Photo by Ashley Ahearn

Phil Davis toured the Winthrop property, where most of the buildings will be torn down and their materials repurposed to build structures for public use.

Davises purchase Winthrop corral property for the project

Photo by Ashley Ahearn

Phil Davis toured the Winthrop property, where most of the buildings will be torn down and their materials repurposed to build structures for public use.

By Ashley Ahearn

Some people saw the corral just south of the Methow River bridge in Winthrop as an authentic Western feature, complete with barns and horses. Others saw the low-lying lot on Highway 20 as a muddy, junky eyesore.

Phil and Cathy Davis saw a park.

In mid-December the Davises, part-time valley residents, purchased the 2-acre parcel on the Methow River with the intention of developing it as a salmon-themed park and then donating it to the Town of Winthrop.

“It’s a great spot, a great entry to this community. Why not allow people to come and enjoy it?” said Phil Davis.

The property includes several aging structures and had been used to keep horses, and for storage.

The idea to purchase the property came after the Davises spent some time at the Sleeping Lady Resort in Leavenworth, which has an ethos of conservation and features several large sculptures of salmon dotting the grounds. Phil Davis was driving through Winthrop on his way home and said to himself, “You know, this could be a park!” He called the listing real estate agent on a whim to find out about the riverfront property.

Leanna Melton, the previous owner of the property, purchased it in 2003, though her family had been keeping horses there since the 1970s, when the property was owned by Hank Dammann. There at one time was a home on the property close to the bridge. It was not destroyed by the flood of 1948, but burned soon after.

The parcel had been on the market since May. It was listed at $260,000 but because of its low bank access to the river, development opportunities would be heavily regulated and costly — requiring extensive fill. The Davises bought it for $135,000. And now begins the journey from horse pasture to park.

“It’ll be exciting to see what they do,” Melton said.

Salmon at the center

Phil Davis crunches through the snow enthusiastically, his arms outstretched and gesturing as he walks around the snow-covered lot and describes his vision for what will soon be “Homestream Park.” Davis has met with several local organizations, including the Methow Conservancy, Methow Trails, Methow Natives Plant Nursery as well as Seattle architect Ray Johnston to shape the vision for the property.

The existing structures will all be torn down except for one gray barn, which will be restored to house “art and artifacts” from the river. Picnic tables and a lean-to structure will be built using reclaimed materials from the site. Four benches along the riverfront will be named for the four rivers in the Methow Valley: Lost, Twisp, Chewuch and Methow.

There will be pedestrian river access but only one or two parking spaces on the property for handicap access. Davis hopes to build a walkway from the town trailhead parking lot by the Winthrop Rink that would go under the Highway 20 bridge, instead of crossing it.

Davis is working with Virgil “Smoker” Marchand, a sculptor and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, on several large installations, including one that celebrates Native American history in the valley.

Davis also envisions a large sculpture of a salmon redd, or spawning site, with two 6-foot-long salmon sculpted in the act of digging out a nest on the rocky river bed in which to lay their eggs. Guests will walk an interpretive path that meanders through what is now open pasture, dotted with sculptures and educational signage about the salmon life cycle. The return section of the walkways will be interrupted by nine large boulders symbolizing the nine dams between the Methow and the Pacific Ocean, which salmon encounter in their journey to and from their home waters.

“This park was envisioned to highlight the fishes’ connection to this place, not the human,” Davis said. “It’s a place to think about our role in making sure these rivers and fish are as healthy as possible, forever.”

Creating connections

Phil Davis grew up in Connecticut and said he had no connection to salmon until he moved west. “I got out here and the first time you see one in the river it’s like, ‘Wow! That is one majestic creature.’ I was captivated by the majesty and the tragedy of their story,” he said.

Davis wrote a children’s book called “The Last Salmon” that tells the story of one salmon’s journey from his home river out to the ocean and back again. The book was later turned into a musical play that was first performed at The Merc Playhouse in Twisp in 2016, directed by Ki Gottberg and with original songs by Casey James. James has also written songs for Elton John, the Temptations and Jennifer Lopez, among others. “The Last Salmon” has also played in Seattle and around the region.

Davis said the time has come to use storytelling and art to move people’s hearts and minds when it comes to the plight of salmon in the Northwest. Salmon runs have been in steady decline in recent decades.

“It’s about finding ways to create an emotional connection for people who might not otherwise get it,” Davis said.  

Jason Paulsen, executive director of the Methow Conservancy, voiced strong support for Homestream Park and the Davises’ commitment to conservation. He compared it to Confluence Park in downtown Winthrop, which was built on land purchased by the Pigotts, another family that is active philanthropically in the valley, and later gifted to the town of Winthrop.

“We have people in our community who care enough about ensuring public access in a time when the valley’s developing rapidly — who are willing to step up and secure these keystone pieces and hand it over for community use,” Paulsen said. “I don’t know if that happens everywhere. It’s just another aspect that makes the Methow so special.”

The Davises have been active, familiar figures in the community. Phil is a member of the Methow Conservancy board of directors, and Cathy is a past board member at Room One.

Paulsen said he did not think the design and construction of the park would be prohibitively expensive, compared to other river restoration and conservation efforts that have been undertaken in the valley. “I think this is one that could be multiple weekends of volunteers in rubber boots and work gloves making a difference,” he said.

There’s much work to be done before the park can be open, hopefully by the fall of 2019, but as Phil Davis looks out over the property, through the cottonwoods and down to the snowy riverbank, he smiles.

“Change happens when you drop the pebble in the water and it spreads,” Davis said. “Maybe this little park is a pebble. You never know who will get inspired.”