James Allen Perkins, the second of twelve children, came to Colfax in 1870, years before the thought of a town ever existed. He and Thomas Smith traveled from Waitsburg to set up a sawmill at the suggestion of Anderson Cox, who speculated that the valley along the South Fork of the Palouse might make a fine area for new settlement. They proceeded to build a log cabin with timber hauled from Walla Walla. Both Smith and Perkins staked out property. The two men split the valley, Perkins taking the northern part. He purchased a pre-emption on 160 acres at $2.50/acre. The line separating the two parcels ran east to west and later became Last Street. Smith grew discouraged and moved to Union Flat, but Perkins remained and took on a new partner, Hezekiah Hollingsworth.
Hollingsworth and Perkins hired a surveyor to plat a townsite. The men hired workers to built the sawmill which opened for business in September 1971 but they soon turned the sawmill into the hands of John Davenport, who also built a flour mill. Gradually business and settlement grew.
James met a pretty young woman by the name of Sarah Jane (Jennie) Ewert in 1871, They were married in 1873 at the first schoolhouse at the corner of Third and Mill Streets. A story abounds that the growing community had been called Belleville, possibly after Perkins’ hometown of Belleville, Illinois, but Jennie claimed it was for his former girl friend. To dispel any hard feeling, a decision was made to call the town Colfax in honor of President Grant’s first VP Schuyler Colfax.
After the wedding the new couple moved into the tiny log cabin where six children were born and raised. Perkins tried various business and political interests, including the purchase of the Bank of Colfax in 1881. As his finances grew, so did his family and he decided to build a larger home adjacent to the cabin in 1886. This two-story Victorian home was the center of Colfax society between 1886 and 1920, when James died. Their son Sumner and family moved into the house and helped their mother, bringing life and laughter back. Jenny passed away in 1935. Although Sumner died in 1959, his wife maintained the large home until the late 1960s.
The aging house was purchased by the newly formed Whitman County Historical Society in 1973 for $13,900 – a sum financed through donations and loans. A series of grants and much volunteer help allowed restoration to begin. Work has been done inside to restore it to appropriate Victorian colors, update the electrical system, remove/rebuild the porch and chimneys, repaint the exterior and many other tasks. The roof, which was also in very bad condition, was completely replaced with cedar shakes like the original. With the new paint, various architectural features stand out, in particular the quoins on the corners of the house.
At the Ice Cream Social in 2001, Jeanette Sabo, granddaughter of James and Jenny Perkins, age 104, said that the house now looks just as she remembers it!
More remains to be done to complete the restoration. In the near future we will need to repair the foundation on the south side of the house. The kitchen porch is also in need of extensive repairs. Donations for this work would be greatly appreciated. Please send them to The Whitman County Historical Society, PO Box 67, Colfax, WA 99111.
The Perkins House is also available for small weddings, bridal showers, anniversary parties, and other events in keeping with the Victorian atmosphere of the home. A modest cleaning fee is charged for use of the house.
The house is located at 623 N Perkins Avenue in Colfax
SCENES FROM THE 44th Annual Ice Cream Social