Cami and Steve Reinke woke their daughter, Katie, just after midnight on Feb. 28, 2007. The Rill Foods store and lunch counter in Thorp was on fire.

The Reinke home was less than a block south of the small store and grill that Ninon Wheatley had made into a community home away from home since 1985.

“We heard all the sirens and got out of bed and saw the flames from our second story windows. We realized it was a big, a terrible fire,” Cami Reinke said about the night of Feb. 28, 2007. “We got our daughter up and kind of felt this was a historic moment for us and our little community. We were losing something that was part of our life and really didn’t know if it would ever come back. We all just felt so sad.”

More than eight years later there’s hope history will be made again, but this time in a positive way. A fundraiser is planned to rebuild the structure and business into the Thorp Cafe and Mercantile.

Wheatley and her family have sparked a community effort to resurrect the store and grill that’s blossomed into a heartfelt hometown cause that reflects Thorp’s neighborliness.

Corner store

Earlier this month a community meeting was called at Thorp’s Fire District 1 station to rally support for a crowd-sourcing fundraiser to come up with $50,000 to, hopefully, start construction of the new store near the building’s former location on North Thorp Highway. That’s the final amount needed to be added to an existing $400,000 to get the building going, according to Wheatley’s daughter, Lacey Wuesthoff.

“I’d say we had a good 50 people there,” Wuesthoff said. “That’s a really good crowd for Thorp on a Sunday. There was so much interest and support, it was great.”

Wuesthoff said her mother has labored several years since the 4,500-square-foot store burned to develop plans to build a two-story building with 2,000 square-feet on each floor: store and cafe below, two rental apartments to help pay for the building upstairs.

“She’s been working so long and so hard on this, and she hasn’t given up when it got hard. She really wants it for the community, not for herself. She doesn’t need it financially, but she knows the whole community needs it to come back,” Wuesthoff said.

It felt like the heart of Thorp “just died” with the loss of the store, she said, then within a year, the nearby beloved T & E Tavern was torn down.

“They were not just businesses, they were community gathering places, where we met and shared our lives,” Wuesthoff said.

The Kickstarter campaign will kick off the first half of June.

Steve and Cami Reinke were part of the crowd attending the May 3 campaign meeting. Cami, a retired Central Washington University interior design professor, said Rill Foods was like an extension of their home. They walked to the store for pantry items, caught up with neighborhood news, and took visiting friends and relatives there for breakfast or lunch.

“Since coming to the Kittitas Valley we’ve never lived in a place like Thorp,” she said. “We have friends living all around us here, people who all really care about the community and each other. We can walk to the post office, and we have neighborhood children we’ve watched grow up. It’s a down-home kind of place.”

1 1/2 miles

From Ellensburg on Interstate 90, Thorp is about 10 miles northwest of Ellensburg. A right turn off the Exit 101 off-ramp puts you on North Thorp Highway, the main thoroughfare that’s mostly country road. The last federal census listed Thorp’s population at 275, but it goes up to 700 with the full ZIP code area added.

About a half mile later there’s a small, green “Thorp unincorporated” sign. It’s 1 1/2 miles along the road to another little green sign with the same words pointed in the other direction.

Some would say Thorp is between those signs. There are homes, small farms, pastures, a district fire station, Thorp public schools, the post office, the TractorCo.Com building, the F.C. Porter Store and home of Record Printing, Thorp Community Church, the Red Hawk on the River guest ranch and the circa-1883 Thorp mill.

Dan and Sheryl Leavitt live a little ways northwest of the restored mill, and Dan is the president of the Thorp Mill Town Historic Preservation Society Board, the nonprofit group that resurrected the mill and made it into Thorp’s historic attraction.

“I’m one of those local boys who’s come back home,” said Dan Leavitt, a fifth-grade teacher at Cle Elum-Roslyn Elementary School. “I left the rat race on the West Side.”

Dan attended and graduated from Thorp High School, got his teaching degree from Central Washington University, and went off to work in the Lake Stevens, Everett and Granite Falls area. While teaching at Lake Stevens High School, the student population went from 880 in 1993 to more than 2,200 when he left in 2003.

“The growth over there was crazy,” said Dan who’s been teaching 33 years, and is into his 11th year at Cle Elum-Roslyn schools. “The traffic, the congestion, the hectic pace of life, it was just too much, too fast.”

In addition, the weather is better here, he added.

Dan Leavitt began in Cle Elum schools in 2003 as the director of educational technology.

“It’s really hard to develop a personal feeling and close relationships in the your educational experience as a teacher or a student when you’re at a mega-school,” he said.

Class sizes are smaller in Thorp and Upper Kittitas County schools, and the one-on-one educational experience “is like night and day” compared to huge, West Side districts, he said. Developing personal relationships here with students and staff comes easier here, he said.

Those friendly, close relationships with neighbors and friends in the community came easier, too, with the Rill Food store and the T & E Tavern that was more of a family-friendly Irish pub.

“That also was a real tragedy,” Dan said about the end of the tavern. It had a vintage, full-length table-top shuffle board made of highly polished maple that seemed like a Thorp landmark, he said.

“They (store and tavern) both were community places,” Dan said.

No secret

John Karlson, Thorp native and business partner with Susan Johnston in Record Printing and Packaging Design, said it’s no secret that the local, small public schools are the backbone of Thorp’s rural community.

“One of the biggest predictors of life and academic success is class size,” Karlson said in emailed comments. “Thorp has always been able to offer that. It is even more true with the advent of the possibility for independent learning occurring via the Internet.”

He said his family roots go back a long way in Thorp. Karlson said the Rill store was a vital part of the community prior to it burning, and it would be wonderful to have that resource return.

Johnston said the business moved from Ellensburg to Thorp in 2004 and has operated in the valley since 1977. She’s been a valley resident since 1972.

“I think any rural resident would welcome something like Ninon (Wheatley) is planning,” Johnston said. “It’s a true community center for us, just like the fire department and the schools.”

Her business often requires weekly trips to clients in the Pacific Northwest, including Seattle and Portland. When driving home on I-90, she can feel herself start to relax when she reaches North Bend on the way to Thorp.

“This is a good, wholesome place to live,” she said.

Spirit and pride

Jarred Fudacz was a sophomore at Thorp High School when he and other students and Thorp residents banded together to expand the school’s homecoming parade through the community into the Thorp Community Days celebration.

Now into its fifth year, the festivities this year are set for Oct. 2-3. Fudacz, a sophomore at CWU in business administration and marketing, said the idea five years ago was to draw Thorp residents together for a community celebration.

The annual event is organized each year by a nonprofit association. The organization conducted a fundraising run and plant sale on May 2 to help defray the celebration’s costs.

“Thorp may be small, but it’s really full of a lot of spirit and pride,” said Fudacz who grew up in Thorp. “Last year there were more than 500 turning out for the parade. That’s quite large for Thorp.”

He said he carefully listens to comments from those attending to get feedback. He’s seen community involvement increase.

“You know, I really see the joy they get from it,” he said. “You see it in their faces during the parade. It’s like a ‘wow’ that I see. And later they’re thanking us for putting it on.”

The “smallness” of Thorp along with its big sense of community makes it unique, Fudacz said. He likes the individual character of all the communities in Kittitas County, he said, along with Thorp’s quiet, peaceful and safe environment.

As for growth and development, Fudacz said Thorp is just right the way it is.

“It’s about as big as it should get,” he said, and quickly added heartily supports bringing back the Rill store as the Thorp Cafe and Mercantile.

“Like the mill and our schools, our fire station and volunteers, the store was part of our strong, community identity,” Fudacz. “It’s a really cool place to live.”


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