Meet 'Bingo from Bingville'
courtesy photo Bing Crosby, a former Washingtonian, is shown in 1937 alongside a concrete block autographed by the famous 1930s crooner for the just-started KELA radio station. The block can still be seen at the south Centralia station.

According to an Oct. 29, 1987, Daily Chronicle story, we learn that crooner Bing Crosby was expected to attend the opening dedication ceremony of KELA radio in 1937. A last-minute Hollywood commitment, however, forced him to cancel, so Crosby sent his foot and handprint in concrete instead.

In lieu of that visit, Centralia Mayor D.O. Nugent and Chehalis Mayor Louis A. Vimont, on Nov. 5, 1937, dropped the entrance block into place at what is now Clear Channel KELA/KMNT, where it can still be seen. It reads, "Best Wishes KELA … Bing."

Why would Bing Crosby even consider visiting Lewis County, Wash.? Read on:

"The year was 1846. James Polk was president. Our government sent Captain Nathaniel Crosby Jr., in his ship, the O.C. Raymond, with a cargo of supplies for those emigrants who, ill prepared, had crossed the plains to seek their fortunes in the Oregon Territory.

"He arrived," according to a Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington item found in the Lewis County Historical Museum files, "at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1847, continued up the Columbia and Willamette River to about where the Morrison Ridge at Portland, Oregon is today. Portland at that time was but a collection of a few log cabins, a short distance from Oregon City. Here he sent his crew ashore to build a log cabin for his cargo."

The captain became so impressed with the climate and the prospects of that area that he encouraged relatives to move west - and move west they did.

"They left their homes in Wiscasset, Maine, and in 1849, sailed from New York, in the brig, 'Grecian,' which they had purchased for the trip, arriving in Portland in March 1850, having rounded the Horn in pleasant weather."

There were three Nathaniel Crosbys in Portland in 1850: Nathaniel Sr., Nathaniel Jr. (the captain) and Nathaniel III. Also among them were Alfred Crosby, Capt. Clanrick Crosby and their families.

"The Alfred Crosby family settled in Astoria, Oregon; Captain Nathaniel Crosby Jr. went back to sea; Nathaniel Crosby Sr. and son Captain Clanrick Crosby, with their families, including 13 year old Nathaniel III, came on to Tumwater. They built a general store and bought the grist mill from the Simmons, which was run by water power of the Tumwater Falls."

Nathaniel III grew up in Tumwater, and there he built a home in 1860 for his bride, Cordellia Jane Smith. The couple had two sons - Frank and Harry Lowe Crosby.

On Jan. 4, 1884, Harry Lowe Crosby married Catherine Harrigan in Tacoma. In the same city, their son, Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby, was born on May 3, 1903. He was the fourth of his parents' seven offspring.

In an Associated Press story dated May 12, 2003, we learn that, "Before he became the dominant radio crooner of the 1930s, Harry Lillis 'Bing' Crosby studied law, pounded on mail-order drums and developed his syrupy baritone in a band here (in Spokane)."

Crosby never graduated from Gonzaga, having left there in his senior year in 1925 to concentrate on a music career. Nonetheless, the school considers him its most famous alumnus, even awarding him an honorary doctorate in 1937.

The young Bing Crosby moved with his family to Spokane in 1906 when his father got a job as a bookkeeper for a brewery. He died in 1977 while playing golf in Spain, and was buried in Los Angeles.

The story about how Harry Crosby became known as Bing Crosby goes as follows: He and a friend enjoyed a comic strip called "Bingville Bugle." The neighbor began calling him "Bingo from Bingville," a name eventually shortened to Bing.

KELA, the station he honored with his autograph, was started in 1937 by three Twin Cities businessmen. The trio included J. Elroy McCaw, Arthur C. St. John and Cecil Gwinn.

In 1937, the very wealthy J. Elroy McCaw, secretary-manager of the corporation, declared that KELA was the first station established in the state since 1928, and the only one outside Seattle.

J. Elroy McCaw's fortune was, unfortunately for his family, lost after he died of a stroke in 1969. Creditors had filed numerous claims and lawsuits against the estate, which was declared bankrupt. All this brought about the sale of the family mansion, yacht and other assets.

One of J. Elroy McCaw's sons, Craig McCaw, became a cellular telephone industry pioneer who became the principal force in McCaw Cellular Communications, which became AT&T Wireless, based in Redmond. Craig McCaw's youngest brother, billionaire Keith McCaw, headed the company's paging business until 1986 and served as a director until 1991.

Keith McCaw died on Dec. 15, 2002 in a hot tub incident that was ruled accidental. According to a Jan. 7, 2003, Chronicle story on the death, we learn:

"According to an undated Daily Chronicle story, one of the KELA's salesmen, Joe Chytil, purchased the station in 1965. Chytil then purchased KGME-FM Radio, Centralia, in 1968, a station now known as KMNT-FM. Jane Chytil and the couple's children owned the station until it was purchased by Jacor Broadcasting. Currently KELA is owned by Clear Channel Broadcasting."

Pat Jones is The Chronicle's lifestyle editor. She may be reached by e-mail at pjones@chronline.com, or by telephoning 807-8226. The Lewis County Historical Museum's Internet address is www.lewiscountymuseum.org.

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