Julie McDonald Commentary: Interview Provides Glimpses of Early Salzer Valley


As the nation’s bicentennial celebration approached in 1976, members of the Salzer Valley Homemakers decided to reopen the historic one-room school so local fourth graders could see how their counterparts learned at the turn of the century.

To that end, Carol (Matteson) Ponder, at the time 32, interviewed one of the valley’s old-timers, Ella Lammers Lewis. One side of a cassette records the voices of the interview; the other contains music. Ponder drew a sketch of the old school and she and Lewis put together a one-page history that they gave to students who visited on field trips.

They pulled out the wood and metal desks stored on a little stage behind a curtain so the students would have a place to sit. On their field trips, bus drivers stopped on the road and fourth graders from Washington, Edison and Oakview schools in Centralia crossed Salzer Creek on a new wooden bridge (dedicated in 1973) to reach the school. One member of the homemakers volunteered as the teacher, while two others walked from desk to desk with paper, an ink bottle and straight pins, letting students write their names as if they were using a quill and ink.

“We did it for three years,” recalled Ponder, who celebrates her 89th birthday next week. “But we were so tired. We had those big gas and oil lanterns we had to hook high up in the ceiling.”

Teachers brought students to the Salzer Valley school for field trips until 1996, when the Lewis County Retired Teachers Association finished its replica of a one-room school at Fort Borst Park.

The Salzer Valley Homemakers, who entered jams, jellies and baked goods every year in the Southwest Washington Fair, was known as the Salzer Valley Home Demonstration Club in November 1935, when Lewis co-hosted a potluck luncheon for the Hanaford Helping Hand Club.

For the bicentennial, Ponder drew pictures depicting local people and places — logging, farming, coal mining, the Fort Borst blockhouse, Salzer Valley schoolhouse, Salzer homestead, Borst home, Twin Cities trolley and Chehalis Indian basket weaving — that club members sewed into squares for the bicentennial quilt.

When she arrived for the interview with Lewis, Ponder said, the elderly woman’s home was quite messy.

“She had to clear off a chair for me to sit,” Ponder recalled, adding that she often quipped she took housekeeping lessons from Ella Lewis.

As she asked questions, Ponder said, her gaze drifted outside to a little white lamb sleeping just outside the door.

Ella Lammers was born in Nebraska in February 1897 and was only 4 when her family settled in Salzer Valley east of Centralia. Her parents, immigrants from Denmark, were John Christopher and Anna Mary (Sorenson) Lammers. The family rented the old Joseph and Anna Salzer homestead after Grandma Anna Salzer, a widow, moved in with her son, Jacob.

“Dad said that was the only place that had a place big enough to drive a team in and turn around,” Lewis said during the 1976 interview. “We brought 12 head of cows and four horses, pigs and chickens, and adults, household goods.”

Ella, who had an older sister, Etta, and a younger sister, Emma, attended the one-room Salzer Valley School, which was erected in 1894 across from the Salzer family homestead on land donated by brothers Gottlob and Dan Salzer. It had no electricity or running water but had a woodstove for heat and outhouses in the back behind a woodshed.

Her teacher was Mary Victorine “Rena” (Hickling) Coonness, the daughter-in-law of Centralia founder George Washington. In July 1890, she had married Stacy Coonness, the son of George’s wife Mary Jane Washington and her first husband, Stacey Coonness, and six years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Audrey.

At the time, according to Ponder and Lewis, she was one of 17 Black teachers in the United States. The Coonnesses lived in a house at the corner of Main Street and Harrison Avenue and later moved into a larger home on South Silver Street.

Every Monday, Stacy Coonness, who owned a wagon pulled by a team of draft horses, would drop off his wife at the Salzer Valley School on his way to haul coal from the mines on Proffitt Road. He took the coal to town and sold it.

“They generally made two trips a day,” Lewis said. “But he would bring her early Monday morning and then he’d pick her up at four o’clock at night Friday night.”

Coonness taught all eight grades at Salzer Valley School from 1902 to 1909. Lewis recalled the crowded conditions with as many as 60 students from grades one through eight packed into the building. Older students sat two to a metal seat, Lewis said, “and three of us little kids sat in those seats.”

