I am the granddaughter of Matti Westerback, a Finnish immigrant living outside Winlock who went to Centralia in search of work on November 11, 1919. Times were tough, and he and my grandmother had eight children to provide for. Finding some work was critical. But it was a fateful day for my Papa.
It was a day that began innocently and later erupted into chaos.
Unbeknownst to him, two groups of people were pitted against each other; union members of the IWW (also known as the Wobblies) and members of the American Legion. Four Legion members were killed, the Wobblies were blamed, and a mob ensued. It was assumed my grandfather, a stranger in town, was a Wobbly and he was swept up by the mob and put into jail.
The town lights were turned off and the scene was grizzly. One of the Wobblies had been hung from the Mellen Street bridge and his corpse was later taken to the jail for the prisoners to see and smell. The prisoners did not expect to live through the night.
Four of the prisoners, including my grandfather, were commandeered at gunpoint to build a casket and dig a grave for the fallen Wobbly. A photograph can be seen in the book ‘The Land Called Lewis’ by Sandra Crowell.
It was verified by the mayor of Winlock that Matti Westerback was a Winlock resident. When he was able to return home, the lasting image for his family was that he was as white as a sheet.
My father and uncles were loggers. I remember the strikes, the tightening of the household budget, and the eternal hope conditions would improve. I picture my father sitting at the kitchen table, writing checks and saying that regardless of the severity, it was imperative to make payment on accounts owed. This was the Finnish way and the ethics I grew up with.
It is known that the actions of the Wobblies helped greatly to make improvements in the logging camps. Generally, life there was was quite deplorable.
I am grateful to Sandra Crowell for writing and publishing her book ‘The Land Called Lewis,’ and to Dr. James Vosper, Northwest history instructor, for his words: “ A lesson for today would seem to be that a bitter harvest comes when sown in angry passion and cultivated by harsh rhetoric and intolerance.”
May we all pause and reflect.
Lois Laakso Munch