When Celia McBride sold one of Issaquah’s last working farms, she took two truckloads of dirt with her.
It was dirt her family had farmed for more than 120 years — dirt that helped support six generations of her family, stretching back to the homestead her great-great-great grandparents settled in 1883.
“There’s dirt and then there’s real dirt,” McBride said recently while standing on the 12½-acre property. “This dirt was farmed year after year. It’s real dirt. You can’t get it in a bag.”
To McBride, “real dirt,” and the farming lifestyle it nurtures, are disappearing as quickly as homes are sprouting up in Issaquah.
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The family sold the self-sustaining farm on June 30 to be developed into 40 single-family homes much like the subdivisions that border it from all sides.
McBride moved to the farm when she was 5 and eventually took over 1.5 acres of the property, where she lived with her husband and children. Her father and two brothers, Jim and Greg, did the same, making the land host to four households of McBrides when it was sold.
The farm functioned as a hand-to-mouth operation, with a chicken coop, dairy cows and a large garden that provided most of the family’s food when McBride was growing up.
She recently returned to the property for a last look along with relatives, including her 97-year-old father, Ralph McBride, who raised 11 children on the property and farmed the land for 55 years, and his brother, Leslie McBride, 91.
As Celia McBride looked around the mostly empty land, she said, “There used to be a real spirit here, it was the center of the family, full of activity. But now that’s just gone.”
Constraints of growth
The demise of family farms like the McBrides’ is not new.
Other farms in the area began disappearing rapidly in the 1970s. The pace of development then picked up in the 1980s with the construction of the Klahanie neighborhood nearby.
By 2000, the previously unincorporated area surrounding the McBride property was annexed to the city of Issaquah.
A boom in housing construction followed. From 2000 to 2013, the number of housing units in the city went from 5,195 to 14,684, according to the U.S. Census. The population during that time grew from 11,212 to 33,566.
This growth also brought financial constraints for the McBride farm.
“With my parents setting up their estate there wasn’t any other thing for us to do financially [but sell],” said Jim McBride, who oversaw the sale. “All my parents’ wealth was in that land and we couldn’t afford to pay the taxes that come with inheriting it at the current property value.”
The McBrides sold the property for $4.5 million to housing developer Wescott Holdings, which later sold it to Pulte Homes, one of the largest housing developers in the nation. The new subdivision will be called Avery Pointe and is set to open in early 2015, a spokeswoman for Pulte said.
Peter Rosen, an environmental and city planner for Issaquah, said that while housing development has transformed the city, officials have also taken efforts to control growth, including requiring four acres of open space for every acre in one of the city’s largest communities, Highland Park.
“I think a central theme in the development of Issaquah has been trying to concentrate urban growth and keep access to those open spaces. It’s about having that vital growth but also keeping the natural characteristics,” Rosen said.
Erica Maniez, director for the Issaquah History Museums, said the city also has had to find a balance between development and preserving the area’s rural history.
“That farm resonated with a lot of people who had been living in Issaquah a long time,” Maniez said. “Losing a place like that is unfortunate, but you also have to realize it’s a part of the ongoing history of Issaquah. You can’t put an acrylic case over the town and preserve it just like it is, so you just work to preserve the meaning of the history that was there.”
A line of women
Rachel Mercer Vaughan and her husband, John Vaughan, Celia’s great-great-great grandparents, were the first to settle near what would become the McBride farm in 1883 on land that is still called Vaughan’s Hill.
Rachel’s trip west followed that of her brother, Thomas Mercer, a pioneer of the Puget Sound area and the namesake of both Mercer Island and Seattle’s Mercer Street.
Rachel and John Vaughan’s daughter, Abbie, married Mahlon Eastlick in 1875. Mahlon Eastlick bought the original 640-acre family homestead from the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1890.
From there, the farm was passed down through a line of women.
Abbie Eastlick’s daughter, Helen Eastlick Keegan, took over 40 acres of the original homestead in1922 with her husband, Frank Keegan, an English immigrant.
Celia McBride still has a picture of her grandmother Helen at around age 8 standing next to a cherry tree sapling no taller than she was. The tree is still standing, Celia points out, now full grown at about 25 feet and brimming with cherries every year.
One of Helen’s seven daughters, Noreen Keegan McBride, and her husband, Ralph McBride, Celia’s parents, took over the remaining 12.5 acres of the farm in 1959 after Helen and Frank sold some of the property in the 1950s.
It was then that the farm shifted from the sole livelihood of the family into what it was until recently: a hand-to-mouth farm and primary source of food for Ralph, Noreen and their 11 children.
Three McBride children, Celia, Greg and Jim, in time each took over 1.5-acre properties carved out of the land where they raised their families and helped manage the farming duties. Noreen and Ralph would remain the last generation to grow into old age on the farm.
The McBrides grew berries, corn, string beans, carrots, potatoes and large fruit trees, among other crops, and raised cows, chickens, pigs and horses.
A World War II veteran, Ralph McBride worked as an electrical manager after he got home from the war and was employed well into his 80s. He would come home to work in the garden and manage the animals after work and on the weekends.
“Ralph was out there farming up until last year — at age 96. He was still splitting wood last year,” Celia’s cousin Doug McBride said. “Every time you came here to visit you would leave with a box full of vegetables.”
Beyond his love of farming, Ralph McBride also was known for his feisty resistance of the development of Issaquah and the sale of the land that many considered inevitable.
“They used to call him the mayor of the plateau because he called the city so much,” Celia said. “He would call when they chopped down 100-year-old trees on the hill. He had wetland issues, traffic issues, deer-overcrowding-on-his-property issues. He had strong opinions about the ways animals should be treated. He called all the time, but he seldom won the fight.”
After years of fighting, the eventual sale was hard on Ralph McBride, compounded by complications from memory loss.
As the family walked through the property, Ralph McBride kept returning to the 1920s farmhouse where he had lived for 55 years with his wife, who died earlier this year at the age of 91.
“She died in the same room that her mom died in, that her dad died in, that my brother Kevin died in up there at the house,” Celia McBride said. “Part of me also thinks though, that she didn’t want to be around to see us sell the farm.”
On their final visit to the property after the sale, Ralph McBride was quiet most of the day. He made holes in the dirt with his cane, like he was about to plant a seed. As the group of McBrides walked to their cars to leave, however, he looked over to his daughter Celia and said, “There is a lot of history here.”
Since the sale, Ralph McBride moved in with Celia’s family in Carnation.
“Now we’re living in a covenant neighborhood for the first time in my life and it’s a challenge,” Celia said. “Everybody gets to decide what color your door is.”
Celia is also dissatisfied with the land on which her new home sits.
“It’s just terrible,” she said. “I can’t even get into it with a huge pick ax. It’s like solid clay or something. That’s not real dirt.”
Erin Heffernan can be reached at email@example.com or 206-464-3249.