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Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tiny Hooper is dear to many hearts

Seattle Times staff reporter

HOOPER — Whether it's a quilting bee or a baby shower, a funeral or a wedding, this tiny company town has always been the gathering spot.

So when it was time for The McGregor Company to mark its 125th year in business, there was really only one place to celebrate — downtown Hooper.

There are just 16 homes here, and just about everyone works for McGregor, the Northwest's largest independent fertilizer company.

To look at it, very little has changed in Hooper, population 21, unless you count what company President Alex McGregor likes to call the suburban sprawl. Then you might hit, oh, 35, but that might include some of the free-range dogs.

No matter how you count it, that's more than 79,900 short of the town population envisioned by McGregor's forefathers, who came to Palouse Country to raise sheep.

"But we're still working on it," says McGregor, 58, who holds a Ph.D. in history and a deep regard for this sparse dryland wheat country.

Despite its petite size, the town boundaries actually straddle two counties, Adams and Whitman. Which came in handy for Hooper's saloon, long since shuttered. It was put on rollers and moved three times from one side of the county line to the other, depending on which allowed beer sales.

It's the kind of genius for adaptation long needed out here. Author Zane Grey, who stayed in the Hooper Hotel in 1917, called this a "lonely, hard, heroic country." The hotel still stands and is used for family and community gatherings.

So in late August, as blue smoke drifted from the barbecues, hundreds of guests gathered to celebrate friendships that have endured over the years and the miles. They came from Seattle, Wenatchee, Soap Lake and pin-dot towns across the Northwest, to gather at the only picnic where everyone can sing Hooper's school song. The building is long gone, but its bell still graces the town green.

McGregor likes to say he graduated in the top four of his class. But he has to note, since he is such an honest guy, that the other three kids in his class have the same boast.

"You didn't have a personality clash with your teacher — you better not," McGregor said. "You got that teacher the first four years, and her spouse the other four years."

In Hooper, the boom times were over by about 1920, back when the wheat harvest took the work of 110 people and 310 horses and mules. Sheep shearing brought a sea of some 6,000 sheep, surrounding the wool barn.

"When I was a kid, there were three cookhouses going at harvest time — one at the wheat ranch, another at the sheep camp and another here at the Hooper Hotel," McGregor said.

Farming has changed a lot since then, but the secret to success in agriculture, and much else, is still about the same: hard work, character, honesty and fair dealings, McGregor said.

Today, The McGregor Company has about 334 employees who work at 43 fertilizer stores in farm towns in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, where the company's trademark M on its signs is often the biggest thing for many a mile.

Postmistress Heidi Evans adds two more essential ingredients to survive in a small town: a healthy sense of humor — and discretion.

"I'm like the bartender — I know a lot more than I want to. You learn to keep your mouth shut," Evans said. She has managed her tiny kingdom for 20 years, and today it's the only "hot spot" in town, she said. The nearest big store is 40 miles away, so she has learned to provide little extras for her customers.

Without being asked, Evans slides new stamps into a plastic sleeve for tidiness. "That's not government issue," she says of the sleeves. "That's my Hooper flair."

All year, as the August celebration approached, family members and McGregor employees worked to spruce up the town and the company store, itself a landmark for miles. Opened in 1915, this was once the place to buy everything from insurance to barbed wire. It closed in the late 1970s. McGregor's father's handwriting still graces labels on bins in the store, with prices that are vintage 1955: sweatshirts for $1.50, lined sheepskin gloves for $1.89.

The company's research lab is still intact in the basement, where researcher Harley Jacquot first figured out that adding nitrogen to cropland would produce better wheat yields. The company in 1948 began carrying nitrogen fertilizer occasionally amid the radish seeds and raspberry starts, the beginning of what would become the core of the business.

McGregor employees will be the first to say that agriculture means more than growing crops. It's also about growing a sense of community.

Sharon Hannas, Hooper's unofficial mayor and a Hooper resident for more than 20 years, said she likes being in a place small enough that she can be the head of her department — of one.

"I love working for myself," said Hannas, who does everything from watering trees around the town to helping out with the cattle — when she isn't teaching the local kids how to rope a steer and barrel race a horse.

She loves the fireworks on the Fourth of July, when town residents line up three sheets of plywood on the town green and shoot off a display that lasts two hours. And she loves living in a place where, when she needs to get a grip, her husband can say, "Go talk to your horses."

She knows it takes a certain kind of person to live here. "You can't be the kind that wants to have your hair and nails done every day," Hannas said.

"But I wouldn't live anywhere else."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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