The Wobbly War (Also Known as The Centralia Massacre)

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November 11, 1919. When I first moved to the Centralia, Washington area in 1985 I heard whisperings of something that happened on this date. But details were sparse. I was told people still didn’t talk about it and that I shouldn’t ask about it. There were still local citizens who were very bitter and angry over what happened that day.

Finally, as time wore on, people wanted both sides of the story told:

On November 11, 1919 an Armistice Day parade was held in Centralia. Marching in the parade were many WWI veterans and members of the American Legion and they didn’t particularly like the “Wobblies” as they were called. These were members of a union called the Industrial Workers of the World and they were demonized quite severely in many areas of society, as they were seen as leading America toward a communist state. Across the country they had experienced their meeting halls and members attacked.

Elmer Smith, the local lawyer for the Wobblies, told them they had the right to defend their property. They took it to mean that they could be fully armed and ready for conflict so they placed several of their men around town in strategic areas.

What happened next is still unclear and controversial. Some say the Wobblies fired the first shot killing the first man. Others say the Legionnaires in the parade rushed the hall. Shots were fired killing three Legionnaires and wounding three. Wobblies were rounded up, arrested and taken to jail. Westley Everest was identified as the man who fired the first shot. He was captured by a vigilante mob and taken to the town jail where he was nearly hanged before the parade marshall talked them out of it.

Later that day, a large group of men gathered and were sworn in as deputies to round up anyone even suspected of being an IWW member. As they went around town arresting men, someone cut the lights. Seizing the opportunity, vigilantes broke into the jail and dragged Everest out of the jail. He got loose and headed towards the Chehalis River but couldn’t cross it because it was flowing too swiftly. The vigilantes caught up to him and dragged him to the bridge over the Chehalis River and hanged him, where his body stayed until the next day.

The vigilantes intended to kidnap other men out of the jail but luckily were talked out of it long enough for the National Guard to arrive and restore order in the town. In the end, eight men were arrested and charged, later being freed. But the bitter feelings remained for decades in this little town where everyone knows everyone else and the facts were debated on both sides.

A statue was later erected in Washington Park to the Legionnaires who died that day. Then in 1999 a group commissioned artist/activist Mike Alewitz to paint a mural reflecting the Wobbly side of the story. It is located in the old Elks lodge, now an antique store and restaurant, right across the street from the park. The mural is called “The Resurrection of Westley Everest.” Its main feature is a man portrayed to be Everest with his arms raised. However, here are a lot of other symbols present in the mural which are not obvious. It took a lot of research to finally find one article that told what the symbols mean. In an article by Mary L. Stough, Librarian, she says:

“Everest is the focal figure of the mural. He is drawn symbolically with his arms raised triumphantly, dressed half worker in overalls and half veteran in a World War I uniform. Black cats are shown as the Wobbly symbol of defiance; a pig representing the profiteers of war is leaning on bags of gold. Angels on the top of the mural are hanging from a long saw-the “misery whip” of the loggers-and below that is a pie denoting “pie in the sky,” the happiness that workers could look forward to when they died.

In the far left of the mural stands a man in dark glasses holding a labor newspaper, the Industrial Worker. The man is Tom Lassiter, a partially blind Wobbly sympathizer who sold labor papers at his newsstand. After he was threatened, kidnapped and his papers were destroyed, Lassiter was warned never to set foot in Centralia again.

Across the bottom of the picture flames lick up, consuming workers who are shown as prisoners. As grim as this scene is, the artist is not without a sense of humor. A small volcano emitting a plume of smoke and sporting a pair of glasses was Alewitz’s thank-you to the mural committee’s co-chair, Helen Lee, director of the Evergreen State College Labor Center. He called it Mount Helen Lee!”

Times have changed and as memories fade and older citizens pass on, the pain and bitterness are healing. The story is still rarely talked about, but probably more because it is fading into town memory. And that’s OK, because sometimes it’s just time to move on while learning from a shameful history that helped shaped the town to be the quaint little place that it is today.

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Categories: Historical, People, Washington | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Wobbly War (Also Known as The Centralia Massacre)

  1. loretta mccarty

    I have pictures of Arthur roy mcelfresh incased in a bubble frame. also one of his mother in a bubble frame. I have the sec. desk that came out of their on Delaware st. in centrlia wa.

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