This Day in Labor History: November 11, 1919

On November 11, 1919, the people of Centralia, Washington, a small lumber town in the southwestern part of the state, celebrated the first anniversary of Armistice Day with a parade. However, town leaders and the local American Legion post decided to turn the parade into an attack upon Centralia’s Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) union hall, which they considered the center of subversion and sedition in their community. When the Legion reached the hall, they broke in and began tearing the place apart. What they did not expect was that the radical loggers had prepared an ambush. The I.W.W. had stationed at least two shooters on a hill approximately ¼ mile away. In addition, some of the workers in the hall had weapons. In the hail of bullets, four American Legion members died. Warren Grimm, a University of Washington graduate and lawyer, had not only fought in World War I, but had also served in the military’s anti-Bolshevik force in Siberia before returning to his home town of Centralia. Arthur McElfresh had spent eighteen months in the army in France. The third dead Legionnaire was Ben Casagranda, a Greek-American who went to war for his new nation. The fourth was another University of Washington graduate and member of the Centralia elite, Dale Hubbard.

Infuriated, the Legionnaires chased a man they thought was Britt Smith, the local I.W.W. secretary, but who in fact was Wesley Everest, an itinerant logger and I.W.W. member. They beat him severely and threw him into a prison cell with other Wobblies they had rounded up. That evening, still incensed, local men took Everest from his jail cell, possibly castrated him, and hanged him from a bridge on the Chehalis River. Trials quickly ensued for a dozen other I.W.W. members. A jury found eight guilty of second-degree murder, and they received sentences ranging from twenty-five to forty years at the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. The I.W.W. claimed that the timber industry, the American Legion, and local authorities had railroaded the eight men into prison; and their cause served as a rallying cry for an increasingly marginalized I.W.W. over the next twenty years.

Violence in this little lumber town took place as forces of order battled against radicalized loggers over control of the timber industry. Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, timber companies treated their workers like animals. Conditions in the timber camps were horrific conditions. Loggers dealt with adulterated food, fleas and other vermin in their overcrowded housing, straw for bedding, the smell of disgusting wet socks drying near the bunkhouse’s one heater, latrines located directly next to the dining hall so that they could smell feces when they sat down to eat, etc. They were paid next to nothing for their work and frequently ripped off by a collusion of timber operators and employment agencies who would force men to pay for jobs and then the job not be there when they arrived. These men also lived in all-male spaces, completely isolated from women in their remote camps. Thus, when men could get to town, the first thing they headed for was to purchase the services of a prostitute. They could not live with dignity either in the camps or when they returned to society. In desperation, and with the American Federation of Labor showing almost no interest in organizing these workers, they turned to the I.W.W.

Maybe I’m not being explicit enough. Let me clarify. In 1916, Red Cross doctor W.H. Lipscomb took a tour of Northwestern timber camps. He was outraged by all I mentioned in the previous paragraph. He mentioned one camp. It had bunkhouses that held approximately 80 men. Those 80 men had one sink in the bunkhouse. The company provided one towel for those 80 men. A new man came into camp. He was infected with gonorrhea. He used the towel to wipe places he shouldn’t. The bunkhouse witnessed an epidemic of gonorrhea among the men. In their eyes.

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