“Don’t go to your grave with a life unused.”—Football coaching legend Bobby Bowden
Cashup Davis is my secret mentor. He can be yours too. Cashup is timeless, and so are the lessons I have learned from his extraordinary life. I never met him; he died nearly half a century before I was born. But the more I find out about him, the more inspired I become.
And Cashup is one helluva story.
This is a true story, a “chase your dreams” story. It is an underdog story, an immigrant story, a history. It is an “are you kidding me?!” story, and a story about the pursuit of excellence. Cashup had no interest in mediocrity or doing things halfway.
My first awareness of Cashup was as a boy in the 1950s riding in a truck with my father Aubrey, Cashup’s grandson. As we drove around the magnificent rolling hills of the Palouse farmland in America’s Pacific Northwest, Dad would point out majestic Steptoe Butte, rising out of the surrounding wheat fields like a sentinel. “You know,” my dad would often say, “Cashup built a grand hotel way up there on the top of Steptoe Butte in 1888, at age 72.” I would look to the summit and admire Cashup’s audacity. Growing up, my dad shared many more Cashup stories with me. And when relatives got together, it was really Cashup time. He was always spoken about with reverence and respect. We marveled at this ancestor of ours, and his accomplished descendants, with great pride.
I became more curious about Cashup as I read about him in newspaper articles over the years and particularly in 1967 when I read the late Randall Johnson’s nineteen-page booklet about him. Cashup died in 1896 and yet, more than 125 years later, people still write about him. I wanted to learn more. With Jeff Burnside’s lead, I wanted to investigate, preserve, and share a complete account of my great- grandfather’s life, to provide inspiration not just for descendants but for everyone. After all, as one of his great-grandchildren, I possess 12.5% of his genes. With Jeff’s help, I take a deeper dive into the legacy of Cashup Davis.
Cashup was a puny kid with a quick smile and a brilliant mind in 1800s England when he got the bug for the American West. He could not shake it. He left everything and came not just to America but to the very edge of western settlement—a region everyone in the civilized world was hearing about. The “quest” characteristic drove him to do something incredible. Yet, in the end, even Cashup misjudged his own legacy. Examining the true definition of success is a life lesson for all of us.
He has served as such an inspiration for me. He was so determined to go after his amazing, half-crazy dreams, despite the challenges. And there were many. I am guessing you have some big dreams too. Just like Cashup, you are going to hit a few roadblocks. More than one person is going to tell you (or already has) you are unwise to go after your particular dream. I have been there, too.
Cashup did not listen to his detractors; nor should you (although I advise you to read closely the caveats in this cautionary tale of ambition and dreams).
Sure, Cashup’s genes are a major part of my DNA. And the more I learn about him, the more I see him in me. Cashup and I are both determined, impatient, driven, a bit gruff on the outside, but have a big heart on the inside. And we both like cigars and a good time. Yet, Cashup is there for everyone, not just for direct descendants like me.
I am blessed in that I have experienced and achieved much in my life. Life growing up on two farms, four college degrees, twenty-one years of teaching, a wonderful family, academic achievement, a business I founded in 1984 (CEV Multimedia) that has helped revolutionize classroom instruction by transforming textbooks to media-rich online content and now, I am proud to say, provides 22,000 teachers and 1.3 million students with online instructional resources across all fifty states and various countries. Such success required significant risk and extremely hard work to achieve, satisfaction for a job well done that I proudly share with current and former CEV colleagues, students, and collaborators. Just prior to publication of this book, I sold my company, now named iCEV, to The Riverside Company, a terrific enterprise. Conditions for the deal included the retention of all employees, our brand, and our home base in Lubbock, Texas. Integrity is important to me, as it was for Cashup, in all business transactions (small or large) and interactions with others. If people are dishonest in their personal lives, you can bet they carry that into their business dealings.
Additionally, I have become even more philanthropical. Since 2005, we have made significant donations, primarily to six universities, to our family foundation, and to various philanthropic groups. Supporting good causes brings both my wife Joyce and me a satisfaction which runs profoundly deep. Since 2005, we have learned that the more we give, the luckier we get. Good advice for anyone. Yet, an unanswered question ripples through me: Why am I so fortunate?
