Skip to main content

Leavenworth, Washington: When The Going Gets Tough . . .

This is the story of a town which met up with some extremely difficult economic times.

This is the story of a few determined and visionary people who would not allow that town to die.

This, then, is the story of Leavenworth, Washington.


When the Going Gets Tough

In the beginning, there was growth and opportunity. Leavenworth began as the town of Icicle Flats, back in 1890, the early settlers seeking gold, seeking furs, and seeking wealth in the lush evergreen forests surrounding the town.

A sawmill was built, one of the largest on the West Coast, and the population grew.

The railroad arrived, and the population grew larger, and eventually the town’s name was changed and incorporated, and Leavenworth was born.

The Tough Get Going

All was well with Leavenworth until 1925 when the Great Northern Railway moved its switching station from Leavenworth to the city of Wenatchee, twenty miles to the east. This turned out to be a crushing blow for the Leavenworth economy. The closure of the sawmill followed shortly afterwards and then, of course, The Great Depression arrived.

The once-thriving town almost became a ghost town in a span of ten years.


Change Is Not Always Welcomed With Open Arms

The local economy struggled until the 1960’s, with Leavenworth not much more than a dot on the map.

In 1960, Ted Price, a pharmaceutical representative, and Bob Rogers, two friends from Seattle, decided to quit their jobs and purchase a failing roadside café a few miles outside of Leavenworth, which they named The Squirrel Tree. These two friends loved the Leavenworth area, with the roaring rivers and stunning mountain scenery, and they were convinced they could make a go of it, enticing tourists to stop at their café and adjoining motel.

They settled on a bold decision to re-make their café in Bavarian-style, and to the surprise of the local Leavenworth residents, the café and motel became a favorite stopover for travelers crossing Stevens Pass on the way to Wenatchee.

An idea was born!

While the café and motel flourished, Price and Rogers became involved in the Leavenworth community. At this same time, the city council of Leavenworth, and many of the remaining city leaders, formed an action group to find ways to revitalize the city.

The city teamed up with the University of Washington, which was helping other struggling cities to find ways to be successful, and Project L.I.F.E. (Leavenworth Improvement for Everyone) was born. Oddly, most of the early suggestions for revitalization centered around finding new industries to settle in the beautiful mountain valley. Only Price and Rogers saw the wisdom in turning the town into a tourist destination, and they met with great resistance from other town leaders. Price, though, was not to be deterred, and the University of Washington consultant finally agreed to consider the tourist idea if Price would head a feasibility committee. He readily agreed to do so.

Feeling that more could be accomplished if they actually lived in Leavenworth, Price and Rogers sold the Squirrel Tree and proceeded to purchase as much property in downtown Leavenworth as possible. They also took a trip to Solvang, California, a Bavarian-style tourist town, and gathered information and met the architect responsible for the Solvang transformation.

Still resistance continued in Leavenworth, and still Price and Rogers pushed for the major change. They began to transform the properties they purchased into Bavarian buildings. Several other business leaders followed suit until, eventually, eleven storefronts along Leavenworth’s Front Street had been redesigned.

The town then began a major clean-up campaign. More than four-hundred abandoned, rusty vehicles were removed. A new waterfront park along the Wenatchee River was created. Junk and debris were removed from the city streets with the help of local citizens and organizations.

Still there was resistance from city leaders, the business community, and citizens. Remember, Price and Rogers were suggesting a major economic expenditure from a dying city. They were attempting to convince people that if they basically went further into debt, the gamble would pay off.

Scroll to Continue

Those people did go into debt, they took out loans, they found matching funds from the U.S. Government, they found grants, they changed zoning laws, and despite reluctance and the inevitable naysayers, they pushed forward.

Fast forward to 1968 and Leavenworth was awarded the prestigious All-American City designation. In a matter of a mere eight years, Leavenworth had gone from a dream to a reality.

A portion of Waterfront Park in Leaverworth

A portion of Waterfront Park in Leaverworth

Leavenworth Today

It is hard to imagine today, standing on Front Street, looking at a complete replica of a Bavarian town, that a mere sixty years ago that same town was near economic collapse. On any given weekend, the city of 2,500 citizens can swell to 25,000 or more tourists. A short list of the annual events held in Leavenworth includes:

  • Bavarian Ice Fest (January)
  • Maifest (May)
  • Kinderfest (July)
  • Autumn Leaf Festival (September)
  • Oktoberfest (October)
  • Christkindlmarkt (November)
  • Christmas Lighting Festival (December)

Today, more than two million visitors walk the streets of Leavenworth each year, pumping millions of dollars into a local economy which, at one time, appeared to have no future at all.

