Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from “Cashup Davis: The Inspiring Life of a Secret Mentor,” by Jeff Burnside and Gordon W. Davis (Basalt Books, Aug. 15, 2022, $18.95 paperback; available at basaltbooks.wsu.edu and at Pacific Northwest booksellers; see cashupdavis.com).
“The mountain became a motto to the man.”
— New York Evening Post article about Cashup Davis
CASHUP DAVIS STOOD on the 14-by-14-foot cupola atop his new hotel, perched on one of the highest points in all of the Palouse — Steptoe Butte, which he now owned — and looked out over every homestead and every town from horizon to horizon: “a land of peace and plenty.” Davis’ lavish hotel was ready to open with great fanfare on July 4, 1888, honoring the birthday of his adopted nation.
At that very moment, he had a lifetime on which to reflect. The confident, short, charismatic British kid who came to the United States with an obsession for the American West now was standing over a region that was the very definition of the western edge of settlement. He had beaten the odds. He had proved his doubters wrong. He had stuck to his vision. His heart was full. Davis would be forgiven for feeling like a king.
Indeed, the castles that surrounded him during his childhood in southern England plausibly did inspire him to build his own castle, in sparking his vision, in imagining this hotel.
Residents all around the Palouse and newspapers across the nation were talking about his hotel. “A balloon ascension and fireworks will be features of the occasion, while the evening will be devoted to dancing,” reported The Lewiston Teller and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Within a short time, Steptoe will be the most attractive place for a visitor in the whole inland country,” reported the Spokane Falls Review.
Davis, so determined, spent much of his fortune on it. Pioneers must have looked on in envy that someone could complete such a project. As one newspaper put it, “He was known as the money king of the Palouse country.”
DAVIS’ GUESTS began arriving.
The first sight they encountered upon entering the front doors was a large, ornate ballroom 60 feet long and 44 feet wide, dominating the main floor, with a kitchen, and a stage that held performances of all kinds to dazzle his guests: orchestras; singing; a recital; Chautauqua features; “Punch and Judy” shows of the era; and a “magic lantern” box with viewfinders using smoke, mirrors and focused sources of light (two years before electricity came to nearby Farmington).
In an alcove near the entrance, they saw Davis’ display of the crops of the Palouse: “beautifully decorated with all the grains, fruits and cereals that are available in this country.” He was a one-man Chamber of Commerce. On the walls in this display room were framed sketches of world-famous people, bridges, boulevards, steamships and cities, including a scene of New York Harbor near Pier 15, where Davis had arrived from England.
It all seemed to applaud grandeur and the immense possibility of industry. And that the Palouse was right up there with the big boys. It was so Cashup.
GUESTS RINGED THE ballroom from a balcony, looking down at the dancing and hubbub below. The second floor also had a dining room for 50 people. From that balcony, guests accessed their rooms, “fitted up in comfortable style and every convenience and attraction … to make time pass in this great Northwestern pleasure resort like a happy dream,” the Spokane Falls Review wrote.
As the guests filed throughout the hotel, they saw hand-carved wood trim — an elegance that evoked the finest quarters of Paris or New York. Davis’ hotel was not by any means as ornate as the world’s great hotels. But it made these tough pioneers feel pretty special.
The most important guests were invited into a lounge that served as Davis’ private quarters — a VIP room, of sorts, where he could hold conversations. It was a showcase of his life. A photograph of Davis in this room shows him sporting his trimmed white beard, sitting upright in an armchair wearing a full suit, vest, white shirt and tie. His fingers are holding his place in the open book resting on his knee.
On the walls, he had hung sketches important to him. His lounge also included a rare microscope, a stereoscope photo viewer, an elaborate heating stove (a new product in America) and Davis’ prized possessions: his top hat, his telescope and the sword he carried by hand when immigrating to the United States from England in 1841.
THIS DAY, JULY 4, 1888, Davis worked the crowd, “beguiling his visitors,” to make them feel welcome, as he had done so successfully at his famous stagecoach stop just down the road. “In all that time of stress,” wrote S.C. Roberts, who was close to Davis and his family and who wrote pioneer essays for local newspapers, “he met every guest as though he were a notable dignitary, and entertained him royally.”
Davis brought in a 10-piece horn section with a percussionist, likely led by Cy and Andy Privett of Colfax, who had been so popular at his stage stop. The guests celebrated under those fireworks and that hot-air balloon ascension and kept dancing until dawn.
His first day was a smashing success. And it made for a future of near-certain popularity. To help ensure that, Davis wisely coordinated an 1888 horse-and-buggy version of a shuttle van for his guests to get up to the summit and navigate the sometimes-harrowing, winding road carved into the steep slope. It wrapped around the butte several times and switched back and forth as it snaked upward to the summit, where guests were dropped off at the front door like royalty.
As only he could do, Davis, a celebrity in his own right, hired a celebrity stage driver to run the shuttle. His name was Miles Kelly Hill. Everyone knew him by his nickname: Shorty. He had driven stage for the legendary Felix Warren and had stopped many times at Davis’ stage stop. Shorty had a reputation as the best bronco rider and stagecoach driver around. And he was, like Davis, entertaining, on the short side and full of charisma.
“It’s pretty darn steep at the top and pretty narrow,” says Dave Wahl, a cowboy poet in his 80s living in Genesee, Idaho, who, as a young boy, grew up listening to Shorty’s extraordinary stories, including about Davis’ hotel. “In those days, it was all gravel, and it was more narrow and steeper and more windy,” says Wahl. He described Shorty thus: “He was bowlegged as a wish bone you could walk a pony through.”
