Last Saturday was one of those days that makes you celebrate life in our small towns and communities.
The mercurial spring weather was perfect (more or less). Appropriately, a number of Earth Day observances offered plenty of opportunities to lend a hand or at least to get out-and-about.
I found myself in Centralia for the annual work party at the Seminary Hill Natural Area. As always, it’s a blast to work alongside like-minded people. Getting your hands dirty for a good cause, amid the sweet smell of the forest in spring, is certainly rewarding. You also can’t beat the big finale: celebrating at the end of the morning with free cookies and brownies prepared by our local Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area, plus toasty hot subs donated by our local Quiznos.
On this particular Saturday, though, I left the party a little early. A few friends and I had an unusual task ahead of us: leading a group of 20-plus volunteer historians and rail travel enthusiasts on a tour of the Hub City.
I had received an email earlier this spring from Chris Collison, the leader of the Trails & Rails Program, which is based out of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Seattle. It’s a group of history buffs who give their time to ride the Amtrak trains and act as interpretive guides, feeding tidbits of the past to passengers as they roll through the countryside.
In this case, a group of these guides wanted to come learn more about Centralia and Lewis County.
I quickly contacted two of our region’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic local historians: my friends Edna Fund and Judy Bell.
We didn’t have much time for our grand tour — their schedule was dictated by the train, which meant we had about an hour and a half.
We tried to give them their money’s worth (which, considering this was a free tour, technically wasn’t that hard, but we wanted to represent the community well).
Starting at the historic Centralia Depot, we talked about Claude Berlin, the earlier aviator who dedicated the building in 1912 with a dropped bottle of champagne that broke several roof tiles.
From there we headed to the Olympic Club, where the history is as delicious as their Hammerhead Ale.
At the nearby monument to the 1996 visit by President Bill Clinton and company, we also told stories of other presidents to visit the Twin Cities over the years, including the great Rough Rider himself, Teddy Roosevelt, who spoke in Chehalis in 1903 from atop a giant old growth stump (or at least a modern facsimile) that’s easily visible from the train line.
Now that’s what you call a stump speech.
Then we headed to George Washington Park to talk about the city square’s founding namesake. I took a break by sitting down on the granite bench next to the statue of George and Mary Jane Washington that our community created in 2017 and 2018. Excited by the subject matter, I hopped back up to tell about this couple’s remarkable legacy.
We moved into the heart of the park and the bronze Sentinel statue to talk about the Armistice Day Tragedy of 1919 from the perspective of the soldiers, and then we headed past the pink-flowering trees along Locust Street to look at the colorful “Resurrection of Wesley Everest” mural that tells another side of the story.
With the days of yore at top of mind, we topped off the tales of old with a delicious lunch at Dawn’s Delectables and a nice break in the pedestrian plaza next door.
I pulled out my guitar to sing a great song by the late Jim Smith about the Armistice Day Tragedy called “The Sentinel,” and I finished off with a song I wrote a few years ago about Centralia’s founder, “The Ballad of George Washington.”
Our new friends from Seattle seemed well-satisfied. We got them to their train on time and they were off, full of the best telling of history we could muster and some of the area’s finest food.
It was a good day in Centralia. Here’s to many more as spring turns to summer.
Brian Mittge is a history enthusiast, music-maker and wearer of Seminary Hill Natural Area tee shirts. Drop him a line at email@example.com.