All because of the vision of two men, and all because a small, determined group of people refused to give up. Was there opposition? Of course there was! Was there adversity and were there obstacles? Of course there were! But tough times call for tough people, and the history of this country is a chronicle of such tough people.

Lesson Learned

My wife and I visited Leavenworth a few weeks ago, a rare vacation for us, a three-day stay in an Airbnb, and we had a lovely time. Once again I was reminded of Leavenworth’s history, and I spent some time thinking about social problems we now face in the U.S. Some of those social problems have always been with us. Some are new thanks to the pandemic.

Decisions are made daily in the Halls of Congress, and in city halls throughout the country, decisions based, in part, on budgets, but also based on the political wind which is blowing at any given time. And I remembered a discussion I saw on a national talk show, one politician saying there are difficult decisions ahead, decisions like funding police departments and funding social services, but also decisions about infrastructure and tax breaks for corporations, and the conclusion, as it always is, was that some things will go forth while others are tossed on the junkpile, because there is only so much money to go around and that’s just the reality of life in 2021.

And I thought of Leavenworth, back in 1960, and problems which seemed impossible to fix, and hard decisions faced, and a small group of people who absolutely refused to accept that a solution could not be found.

Perhaps, what we need in 2021, are fewer people who cannot see a solution, and more people who are visionaries, who refuse to accept the status quo.

Perhaps, what we need in 2021 and beyond, are more dreamers. Bold actions require bold ideas and the courage to spit in the face of conformity. Perhaps we need more people willing to spit into the wind.

Just a thought to chew on.

I strongly recommend, if you are ever in Washington State, a side-trip to Leavenworth. Yes, it’s a tourist town, with all the glitz a tourist town brings, but it also a history lesson, one which really needs to be considered by today’s world.

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 17, 2021:

Jo, without a doubt, this is a beautiful state. I hope you are able to visit us someday soon.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on August 16, 2021:

Lovely story. Lovely place. We need to put Washington on our wish list for places to visit. Except for stops at the airport in Seattle, I think I've only been to Washington one time, and then from Oregon just passing through on our way back east.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 09, 2021:

Misbah, my dear, blessings of comfort to you always.

Misbah Sheikh from — This Existence Is Only an Illusion on August 08, 2021:

Mr. Bill, The town looks very nice. Thanks a lot for sharing this great story of courage and effort.

I Hope everything is going well with you.

Many Blessings to you and your family, Sir.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 08, 2021:

Thank you Nithya! I'm very happy you enjoyed their story.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on August 06, 2021:

An inspiring story about Leavenworth. They believed that they could make a difference and went ahead in spite of obstacles. Thanks to them Leavenworth survived and is a popular tourist destination today.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

Brenda, I see a lot of these excuses now regarding homelessness. Far too many people are finger pointing and saying solutions don't exist, and I think it's nonsense.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

I always love to be corrected, Mazian. Thanks a bunch.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

Bill, as many times as you've been here, I'm surprised you haven't been to Leaverworth. Next time, buddy!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

OJ for the bear, most definitely, Rodric! One must start the day clearheaded. lol Thanks my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

I don't buy it either, Mr. Happy, but that's the excuse we are always fed by people who don't have the guts to upset the proverbial apple cart. I'm with you all the way about money and its allocation.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

Yes we do, Mary! Yes we do, very much.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

Thank you Sha! I'll have to look for some of those old photos. I have seen them, so I'll send them to you when I find them again.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

Thank you Manatita! There are so many excuses why something can't be done. It takes a visionary to see the solution in many cases.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

We do need such people now, Vidya! More than ever. Visionaries are needed when logic no longer applies in real life.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 05, 2021:

Hi Emese! So nice to see you back. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope this finds you well.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on August 04, 2021:


What a great reminder that we can make a difference.

Too often, people don't even try.

I see this alot, especially in the town I was raised in.

It's dwindling is the town I live in now.

The spirit, the downtown area is going away...if not careful, it will all be gone.

Small places are great. We need to stand up more & take action.

So glad to read this story on Leavenworth.

