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History of the Hilby Family Barn

We are the current caretakers of a property that was once inhabited by pioneers. These were adventurous folk who came to this region seeking new lives in the promise of the new West. The barn that still stands here was integrally involved in the history of this entire region. It is truly a monument and one we have tried to preserve by restoring it. It is now listed on the Washington State Registry of Historic Barns but one must go back to the beginning to really appreciate it.


The story of this barn begins with the Hilby Family. There are more than a few Hilby family members still living in Spokane and the impact of this family is still very evident today. For instance, we live on Hilby road. We purchased our current residence from a Hilby granddaughter, Rita Hansen. The Hilby Station Apartments on Old Palouse highway are named after a stop on the Inland Empire Electric Railway which existed from the 1890’s to 1936 and had tracks that traveled across the eastern edge of our property.

So how did all of these things come to be? Who were the Hilbys?

There were three brothers who moved to the Northwest from Calaveras County, CA in 1878: John, William, and Edward Hilby. They came with their father, Johannes Hilby who had immigrated from Switzerland and then to California during the gold rush of 1849. Spokane was about to be incorporated as a city in 1881 but was rapidly growing due to it’s strategic location on the Spokane River. As the family traveled north they reportedly observed the trees of the Moran Prairie from atop Steptoe Butte just south of Spokane and decided to settle here. The three brothers each homesteaded a quarter section of the Moran Prairie in the late 1800’s.

William Tell Hilby, the middle of the three brothers, married Blanche Kirby in 1885. Blanche was truly a Pioneer and Matron of the region. Her parents arrived in this area in 1872 six years before the Hilbys when she was 12. At the time of her arrival there was only a saw mill, two houses at the falls and few scattered homesteads around the area. Her family had come to Spokane from Minnesota. They came by train to San Francisco, then by boat to Portland, then by steamboat up the Columbia to Wallula and by freight wagon to Walla Walla where there was a military fort and trading post to buy supplies and a wagon. After arriving in Spokane their father, Phillip Kirby, built the third house in the area that would become incorporated as Spokane Falls a year later.   

Washington territory had just been established in 1851.  The subsequent years were filled with conflict between the incoming settlers and the Native Americans here as was the case all throughout the west. In 1858 there was open hostility and war between the US military and the native inhabitants of this area. Colonel Steptoe who was the commander of Ft. Walla Walla was en route to negotiate with the Colville tribe when a skirmish broke out and he was embarrassingly defeated just south of here at Steptoe Butte where the Hilby’s would get their first glimpse of their future homestead. Even closer, the Yakima nation and the Coeur d’Alene tribes were engaged in outright war with the US military. And in retaliation for the reported killing of white settlers, Colonel George Wright ordered the hanging of Qualchan, the son of Chief Owhi of the Yakima tribe at their camp at Latah Creek near what is today Hangman Valley Golf Course, recently renamed Latah Creek Golf Course.

        In 1876, four years after Blanche and her family arrived in Spokane, General Custer was famously defeated in Southern Montana by Chief Crazy Horse and an alliance of tribes including the Lakotas & Cheyennes. Just a year later, in June 1877 Chief Joseph of the peaceful Nez Perce tribe of Oregon led a fighting retreat attempting to find asylum in Canada. This conflict flared throughout the region causing Blanche and the other inhabitants of Spokane Falls to seek refuge on an island in the Spokane river that would later be called Havermale Island after Rev. Havermale who would later marry Blanche and William Hilby in 1885. It took years for the hostilities to subside, but in 1880 The US Military established Fort Spokane to protect the construction of the Great Northern railway through the region. This railway was the new lifeblood to the area which quickly became the largest trading post west of Minnesota.

Blanche and William lived on his homestead which included this property on Moran Prairie for the next 60 years raising 9 children and 23 grandchildren. They were both very active in the community. In 1948 the Hilby farm which had grown to 300 acres was sold.  Phillip Hilby, one of William’s six sons, owned this particular 10 acre parcel. He built our home in 1958 (his name is inscribed in the concrete of our garage & dated 1952), but unfortunately, he died in 1959. His wife Grace continued to live here with their son Clarence until her death in 1985. Clarence Blain Hilby died in 1997. He was the Grandson of William Tell Hilby, Swedish immigrant from California  and was the last direct descendant to live on this property.   

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