Julie McDonald Commentary: McAtees, Reinkes Part of Salzer Valley History


Although Salzer Valley was named for the large German family that settled southeast of Centralia, other early families left their mark in the community — and local roads today even bear their names. 

While doing my research, I stumbled across an article about a Salzer Valley family that piqued my interest. My parents had five daughters born within six years, and a son three years later, so I grew up close to my siblings. Although we didn’t always live in harmony, our physical fights paled when compared with a battle between the “Ranke” brothers of Salzer Valley.

In fact, the story drew enough interest to cross the news wires as I found it in Oregon’s “The Dallas Times-Mountaineer,” published Oct. 27, 1894. It spelled the surname “Ranke” rather than “Reinke.”

“A Chehalis, Wash., dispatch dated Oct. 19th has the following: Meager reports of a desperate battle between four brothers living in the Salzer Valley were received here this morning. They are named Ranke. For several months they have been having occasional quarrels; but when they came together yesterday morning, it was for a life-and-death struggle. They were armed with axes, knives and clubs. When they had fought till nearly exhausted, neighbors arrived on the scene and separated them. One brother’s arm was chopped off and another’s arm was broken. The other two were badly bruised.”

I couldn’t find the names of the Ranke brothers mentioned in the article, but if it referred to the Reinkes, the family left a mark in Salzer Valley and gave its name to Reinke Road, which drops down from Salzer Valley Road east of Centralia.

Another road is named after the McAtees, who settled three miles southeast of what became the Salzer homestead. McAtee Road drops down from Little Hanaford Road less than five miles north of Salzer Valley Road. 

Ezra Baxter and Anna Christine (Schmidt) McAtee arrived at Centralia’s Salzer Valley in 1874, and the creek running through the valley initially was known as McAtee Creek. Anna was born Dec. 18, 1845, in Germany, and her husband, Ezra, an Illinois native, was born about 1838. He fought three years and eight months in the Civil War as part of the Union Army’s 32nd Missouri Infantry Regiment. The first three of their children were born in Illinois — Melvina Christine in 1866, John William in 1869, and Edward A. “Eddie” in 1871, but poor Eddie died Sept. 23, 1872, before his first birthday. He was buried in Macoupin County, Illinois. 

 Shortly after arriving in Salzer Valley, Anna gave birth to another child, Theresa E. McAtee, in September 1875.

In the 1880 census, Ezra was listed as a farmer in eastern Lewis County, living with his wife, Anna, and their children: Melvina, 14; John, 11; Theresa, 4; Frederick, 2; and 4-month-old Thomas. 

In December 1883, Ezra and Anna McAtee gave permission for their then-17-year-old daughter Melvina to marry Joseph Birchall. The Rev. Telesphore Brouillette officiated at the marriage ceremony.

By 1887, Ezra and Anna had also added Mary and George to their family. But the following year, a newspaper account noted that a McAtee child — most likely Thomas — died in May 1888. Details about the death were unavailable as the story simply noted that Rev. Williams was called to preach at the funeral, but by the time he received the letter, it had already taken place.

Melvina’s granddaughter, Mariel M. Laughter, of Houston, Texas, described more of the family history in a March 1982 letter to the Lewis County Historical Museum. She said Ezra and Anna left Illinois in 1874 with their first two children, Melvina and John, and traveled west on a train — not a wagon train but a choo-choo train. She said they slept in their own beds and did their own cooking. Most of their relatives stayed in Illinois, she said. 

Ezra and Anna divorced, but he lived on a Fords Prairie farm in 1920, when he was 81. He later lived eight years in Elma with his daughter Melvina before moving back to Illinois where he died Feb. 11, 1931, at 92.

After their divorce, Anna married Levi Zumwalt in 1896, when she was 51, according to findagrave.com. Levi was born in Montgomery County, Illinois, and died in 1922 in Centralia at the age of 85.

