Brian Mittge Commentary: Farewell to John Penberth, a Lewis County Original


When I heard that John Penberth died last week, my first thought was how I inadvertently wrote his campaign slogan during his 2004 run for county commissioner.

In a news story, I had described Penberth as “controversial and colorful” during his many civic ventures and public statements.

I later went out to his Pe Ell auction house and secondhand store to interview him, and I was a bit worried that he’d find my characterization unfair or demeaning. Still, I knew I could defend it, so I was ready for any objections.

I need not have worried.

As soon as I showed up, he shook my hand with his vise grip handshake, smiled his impish grin and pulled out his brand new campaign business card, which read, “John Penberth: Colorful and Controversial.”

Penberth took to controversy like Paul Bunyan to a stand of tall timber.

On his first day as mayor of the town of Pe Ell, he fired the city’s water department manager — a man who happened to be his nephew.

That and other actions led to a recall attempt, which Penberth survived by around a dozen votes.

He served for a time on the Chehalis Basin Partnership, a wide-ranging group working on water resource management decisions. Penberth wasn’t shy about throwing up a complete hold on decisions, using the group’s consensus-based approach as an opportunity to ensure that his objections received proper consideration.

“When I dive in, I dive in, fully focused,” he told The Chronicle in 1999.

He’d often dramatically hold up a copy of a relevant law, ordinance or tribal treaty, demanding in his thundering voice that the letter of the law be followed.

“One thing he taught me is never go into a meeting unprepared,” said his daughter, Janice Penberth. “He really did view himself, not as revolutionary, but as someone who was trying to defend the truth and trying to make sure things were done right.”

He was a frequent caller to the “Let’s Talk About It” program on KELA-AM radio, where he delighted in speaking his mind, despite — and perhaps especially — if it might ruffle some feathers.

Still, there was a very different side to him than his sometimes gruff public persona, said his longtime friend Bradd Reynolds, who said Penberth was generous, giving his time to tribal youth and volunteer emergency services.

“He never met anybody that he didn’t like. He never met anybody that he couldn’t sit and have a conversation with,” Reynolds said. “You always knew where he stood, whether you agreed or not.”

During my visit to his combination auction house and rummage store in 2004, Penberth took special pride in showing me a business license dating to the late 1800s from the old Murray Store, which he had purchased. He was very proud to own a business that was one of the oldest in the state. His eclectic store carried everything from logging gear to Hawaiian shirts.

He showed me a line of clothing he sold, Prison Blues, made by inmates. He loved carrying this made-in-America denim workware that gave prisoners a chance to make money and learn vocational skills.

Penberth eventually sold his historic Pe Ell building, which is now home to the Tin Snug restaurant. Just a few weeks ago, Reynolds sent photos of the stylish Irish-style eatery to Penberth, who heartily approved of the new life in his old building.

As per his wishes, Penberth will return to Pe Ell one final time. He requested that his remains be cremated and his ashes spread in the woods of West Lewis County where he spent his adult life hunting and trapping.

While Penberth may have grown up in the coal and steel towns of Pennsylvania, he found his true home here in the woods of the West. In his endlessly irascible and independent way, he contributed to our shared life with stubbornness and a smile.

A transplant, John Penberth still managed to be a true Lewis County original.


Brian Mittge writes about Lewis County’s character and characters every Saturday. He can be reached at