History lives on in the hop vines and apple trees of a Tumwater historic farmstead. The Bush Prairie Farm is named for the family who started it, on Old Highway 99, the route continuing to carry travelers through to Puget Sound since the 1800s. Originally a family homestead that produced crops to sell, this Thurston County farm is still feeding the surrounding neighborhood. Mark and Kathleen Clark became stewards and owners of the farm about 10 years ago and are carrying on many of those practices.
George and Isabella Bush made their way west in 1844. George’s ownership is historical in itself as he was first denied land ownership in Oregon Territory because his father was African American and his mother Irish, making him ineligible. They made their way north of the Columbia river to an area free of the territorial jurisdiction. Following friends and fellow pioneers, they settled near the Deschutes river where it empties into Puget Sound, in what is now Tumwater. They began farming and supporting the community. The farm encompassed much of what is now the Olympia Regional Airport. The Bush’s ownership of the homestead faced scrutiny when Washington came under Oregon Territory law, which still did not allow for him to own property. In 1855, George was granted title to the property during the Washington Territory’s first legislative session.
The Bush family was known for their generosity with neighbors, local tribes and new arrivals passing by, supplying them with food and seeds.
Clark Family Continues Bush Family’s Legacy
When the Clarks were looking for real estate in the area, the fact that this one came with a history attached was just an added bonus. Since their purchase in 2009, Mark and Kathleen have continued to grow vegetables, tend the orchard trees, and protect the land. They continue to be a resource to local neighborhoods for fresh produce. “We are honored to steward the history and stories of first settlers, George and Isabella Bush,” said Kathleen. “Through ownership of this property, we are able to preserve the history of this place as a farm forever. We are grateful for such an unexpected gift.”
When the Clarks purchased the five-acre farm, it was under an industrial zoning classification. Through Capital Land Trust, they established the property as an agricultural easement, which protects the property to be used as agricultural and farmed forever. The Clark’s goal was to preserve the soil, keep a small farm and protect the land. Part of that protection included the gopher habitat. The farm is also home to Mazama pocket gophers, and this impacts management methods in order for farmer and gopher to live in harmony. The Clarks have found ways to grow and protect their crops from the gophers. Long rolls of chicken wire dip down in a U-shape, cradling the roots of the plants and therefore protecting them from mass gopher feasts. Places where there are no baskets provide the occasional snack for the gophers.
The Bush Prairie Farm is a community supported agriculture (CSA) project. CSAs are farms that people can subscribe to for local produce on a regular basis, a symbiotic relationship for farmer and consumer. In the case of Bush Prairie Farm, produce is picked twice per week. Certain neighborhoods can even receive delivery service. Farming was a goal for Mark and Kathleen. They took a sustainable farming course together, and now have 10 years of CSA under their belts.
While growing peppers, lettuces, beans and the like, the farm is still generating produce from some original Bush family trees and plants. Five apple trees, believed to be from the original Bush family orchard, still produce fruit and have been used to make applesauce. Also thought to be from the original farmstead is a pear tree and hops that creep up and pop their heads through the berry vines. Probably the most significant item on the property is the 174-year-old butternut tree next to the Clark’s home. The Bush family brought trees with them from Missouri, and this is thought to be one of them. The tree produces butternuts each year.
The farm was the focus of The Evergreen State College’s archaeological field school’s first dig. The farm had never been formally studied in such a way, and the archaeology class hadn’t been out for an “on the job” dig. Mark and Kathleen were happy to be able to host, happy that the farm could facilitate education. “One of our goals in owning a farm was to provide opportunities for students of all ages in learning how to farm sustainably,” shared Kathleen. “Our lives have been so enriched by the Evergreen sustainable farm and archaeology students who have come to actively learn with us.”
The property was also the subject of a 2009 survey done by South Puget Sound Community College that established areas of interest as well as the discovery of numerous artifacts. Students from Evergreen participated in the project from 2015-2018. While no original structures remain on the property, the Bush family’s rubbish heap was fodder for investigation.
The legacy and generosity of the Bush family are being carried forward by the Clarks and their genuine interest in agriculture and education for the community. The farm continues to provide for neighbors and opens its doors to future generations who want to learn the same.
The Bush Prairie Farm is located at 8400 Old Highway 99 in Tumwater.