Radical politics in Lewis County, Washington

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.

Maybe I should have stayed behind to help him fight them off.

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).

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4 Responses to Radical politics in Lewis County, Washington

  1. John D Grabner says:

    What about the Wobblie who was castrated by an angry mob and hanged from the bridge over the Lewis River (to which there’s an allusion in Chaim Potok’s Davita’s Harp?

    • John, when I told my daughter about this conversation in Centralia and mentioned the woman’s comment about the Wobblies, she said in response that this event was quite different from the populism that she was describing. We didn’t go any further in that discussion, and I don’t know anything about it. I know that there is a book on her shelf (I could take you right to it) dealing explicitly with this conflict in 1919 (I think that was the year). Marilyn’s research and published reports also delve into the countervailing efforts in Lewis County to establish organizations, like the Farm Bureau, that would encourage farmers to conform to social systems that were more like those the townies favored. Furthermore, there were aspects of governmental policy and practice that the rural populists did not trust. It is a complicated story. Now that I have referred to it in such a public way, I may have to reread her book and reconstruct my own understanding of her nuanced exposition of an interesting and important piece of social history. Keith

  2. John D Grabner says:

    Keith, your daughter is obviously an authority on the politics of Lewis Co, far better qualified to comment than I. I first heard about the incident at the Lewis River bridge many years ago. A Montesano journalist, prompted by the denial of Lewis Co residents, researched the incident exhaustively and concluded that a castration did indeed occur. He published his findings, which I read so long ago that I can’t remember his name or the title of his book. At the time I was told that this was still a sensitive issue with Lewis Co residents, many of whom were still in denial about it, and that it would be best for outsiders not to mention it in polite conversation. When, several years later, I encounted an allusion to it in Chaim Potok’s novel “Davita’s Harp,” I was amazed that it was notorious enough to have come to the attention of an east coast Jew.

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