The valley conforms to the windings and twistings of the river from which it takes its name. The valley is extremely narrow, but wherever the hills draw back to form more gentle slopes, or leave level meadows beside the stream, there are orchards, houses, cultivated fields, and grazing animals.
Along the road, or above or below it, runs the valley’s lifeline, the main irrigation ditch. Without the water it brings them, at the low cost of $3 yearly per acre, farmers could coax but a scant yield from this valley’s rich floor. This canal was constructed by Chinese miners between roughly 1860 and 1880. Interpretive signage marks the location of the ditch south of SR 153 along the riverside of US 97, noting that a significant portion of the irrigation system was destroyed in a 1948 flood.
The Methow Valley has no large towns. The people lived on their farms, or engaged in bounty-hunting, trapping, herding, prospecting, and logging. They regarded towns as places in which to trade, vote, and spend holidays—the traditional attitude of the old West. On weekdays and special occasions, these trading centers took on the appearance of pioneer towns, with hitching rails, haphazard sidewalks, and crude plumbing; riders on horseback, buckboards, and buggies; and men with tanned faces and alert eyes in chaps and spurs, or blue jeans and Stetsons.
It was mining that, in the 1890s, brought the valley its first and only boom; and mines, gold, silver, lead, tungsten, and copper, were being worked in the surrounding hills. Cattle and sheep were also raised here, and some logging was also carried on; but fruit raising, farming, and dairying were the chief sources of wealth. Apple orchards of the Methow Valley produced mainly four varieties of apple: Delicious, Winesap, Jonathan, and Rome Beauties. The annual apple harvest was a gala event of some six weeks duration, beginning in mid-September and continuing, unless cut short by sharp freezes, until early November. Outsiders flocked into the valley by the hundreds, and there were many dances and other forms of entertainment. Some years ago Owen Wister lived for a while in the valley and described several local episodes and characters in his novel, The Virginian. The valley has changed but little since Wister’s visit. Indeed, the valley continues to hold celebrations throughout the apple harvest season and, even in the 21st century, the region feels somewhat frozen in time.