This article first ran in The Sun Tribune May 3, 2018
ROYAL CITY — Woodinville area residents no doubt have come to appreciate the quality organic vegetables grown on the Tonnemaker Valley Farm in the Sammamish Valley just south of town, and the Tonnemaker organic fruit sold at the Woodinville Farmers Market.
But chances are most are unaware of the Tonnemaker rich family history and the historical findings unearthed on their farm in Royal City.
Kole and Sonia Tonnemaker own and operate Tonnemaker Hill Farm on the North Slope of Frenchman Hills. Kole is a third generation farmer. By the sweat of their brow, the Tonnemaker family turned a barren parcel of land into a flourishing farm that is well known across the state for its organic fruits and vegetables.
Orland and Pearl Tonnemaker purchased the 126-acre spread in 1962, when it was covered with sagebrush, and over the years, transformed it into the luscious fertile ground it is today. But while many of the neighboring farmers
were growing hay and wheat, Orland had something else in mind.
“Grandpa bought the ground with the intention of putting in an orchard. When he purchased the land there were no other orchards on the North Slope of Frenchman Hills — period,” Kole said. "He wanted to plant a cherry orchard and he was kind of the laughing stock because there was a shorter growing season on the North Slope and you get the winter kill more on this side as the cold air pools up in the valley.”
Orland grew alfalfa initially. He planted his first fruit trees in 1967.
“Alfalfa paid the bills for a long time because back then they didn’t have dwarfing root stock that made trees come into bearing early, so you had to wait five to seven years before you had a crop,” Kole said. “But he thought he was right and he kept at it. Now when you drive from George to the refuge down here it’s all orchards, so he was right. He was the first one to have an orchard and everyone was making fun of him. There’s a valuable lesson here.”
Kole didn’t grow up on the farm. He was 2 years old when his grandpa bought the property, but he remembers working on the farm during the summer months with his brother Kurt.
“Some of the first memories I have was watching my dad and my grandpa dynamiting the boulders on the hillside,” Kole said. “Kurt was just a baby then.”
Today, cherry, apple, peach, apricot and pear orchards make up half the farm; the other half yields hay and vegetables.
“We have 150 different varieties of tree fruit, 250 varieties of peppers, 30 varieties of tomatoes, and 25 varieties of melons,” Kole said. "We also grow cucumbers and summer and winter squash.”
Since 1984, the Tonnemaker’s have marketed their annual crops at their fruit stand on the farm and at various Farmers Markets on both sides of the state.
“Kurt hauls our fruits and vegetables to the west side and sells them at several Farmers Markets in Seattle and the surrounding areas. Several restaurants in the Seattle area buy our fruit and vegetables too,” Kole said. “He (Kurt) has a farm in the Sammamish Valley and sells his fruit at the Farmers Market in Redmond and at the University Farmers Market; one of the largest markets in Puget Sound.”
Historical find unearthed
Early in the spring of 2015, the family farm drew national attention — not for fruits and vegetables — but for mammoth bones!
“I was plowing the alfalfa and near the end of the day I thought I hit a big rock so I stopped and got off the tractor,” Kole’s son Luke, said. “I reached down into the furrow in front of me and picked it up, but it was a lot lighter than I thought it should be. So I cleaned it up a bit and then I could tell it was some sort of a bone. I thought no way was this from a cow. It wasn’t fossilized — was recent enough and still smooth like a regular bone.”
So he took it up to the house to show his dad what he’d found.
“Luke had been plowing the field a good share of the day — that field was pretty rocky — it had been rocked and rocked over the years. I didn’t think he was making enough progress because he kept stopping and picking rocks trying to do a very thorough job,” Kole said. “I told him to leave some of the little stuff or he’d never get through the field. It was a half hour later Sonia and I were just sitting down at the dinner table and Luke came to the window of the house and showed us what looked like a bone. We had found some pretty big cow bones out in the field, but not as big as the bone he was holding. It was a good thing he was plowing, because really, I might have left it in the furrow — probably would’ve pushed it back in the dirt with the tire.”
Shortly after Luke presented the bone to his mom and dad, a call was placed to Mark Amara, a local soil scientist and archaeologist in hopes of determining the animal to which it belonged. Luke and Kole were so excited with the discovery they ran down to where Luke found the bone and started digging until it was almost dark.
“We were thinking this might be a mastodon because the first bone I found was so big,” Luke said. “So we did a little research on Google and found out a mastodon had never been found in eastern Washington. But a specific kind of mammoth — a Columbia Mammoth, which was larger but less hairy than a Woolly Mammoth and bigger than a mastodon, had been.”
Wasting little time, Amara showed up the next day to examine the bone and the excavation site.
“We found some pieces but as we expanded the dig less and less was coming up so we thought maybe all we’d find was the original bone,” Luke said. “Some guys with the MCBONES (Mid-Columbia Basin Old Natural Education Sciences) Foundation — George Last a geologist and Gary Kleinknecht, a science teacher, came out that weekend and did a detailed soil profile of the site. We discussed the bone I found and they took it down to their research center in Kennewick to examine it. The thought was there was just the one bone here that had washed in from the ice age floods and that was probably the extent of the find.”
Kole and Luke carefully marked the spot and continued to watch the furrow as they plowed the field. Within four passes of the area, more bones surfaced.
“We stopped plowing and began poking around with some bamboo skewers and found bones everywhere,” Luke said. “So some MCBONES volunteers came up the next weekend. We found the femur, the skull, the right radius and ulna, bones from the vertebra, bones from the feet — the metatarsal, the calcaneus or heel bone, the navicular (front foot bone), a lot of rib bones, the right tibia and a lot of teeth and part of the mandible (jaw bone). But there was no fibula, femur, humerus, pelvis, scapula or tusk.”
The original bone bed was relatively shallow some 17 to 26 inches. Had it been any deeper, the Tonnemaker’s may never have found the bones.
“It amazing to have walked on the top of all of this for more than 50 years,” Kole said.
Determining the age of the bones has proved to be difficult so far. Contamination due to alfalfa roots found in many has proven carbon dating ineffective. Soil dating by means of Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) testing conducted at Utah State University is still pending. Electron Spinning Resonance (ERS) testing is also being conducted on one of the mammoth teeth by Dr. Bonnie Blackwell, co-founder of the RFK Institute in Glenwood Landing,
N.Y, however the specific age of tooth is yet to be determined.
“It’s all incredibly complicated” Kole said. “But based on where the bones were in the soil and the soil around them — there were three layers of Mt. Saint Helens ash at the dig site — It would make them about 16,000 years old — about the time of the last Missoula Flood. There’s really no way to know if the mammoth was alive or dead when it was ice-rafted in or if the carcass was intact or if it was killed by early Native American hunters. We did find a pedestal about 200 yards from the site that is thought to have belonged to a tribe that camped here long-long ago.”
The last significant find was in 2016.
“We still find some small pieces in the field, but nothing big for the past couple of years,” Kole said. “It’s hard to figure out where to dig. It's very time consuming because we have to do it by hand — can’t use a backhoe. We’ve been so busy the last couple of springs we haven’t done much digging down there lately.”
Kole and Luke continue to keep a diligent watch, however, should any more bones be unearthed during plowing.