Why did this universe pick me for success? What did I really do to deserve the opportunity for my wife and me in 2020 to establish the Gordon and Joyce Davis Foundation? Did I deserve it when Texas Tech University named their meat science laboratory after me in 2006 or when in 2022 administrators changed the name of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources to the Davis College?
I think the partial answer is found in Cashup Davis, one of thirty-five real- life mentors I have had in my life. This book is my journey to find those answers and to find out about Cashup. I hope you will find some answers in ol’ Cashup too. His inspiration is there for the taking.
Award-winning investigative journalist Jeff Burnside and I dug deep. In the archives of small-town museums—musty boxes, file folders, microfilm. Via cemetery visits and scouring burial records. Using drones. Investigating back roads. Sifting through countless newspaper articles and family records. We searched obscure digital archives, mining for nuggets about the Palouse Country of Eastern Washington, the American Midwest, and New York Harbor, and we explored digital archives about Hastings at the southern tip of England. We trod through the best wheat fields in the world. We even put up posters in farm towns around the Palouse that asked anyone walking by: “Is Cashup Davis in your attic?” In so doing, we invited people to check their family trunks and bring items to community meetings in the hopes of finding more photos, documents, letters, and artifacts that would give us further insight into Cashup and his story. Eventually Jeff formed The Cashup Crew, an informal squad of people listed at the end of this book—people who were interested in unearthing as much as we could about Cashup. And it worked.
In the following pages, we will take you along on my unfolding journey. Remember, it can be your journey, too. Start your own legacy or continue what you have already begun.
After all, a little Cashup probably exists in all of us.
FIRE IN THE NIGHT SKY
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”—Marcus Garvey, journalist
No one had ever seen anything like it.
The calm of a mild spring evening in 1911 brought a hush to the undulating hills of the Palouse region in the young state of Washington. The sun had set several hours earlier and a nearly cloudless sky that night brought out the stars over the farming town of Oakesdale, in Whitman County. Fifty-four-year-old Ferdinand (Ferd) Davis,1 a stocky man who lived a few miles outside the town where he had been postmaster a few years back as well as president of the local bank, had just settled in after a day of relaxation, church, and his wife Mimi’s Sunday home cooking.
Ferd farmed 3,000 acres on the Palouse with his fifteen-year-old son Barber. His wheat fields were shocked with green stocks rising skyward, waiting for summer harvest of golden crops in some of the most fertile soil settlers had ever seen. After a week of hard work on the farm, the two took in a day of rest and peacefulness.
Until the phone rang. Telephone lines, installed with the help of his family, were still a bit new, so any ring was a little jolting. But this time, a panicked caller implored Ferd to look to the horizon.
It was March 15, a day when the remnants of a dream were going up in flames. What had once been a grand hotel perched at the top of Steptoe Butte, jutting more than a thousand feet above the surrounding farms, was a fiercely raging inferno.
The hotel had been boarded up for nearly a decade and left to wildlife, hikers, and mischievous kids. But now it was aflame.
The fire was so big, so intense, that flames licked the night sky, illuminating the growing pillar of smoke racing toward the heavens. Steptoe Butte was by far one of the highest points on the Palouse and could be seen for miles around.
Once Ferd pulled his eyes away from the fire on the butte, he scrambled for his telescope, likely one of the few throughout the region and certainly one of the finest, most powerful telescopes in the Pacific Northwest. It had been in the Davis family for many years, purchased by his father, James “Cashup” Davis. Ferd spun the telescope toward the south, giving him the best —and the most horrific—view of the blaze.
Once Ferd locked in the sightline and his eye focused onto the flames, well, it was enough to make a grown man audibly gasp.
Indeed, this was not just any hotel. For several years in its heyday, after opening July 4, 1888, it was the grandest one around—dreamt of, conceived, built, and run by his eccentric and charismatic father. Cashup Davis had been a well-known businessman and pioneer and one of the most renowned party hosts anywhere in the region. When he walked into a town, people often gathered around him. His visits made news. He earned his nickname by insisting on paying—and on being paid—in cash, a story we will delve into later.
