Part 7 - Sinister Centralia
But Centralia was destined to be the scene of the most dramatic portion of the struggle between the entrenched interests and the union loggers. Here the long persecuted industrialists made a stand for their lives and fought to defend their own, thus giving the glib-tongued lawyers of the prosecution the opportunity of accusing them of "wantonly murdering unoffending paraders" on Armistice Day.
Centralia in appearance is a creditable small American city--the kind of city smug people show their friends with pride from the rose-scented tranquility of a super-six in passage. The streets are wide and clean, the buildings comfortable, the lawns and shade trees attractive. Centralia is somewhat of a coquette but she is as sinister and cowardly as she is pretty. There is a shudder lurking in every corner and a nameless fear sucks the sweetness out of every breeze. Song birds warble at the outskirts of the town but one is always haunted by the cries of the human beings who have been tortured and killed within her confines.
A red-faced business man motors leisurely down the wet street. He shouts a laughing greeting to a well dressed group at the curb who respond in kind. But the roughly dressed lumberworkers drop their glances in passing one another. The Fear is always upon them. As these lines are written several hundred discontented shingle-weavers are threatened with deportation if they dare to strike. They will not strike, for they know too well the consequences. The man-hunt of a few months ago is not forgotten and the terror of it grips their hearts whenever they think of opposing the will of the Moloch that dominates their every move.
Around Centralia are wooded hills; men have been beaten beneath them and lynched from their limbs. The beautiful Chehalis River flows near by; Wesley Everest was left dangling from one of its bridges. But Centralia is provokingly pretty for all that. It is small wonder that the lumber trust and its henchmen wish to keep it all for themselves.
Well tended roads lead in every direction, bordered with clearings of worked out camps and studded with occasional tree stumps of great age and truly prodigious size. At intervals are busy saw mills with thousands of feet of odorous lumber piled up in orderly rows. In all directions stretches the pillared immensity of the forests. The vistas through the trees seen enchanted rather than real--unbelievable green and of form and depth that remind one of painted settings for a Maeterlinck fable rather than matter-of-fact timber land.
THE HIGH PRIESTS OF LABOR HATRED
Practically all of this land is controlled by the trusts; much of it by the Eastern Railway and Lumber Company, of which F.B. Hubbard is the head. The strike of 1917 almost ruined this worthy gentleman. He has always been a strong advocate of the open shop, but during the last few years he has permitted his rabid labor-hatred to reach the point of fanaticism. This Hubbard figures prominently in Centralia's business, social and mob circles. He is one of the moving spirits in the Centralia conspiracy. The Eastern Railway and Lumber Company, besides large tracts of land, owns saw-mills, coal mines and a railway. The Centralia newspapers are its mouthpieces while the Chamber of Commerce and the Elks' Club are its general headquarters. The Farmers' & Merchants' Bank is its local citadel of power. In charge of this bank is a sinister character, one Uhlman, a German of the old school and a typical Prussian junker. At one time he was an officer in the German army but at present is a "100% American"--an easy metamorphosis for a Prussian in these days. His native born "brother-at-arms" is George Dysart whose son led the posses in the man-hunt that followed the shooting. In Centralia this bank and its Hun dictator dominates the financial, political and social activities of the community. Business men, lawyers, editors, doctors and local authorities all kow-tow to the institution and its Prussian president. And woe be to any who dare do otherwise! The power of the "interests" is a vengeful power and will have no other power before it. Even the mighty arm of the law becomes palsied in its presence.
The Farmers' & Merchants' Bank is the local instrumentality of the invisible government that holds the nation in its clutch. Kaiser Uhlman has more influence than the city mayor and more power than the police force. The law has always been a little thing to him and his clique. The inscription on the shield of this bank is said to read "To hell with the Constitution; this is Lewis County." As events will show, this inspiring maxim has been faithfully adhered to. One of the mandates of this delectable nest of highbinders is that no headquarters of the Union of the lumber workers shall ever be permitted within the sacred precincts of the city of Centralia.
THE LOVED AND HATED UNION HALL
Now the loggers, being denied the luxury of home and family life, have but three places they can call "home." The bunkhouse in the camp, the cheap rooming house in town and the Union Hall. This latter is by far the best loved of all. It is here the men can gather around a crackling wood fire, smoke their pipes and warm their souls with the glow of comradeship. Here they can, between jobs or after work, discuss the vicissitudes of their daily lives, read their books and magazines and sing their songs of solidarity, or merely listen to the "tinned" humor or harmony of the much-prized Victrola. Also they here attend to affairs of their Union--line up members, hold business and educational meetings and a weekly "open forum." Once in awhile a rough and wholesome "smoker" is given. The features of this great event are planned for weeks in advance and sometimes talked about for months afterwards.
These halls are at all times open to the public and inducements are made to get workers to come in and read a thoughtful treatise on Industrial questions. The latch-string is always out for people who care to listen to a lecture on economics or similar subjects. Inside the hall there is usually a long reading-table littered with books, magazines or papers. In a rack or case at the wall are to be found copies of the "Seattle Union Record," "The Butte Daily Bulletin," "The New Solidarity," "The Industrial Worker," "The Liberator," "The New Republic" and "The Nation." Always there is a shelf of thumb-worn books on history, science, economics and socialism. On the walls are lithographs or engravings of noted champions of the cause of Labor, a few photographs of local interest and the monthly Bulletins and Statements of the Union. Invariably there is a blackboard with jobs, wages and hours written in chalk for the benefit of men seeking employment. There are always a number of chairs in the room and a roll top desk for the secretary. Sometimes at the end of the hall is a plank rostrum--a modest altar to the Goddess of Free Speech and open discussion. This is what the loved and hated I.W.W. Halls are like--the halls that have been raided and destroyed by the hundreds during the last three years.
Remember, too, that in each of these raids the union men were not the aggressors and that there was never any attempt at reprisal. In spite of the fact that the lumber workers were within their legal right to keep open their halls and to defend them from felonious attack, it had never happened until November 11, that active resistance was offered the marauders. This fact alone speaks volumes for the long-suffering patience of the logger and for his desire to settle his problems by peaceable means wherever possible. But the Centralia raid was the straw that broke the camel's back. The lumber trust went a little too far on this occasion and it got the surprise of its life. Four of its misguided dupes paid for their lawlessness with their lives, and a number of others were wounded. There has not since been a raid on a union hall in the Northwestern District.
It is well that workingmen and women throughout the country should understand the truth about the Armistice Day tragedy in Centralia and the circumstances that led up to it. But in order to know why the hall was raided it is necessary first to understand why this, and all similar halls, are hated by the oligarchies of the woods.
The issue contested is whether the loggers have the right to organize themselves into a union, or whether they must remain chattels--mere hewers of wood and helpless in the face of the rapacity of their industrial overlords--or whether they have the right to keep open their halls and peacefully to conduct the affairs of their union. The lumber workers contend that they are entitled by law to do these things and the employers assert that, law or no law, they shall not do so. In other words, it is a question of whether labor organization shall retain its foothold in the lumber industry or be "driven from the woods."
Next page: Part 8 - Pioneers of Unionism