"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Conrad Rose: Gruff but a friend indeed

By on January 31, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Rod MolzahnEditor’s note: This story continues a series of bio sketches on prominent early settlers in the valley.

Conrad Rose’s office at the Wenatchee Produce Company was sparse.

There was a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the wall and a few of his quotes hanging by it. One read, “From this day on I mean to do the best I can.”

Along side that hung a card that said, “Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.”

The most noticeable quote, in large letters, was not by Lincoln but it certainly reflected the man at the desk in front of it. “Why be unreasonable when, with a little more effort, you can be impossible.”

Bob McGinnis, orchardist, remembered Rose as a “controversial person and the greatest force and the most lovable man I ever hope to meet.”

Conrad Rose was never hesitant to express his beliefs and life philosophy. In a 1930 interview with the Wenatchee Daily World, Rose took on prohibition and religion. “This prohibition question is a constant source of annoyance. As far as I am concerned everyone knows my stand in the matter. If they do not know I will tell them in language that cannot easily be forgotten.

“I haven’t any sympathy for the present church lobby trying to influence the people’s representatives upon the liquor question. If the church has any business let her attend to her business. Politics and national issues are most certainly out of her line.”

He was just as clear about his personal values. “I believe that seven days in the week a man should live a clean life, both by example and in deed. If I have any religion it consists in doing good.”

A Wenatchee Daily World article in 1938 described Conrad Rose as “most always presenting a gruff and challenging front. To the unknowing he’s apt to have the appearance of an irritated bruin. Those who know him smiled: “It wouldn’t be Conrad Rose if he acted any other way.”

Rose was 19 in 1881 when he reached Sprague, Washington. He had worked his way west for the Northern Pacific Railroad as an engine wiper first, then oiler and fireman.

Four years later he was promoted to engineer. With that job security he married Elizabeth Milner. Born and raised in England, she had come to America to visit an aunt in Iowa then traveled on to visit another relative in Sprague where she met Rose.

Soon after the wedding Rose was transferred to the Tacoma to Pasco run. He and Elizabeth set up housekeeping in Ellensburg.

They soon heard the glowing stories of the Wenatchee Valley and in the spring of 1886 Conrad went to see for himself. What he saw was the opportunity to have the farm, home and independent life that he and Elizabeth wanted for themselves and their newborn son, Thomas.

New settlers in the early years of the 1880s had claimed most all of the Wenatchee Flat turning it into a checker board of 160 acre homesteads. Rose had come with cash and soon bought an existing farm from John Camphor for $900.

The land faced Miller Street and lay east of there including the present location of Columbia School. Rose got 150 acres of uncleared rocks, sagebrush and sand, 10 acres of partially cleared land with “a few scrawny fruit trees” and a rough, two room cabin. There was no water on the land.

A year later Conrad quit the railroad. He and Elizabeth loaded their belongings, two little boys (George had joined the family) and the family cat — safely stowed away in a cracker box — into a lumber wagon and headed for Colockum Pass. The road was so rough on the way up that the cat fled the cracker box and ran back to Ellensburg.

The road down the north side of the pass is steep and torturous. Elizabeth recalled, “I never imagined there could be such a road. It was the first time I had anything to do with mountains. I put the baby in the cracker box and walked down the hill.”

They reached the Columbia on July 7, 1887. To Elizabeth “It was the hottest day I ever experienced. There was no shade. Nothing but sand and hot wind and sagebrush. Then I saw the house and the farm! I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know why I didn’t walk back to Ellensburg.”

The Roses persisted.

Together they cleared 7 acres and planted vegetable seeds, wheat, oats and potatoes. They had no concept of how much water the crops would need. Nothing came up.

Conrad went into business with the lumber wagon hauling produce from his neighbor’s more successful gardens to Ellensburg and returning with supplies to sell.

When the Wenatchee Development Company was expanding its substantial land holdings in early 1888 they wanted the Rose homestead. Conrad sold it to them piece by piece over the next year. He got a nearby 40-acre tract in trade with 10 inches of water rights and $6,000 cash.

He and Elizabeth planted 30 acres in peaches, mixed crops on the other 10 acres and built a fine home. Over the next three years Conrad Rose continued buying fruit and produce from his neighbors, hauling it over Colockum Pass and selling it to his own profit.

The Great Northern Railroad arrived in late 1892 with its promise of markets from Seattle to the East Coast.

In 1893 Rose’s peach trees bore an abundant crop and Conrad Rose shipped out an entire car load, the first grower in the valley to accomplish that.

Conrad realized that if he could make a profit hauling fruit to Ellensburg he could make even more with rail cars. With that idea the Wenatchee Produce Company was born and Conrad Rose became the first, large scale, fruit broker in the valley.

Their first office was a one-room shack on lower Orondo Street then a larger space on the Avenue downtown.

The fruit production of the valley was expanding rapidly and soon Rose saw it was time again to move to larger quarters with fruit storage capacity. He built a compound of connected buildings between North Wenatchee Avenue and the rail road tracks. The complex was 400 feet deep and had 400 feet of frontage on the Avenue and on the track side allowing for nine rail cars to be loaded at once.

Conrad Rose became wealthy. Then the Depression took it all away.

The market price of fruit hit bottom. Conrad never gave up on his growers. He bought the orchards of those who wanted out. He bought the fruit of those who wanted to stay, knowing that he would lose money when he sold it.

Through it all Conrad remained a friend to his friends and a champion supporter of the farmers whose crops he bought and sold.

Conrad Rose brought strength and a national reputation to the Wenatchee Valley fruit industry that continues to this day.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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