Cashup Davis History: at Steptoe Butte 


Constructed and operated by "Cashup" Davis

See the large observatory on the roof? Up there was a very large and expensive telescope. On a clear day one could see the snow weighted slopes of the Cascades with it. An accidental fire burned it down, and today the whole butte is a state park to be enjoyed by all the people for ever and ever. One man worked a large part of his life to acquire the land and then he gave it to the state and helped to develop it until his death at 93 years. His name was Virgil T. McCroskey. Of Virgil's inspiration, Bert Gamble wrote:

After cremation scatter me
Over McCroskey's grass;
Where bold March chinooks come
bold and free,
Where rain and wild geese pass.

High upon Steptoe Butte I'll dream
Where sunflowers nod and sway
So near to God and stars that gleam
While eons roll away.

Born in 1815 in Hastings, England, Davis had crossed the Atlantic in 1840 because he believed in the American concept of freedom and self-reliance. He married Mary Ann Shoemaker of Columbus, Ohio in 1844 and the couple raised eleven children, all who survived infancy, before decided to cross the Plains. The Davis's joined thousands of other in moving West by covered wagon in 1871 where they settled near McMinnville, Oregon. The following year Davis scouted out eastern Washington for a more favorable home site and selected property near present day Thornton, but when he returned with his family he found the spot was already occupied. With vast tracts throughout the Palouse still unclaimed, Davis selected another location to the south on the present site of St. John in 1872. The family built a two-room sod house in a side hill and raised livestock, wheat, and oats for two years before erecting a substantial ten-room house. In a letter to the couple's son William, who had remained in the Midwest. Davis described his new surroundings:

"We are all well and in good spirits, now you wanted to know something about this country. In the first place this is a vast rolling prairie. In some places it is hilly with beautiful springs and streams of water. The country is one vast pasturage of grass. Its fattening qualities are unsurpassed by any in the world."

In 1875 the Davis family relocated to Cottonwood Springs in the shadow of Steptoe Butte near present day town of Cashup. Here Davis purchased 1600 acres of prime land from the Northern Pacific Railroad for $2.60 an acre to begin a successful farming and business operation. His home site located on a popular frontier trail between Colfax and Spokane, Davis decided to open a general store on the main floor of the family's new home and a dance hall and rooms were added on the second story. The Davis ranch soon developed into a popular way-station for stagecoach drivers and their passengers and teams. The pleasant aroma of Mary Ann's baking was known to colorful drivers like Felix Warren and others who frequently passed along the route. Passengers as well as old friends would often spend the night entertained by the music of the Davis family and James' tales of life in Europe and the East. The sudden outbreak of the Nez Perce Indian War of 1877 stirred a panic in the Palouse that nearly drove the Davis's and others from the region. Although the fighting broke out in the Clearwater River district far to the southeast, rumors that Indians were fanning out across the Palouse to raid isolated farms caused many pioneers to cluster in hastily built forts in Colfax, Palouse, and Spangle. Davis refused to leave his home but sent his wife and some of their children to safety in Walla Walla. A poignant letter from Mary Ann Davis headlined "Tucannon, July22, 1877" reveals the challenges of life on the Palouse frontier during this period:

"Dear children, I once more take my pencil for I've no pen. We are fleeing from the Indians. They have broke out and are killing settlers, about forty miles from our house and people are fleeing for their lives. The roads are full of people leaving their homes and everything behind. It's an awful thing. We are on our way to Walla Walla.... Your father and Clarence stayed home to watch the place. Our horses, hogs, and cattle are behind. We got 32 head of horses and colts, and 100 head of cattle, and 100 head of hogs. We expect to hear of our house being burned and everything destroyed we have.... My health is poor, my heart troubles me. I sure hope I get better soon. Dear children, shall we ever meet here again."

