My home is a small, quiet mountain town at the base of the Cascade Mountains, nearby the famous Alpine Lakes Wilderness, within the Okanogan- Wenatchee National Forest. Tall mountain ranges skirt the quaint town, with ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, and larches scattered about. When you find solitude, you can hear the quaking aspen blowing in the wind. It is where the Icicle and Wenatchee Rivers meet. The Wenatchee River flows into the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, the mighty Columbia River. Nearly dead center of the state of Washington, this area is within a few hours drive to all four corners of Washington state.
What once was the headquarters of the Great Northern Railway in the early 1900’s is now a bustling town that knows little of the local history. In the 1920’s the Railway headquarters moved east, down valley to Wenatchee, which took a hit to Leavenworth’s economy. Between the 1930’s and 1960’s, there was not much economic growth, which slowly turned the mountain town into a ghost town. Locals, sad to see the decline of their town, decided to do something about it. In the early 1960’s the people of the town came together and spent their own cash to improve the town and revamp the style to draw in visitors. The town looked like it was perched in the Alps, so the Bavarian theme was born. Nervous about the big change, one by one the storefronts were transformed and eventually the town became what you see today. Now, over a million people visit each year, just exactly what the locals envisioned in the 1960’s.
So now, nearly 112 years after the town was established, it is now known as the “Christmas Town of America,” among many other things. The most important name, to me at least, is Home. Other than the years spent in college, Leavenworth, Washington has been my home. A born and raised, Leavenworth local. Continuing to live and work in the town I grew up in has its special moments, as well as interesting ones. After a tourist finds out that you are a lifetime local, the questions, or jokes, start to roll off their tongues. To clear up any confusion about my little town, I have decided to collect frequent questions from tourists and share my answers with you.
Michele was born and raised in Leavenworth, WA, now residing minutes out of town.
Her first year of college was spent playing soccer on scholarship at Peninsula Community College, the women’s teams’ inaugural year. A graduate from Western WA University, in Bellingham, WA, Michele has a BA in Business and Humanities, minor in Economics and English, as well as a Certificate of Proficiency in A/R, A/P and Inventory from Whatcom CC.
Her time is spent in the outdoors, or pouring wine at work. Michele has made it her life goal to hike all the trails in Washington, and spends every summer weekend backpacking. What Michele enjoys most about the winery she works for is the experience she gets to create for the guest she serves.
What’s it like growing up in Leavenworth?
My first response, which always throws people off is, “It’s normal.” The look the tourists give me after that statement is always utter shock, or terror, I am not sure, but I love it. I go on to explain to them, this is my home, I grew up here, and this is my normal. I don’t know what they consider a normal childhood. My normal life consists of bells ringing every hour, bratwursts and sourkraut, lederhosen, accordions, yodeling on building tops, horse carriages on the streets and don’t forget the chicken dance playing through out the town during every festival.
The first nine years of my life I grew up in the small house owned by the US Forest Service, behind the Leavenworth Ranger Station. As a child I ran around the Ranger Station collecting acorns and rocks (because, for some reason that was small town entertainment), going in and out of the quiet front office, and visiting my dad and all of his coworkers. This office was once quiet and unfrequented. Now it is the hub of the Enchantments and I am sure most of you reading this you know this Ranger Station well.
My middle School and high school days were spent just like any other teenager, playing sports, running around town and exploring mountain roads. In those days town was much quieter. Parking downtown was always available and plentiful, and trailheads were often gone unvisited for days. During the summer we spent time down at the river, often amongst our teachers. Winters were spent playing AAU basketball, and many skied or snowboarded. The entire high school would often organize the game of Cops and Robbers, where we would all meet in the evening at the high school at the west end of town. A handful of upperclassmen would drive and be cops, the rest were robbers. The objective was for the entire group of robbers to make it to Heidelberger on foot without being seen by the “cops”. Groups of students running through yards, across porches and hiding in bushes only lead to the real cops being called on us a handful of times. It was okay though, the real cops where our friends dad. Sometimes we would play a few rounds and it went on for hours. That was just part of living in a small town.
Do people even live here?
Yes, yes, yes! This is not a resort, or national park town- we do not ship in workers from around the world. All the people you see working do in fact live here, or somewhere within the Wenatchee Valley. Jobs in Leavenworth are more about whom you know than anything. For example, I have been working a great family friends winery for nearly 13 years now! All of the jobs I have had in town, I got because of being friends with the boss or owner of the business.
Many people rely on the tourism for their livelihood. They are shop or restaurant owners. People who live here cherish the outdoor opportunities that abound near Leavenworth. If you know me at all, you know my life is spent hiking and camping, just like most Leavenworth locals- mountains are our life.
Is there a school here?
