For nearly a century, the Sentinel statue in Centralia’s Washington Park has shared one version of what happened on the streets of Centralia Nov. 11, 1919, when gunfire killed four American Legionnaires during what it describes as a “peaceful parade” to commemorate the end to World War I.
Soon, the other side of the story, which purports that WWI veterans stormed the Industrial Workers of the World’s union hall and forced Wobblies inside into “defending their union hall,” will be represented on a plaque in Washington Park.
Which side is correct? That question has been debated for more than a century.
We do know that in the evening, a mob broke into the city jail, hauled out Wesley Everest, and lynched him from Hangman’s Bridge over the Chehalis River at Mellen Street. Nobody was ever arrested for his murder.
After the Centralia Tragedy, at a time when anti-union sentiment was rampant, jurors in Montesano convicted Eugene Barnett, Ray Becker, Bert Bland, O.C. Bland, John Lamb, James McInerney, Loren Roberts and Britt Smith of second-degree murder. A judge sentenced them to between 25 and 40 years, but after passions over the Armistice Day tragedy cooled, attorney Elmer Smith, who was disbarred for defending the Wobblies, launched a campaign to release the men. McInerney died in prison, but the rest were released after serving between 11 and 19 years.
Mike Garrison, an IWW member, has sought for years to have a bronze plaque erected in Washington Park to remember Everest and the Wobblies who served time in prison, as well as Smith, to provide historical balance to the Sentinel. The IWW will pay the $5,000 cost.
Led by Councilman Max Vogt, the Centralia City Council voted unanimously a week ago to allow Garrison’s plaque bearing the IWW logo in Washington Park east of the flagpole as a counterweight to the Sentinel.
“In this tragedy, both sides lost,” said Vogt, who served on an ad-hoc committee in 2019 where the plaque idea was discussed to commemorate the Centralia Tragedy. “There was no winner. There was no winning side. It was a tragedy all around. People were murdered. People were imprisoned. No one got their father back, their brother back, their uncle, their son who died in this horrible tragedy.”
Rebecca Staebler, owner of HUBBUB gift boutique and craft gallery in Centralia and a former council member, spoke in favor of the monument as proposed. During music in the park, she said, people walk around the Sentinel and read what’s on it.
“I think the opportunity to showcase more of the story intrigues people,” she said. “It starts to get people interested in our story.”
The controversy, she said, “has become part of the story. That’s a part of our history.”
She suggested putting QR codes (similar to barcodes) on the Sentinel and the IWW plaque for people to scan with their phones to read more about what happened Nov. 11, 1919, and afterward.
Vogt recalled a proposed proclamation he drafted for consideration by the committee three years ago. (You can read it in full at the bottom of this commentary.) Nobody objected to it. Perhaps that proclamation, or something similar, could be posted in the park with QR codes linking to historical documents about the IWW, turn-of-the-century conflicts, the American Legion parade, the raiding of union halls, the lynching and the trial and imprisonments.
At-Large Council Positions
As I sat in the Centralia City Council chambers, I thought back to the many meetings I covered there decades ago as a reporter for The Daily Chronicle. Of course, I was paid to attend those meetings.
In fact, my memories grew sharper when Mayor Pro-Tem Cameron McGee proposed that the city look into changing the charter, so all seven council members are elected at-large, or citywide, rather than having some elected from specific sections of the city.
When I first started at the newspaper in the mid-1980s, I covered meetings when William Rickard, Pete Corwin and Jack Gelder served as the three members of the Centralia City Commission. Then, in 1986, I wrote dozens of articles about the change from a commissioner to a council-manager form of government, including discussions about the pros and cons of electing some representatives from specific districts and others from the city at large. I also remember the people on the early city council: Lee Coumbs as mayor and council members Joyce Barnes, Vondean Thompson, Jay Winter, Gordon Winter, Sam Martin and Pete Corwin.
Needless to say, after thinking of the city’s history and my role in covering it, I left the meeting feeling rather … old.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is a proposed proclamation written in 2019 by then Centralia Mayor Pro-Tem Max Vogt.
IN COMMEMORATION OF THE 100th YEAR ANNIVERSARY
OF THE CENTRALIA, WASHINGTON, ARMISTICE DAY TRAGEDY
Whereas: Six men died as a result of the Armistice Day Tragedy on November 11, 1919, in Centralia, Washington, one hundred years ago today. Ben Casagrande, Wesley Everest, Warren Grimm, John M. Haney, Dale Hubbard and Arthur McElfresh, all lost their lives. Eight men were imprisoned: Eugene Barnett, Ray Becker, Bert Bland, O.C. Bland, John Lamb, James McInerny, Loren Roberts and Britt Smith. Elmer Smith was disbarred.
Whereas: For 100 years the citizens of Centralia have failed to achieve closure or find peace about this terrible chapter.
Whereas: All citizens of our city value human life. Nobody should ever be shot. Nobody should ever be lynched. We always suffer when human life is taken.
Whereas: We acknowledge that everyone lost that day when fathers, brothers, sons, and uncles died. A stain tarnished the reputation of this city, and ensuing debate over what transpired marred any pretense at peace.
Whereas: We recognize what did win was violence. Fear prompted gunshots. Mob rule and disregard for true justice followed. People died.
Whereas: One hundred years later, we gather together to acknowledge fault on all sides. It is time to commit to continuing historical research, learn lessons from the past, rediscover our goodness and purpose, and embrace the enlightened perspective of today. It is time to heal, forgive, and embrace common values as we seek a positive pathway into our future.
Whereas: We reaffirm the principles and traditions of our republic: long-held beliefs in the rights of free speech, free assembly, peaceful protest, the right to vote, a tradition of a peaceful transition of power, and the rule of law.
Whereas: We promise to maintain our beloved freedoms through stalwart vigilance and a strong commitment to unity.
Whereas: Let us never forget these six men whose lives were lost and honor their sacrifices by resolving that such violence will never happen again.
Whereas: On this 100th anniversary of the Centralia Armistice Day Tragedy, we proclaim and declare peace, a true and final armistice, which literally means “fighting stops.” We commit to living peacefully and respectfully with each other to show the world that the American dream of a peaceful democracy is strong here and that the vision of our founder George Washington, “If there is any decent place in the world, I am going to find it,” has hereby occurred.
Signed by ___________________________
On this 11th day of November 2019