Ranch Hands Remember Waikiki Dairy: Collected Memories of Harold Vannurden and John Dunham

Written and Edited by Jack Downs and Garrin Hertel

Above, it’s bathtime for Donnie Vannurden on the Waikiki Dairy in 1940. Photo courtesy of the Vannurden Family Archives.

A century ago, the best dairy farm in the Inland Northwest could be found just north of Spokane on the Little Spokane River. The Waikiki Dairy was founded by J.P. Graves, an early Spokane entrepreneur and businessman. In 1909, Graves sold his stake in the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad and began work on his dream home on 700 acres eight miles north of Spokane. He hired some of the best names in architecture and landscape design, including Kirtland Cutter and the Olmsted brothers. John Dunham, an early dairy hand, described the site as idyllic: “Mr. Graves’ beautiful home is situated on the brow of a hill overlooking the valley and is surrounded by several acres of lawn, beautiful flowers, and shrubbery and a formal garden.” According to Dunham, there were thirteen natural springs on the site which flowed with enough consistency and force to power a sixty horse-power generator, producing enough electricity for the entire site.

Top, Sammy the Bull was exhibited in San Francisco in 1939. Above right, Bernard Vannurden shows his sons Harold and Donnie some gun safety tips with their Red Rider Daisy air rifle in 1939. Harold’s first job on the ranch was to hunt down and control the squirrel population. He remembers earning one penny per tail. Pictured left, Harold and Donnie enjoy the spoils of fishing in 1943. The Vannurdens lived on the ranch from 1937 to 1943. Harold’s mother, Ruth Vannurden, was the ranch cook during that period. Harold takes walks on the dairy grounds now and then, reminiscing about the good times he had living there. Photos courtesy of the Vannurden Family Archives.

Graves’ plan for his north Spokane estate included a dairy farm, rather whimsically named “Waikiki.” The Waikiki dairy was a model for the entire region. Dunham began working at the Waikiki farm in 1911, and he observed the design and construction of what would become the most modern and efficient dairy farm in the western United States: “[T]he barn was 60×100 feet with three stories above the basement [for storing and delivering feed]. Stanchion room was provided for 50 head with a wide feed alley in the center… The cost of the construction of this barn was said to be more than $30,000 [more than one million dollars today].”

Dunham claimed that Graves intended to produce the highest-grade milk in the region, with the highest butterfat content. Graves selected Jersey dairy cows as ideally suited for the region and for his ambitions for the dairy. Despite early setbacks, including the death of 29 from rabies and a fire which severely damaged the dairy barn, the Waikiki dairy quickly established a reputation as a source of high-quality milk.

Harold Vannurden and siblings lived with their parents Bernard and Ruth Vannurden in the basement of the “Cook House” (nicknamed by the Vannurdens) on the Waikiki Dairy. Not to be confused with the Graves/Bozarth Mansion, this home was down on the ranch itself, down the hill from the main mansion. Photo courtesy of the Vannurden Family Archives.

Graves was generous with his dairy resources. He donated bull calves from his dairy herd to agriculture programs across the Inland Northwest. Waikiki was widely considered the most modern dairy in the region, and Waikiki frequently hosted demonstrations for other dairies in the region as part of Graves’ effort to improve agricultural production throughout the Inland Northwest.

Financial misfortunes in the late 1920s and early 1930s forced Graves to gradually sell off his north Spokane estate, including the Waikiki Dairy and its famous herd of Jersey milk cows. The legacy of Graves’ vision lives on, though. His Kirtland Cutter-designed home is now Gonzaga University’s Bozarth Mansion Retreat Center, hosting conferences, weddings, and other events year-round. And the Waikiki Dairy? It lives on as well, through the many dairy herds around the Inland Northwest which started with stock purchased from the Waikiki Dairy.

Above left, a shot of the ranch hands: Hilmar Nelson, Harold Vannurden, and Freddie MIller in the front row. Hans Nielson, Forest Shun, John Dunham, and others, 1938. Right, Bernard Vannurden and Carl Stultz, 1941. Bernard Vannurden did many things on the ranch, but one of his main responsibilities was keeping the electric generator working and in good repair. The hydro-electric generator turned the many springs on the property into enough energy to take care of all the electrical needs on the entire property. Photos courtesy of the Vannurden Family Archives.

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