fire measures. Photo credit: Ian Haynes

In the 1980’s, the timber industry in the area declined dramatically, forcing Twisp to make some tough decisions. “Timber receipts helped sponsor things like roads and schools in the community,” a retired Forest Ranger said, “Mills and other infrastructure were closing down all over the Northwest.” The Forest Service headquartered on the Twisp compound was consolidated into the Winthrop district 12 miles away, and the surplus materials were liquidated. “It was incredible the number of empty desks we had, we sold everything by the end of the day,” says one retired employee. “But it shows that there’s somebody here in the Methow Valley with a need for it.”

After the Twisp compound was vacated, the community had strong ideas about what to do with the area, primarily based on the fundamental question: Where are we headed? Many people wanted to recognize the history of the site and its importance to the area, as well as keeping the original buildings. “Mostly we wanted to make something that the public can benefit by, that is able to give back to the community,” says a former local Forest Ranger, “I like that TwispWorks is trying to capture some of the Forest Service history… Many of the programs they have envisioned are a real plus. If it couldn’t be a ranger station, I think that’s the next best option.”


TwispWorks (Part Two) features the current tenants of the former Twisp Forest Service compound, and how they are providing an interactive arts and manufacturing co-op for the community. Read the article here


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