2019 Pioneer of the Year - Don Thomas Family
September 12, 2019
WAITSBURG—This year the Waitsburg Historical Society honors the Don Thomas Family as 2019 Pioneers of the Year. Thomas’ sons, Gary and Jay recently sat down with The Times to share a bit of family history and recount favorite memories.
Don Thomas was born in 1915 in Urbana, Missouri to Elijah Streeter Thomas and Abigail (Clymore). When Don was 5, his parents and two brothers, Rod and Mike, moved to the area and soon purchased land near Prescott, on Smith Springs Road, from Elijah’s brothers, Oliver and Jesse Thomas, who had already settled in the area. Oliver and Jesse moved to Washtucna, and Elijah took over the wheat farm.
Elijah passed away in 1940. Rod and Mike had enlisted in the service, leaving Don to operate the Prescott farm.
In 1941, Don married Wilma Jean Waggoner, daughter of Oscar and Arnetta Waggoner, who was born and raised in Walla Walla. The Waggoner family owned and operated The Waggoner Farm, a 761-acre Centennial Farm for 128 years. The farm was sold to Derek Duke of Duke Farms in 2010 as an investment property and is still farmed today. After the sale, one family member purchased back the farmhouse and 20 acres for their own use.
Don and Wilma farmed in Prescott until 1945 when Don leased Preston Farm, off Middle Waitsburg Road, where they farmed wheat and raised cattle. Don and Wilma had four children, Donna (1942), Gary (1945), Dwight (1952) and Jay (1954). The farm is still operated by son, Jay, who took over operations in 1986.
All of the children attended school and grew up in Waitsburg. Jay and Gary shared some favorite memories with The Times.
The men recalled that harvest meals were eaten in the basement kitchen, with the crew seated around a large table. Jay recalls being the first at the table for a harvest lunch, with no one else in the room, when he heard a loud crash. Wilma was removing a cherry pie from the oven when she lost her grip and it flipped upside down on the oven door.
“She looked up at me with a smile and said, ‘It’s a cobbler!’ It was instantaneous,” Jay said.
Don had a love of raising and breeding animals and they usually had between 80 to 120 head of Angus cattle in a registered herd.
Don imported two Australian cattle dogs and raised heelers which were sold in the area, as well as in Texas and Iowa where they were popular for use on hog farms.
But the real fun began when the family began raising mules, which led to multiple adventures.
Jay recalls dinner table talk of Don wanting a combine mule hitch back in the 1970s. One day Don and Wilma left for California to pick out a couple of “fancy show steers” for Jay’s senior year in high school, leaving Jay to tend the farm.
“I heard the truck pull up and ran out on the porch and I could see eight ears sticking up. There were these eight-month-old mules,” said Jay, who later discovered his steers behind a panel in the truck.
“We unloaded them and the rest is history. I fell in love with the mules and became a full-blown slave,” Jay said, laughing.
The mules became an integral part of the farm and Thomas family life, in general. The family hosted plow days, gave demonstrations and showed the mules in draft horse shows in Sandpoint, Ida. and Eugene, Ore. And they could always be counted on to provide rides at Waitsburg’s Pioneer Fall Festival.
The mules are probably best known locally for their appearance in a 1978 Rainier Beer Commercial promoting the new “cold pack” with “foil all ‘round them 12 cans and no holes lettin’ the air in.” (The commercially, which aired nationally, was produced by current Waitsburg resident Karen Stanton-Gregutt, who was unfamiliar with Waitsburg at the time.)
Jay recalls starting the day at 2:30 a.m. to harness up the mules, getting to the field at 4:30 a.m. and not wrapping up until 4:30 p.m.
“They shot 2800 feet of film and used about 18 feet for the commercial,” he said.
In the commercial, a pair of mules pull a cart hauling a massive case of beer. Jay rode a mule while Don sat atop the case of beer. Gary can’t be seen in the commercial but provided the “mechanics” of the operation by hiding inside the box and flipping up the beer case handle when Don pulled a wooden handle on the side of the cart.
Gary, Jay, Don and their wives even got to meet and ride with comedian Bob Hope when the mules were requested to pull a stagecoach and let Hope out on stage in Pendleton, Ore. where he was performing at a political event.
In 1976, the mules pulled the Walla Walla 59ers stagecoach on a ride from Waitsburg to Spokane as part of the bicentennial celebration.
Today, Donna resides in Puyallup where she is a retired beautician and bus driver. She has a son and daughter, Tom and Tammy.
Dwight recently retired as a pharmacist and lives in Cheney, Wash. He has three girls, Stacy, Kelly and Stephanie.
Gary lives in Waitsburg and was 2014 Celebration Days Parade Marshal. He has three daughters, Marnie, Taryn and Courtney.
Jay continues to reside on Preston Ranch where he keeps the family farm operating.
Article by Dena Martin, Editor, Waitsburg Times