To Mary Ann's relief, the warring Nez Perce under Chief Joseph headed east across the Rocky Mountains and she was soon able to be reunited with her husband back in the Palouse. James Davis's gregarious personality won him many friends throughout the region and over the years "Steptoe Station" developed into the most popular inn in the Palouse. The Davis ranch became s social center for the farming families of the area who often gathered for holiday celebrations and community dances. Davis's pioneer enterprises prospered and he became known as someone who had cash money whenever he needed to complete a business transaction. Since many settlers often relied on credit for much of the year, Davis's trademark saying of "cash-up" earned himself the nickname "Cashup". Inthe spring of 1879 the Davis home was visited by a reporter from Colfax's Palouse Gazette who reported that: the family had some 200 acres under cultivation and 4,000 bushels of wheat, oats, and barley in the granary. "He has an abundant supply of garden products, and during the past year his dairy has produced some 3,000 pounds of butter, worth an average of 30 cents per pound. The in-door work, no small part of the whole for his hospitable home is a sort of hotel, is done by his wife and two daughters. I mention this to show what industry will do in a country where nature has done so much. The following account of an 1880 New Year's party with some thirty "pleasure seekers" at the Davis ranch reveals that Palouse Country pioneering was not all hard labor and Indian scares. "Soon after 7 o'clock we reached the hospitable domicile of Mr. Davis, and were heartily received by that gentleman and his family although we were not expected and the family was on the eve of retiring for the night. After we had removed our wraps...we were escorted by our host to the hall and imagine our surprise at finding here the best and most comfortable dancing hall in the Palouse. The building is 60x30 feet and two stories high. The upper story is exclusively set apart for a hall and is provided with comfortable seats, and music stand, and is well lighted and heated." "Immediately on entering the hall, the Privett string bank which accompanied us, struck up a waltz and the jolly company indulged in a delightful whirl which was followed in quick succession by various other dances for a period of two hours when supper was announced and we all repaired to the dining room and eagerly devoured the bountiful repast that was spread before us. Supper over, we returned to the hall and resumed dancing which was kept up until the small hours of the morning." Cashup himself was known to play the sailor's hornpipe and dance the Virginia Reel at these fun-filled affairs. One observer described the Englishman as "short in stature, thin of face, with a close-cut stubby beard and hair as white as snow and fond of his high silk hat. The advent of railroads across the Northwest meant an end to the stagecoach era and the big barns used for the stagecoach teams grew silent as business declined at Steptoe Station. Cashup Davis's friendly nature sought a new venture that would once again bring crowds to his household and in the 1880s he launched the project that would become both his cause and curse--a hotel on top of Steptoe Butte. In the spring of 1888 Davis undertook the Herculean task of building a road to the top of the butte and hauling thousands of board feet of lumber and construction equipment. He purchased property at the top of the butte that year from the O.W.R.&N. Railway. Some accounts record that he invested $10,000 into the venture, a fortune at the time, to build a majestic two-story structure sixty by sixty-four feet. The lower floor featured a sixty foot long hall and stage with kitchen and private quarters for the Davis's. Mrs. Davis, however, chose to spend most of her time in the family home at the foot of the butte. Guest rooms and a large dining hall that could accommodate up to fifty persons were located on the second story. Crowning the building was an intricately carved balcony railing surrounding a glass-walled cupola fourteen feet wide that was used for a reading room and observatory. Cashup purchased a powerful brass telescope to view the surrounding countryside and the immense structure itself was visible atop the butte for miles around. Visitors marveled that the snow-laden peaks of the Cascade range were visible through the instrument on clear days. Graders and carpenters worked feverishly into the summer of 1888 on the vast undertaking to meet Davis's goal of a grand opening on the Fourth of July. Davis adorned his office and showroom with clustered sheaves of wheat, barley and other Palouse Country produce along with colorful flags and wallpaper. A beautifully crafted double-door entry with beveled glass provided a distinguished entry to his mountaintop pavilion. Cashup invited guests to visit his hotel for rest and to gain the same inspiration that he derived from the commanding heights. But his colossal shrine the the land he had so come to love proved to be an unwise investment. After the novelty of a trip to the top of the butte, few area residents risked the expense and ordeal of travel up the primitive road where there was little entertainment once the crowds failed to materialize. After several years of operation, Davis became a solitary figure in his Palouse Country castle, the forlorn image of a man devoted to a place that was impractical to share with others. Area resident George McCroskey recalled that Davis's hotel did serve as a popular destination for the first few years. The young farm boy would often travel to the top of the butte with his brother, Virgil, to visit the old proprietor. Although the country was sparsely settled and roads and travel accommodations poor, hundreds visited the resort each season, but not enough to make the venture pay. But Cashup stayed on, at first with someone to help him, but in later years he alone occupied the big house, a lonely and dejected figure, patiently waiting for the crowds which seldom came. When occasional parties ascended the mountain, he would brighten up and was glad, but when they began to leave, tears would come to his old eyes. Mary Ann died in 1894 and the old hostler continued to live in lonely splendor atop the butte until he passed away there at the age of 81 on the morning of June 22, 1896. An accidental fire started by two young boys on the night of March 15, 1908 reduced the grand structure to flames in a spectacle visible throughout the county and removed forever one of the region's most fascinating landmarks.

FROM: Sacred Slopes: A History of Steptoe Butte,
by John Sheuerman and the Class of 2003, St. John Public Schools.
(Emily Peone interviews, 1982)

Now that's what I call a monument. Behind the right photo you can just see the top of Step Toe Butte.