Lauren Smith frequently drives by a mural in Orchards depicting local life in the early 1900s. The 70-foot-long mural has a prune-picking family standing in front of an orchard, Mount St. Helens (with its top), the Orchards Feed Mill and the Orchards-Sifton streetcar.
It’s a lot packed into a single scene — one that confused Smith.
Curious about the history of the mural and clock courtyard at Northeast Covington Road and Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard, she recently submitted a question to The Columbian’s Clark Asks feature.
“I’ve always been a very inquisitive person, especially when it comes to the local community. I love to learn about the history behind specific artwork or areas in Clark County,” she said in an email. “One of the things that always caught my attention was the fact that the mural depicts the Orchards Feed Mill as well as a train station — yet as far as I know, there is not a railroad track near the current Orchards Feed Mill. Overall, I’m really curious to find out what person or group was responsible for the mural’s creation, and the story behind what the mural is depicting.”
The main artist behind the mural, Guy Drennan, explained that the scene is a composite of several historic photos. In 2002, tasked with painting a mural that shows how Orchards got its name, he went to the Clark County Historical Society with Linda Peterson and was directed to a filing cabinet full of photos. The resulting mural mushes together a few images they photocopied.
“Fourth Plain was lined with prune drying operations,” Drennan said.
Clark County once claimed to be the prune capital of the U.S. and had dozens of prune dryers and orchards, and even a couple of canneries. Yes, prunes are the main reason Orchards is called Orchards.
One of the photos Drennan used was taken in 1901 and shows a prune-picking family. Second from the left is James Rudolph Wishon; three of his daughters are alive today and still live in the area.
Sharon York, 74, was reading The Columbian when she saw a blurb about Smith’s question. So, she reached out to the newspaper to explain the family connection.
“I feel a little proud that it’s Vancouver history,” York said.
Her father was 9 years old when the original photo was taken; he later went on to have his own farm with a plum orchard and sawmill. He also had nine children.
York and her older sisters, Dianne Underwood, 76, and Patricia Buzzini, 85, are the only ones remaining. They all gathered last month at Burgerville across from the mural to tell The Columbian a bit about their family.
“We all picked prunes as kids,” Underwood said.
Their parents had them picking prunes at a young age because they could crawl up into the tree and gather the fruit near the top.
Underwood lives on Livingston Mountain on part of her parents’ original property, which she said is not the orchard pictured in the mural. However, she said the small farm house in the mural looks similar to their childhood home.
Buzzini smiled as Underwood read the caption that accompanied the photo when it was reprinted in The Columbian on Sept. 21, 1967, with the help of their father. “Wishon says others in the photo (from left) are his brother Robert Wishon (still residing here), Maggie Tomlinson, Janie Wright, Bertha Tomlinson, Myra Lowery (his mother), May Wright, Lucas Lowery (his stepfather) and Delmar Lowery (a half-brother).”
Like true sisters, the three blew raspberries at each other as they sat around a table discussing and debating their family history. They have always been close and try to get together every month, but they’re busy with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and Underwood has a great-great-grandchild on the way.
None of them knew their family would be in the mural, so it was a surprise when it was painted in 2002. Drennan said painting took several months with the help of volunteers.
The Columbian interviewed the oldest sibling, Lawauna Wishon Gesler in 2004, who said she had been driving around town one day when she saw her ancestors painted on a wall. She said that her family’s farm was south of Orchards and North of Mill Plain Boulevard on Northeast 18th Street and 125th Avenue.
Gesler died Dec. 6, 2017, at age 90.
The clock courtyard was part of Clark County’s $8.5 million realignment of the Fourth Plain Boulevard and Covington/Gher Road intersection. Diana Shaw, who lives in Orchards, said there was going to be a bare spot between the roads.
She worked with Terry Bunch of Bunch Construction and then Clark County Public Works Manager Pete Capell to create the plaza, called Orchards Plaza. Paint, benches, a free-standing clock and scaffolding were donated by businesses and residents. People from all over the county helped paint the mural. In total, the county spent $82,000 on the plaza, including planters and landscaping.
There was even a festive Christmastime event to celebrate the plaza and mural’s completion in 2002.
“Then it started peeling about three years ago,” Shaw said.
It took several phone calls, she said, but some work has been done to address the wear and tear on the plaza.
“The clock now works and the benches still need sanding, but we fixed the peeling paint,” Shaw said.
There’s some final painting and graffiti coating before the mural is returned to its former glory.