I listened as long as I could while the table full of old timers celebrated the staunch conservatism of Lewis County, Washington. “As far back as anyone can remember,” the one woman in the group kept repeating, “this county has voted Democratic only twice.”
One of the men mentioned two or three times that Lewis County has more retired people per capita than any other county in the state, which seemed to validate the county’s preference for the conservatism now being promulgated by the Republican Party.
We were sitting across from one another at the McDonald’s just off of I-5 in Centralia. Earlier we had been talking about easier topics, mostly prompted by my bicycle ride through the region, which gave me the nerve to suggest another point of view.
“It’s hard to realize that a hundred years ago Lewis County was noted for its radical politics,” I said. “In fact, my Seattle daughter wrote a book about rural radicalism in southeastern Lewis County.”
“Well, there were the Wobblies back in 1919,” the woman noted.
“The period my daughter studied,” I continued, “is mostly earlier than that, and it was centered in the granges and churches. One of the results was farmers’ co-ops in dairying and poultry, like in Winlock where I lived for a while when I was a kid.”
Later, my daughter (Marilyn P. Watkins, Ph.D.) reminded me of the central story line that I hadn’t remembered in the conversation with the old timers in Centralia. Farmers were at the mercy of the banks and railroads and lived harsh, poverty-stricken lives because they had so little control over the value of their work and crops. Their plight was similar to factory workers in town and to women in farming and working communities.
They realized two things: that they could improve their lot by working together; and that the only organization big enough and trustworthy enough to stand with them against the financial and structural power of distant, city-based corporations was the government.
In an essay (“Contesting the Terms of Prosperity and Patriotism,” published in Pacific Northwest Quarterly), Marilyn offers a clear summary of this point of view, expressed by grange members, rooted in the culture of family farming, and aimed at empowering farmers economically and politically.
“It was a collective approach that built on and further articulated the beliefs of the Populist movement. It recognized farming as a way of life for the family and the community, and it promoted education and cooperation through neighborhood-based chapters of national organizations for the whole family. Men and women in the grange recognized that their economic prosperity and their ability to participate in political decision making through their own organizations were linked.
“They believed that family farmers needed government help to combat the economic power of large corporations and to overcome social injustices, and they sought political alliances with urban labor to promote reform.”
It’s just as well that I didn’t have the full story in my mind during the easy-going conversation. Everyone there already had their minds made up, including the one guy who proudly wore his Obama button. As I left to start the day’s ride, the others were trying to decide how many of them it would take to tear if off of his shirt.
As I bicycled northeastward on State Road 507, the political signs all promoted Republican candidates until I crossed over into Thurston County, where this is one of the first signs I saw:
The essay by Marilyn P. Watkins was published in Vol. 87, No. 3 (Summer 1996).The full account of her research on Lewis County is published in her book Rural Democracy: Family Farmers and Politics in Western Washington, 1890-1925 (Cornell University Press, 1995).