It started with Willis

Our great-grandfather Willis Mercer rode horseback into the Yakima Valley as a young man going west in 1886. He cowboyed for the legendary Northwest cattle baron Ben Snipes.  Snipes supplied cattle and horses to gold miners in the Yukon, we’ve heard numbers of 20,000 head of cattle and 10,000 horses.  And bred Hamiltonian trotting horses, we had a descendant on the ranch from the time she was a mustang colt – the legendary Nancy who never broke out of a trot (rough to ride and liked to buck ).

Horse Heaven Hills are named for the horses (and later wild horses) Snipes ran to graze up there.

Willis said the native bunch grass was belly high on the horse when he first rode into the Valley. He decided he liked the area and purchased a mile wide stip of land from Mabton to the Columbia River, approximately 30 miles long. The land was purchased to provide a corridor to move as many as 20,000 head of sheep to and from their grazing areas.  The sheep were shipped via rail in the spring from Prosser to Browning, Montana to graze; and returned to Prosser in the fall after the spring lambs were shipped to market in Chicago. Willis was sheepman and rancher for over 50 years in this south central area of the state. He was an influential member of the Wool Growers Association and one of the industry’s authorities on the wool and sheep business.

In 1904 or 05 he sold all of his sheep to concentrate on helping develop downtown Prosser.  Through time Willis made large investments in Prosser real estate, particularly the business district. During this time Willis served on bank boards, city council and did philanthropic endeavors.

The major building Willis built was the Mercer Building. It was the “hub” of commercial activities in Prosser’s early years.  The 18,000 sq ft, 2-story building featured 3 commercial real estate fronts housing through the years grocery, equipment and hardware stores.  The second floor contained 6 two room office suites, housing a variety of professional services.  Two large ballrooms were used for various activities including the public library, the local newspaper, a meeting place for the National Guard and many other public uses.

Willis eventually turned the office spaces into living quarters for all his children when they married.  They rented the ~400 sq ft two room suites for $5-$6 a month.  As Grandpa Milt later would say, the price was right!  They were very popular with the family.  Willis maintained ownership until his death in 1941 when the building was sold by his estate.

Today the Mercer family is still an integral part of Prosser and the south central agricultural community.  Great granddaughter Julie was working for a cattle salesyard in Kalispell, Montana in the late 1970’s and was asked if she was related to the Prosser Mercer and Hill Sheep Company?  The local handsome older cattleman who asked her had boarded a train as a teenager and rode it to Browning, Montana to apply for a job as a sheepherder.  Alas, he couldn’t whistle and thus failed to get the job.  But sheep company had a highly respected reputation. The Mercer family is now a major producer of varietal wine grapes and wine, apples, potatoes, carrots, many other irrigated crops and still owns much of the original land Willis purchased.  Grandson Rick together with his son Calvin manage the rangeland and raise cattle.

In the early 1990s great granddaughter Caren bought the Mercer Building and in a labor of love began restoring the second floor into habitable space again, including a living area loft and art/metal sculpting studio.  She began Prosser’s first hip coffee shop (still downstairs with new owners) along with an art gallery and framing shop.  After her passing sister Julie acquired the building which had been purchased from Caren’s estate by the family’s agriculture company.

The Mercer Building is truly a family heirloom!  In recent years it has housed the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary offices; Mercer Estates Winery offices (rumor has it the winery got its start over a poker game in one of the ballrooms); animation studios; photography studio; gourmet restaurant; ANC and Coyote Canyon wineries; and currently houses a gym, WSU international PHd visiting faculty and doctoral students and one of Willis’s great-great granddaughters and her husband as they start their marriage.

There’s more on the history of the building and the family in a couple little books we’ve left in each suite. Please enjoy!