There is! You can see the high school from Highway 2. We are one of the largest school districts in the state, geographically. We span from the top of Stevens Pass, to top of Blewett Pass all the way to the outskirt of Cashmere. It is not uncommon for a child to have a 45-60 minute bus ride to get to school. Currently, the school Cascade District is in the process of building two brand new schools, and making a huge remodel to another. I am sad to see the high school I attended be demolished, but it’s so great for those students and the community to have new schools.
In my graduating class we had a whopping total of 86, with about 85-90% of them being 12-year seniors. To this day I could still tell you where most of them lived when we graduated from high school, not in a creepy way I promise- it’s a small town thing. Since I am sure you are wondering, no, we do not wear German clothing to school. Also, many of us are all still here or in the Wenatchee Valley.
Is the town open during the winter?
Silly questions people, come on! Yes, this wonderful little town is “Open” during winter. In fact, winter is Leavenworth’s most busy season. Our largest festival, Christmas Lighting, occupies the first three weekends of December and brings in huge amounts of tourism during those weekends.
In this same category I get so many questions about snow, and what that is like. Every winter have snow! Sometimes we have really harsh winters, sometimes only several feet all year. No matter what, it snows here. The largest accumulation that I can remember is 21 inches of snow overnight. To give you a couple examples of life in a snow town; Cascade School District has only had one snow day since I started school at least. Every student cross-country skis in PE for about 6 weeks every year from kindergarten to fifth grade. I have spent countless hours digging my car out of feet of snow, just from the couple hours of being at work, and had to have it pulled out several times. I even remember one-year trick or treating on Halloween in my snow boots and several inches of fresh snow. There were even a few years we spent Easter hunting for eggs in the snow. Snow doesn’t stop anything in this valley, nothing closes, and operations run as if it doesn’t snow 12 inches overnight.
Also, driving isn’t scary in the snow until you encounter somebody who doesn’t know how to drive in the snow. Tip for snow driving- cut your speed in about half, start slowly breaking twice as soon, stay twice as far back and you will have no problems. As we drive through town, we can always spot a tourist driving. They are always going to fast, or waiting until the last second to brake. When we are learning to drive, our parents will often make sure we know what it like to drive in snow by giving us lessons in the snow.
What are the fires like?
People often think the forest fires they see on the news are right in town, most of the time the are not. Every couple years we do have a smaller fire that threatens houses near town. Although central Washington is known for forest fires, we have been thankful there hasn’t ben anything serious fires here since the 1994 fire. During the summer smoke does fill the sky for large chunks of time, and ash often falls from the sky. This past 2018 summer we had hazardous air quality, some of the worst in the nation, for nearly six weeks.
What is it like to be a local here?
Leavenworth is, obviously, largely a tourist destination, which at times does make it hard for locals to enjoy our town, but on the other hand, we have all learned to utilize the town in its slow hours or seasons. We avoid downtown, or popular areas on weekends. Grocery shopping during mid week, or wee hours of the morning. We all know that going to Safeway on a Friday afternoon, Saturday and even Sundays is a big mistake.
As a town we are all one giant team, and we all have a special unspoken bond. There is a certain vibe to us that only we understand. If you are a real local (not recent transplant) reading this, I am sure you felt a little twinkle in your heart- that’s it. Over the past 20 years we have also witnessed so many changes in this town. Some of my favorite memories are the old Safeway, bagger Katie and the Coo Coo Clock, the old pay phone couple doors down from Muchen Haus- lot’s of fun messing with tourists, the beloved smell of waffle cones from Lak’s Gallery. Which I am still disappointed is gone.
With only about 2,000 people in the city limits and 1,500 in the surrounding area, everybody knows everybody here. My boyfriend, who isn’t from the valley, likes to joke that we can’t go anywhere in town without me knowing somebody. Doesn’t help that my mom is a teacher, and my father worked for the US Forest Service, both are big employers in the area.
Our closest “big city” is Wenatchee, just a short 22 miles, roughly 30 minutes, east down the road. The “Apple Capital of The World” is where we go for any shopping other than our Leavenworth Safeway and Dan’s Food Market.
In this same category I get a lot of questions what it is like to deal with tourist. For the sake of keeping this light, I will let you make assumptions. I am sure most of you reading this have been to Leavenworth; just imagine that being your everyday. If you are dying to know what it is really like, ask a local, or me, next time you are here.
What do you do here?
Probably the same exact stuff you do in your town. Wake up, go to work, normal household domestic things, hang out with friends and venturing on weekends. Just because my little town has special fonts on everything, extra wood trim on buildings and half a million Christmas lights doesn’t change our daily lives.
I could go on for pages and pages about what its like to grow up and live in Leavenworth. Leavenworth really is an extra special place to be raised. The interactions and connections between locals, really creates a feeling of community. That feeling goes far beyond being only each other’s neighbors, it connects us through a strong friendship. Now that you know some of what its like to be a local, I hope that you see that we really are just a normal little town. Next time you come to town I challenge you to do your research, read about the town’s history, walk around and observe it. Appreciate my little mountain town for more than the German decorations, there is much more to it.