The Mill Creek Community:
Blending Lifestyles in an Environment that both Unifies and Divides
by Aaron Glade
 

The Mill Creek community survives in an uncommon tension of both unity and division.  Who lives “up Mill Creek,” what unifies this community, and what divides it?  A history of the area was described in a senior thesis submitted by Jesica Mitchell to the Environmental Studies and Sociology departments of Whitman College in 1997.  Jesica Mitchell explored, described, and explained the social dynamics of a community that was previously a mystery to many people.  The catalyst for this thesis was to explain the social activity in the Mill Creek community during the “three year flood” that took place on Mill Creek in 1996.  The following information about Mill Creek and its community was obtained from Jesica Mitchell’s 1996 senior thesis.

A Brief History

To understand the community that resides in the Mill Creek watershed we have to go back to the late 1800’s.  This was a time when America was expanding westward.  To promote expansion and development, homesteads were given to people who desired to move to Mill Creek and other rural areas in the west.  “A homestead is a plot of land on which an individual could live and improve, and at the end of three years, a certificate would be administered stating that the individual owned the land” (Mitchell, 1997, p. 26).  In 1894, 160 acres of land was given to a female homesteader.  On her land was a mineral springs which she used as a focal point for development, mainly a hotel.  In 1921, the city of Walla Walla decided that in order to meet the water needs of a growing population they were going to have to use Mill Creek as a water source.  This affected homesteaders, especially the woman with the hotel and mineral springs, because the use of Mill Creek water became more regulated.  By 1939, the owner of the mineral springs land and hotel had purchased most of the land along Mill Creek.  Her family obtained homesteads from others and used this land to start a cattle and strawberry business.  In 1968, there was a drastic change in the Mill Creek community.  The family that owned the cattle ranching and strawberry harvesting business decided to subdivide and sell of much of their land, some 200 lots.  Previously, there were only a few different families lived “up Mill Creek.”  After the subdivision, many different families moved into the watershed, and brought with them differing opinions of how Mill Creek and the area around it should be used.  Thus, today the Mill Creek community became the somewhat diverse group of families and individuals that it is today.

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Who Lives “up Mill Creek” and Why

“There are primarily three different categories of people who compose the Mill Creek community: the long-time landowners, the commuters, and the absentee residents…[T]he “long-time landowners” will be identified as those persons who have lived up in the Mill Creek community for almost all of their lives, and as a result have made their living off the land.  The second group of individuals who live up along the Mill Creek, but who make their living in town can be identified as “commuters.”  Individuals within this category make up a large portion of the Mill Creek community.  These people tend to have a dual identification—both with the geographic community in which they reside, as well as with the larger community of Walla Walla in which they work.  The last grouping of people are the “absentee residents” who consist primarily of summer-time cabin owners.  These people own property along Mill Creek, but only frequent the area in the summer-time; presumably, these people associate with the communities in which the reside for the majority of the year” (Mitchell, 1997, p. 29-30).

What Mitchell found was that the “long-time landowners” and the commuters created the base of the community.  Mitchell categorized the Mill Creek community as atypical.  What makes the Mill Creek community atypical, according to Mitchell, is that it doesn’t have the “binders” that you find in most communities:

“For example, this community lacks the traditional and customary binders that most communities have—like churches, schools, grocery stores, or gas stations.  [She] refers to organizations such as these as binders or potential binding forces for the community, because they generally are predictable places where members have the opportunity to come into contact with one another.  As a result of their interactions…community members often form meaningful relationships with one another”(Mitchell, 1997, p. 31).

Why the majority of residents choose to live in the Mill Creek watershed is simple, according to Mitchell: they want to get away from Walla Walla.  A few statements from interviews Mitchell conducted include:

“ ‘Walla Walla is a little too small to be a big town and a little too big to be a small town, and if you want to live in small town America then you may as well go whole hog, right?  It was nice to live up in the woods with the stream and stuff like that’

‘Came up here to stay out of town.  I don’t like town.  It looked like a very peaceful road and I liked the creek’

‘I really like it up there, and to get out of town’ ” (Mitchell, 1997, p. 28-9).

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These quotes mostly exhibit the viewpoint of people who have moved into the watershed from Walla Walla.  There are also those people who have lived on Mill Creek for most of their lives: the “long-time landowners.”  These residents are more likely to live there because their families have for years, because it is tradition and part of their culture. “All of the interviewees expressed their love for nature, the creek, and the woods as being their reason for living in this rural area” (Mitchell, 1997, p. 32).  This is also a unifying force among the residents of the Mill Creek watershed that will be discussed more later.