Mazlan A from Malaysia on August 04, 2021:

Interesting write-up on Leavenworth. When we decided to fly in into Los Angeles and then drive up to San Francisco, we decided to do a side trip to Solvang. It is a charming Danish-inspired town and not Bavarian, actually.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on August 04, 2021:

Next visit to Washington we are going to Leavenworth. We talked about it years ago on one of our trips out there but never made it. It certainty has a fascinating history, which I did not know of, so thank you for the education. One or two people really can make a difference.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on August 04, 2021:

I now know what Bavarian and Bavaria are. I have heard the terms in the past, but with no understanding. Thanks for the history lesson and some education. I did a Google search for Bavaria. I learned today it is an ethnic group in Germany known for its food and tourism there. At least that is what I gleaned seeking to identify with the term in your article. I would love a Bavarub breakfast, substituting OJ for the bear, however.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on August 04, 2021:

"because there is only so much money to go around and that’s just the reality of life in 2021." - I do not buy this for a second. This pandemic showed us different if we already did not know about this by looking at the "Military Industrial Complex" (President Eisenhower quote).

Trillions popped-up like mushrooms after the rain and not just in the US. Here in Canada and in many EU countries. Like I said to the Minister of Indigenous Affairs: " Now, we see how money becomes available on the spot if we want it but when the talk comes about providing potable water on First Nations Reserves, suddenly we don't have money? It'd be hilarious if it wasn't so outrageous! There's always money for war and tax cuts for the rich but when it comes to building schools, hospitals, affordable housing ... nada. Let the homeless sleep in tents, in parks and side-walks. See why I call bs on "we don't have money"?

"Perhaps, what we need in 2021, are fewer people who cannot see a solution, and more people who are visionaries, who refuse to accept the status quo." - Aho (Affirmative saying among First Nations people)

Thank You for the visit to Leavenworth! I enjoyed it - cheers!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 04, 2021:

Thought about this, Bill. It's a story of determination on the part of those two who had a vision and the courage to make it a reality. We need to be that today.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 04, 2021:

Anyone who thinks one or two people can't make a difference in this world needs to read this article, Bill. Two men's dreams and tenacity brought a ghost town back to life and then some!

I would love to see photos of what Leavenworth (I always think of the prison when I hear the name of this town) looked like before it took on the Bavarian visage.

manatita44 from london on August 04, 2021:

An amazing piece! We do need deamers and visionaries. More Jefferson's, Martin Luther KingJnr, Mother Theresa's and Mandela's as well as Gandhi's who all faced impossible odds ... like Harriet Tubman ... willing to sacrifice for a greater good. Excellent work!

VIDYA D SAGAR on August 04, 2021:

Thank you for taking us on a tour of Leavenworth, and it's fascinating story, Bill. Just proves how the determination and vision of a few brave people, in spite of obstacles, adversity and opposition can change the fate of a town. We need such people today. The videos are also great. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

Emese Fromm from The Desert on August 04, 2021:

Hi, Bill! I love your take on the town's history. I visited it several times over the years, just a short stop for lunch and a stroll through town while on the road through your beautiful state. I remember wondering about the whole Bavarian take on it, but at the time I just enjoyed it, didn't dig deeper into it. Great history, and a good lesson there... So glad your story popped up in my notifications (it's been a while since I even logged in to HubPages, I'm sure I've been missing a lot)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 04, 2021:

Thank you Peggy! I wandered into your travel niche for a moment. I'm glad I didn't embarrass myself by doing so.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 04, 2021:

So glad you enjoyed your visit there.We loved our visit to this charming town many years ago. Yes, we need visionaries in today's world to solve our problems. Leavenworth stands as a testament to what can be accomplished with vision and hard work.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 04, 2021:

For sure a bit different from me, John! Thanks for reading. Glad you liked it.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 04, 2021:

I'm glad you liked it, Pamela. It really is a great story of determination.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 04, 2021:

Thank you Linda! I think we'll have to go back in the spring again. We had a wonderful time there.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 04, 2021:

I'm glad you liked it, Dora! It really is a nice town to visit and relax in.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on August 04, 2021:

You visited some of my favorite places, Flourish. I hope you said hello to Yellowstone for me.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 04, 2021:

This was something a little different from you, Bill, but a wonderful story of fortitude and determination. Thank you for sharing this piece of Leavenworth’s history. It seams like a great town.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 04, 2021:

This is a wonderful success story for Leavenworth. It sounds like a great place to visit. You may be right about people have a vision or dream and are willing to take bold actions to make things happen.n

Thanks for the wonderful history lesson, Bill.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on August 04, 2021:

It's a wonderful town; we've visited many times (Oktoberfest is crazy). It's time to wander over that way again. Thanks for history lesson (you do it very well, sir).

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 04, 2021:

Thanks you for sharing this story of vision and determination. What we need now is the willingness to follow this trend of progress in whatever ways we can. Leavenworth has history and inspiration.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 04, 2021:

Seems like a charming town. I bet you had a very nice vacation albeit short. My vacation recently was to Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. Got to see the Oregon Trail ruts, dinosaur bones and lots of desert scenery.

Related Articles