At a time when the region was only sparsely populated with white settlers, Cashup created such a stir with his hotel, his promotional genius, and his gatherings that patrons came from miles around on horseback and in wagons to party, dance, eat, and enjoy life. They had so much fun, ate so much exotic food, and drank so much liquor at the hotel that, given the inconvenient and harrowing return route down the butte, many of them rented rooms to stay until morning. Of course, it was not uncommon for folks to return home the next day without any sleep at all.
Imagine: at a time when almost all of Cashup’s guests were accustomed to homes built only of simple planking—sometimes even sod or logs—his elaborate three-story building inspired them to venture for miles, wind up a steep hill, and enter. The structure must have seemed fantastical to the farmers, ranchers, loggers, and miners in the region.
Cashup spared no expense in building his dream. The hotel measured 66 feet by 66 feet, with a massive ballroom on the main level surrounded by a balcony where patrons could watch the goings-on below. Guests entered the hotel through an ornate parlor, whose walls were “festooned with garlands of lush grains that grew so well in the fertile surroundings,” according to amateur historian Randall Johnson. The ballroom’s stage often featured the Privett Brothers Orchestra, Cashup’s favorite musicians. Cashup often got on stage to join brothers Cy and Andy Privett, who came fifteen miles north from Colfax to play the minuet, the polka, the quadrille, and the waltz. Music filled the hotel late into the night and, yes, into daylight, when others were already up and being productive.
On the very top of the hotel sat a 14-foot by 14-foot cupola that opened to the skies, a vista that resembled one offered by an ocean steamer deck. “From this exalted standpoint, aided by the powerful glass, a wonderland is exposed to view.” Patrons felt like they were on the bridge of a ship sailing across the Palouse, “affording a vision of 150 miles over the now productive hills unfolding as rolling pillows in every direction.” The actual distance one could see from up there depended not just on how clear the skies were but also on how much exaggeration the newspaper writer was willing to infuse. Fifty miles? One hundred? One hundred fifty?
Perhaps the most fantastical gimmick conjured up by Cashup was what could only be considered advanced high tech at the time. Local newspapers called it the “magic lantern” show: “A contrivance by which [guests] could look through a hole in the wall at pictures which were seen through magnifying lenses and under powerful lights and were really beautiful.”2 The result, with perhaps some smoke added, was that the images appeared to be moving—a year before Edison invented the motion picture back east.
The magic lantern shows, the orchestras, the stage, operatic singers, Punch and Judy shows: Cashup’s hotel offered entertainment not found in many other grand hotels. In fact, references to magic lantern shows occurring in the western United States during this era are rare in the historical record. The elaborate and much bigger San Francisco Palace Hotel, built from California gold rush money, didn’t host the shows; nor did Spokane’s finest hotels, the Western and the Californian. Smaller hotels in Colfax and Walla Walla offered little more than a place to sleep and maybe get a meal. Cashup’s hotel was a game changer.
Indeed, what Cashup had built—an elaborate entertainment hotel in the middle of nowhere—was not unlike what Thomas Hull did in 1941 with the El Rancho Vegas Hotel, the first hotel on what would become the Las Vegas Strip.
The Spokane Review (later renamed Spokesman-Review) called it a “great northwestern pleasure resort.” The hotel was the talk of the territory. “Cashup had a mania for company, and the bigger the crowd and the longer it stayed the better his mood,” wrote the newspaper in 1919. “Each swain and every belle came at dusk, prepared to dance until daylight. On occasion the merrymakers would find themselves snowed in, and would stay for days, or until the weather broke.”
It had been unlike any place around. Groundbreaking. And now, in 1911, it was on fire.
To see the building going up in flames hurt Ferd deep inside his heart. After his father died fifteen years prior, his brother J. F. Davis tried to run the hotel. That added three more years. But its slow death continued until J. F. boarded it up and moved off the butte for good around 1902.
Even after it closed, the family felt that the hotel belonged to them. Thus the finality of the fire was excruciating. It was painful to see the flames destroying their father’s legendary hotel, a roaring orange flickering in the night sky that was visible to all onlookers within a one-hundred-mile radius.
