Walter Bolinger became a fruit grower and packer after working for many years as a shopkeeper.
Merchant, politician, real estate developer, orchardist—each of these terms could be used to describe Walter Albert Bolinger. Bolinger was a pioneer mercantile businessman in north central Washington State, helped plat the new town site of Methow about 1900, developed and managed orchards beginning in 1910, and served in the Washington State legislature—three terms in the House of Representatives and four years in the Senate. He was a man of many talents.
Born in Boston, Arkansas, on November 3, 1863, Bolinger was the son of Isaac Bolinger. It was the middle of the Civil War and Arkansas was divided in its loyalties between the North and the South. The Bolinger family was sympathetic to the Union cause, and, as a result, the family was encouraged to move to what was considered to be neutral territory in Springfield, Missouri. The move took place very shortly after Walter’s birth, but his father never lived to complete the journey. The group was waylaid by “bushwhackers” (informal militant groups of Southern supporters), and Isaac was killed.
After the war, Walter’s mother took her children back to Arkansas, and Walter was educated in the Boston, Arkansas, public schools and completed his formal studies with two years at the Waco Academy in Texas. It is not known exactly what occupation he pursued in the next few years, but in 1891, he moved to Bellingham, Washington, and opened a general store. Two years later, in 1893, he learned of a boom under way in north central Washington State, following the discovery of valuable mining properties in the region. Bolinger sold his interest in the Bellingham store and caught a train to Ellensburg in Kittitas County. There, he purchased a horse and rode north through Wenatchee to the mining town of Ruby, which exists only as an Okanogan County “ghost town” today.
His plan was not to become a miner, but rather to open a general store that would provide the miners with supplies. This he did, until about 1895, when the boom in Ruby died. Bolinger immediately moved on to the next boom town, Squaw Creek, where he opened another store. By 1899, the mining boom in the area was over, and Bolinger left Squaw Creek to move to what became the community of Methow. Here he decided to settle permanently, homesteaded, platted the town site, and opened another store, which he operated until 1922.
In about 1910, Bolinger saw a future in irrigated agriculture and became active with others in the formation of a company to build the Bolinger Ditch, a major early and important irrigation project that contributed to the Methow Valley’s subsequent development. The ditch was named in Bolinger’s honor because of his leadership. Bolinger made use of the newly available water and planted his first orchard in 1910. He remained active as an orchardist throughout the remainder of his life, and his labels Radio and Eat Well showcased the fruit of the Methow Valley worldwide.
His life of public service began when he was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives for the 1905–1907 term. He served again during the 1909–1911 and the 1913–1914 sessions. Then, in 1917, he was elected to the Washington State Senate and served until 1921.
Bolinger died in 1944 in the Methow Valley, in the midst of another war and a long way from his Civil War birthplace in Arkansas. But he accomplished much in his lifetime and left a legacy in both a still-thriving community and in collectible fruit box labels.