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS STILL uncommon in 1880s Palouse, but Davis gathered 114 guests, family members and friends to pose for a photo outside the hotel one day early on.
There are conflicting dates attributed to the photo. Scribbled in white on the photograph, as was normal back then, it says inside a hand-drawn scroll: “STEPTOE BUTTE 3800 FEET HIGH. THE BEST PLACE IN WASHINGTON TO GET A GOOD VIEW OF THE COUNTRY.” Then to the right, the same scribbler wrote, “WE ARE WAITING FOR THE CAR.” To the far left is a surrey without a horse. Perhaps it was Shorty’s, waiting to take guests back down the butte that day.
In the foreground, a ladder and stone rubble affirm the photo might indeed have been taken on the day of the grand opening. The people stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the hotel, and still more are lining the cupola on the third floor. There is a 10-piece horn band with a drummer. People are wearing their finest clothes: men in dark suits with white shirts and dark bowler hats, women in long full dresses tightly fitted around the torso, their heads festooned with big flailing hats.
Sitting in front is Davis, flagged in a sea of dark suits by his cloud-white hair and beard.
THE MAIN ATTRACTION of the hotel was Davis. But the second bill was perched at the top inside that observatory and reading room: the large brass telescope. In 1888, people had never seen anything like it. The Lewiston Teller and Seattle Post-Intelligencer pronounced: “A peep through the big telescope is worth the 25 cents charge for admission.”
Just after the grand opening, an authoritative book reported about the telescope. “With its aid, a view, scarcely to be paralleled in the country, is spread out like a map. A foreground of vast rolling plains checkered with grain fields; a background of towering mountains, rising, tier on tier, till they break at last against the barriers of eternal frost — such is the outlook which daily greets the vision of this brave old pioneer of the Palouse.” “Cashup’s Pride,” it was called by some.
“When Mr. Davis purchased this historical hill, many of his friends thought he was out of his head, but those who have visited the place have changed their minds wonderfully,” gushed the Spokane Falls Review. “Cash Up can not be other than voted an enterprising and progressive man. His advertising the butte as he is not only benefits himself, but the entire country and community.”
DAVIS KNEW HE had a good thing going. And he sought to invest in his hotel and his Steptoe Butte operations with improvements and events. In about 1890, he added a covered porch around the entire hotel that was 10 feet deep, creating more floor space for large crowds and allowing people to relax outside while taking in that view.
He planned a convention at the hotel to bring together Native American leaders and American historians to clarify that, contrary to popular belief at the time, the Battle of Pine Creek had not taken place on Steptoe Butte. He knew he no longer could claim that his hotel was the site of this battle, but it surely could be the site of that discussion.
In May 1891, Davis hosted a “temperance ball” at the hotel, celebrating the era’s push against alcohol. The period was called “the second wave of temperance.” Alcohol was a problem in many areas of the United States, including the pioneer west, where saloons were plentiful. Fundamentalist religion was quite prevalent on the Palouse, and local churches worked toward temperance.
Davis’ hotel, and his stage stop before that, was known for parties and good times, so he was eager to demonstrate to the community that they could have fun without alcohol.
DAVIS’ APPLE TREES, planted along the slopes of the butte, were mature and in full production now. As a result of his wise varietal planting, he provided his hotel guests with fresh apples many months of the harvest season. The apple trees, while now partly covered in overgrowth, still produce delicious and rare varieties of apples, left to the deer and other wildlife.
The success of the hotel paralleled the expansion and productivity of the Palouse. Electricity lines gradually were built. Cars were still more than a decade away, but new railroad lines continued to slice the region and, with them, boost commerce and bring more people to the area. The Territory of Washington became the State of Washington just 17 months after the hotel opened.
One newspaper account said Davis was considering building a monument to pioneers at the top. And he told people that he wanted to be buried at the summit; he even had a shovel with which he himself someday would dig his own grave.
Davis had achieved such prominence that, according to the Garfield Enterprise, there “has been considerable discussion on the various local papers concerning the name of a noted landmark” renaming Steptoe Butte to “Cashup’s Butte” or something similar.
BUT, AS ALMOST anyone who achieves great success can attest, Davis had detractors. And things got a little ugly. The ugliest might have come from The Spangle Record, which wrote a scathing, personal attack on Davis, saying, “Mr. Davis was high cockalorem in the Palouse country,” an old phrase that means a little man who incorrectly has a very high opinion of himself; low-level and unimportant.
Ouch. It got worse. The newspaper writer accused Davis of taking advantage of farmers desperate for cash, claiming he famously offered to pay in cash but then would use that offer to get a low price, then haggle the price further downward, make the deal — but pay half in cash and half “in a few days, when the Portland mail comes.” Without attribution, the article reported, “One settler says men have grown old and died of old age waiting for the ‘balance’ on the ‘Cash-Up’ trade.”
Given Davis’ abundant self-confidence — and some arrogance — he likely drew energy from his detractors and pushed even harder.
A New York newspaper reporter put it this way: “I think in some way, ‘Cashup’ and Steptoe drew little by little nearer together, because they are so similar. Both are sturdy, upright, downright individuals, maintaining the dignity of higher plateaus amid the lower range by which they are surrounded. The subtle air or the swift wind could not affect the integrity of either. I think somehow the mountain became a motto to the man, and he demanded from and gave to his neighbors its sheer and undeviating honesty.”
The Spokane Falls Review wrote of Davis and his successful hotel, “There he has built an imperishable monument to himself in the form of his observatory and other buildings [overlooking] the fertile land at the foot of his castle.”
What made the hotel so special was that it perched on top of one of the greatest heights on the Palouse. Yet that great height also would be its greatest downfall, as Cashup Davis was about to learn.