A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In this article, Healy shares her photos of the ghost town of Govan, in the Palouse region of Washington State.
One the single largest wheat-growing regions of the world, the Palouse area of Washington State, which also extends to the west of Idaho, is roughly 50,000 square kilometer in size (19,000 square miles). It is also a place where photographers from all over the planet pilgrimage faithfully, particularly in June and then late July to early August, because of the stunning landscape opportunities it offers.
It is a huge territory, dotted by small farming towns and old farmers’ cemeteries, amid gentle rolling hills and big clouds. In June, those hills turn into an impossible green, and by late July, the wheat is golden and the harvest season has started. I love this area in any weather and season, and wish I would get there far more often than I do. Today, I would like to share some images of a little nook in the Palouse, the ghost town of Govan.
This past July, I took one of my photographer goddaughters, who was visiting from Buenos Aires, on a weekend road trip to the Palouse. Can we call it a roadtrip if it’s only two days? I wanted to give Fía at least the feel of that ultimate American experience: the open road, windows down, baking heat, and music blasting out of my old Subaru. We headed straight for Govan!
While I hope that one of these days Fía herself might sit down and write about photographing in the Palouse, I’m here to tell you we had a fabulous time! My one and only time in Govan had been six years earlier, when I had attended a photo workshop in the area. Govan’s main attraction is an abandoned schoolhouse in the middle of a field. When I photographed it in 2010, it still had a very sweet little cupola crowning its roof. This past July, I was sorry to see that the cupola had fallen to a side and that the dark red color of the exterior wood of the schoolhouse was almost gone too.
There were no official signs warning us that it was probably not safe to climb into the ruins of the old schoolhouse (the steps are gone), but there were enough rusty nails sticking from wooden boards and plenty of broken glass around to signal “Keep out.” So within two seconds the younger photographer was up on what had been the entrance to the schoolhouse pulling up the older photographer and their shared load of equipment No names!
The old schoolhouse had enormous windows on every side overlooking acres and acres of golden wheat. A huge wood stove, rusted and bashed in on one side, still held its own in one corner of the two main rooms. Moving carefully, one could go from the two big rooms to a couple of smaller storage spaces, which still held some decrepit shelving. It was hot, the crickets were loud, and we could imagine what it must have been like to have been a child decades ago in that two-room schoolhouse, hoping for lessons to end for the day so you could go out and play. Or, more likely, help your family with the farm chores.
Beyond the schoolhouse, there are some grain elevators down by the old railway tracks. I have no idea whether they are still in use, but they might be. There are a few people still living in Govan, a respectable amount of dogs and tons of ancient crumbled farming tools and equipment. It’s a place that constantly reminds you of the need to be up to date with your tetanus shots. A very short Wikipedia entry mentions a post office, but we certainly did not see it and a zip code search gave no results. If there was one, it is now gone.
As we drove back on Highway 2 towards the city of Wenatchee, where we would spend the night, Fía and I saw several abandoned homesteads and we pulled over when we could. Interestingly enough, there was wheat growing to the very doors of these forsaken places, which were totally trashed and graffiti-ed inside. We were grateful that the old Govan schoolhouse was being allowed to decay at its own pace, with the inside plaster crumbling from walls that still retain a bit of pale color.
I don’t know about other photographers but I feel rather conflicted about photographing abandoned places. I feel the pull but I also dislike the phenomenon that is sometimes known as “decay or ruin porn.” I love to travel and find these remnants of the agricultural past, be it buildings, tools, vehicles, or implements of any kind. What I respond to is that state of organic, dignified decay of things slowly going back to nature, that notion encompassed by the Japanese term wabi sabi. Tiny Govan is, I think, a sweet example of wabi sabi at play.
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.