Josephine Jodel Bye, a twenty-four-year-old farmer’s wife, could see the flames from the front porch of her family home in tiny Princeton, Idaho, nearly thirty miles east. Josephine and her family had moved to the region two years prior to manage a dairy farm at the nearby Potlatch Lumber Mill. But that night, as her granddaughter Donna Gwinn remembers Josephine’s story, “she saw this great big plume of smoke to the west. ‘Oh! That might be the hotel!’ She used an expression in her voice that makes me remember her experience.”
Just a few miles away from the Byes, the daughter of rancher J. E. Tate saw the flames that night, too. “I lived on a ranch near Fallon [Washington, twenty miles southeast of Steptoe Butte]” she wrote in a 1969 letter. “We had talked about going up to Steptoe Butte to see Cashup Davis’s place and staying all night. We could see it plainly from our farm,” she said. “In those days the travel was by horse and buggy. We would have stayed all night as it was too long of a trip for the team. My father—J. E. Tate—came and informed us that the Hotel was burning. We all rushed out and looked—and it was a great sight.”
It was the biggest show ever seen by Cashup’s expansive circle of friends, admirers, and former guests throughout the region. The fire lit the countryside. Many said it resembled a volcano. The Tekoa Sentinel wrote that “the fiery spectacle was viewed in silence by the townspeople of Oakesdale.”
The telescope that Ferd used to watch the flames once stood in the cupola at the hotel’s pinnacle, where guests elbowed each other for the chance to look through it, “through which guests could see all the way to Walla Walla,” one hundred miles to the southwest, “and beyond,” reported the Spokane Review in 1892. The experience was likely the first time looking through a telescope for many of the hotel guests. “A telescope second in power to only one other in Washington,” gushed the Review. Much like Cashup wanted for everything related to the historic structure, the telescope was a feature as grand as the hotel, allowing guests the stellar vision Cashup embraced. Tragic irony that that very same telescope afforded onlookers a view of the hotel as it perished.
From the Tekoa Sentinel: “The building on the topmost crest of this huge mass of earth no longer stands out as the attraction to recall to the minds of the
Palouse pioneers times of excitement, when the Palouse was yet in infancy.”
“Many a friend and acquaintance of Cashup Davis shed tears of regret as they witnessed, from afar, the obliteration of the structure which had marked but another shattered dream of fortune,” wrote Karl P. Allen, a newspaperman at the Pullman Herald who had spent memorable evenings in the hotel and had befriended Cashup. Cashup was shrewd enough to make sure the newspaperman always had fun at his grand hotel.
The hotel was gone. The family lives on.
I owned the telescope for many years. In the 1990s, my father Aubrey, Cashup’s grandson, passed it down to me. When I first laid my hands on the historic family telescope, I could feel Cashup’s presence. It was a dramatic turning point in my journey to understand Cashup, to get to know my mentor, my inspiration, even though I had never met him.
In 2020, I gave the telescope to the Whitman County Historical Society to put on permanent display, and it often travels to local libraries across the Palouse. To me, the telescope symbolizes Cashup’s vision. It has the ultimate double meaning: Cashup’s vision literally symbolized by an instrument of vision. Ferd completed the circle by using the telescope to watch the hotel burn.3 The telescope remains a symbol of an iconic man, ahead of his time, who refused to limit his visionary ambitions.
Cashup is timeless. And so are the lessons learned from his extraordinary life. His real story—his fate, the foundation of his “never say never” character, the construction of who he became—all started as a young man when he saw something peering down at him. What he saw up there would manifest itself later in his life in a way he could have never imagined.
- From handwritten notes in a family history undated several times and unsigned but created sometime after 1961. This document, the core of which was written and signed by Julia Davis Eckhart, granddaughter of Cashup, will be cited throughout this book.
- Ivan Chase, “Why Cashup Davis Wanted Grave on Steptoe Butte.” Spokesman-Review 24 December 1922.
- Curiously, obscure references in at least one newspaper suggest that it was another son of Cashup’s—John, not Ferd—who may have been the son who watched the fire that night through the telescope. Or perhaps there were two telescopes.