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Thursday, November 11, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`That Terrible Day': Centralia, 1919 -- Wwi Veterans, Labor Unionists Clashed And Died -- This Little Town Has Only Lately Come To Terms With Its Infamous Armistice Day Tragedy

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

CENTRALIA - A lifetime after the fact, the events of that terrible day linger like an old family feud, gnawing at the soul of this all-American small town.

You stroll across the town park, beneath the autumn maples, and find yourself confronted by larger-than-life memorials to men who, 80 years ago today, died violent deaths on these quiet streets.

You step into a downtown bookstore and listen to an impromptu debate about who did what and when, and who is to blame for what historians call the Centralia Massacre.

And you wonder: Doesn't this handsome old town have enough problems - a shrinking resource economy and a lack of family-wage jobs - without re-fighting an 80-year-old fight?

"There was a time when I was fascinated with that terrible day," recalls Dave Carver as he gazes soberly across the city park. "I thought I'd gotten over it. But it keeps coming back."

Carver is something of an amateur historian, one of many who have asked questions, then become obsessed with the events of Veterans Day 1919. As a veteran and a union man, he feels he understands a period of Washington's history marked by wild-eyed clashes between loggers and timber bosses, haves and have-nots.

"It shouldn't have happened," he says, sadly. "None of those things should have happened."

On a drizzly November afternoon, Carver revisits the tree-lined streets where events unfolded on a similarly gray day so long ago.

In 1919, Washington was a rough-edged pioneer state blessed with seemingly endless resources. Thousands of Americans had come home from the trenches of Europe, eager to enjoy the fruits of victory.

But populist labor unions were beginning to resist the excesses of the market economy; strikes sometimes erupted into violence. The conflict was particularly acute in mill towns like Centralia, where it was hard to ignore the enormous gap between wealthy timber barons and hapless loggers.

It started as a peaceful parade. Members of the local American Legion, including young war veterans, marched up Tower Avenue to observe the first anniversary of the Armistice that ended the War to End All Wars.

"Things went wrong right here," Carver says, pointing to a block of aging single-story businesses.

At this intersection, the American Legion contingent stopped in front of the Roderick Hotel, which served as a local union hall for the Industrial Workers of the World.

The IWW, or "Wobblies," were the left wing of the Northwest labor movement, considered radical because they supported worker ownership of factories, a 40-hour work week and sanitary conditions in logging camps. Whether it was the union itself or the ideas it supported, the IWW was seen as a threat to the local establishment.

The union had been warned that the Legionnaires would attack their hall. It had happened before, the previous year. A lawyer advised they were entitled to defend their property. So they armed themselves.

What happened next goes to the heart of the debate: Who fired first and why?

Within minutes, four young Legionnaires lay dead or dying on the street.

The town went crazy. Citizens become vigilantes and descended on Wobblies and other union members, arresting them in their halls or homes and throwing them in jail.

A lynching, then trials

Wesley Everest, a 31-year-old logger and IWW member who had fired some of the fatal shots, was pursued through the streets, cornered, beaten and thrown in jail with the rest. Later that night, the city lights went out. An angry mob dragged Everest out of jail, drove him to a bridge across the Chehalis River and hanged him. Witnesses said he had been castrated.

Just 10 weeks later, 11 union members were put on trial for the murder of Warren Grimm, one of the Legion members. After a stormy trial, tainted by the presence of troops, seven were convicted and sentenced to 25 years. Many observers, and even some jurors, complained the trial and sentences were unfair.

The convictions only deepened passions in a state already known for its populism. The tragedy was revisited by appeals courts, by John Dos Passos in his novel "1919," and by a panel from the Federal Council of Churches. It has been the topic of countless books, pamphlets and magazine articles.

Of the seven men convicted, one died in prison, five were paroled in 1930 and the last, Ray Becker, saw his sentence commuted in 1939 after 19 years in prison.

Town shuts event out of its life

Meanwhile, the people of Centralia resumed their lives. The American Legion erected a war memorial to the four Legionnaires, depicting them as innocent martyrs; the statue still dominates the city park.

But while the episode became a national cause celebre, it was virtually banned in Centralia. For years, there was not a written word about the episode in the town library, and it was not discussed in local schools.

"I'm a native of this town," Carver says. "When I joined the military, I was amazed how many people asked me about the Centralia Massacre. I couldn't tell them anything, because nobody ever told me."

Still, the debate continued, mostly in hushed tones. Roger Stewart, a bookstore owner who moved here in 1964, recalls hearing stories from aging witnesses.

"The feelings were made all the more intense by the Cold War," he recalls. "To them, it was all clear-cut. The Legionnaires were victims and the Wobblies were the guilty party."

Economic struggles

These days, Centralia remains a tidy, well-preserved and unpretentious town of 12,000 alongside the Chehalis River. It is best known for its winter floods, antique shops that fill aging downtown storefronts, and for its conservative politics.

The town struggles with many of the same economic woes experienced by other resource-based communities. All three of Lewis County's economic mainstays - timber, mining and farming - are in decline, says Bill Lotto of the county Economic Development Commission.

The Wal-Mart and factory outlet stores that have sprouted alongside I-5 generate low-wage jobs that don't begin to compensate for the loss of well-paying mill or logging jobs, Lotto says.

"Our average wage has gone from 97 percent of the state average in 1970 to 73 percent in 1998," he says. "It has been a constant, long-term decline, and it hurts."

But the city and county have some things going for them: the huge coal-fired generating plant outside town that employs 670 people, a regional hospital with 700 jobs and a new Fred Meyer distribution warehouse. And the county has plans for a new industrial park on the site of the former coal mine.

"This community has a tremendous sense of pride and of history," Lotto says.

And the events of 1919 now are formally part of that history. The library now maintains a collection of material on the tragedy, and the local antique mall sells copies of John McClelland's "Wobbly War: The Centralia Story," the most thorough historical account.

Perhaps the most visible change is the two-story mural, painted two years ago on the wall facing the park. It depicts Wesley Everest as the martyr, arms outstretched, breaking his chains while corporate pigs sneer and pollute the air.

The mural, erected by a local antique dealer, is designed to offset the one-sided message of the Legion statue, says Stewart, the bookstore operator.

"It's painted in a kind of socialist style that a lot of people find offensive," he says.

Still, people put up with it, suggesting that Centralia is coming to grips with its past.

It's even addressed in school now

In 1987, the local school district published a pamphlet that even-handedly explores the episode, so teachers could discuss it with classes.

"It's different now from when I grew up here," says Ron Breckenridge, the middle-school history teacher who co-authored the pamphlet. "The people who had the strongest feelings are gone now."

The pamphlet drops the word massacre, referring instead to "The Centralia Tragedy," which seems more suitable.

And what is the lesson to be learned?

If history assigns blame for the violence, Breckenridge says, it must be spread among the Legionnaires, who planned to attack the IWW; the Wobblies, who overreacted with deadly force; local police, who refused to protect people they didn't like; and the public that became a mob.

"The Centralia Tragedy might never have happened if each individual involved had exercised his responsibility as a lawful citizen," the pamphlet reads.

"Anyone who allows anger, prejudice or extreme patriotism to cloud his judgment leaves himself open to be swept up in the mood of the mob. . . . Human emotion unchecked by reason may lead to tragedy."

Ross Anderson's phone message number is 206-464-2061. His e-mail address is randerson@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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