Westernization veterans explain how it all came about
By Don Nelson
It was part history lesson, part reminiscence and part proselytizing on Thursday (April 9) when John Lester and Larry Higbee talked about the early days of Winthrop’s Westernization in front of a full house at the Winthrop Barn.
Lester and Higbee, who were both part of the town’s signature transformation more than 40 years ago, appeared at an event sponsored by the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce.
Both explained the complicated and detail-oriented process behind Westernization, which was promoted and largely funded by Kathryn Wagner of the Wagner Lumber Products family. Each told amusing personal stories about events and people.
And both presenters — Lester in particular — urged the audience to not let the principles and practices of Westernization be eroded by pressure from businesses or by an indifferent political process.
The idea behind Westernization began to germinate in the late 1960s, and the town’s makeover was completed in 1972, the year the North Cascades Highway opened — bringing with it a new surge of tourism.
Without Westernization, most of those travelers might not have spent much time in Winthrop.
“Winthrop was a dying town,” said Lester, a longtime downtown property owner and businessman. “The idea [of Westernization] was to create a new industry.”
Lester said that all but a couple of downtown businesses bought into the idea, and those two were bought out to achieve the 100 percent participation the plan required.
“We wanted to make it authentic,” Lester said — which is why the original building requirements were so stringent. For instance, Higbee noted, finishing nails were not allowed, window frames had to be wood, and only paint colors available in the late 1800s could be used.
The signage — a subject of ongoing controversy still — was designed so that no one business stood out dramatically from the others, Lester said.
Higbee, who was then a contractor who did much of the Westernization work, said that some siding boards had be cut crooked to make them look authentic, and no plywood could be used for external surfaces.
The architect for Westernization was Bob Jorgenson, while Chet Endrizzi was the artist who supervised painting the buildings.
Building by building
Higbee took the audience on a comprehensive, building-by-building tour of the renovations on Riverside Avenue, occasionally asking audience members to help him out with details. He recalled that the plans required for all utility lines to be buried underground — a process that was more complicated for some buildings than others.
Lester said that a lot of research went into identifying architecture, materials and colors that would be consistent with an 1890s Western town. “The intent was that people who didn’t see it happen would think they were built that way,” he said of the revamped downtown structures.
The response was more than town leaders expected, Lester said.
“We knew it was coming,” he said. “But we couldn’t imagine what actually came.”
Winthrop was a service center for the agricultural community back then, Lester said. “We went from horseshoes to selling souvenirs,” he added.
Lester urged the chamber members to support Westernization and demand of town leaders that its principles be maintained. “What does Westernization mean to you?” Lester asked.
The current town council doesn’t support Westernization as strongly as it should, Lester said. The council has recently rejected two recommendations by the Westernization Architectural Committee (WAC), the citizen volunteer group that monitors Westernization compliance. The WAC had more power in the 1970s and 1980s, Lester said.
With too many variations from the Westernization ordinance, he said, “It just doesn’t look right … it starts to make a difference.”
In fact, many of the downtown properties could use a new coat of paint, he said. “It doesn’t look fresh.”
Lester acknowledged that “it costs a lot to build so it looks old,” but said that is part of the cost of doing business in Winthrop.
When it comes to Westernization, Lester said, seemingly trivial details take on big importance. “The impression you leave is all you’ve got,” he said. “It’s your town, your money, your livelihood, your property.”