The school didn’t have slates but rather blackboards — boards between three windows painted black with a little eraser holder at the bottom — where some students diagrammed sentences while others worked arithmetic problems and still others wrote at their desks or did recitations. Both sides of the door also were painted black.

While Coonness taught 60 Salzer Valley students in eight grades, Lewis said, “Now it’s terrible if they (teachers) have 30 — and all in the same subject.”

Those were not easy years, especially the last one.

In 1909, when Ella was 12, her baby sister died of an illness.

Emma Leona Lammers, born in 1899, died in 1909 at the age of 9 years, 8 months, and 14 days. On March 31, 1909, The Centralia News-Examiner published a tribute to the young girl who had moved to the Salzer Valley in 1904, describing her as “an affectionate and dutiful daughter, the pet and pride of the home.” It described her as “studious and obedient at school, ranking high in her class,” with a sweet, quiet and modest manner.

“Her last illness was the first severe illness she had ever known, and through all her suffering she was patient and docile, winning praises from her nurses and physicians for her brave spirit,” the newspaper stated. “She has been frequently called ‘the angel child’ by those who realized how truly her angelic expression mirrored a pure, sweet and lovely soul.”

Three years later, the Lammers buried their older daughter, Etta G. Lammers, at the age of 22. Their parents outlived two of their three girls by many years. Ella’s father died in 1950 and her mother in 1955. They were buried in the Pioneer Cemetery near their daughters.

Perhaps it was her sister’s illness that prompted Ella to train as a licensed practical nurse after graduating from Centralia High School in 1915. She worked at a nursing home and at Centralia General Hospital for eight years.

Because of crowded conditions at Salzer Valley, residents built a more modern school in 1910, although like its predecessor, it had no electricity and students still used outhouses. The original building served as a home for the teacher and her family.

Three years later, Salzer Valley joined with Bear Creek to form the Salzer Valley Consolidated District No. 213, but Centralia started folding smaller schools into a larger district in the 1930s and 1940s. By 1944, buses carried all Salzer Valley students to schools in town.

The Salzer Valley Community Club purchased the old school property and, in 1963, moved the old one-room school building closer to adjoin the newer building, where it served as a kitchen and meeting room. The now-dilapidated building was used for weddings, receptions, community meetings, homecoming picnics, Christmas gatherings and other events.

Unfortunately, Rena and Stacy Coonness suffered tragedy in 1918 when their talented, musical daughter Audrey, a pianist at the Christian Church, fell ill with pneumonia and then tuberculosis and died May 18, 1918. She was only 21. Two years later, Rena Coonness died at the age of 48 after a long illness. Her husband, Stacy, lived until April 1944, when he died at 83. They are buried at Washington Lawn Cemetery.

Ella married Chressler Calvin “Chris” Lewis, who from 1913 until 1930 ran an auctioneering business with his father. He later quit to farm. They had one son, Archie C. Lewis, who moved to New York where he and his wife, Anne, had six children. One of them, Mrs. Patricia Lindeman, later lived in Centralia.

Ponder said her sister, Myrna, grew close to Ella and her husband, Chris, when she lived in their old home at the end of Reinke Road. She described Lewis as “quite the character” and noted that after her husband died in December 1961 at the age of 73, Ella traveled alone to Africa for a safari.

“We always served potluck, I remember, and she always brought some store-bought cookies,” Ponder said.

Lewis raised beef cattle and belonged to the Salzer Valley Community Club, Oakview Grange, and Chehalis Women of the Moose. Her son, Archie, died in 1971 at the age of 47.

At the end of the interview, Ponder gazed again at the little white lamb.

“When I got ready to leave, I said, ‘Boy, that little lamb has sure been sleeping a lot,’” Ponder recalled. “And she said, ‘Oh, he’s not sleeping. He’s dead.’”

Eight years later, on Dec. 20, 1980, Ella died at the age of 83. She had six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She and Chris Lewis are buried at Mountain View Cemetery.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at chaptersoflife1999@gmail.com.