After physical education class, a teacher handed Centralia sophomore Carol Matteson the key to the girls’ dressing room, asking her to lock up after she and her friend, Marlene Christin, of Pe Ell, finished cleaning the shower room, putting away towels and stowing clothing baskets.
“We stepped out into the hall, and I turned to lock the door, and the door wouldn’t hold still,” recalled Carol (Matteson) Ponder, 88. “I couldn’t get my key in the lock. And Marlene says, ‘I think it’s an earthquake.’”
Indeed it was. On April 13, 1949, at 11:55 a.m., a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Western Washington, rumbling for 30 seconds.
The two girls staggered down the hallway of the three-story, brick Centralia High School and ran outside to an alley, where they watched students scrambling to leave the building as telephone poles swayed and brick chimneys crumbled and toppled onto the ground.
“All at once is this loud crack — I mean, the loudest crack I’d ever heard,” Ponder remembered. “Some of the kids screamed because we thought the building was going to come crumbling to the ground.”
It didn’t, but not far away, a shower of bricks plunged from the east cornice of the old bank building at the southwest corner of Tower Avenue and Main Street in Centralia, killing 69-year-old Mark Cuvric as he walked on the street below and crushing Dr. Wayland Rice’s Ford, parked outside Walker’s paint store. Altogether, 13 people in Lewis County reported injuries, but only Cuvric died. Regionally, the quake killed eight people, including the Castle Rock senior class president and an 11-year-old crossing guard in Tacoma.
After the earthquake, inspectors reviewed the high school, which housed the Centralia Junior College on the third floor, and deemed it safe. But they condemned the Washington Grade School, built in 1906 on Gold Street at Walnut, where Ponder attended the first eight grades of school. Her youngest sister, Evelyn, who was on a lower floor, said she thought the rumbling was from older kids pounding down the stairs.
For the rest of the school year, the district bussed the Washington students to Edison Elementary for classes in the afternoon, while Edison students attended in the morning.
Ponder, who turns 89 next month, recently shared memories of her childhood in Centralia and growing up in Salzer Valley, where she interviewed longtime resident Ella Lammers Lewis in 1976. I’ll share stories of that interview next week and follow up with information about the history of Salzer Valley.
Many stories are fresh in Ponder’s mind after she began writing her memoirs after breaking her hip in a fall and recovering at Sharon Care. Her daughter, Marilyn Gallagher, brought her a pen and tablet, so she started writing.
Her paternal grandparents, John and Amanda Matteson, left from Dora, Missouri, and traveled west in two covered wagons. Just outside Laramie, Wyoming, Amanda gave birth in a wagon to a daughter, Carrie, in 1900. The family worked as sharecroppers in Huntington, Oregon, along the Snake River, where Ponder’s father, John, was born, and settled in Payette, Idaho, before moving to Cowlitz County during the Great Depression to work in the mills at Longview.
The same lure brought her mother’s family west. Her mother, Frances Fowler, was born in Texas, and her family lived in Arkansas before learning about jobs available at the Longview mills.
But it wasn’t until both families moved to Centralia that Albert John Matteson and Frances Fay Fowler met. She was a junior at Centralia High School, and John, who was five years older than her, had quit school after seventh grade. He worked for a time for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Packwood.
During the Depression, the couple courted primarily by exploring Seminary Hill, hiking, scouring for treasures and even taking “selfie” photos. They eloped to Idaho to marry Sept. 21, 1932, and started a family quickly, with Carol arriving in July 1933 at her grandmother’s home on Buckner Street in Centralia. Her grandmother, who had five kids, rode a bus to Chehalis to work in a cannery.
Her family’s first home was above the First Street Grocery, where she recalled, at the age of 4, standing on the upstairs balcony over the sidewalk with her sister, Myrna, watching her father, who worked for Agnew Lumber Co., drive past in a lumber carrier so high she could almost reach out and touch it. They were expecting him, so they stood outside and watched.
“He sat there so handsome and looking so important,” she recalled. “He emptied a load of lumber across the tracks and then went back. He did that twice that day, but I think the city probably got after Agnew for allowing their heavy equipment on the street.”
As children, she and her sister also spent time with their parents exploring Seminary Hill, especially a large tree that had toppled onto another, leaving a trunk with legs that looked like a horse. They called it the “horsey tree.”
Another early memory is of the time she swallowed a nail from a wooden toy. Her mother rushed her to the doctor’s office, but he simply told her to wait a few days. “It’ll show up,” he said. “And sure enough, it did.” They still have the nail, a family heirloom.
Shortly afterward, her family moved to Salzer Valley, three-quarters of a mile from Gold Street, at the corner of Salzer Valley and Alvord Road. On their three acres they raised their family of four children — Carol, Myrna, Larry and Evelyn — as well as one milk cow, four chickens, three pigs and rabbits. She did chores but didn’t like feeding the pigs.
“I hated it when they got loose ‘cause they’re hard to catch,” she said. One time, when they were dressed for school, her mother yelled that the pigs were out. She and her siblings chased the slimy porkers through the muddy barnyard. But the bus arrived before they had time to clean up, so they wore their muddy clothes to school.
She still has the Swiss cow bell used by their cow, Old Bossy.
Although Salzer Valley had an old schoolhouse, she and her siblings attended Washington School, a brick three-story building. Her friend attended half a year at Salzer Valley, but by Christmas 1939, the district had consolidated its schools, so the girl finished the year at Washington.
Reflecting on those early years, Ponder said, her seventh-grade teacher stands out especially — Miss Ruth Ann Sturman, who organized baseball and softball teams and cast students in play productions. She lived with her mother but devoted herself to her students.
Ponder played on the ball team and performed small parts in plays.
“Because I was so bashful, I know now that she was trying to bring me out,” Ponder said with a chuckle. “I don’t think it worked.
Miss Sturman also taught Ponder’s daughter, Marilyn Gallagher, in middle school.
At Centralia High School, Ponder gathered for roll call on the third floor, where the college students met, in the room of Owen Wicks, a popular speech and debate teacher.
She participated in gymnastics and the Rainbow Girls, a girls’ service organization associated with the Masons. Their mother didn’t learn to drive until she was 62, and with their father at work, she and her siblings walked nearly everywhere.
It was on the way home from one of those meetings when a handsome young man stopped to offer them a ride home. That led to what the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.”
I’ll share more in next week’s column.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.