Bonding and Dividing Forces that Operate within the Mill Creek Community

Since the influx of residents into the Mill Creek watershed during the late 1960s and early 1970s there has been a history of inner conflict.  This has largely come about from a difference in the way that many of the “commuter residents” and the “long-term landowners” wish to see the Mill Creek watershed used or for that matter not used:
“ ‘The biggest issue with this particular community is probably the differences in education and interests.  I mean a lot of people up there are farmers, loggers.  And then you have people like us who are basically academics and we just in a lot of ways—we don’t have mutual interests, but we don’t have a whole lot in common.’

‘Preconceived notions, oh that guy is a red neck and the elite snobs of Whitman College and it is a real conflict because you have people like the old time landowners who are logging that area and making a living off of the land, to people who have summer cabins up there (which is probably half), then you have people who live there full-time as a getaway who want to preserve the area rather than make a living off of it.  A little microcosm of the old folks of the West, you know the ranchers and cattlemen/loggers sort of people, and people who are buying cabins, like myself, who like the woods and appreciate the woods.  So it is hard to make a community out of it’

‘What ends up being one of the communists and catalysts is the natural environment, but right off of that is how the expectations of the use of that natural environment makes the community divided’ ”  (Mitchell, 1997, p. 29, 32-3).

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Essentially, socioeconomic factors along with land-use ethics constantly polarize social groups of residents in the Mill Creek Watershed.  The lack of “binders” in the Mill Creek community only makes these dividing forces stronger.  However, there are commonalities among the members of the Mill Creek community that do bond them.  One of these bonding forces is the sense of isolation that people get from living “up Mill Creek.”  “The isolation tends to make you rely at anytime on your neighbors.  If you run out of sugar you don’t go to town, you go to the neighbor’s to get some” (Mitchell, 1997, p. 32).  The second bonding force is the natural environment.  As mentioned earlier, many people live “up Mill Creek” because they love being in nature.  This lifestyle choice has created a sense of identity common to the residents of the Mill Creek watershed.

Ultimately, the dividing forces tend to win and keep the residents of Mill Creek in opposition to one another.  However, these dividing moments disappear and the residents of Mill Creek shine as a community when they are threatened by outside development or internal natural disaster.  In the mid-eighties, the city of Walla Walla began a project to install a large water transmission line that would carry water from the watershed above Mill Creek area into the city.  This was done without consulting the residents of the Mill Creek area.  When residents became aware of the sizeable transmission line they formed the Mill Creek Protection Agency.  In the end, the ensuing legal battle forced the city to follow special guidelines such as maintaining a minimum stream flow.  This battle bonded the Mill Creek community during its duration.

Another instance of external threat bonded the residents of the Mill Creek watershed in 1980, 1991, and 1996.  The Federal Highway Administration attempted to widen and pave the road along Mill Creek in Umatilla County.  This was met with fierce opposition from the Mill Creek community.  “ ‘The Federal Highway Administration wanted to pave the road and widen it up there.  Once again we were a community.  Between those times we ain’t much of a community.’ ‘The city wanting to put a city water line in, and the Federal Highway Administration wanting to pave the road, were unifying the community prior to the flood.  And usually everybody forgets their differences.  You will find the Whitman people talking to the loggers and stuff like that’ ” (Mitchell, 1997, p. 36).

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When natural disasters strike the Mill Creek community, they react as a community.  This happened as recently as 1996 when the “thirty year flood” charged down the creek threatening and damaging the property of many local residents.  “ ‘During the flood, I think that conflicts were completely suppressed.  There was an effort to make sure everybody was okay—to walk up and down to see peoples’ property and see what we could do for anybody.  No, at the time of the flood, I think all of those conflicts were suppressed.  It was much more about neighbors helping neighbors’ ” (Mitchell, 1997, p. 39).  Neighbors were helping to sandbag each others’ houses and move belongings to higher ground.  The unifying identity of isolation from Walla Walla grew in strength also.

“ ‘My neighbor and I and two to three other people, we had some signs made up—just landowners only.  And we started ID(ing) people and if they didn’t have land up there we just forcibly sent them back home…I sent a guy home who had a pillowcase.  Well there was two of them and they had a muddy pillowcase and they had a video camera and some other stuff in it and they claimed it was theirs, but I am sure it wasn’t because there was mud and dirt and if it was theirs they would have taken better care of it.  It wouldn’t have been like it had mud all over it.  So I personally sent some people back because I was sure the were picking things that weren’t theirs’ ”(Mitchell, 1997, p. 41).

It should be noted that following both natural disasters and outside threats, the Mill Creek community reverts to its old ways.  After the flooding and outside threat of looters subsided, the residents of the Mill Creek watershed began arguing about what should be done in terms of rerouting Mill Creek.  The Mill Creek community currently is struggling with many of the same internal and structural problems that it has for years.  The Mill Creek community is a testament to peoples’ willingness to put aside their differences in order to combat greater problems.
 

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