Anna was 89 when she died June 9, 1935, in Elma, where she lived the last two years of her life. She was survived by six children: John and George McAtee, and Marie Peterson, all of Centralia; F.S. McAtee, of Ellensburg; Melvina Birchall, of Elma; and Theresa Stapleton, of Duvall, Washington. 

According to the 1967 Daily Chronicle article, “George McAtee likes to tell that it was Anna Marie Salzer who gave him his nickname, ‘Sneeklefreetzie,’ this motherly old German called the small boy who visited her log home.” 

“And to this day I’ve always been called ‘Snick’ by my friends,” George McAtee told the reporter.

Based on newspaper accounts, George and his wife, Jessie Rardin McAtee, experienced a rather turbulent relationship. They were married July 3, 1917, in Centralia, and two days later, his mother, Anna McAtee, entertained with a six-course dinner in honor of her boy, George, and his bride. 

Four years later, on July 28, 1922, the Chehalis Bee-Nugget reported that Jessie McAtee, of Centralia, had filed for divorce from George McAtee, the father of their two children. The divorce was granted in October 1922.

But they remarried because, on June 13, 1930, the Chehalis Bee-Nugget reported that Jessie had again filed for divorce from George, alleging he had been “cruel” and “reviles her” and “for periods of as long as two months at a time refuses to talk to her” and “failed to support the family.” By then, they had three children. 

Yet they must have stayed together, or remarried, because six years later, the Chehalis Bee-Nugget again reported on their divorce proceedings Oct. 16, 1936, saying they had been married July 1, 1927, in Montesano. “She charges the defendant with being surly, quarrelsome, and cruel, and having abandoned her three years ago. There is a daughter seven years old.” She was granted the divorce on Oct. 30, 1936. This time they stayed divorced as she became Jessie Whealdon and lived in Vancouver.

But the saddest McAtee story was the loss of George and Jessie’s two sons within months of each other during World War II. 

The newspaper trail started with a happy announcement. On June 9, 1944, the Daily Chronicle reported that a son, George Eugene, had been born in Tacoma to Lieutenant Milton and Doris (Wharton) McAtee. 

But then news arrived that George and Jessie’s 23-year-old son, Private Mervin E. McAtee, had been killed in action July 30, 1944, while serving with the Army infantry in France, one of nearly 8,000 American Gold Star casualties connected to Washington state. He was in the National Guard before being activated into federal military duty while a junior at Centralia High School. He trained in Texas and New York before shipping overseas. He was awarded a Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Army Presidential Unit Citation, and Army Good Conduct Medal.

Then, on Oct. 29, 1944, when his son was only 4 months old, 2nd Lt. Milton G. McAtee was killed in action on Leyte in the Philippines, where he fought with the 7th Infantry Division, 17th Infantry Regiment. The 25-year-old was buried in the Manila American Cemetery but honored on Feb. 22, 1945, at the Church of the Nazarene in Centralia. An Army chaplain from Fort Lewis spoke at the ceremony. In addition to his parents, he left his wife, Doris, in Centralia, and their small son, George, plus a sister, Esther, in Vancouver. He was awarded a Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, Marksmanship Badge, American Campaign Medal, Army Presidential Unit Citation, Army Good Conduct Medal, and Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal.

Their father, George Wagner McAtee, died Oct. 23, 1960, in Centralia at the age of 76, leaving his daughter, Esther Drake, of Vancouver, plus a sister and a brother.

The eldest McAtee child, Melvina Birchall, was 80 when she died Aug. 20, 1947, in Elma, a decade after the death of her husband. Six years later, her sister, Theresa E. McAtee Stapleton, died Aug. 30, 1953, in Everett at 77. She married an Englishman, Robert H. Stapleton, in July 1896. She was a teacher and he worked in the woods.

Their brother, John William McAtee, died April 16, 1954, in Centralia, at 84. He worked as a shingle weaver and carpenter, belonged to the Centralia Lodge No. 67 IOOF and Ivy Rebekah Lodge No. 21, and lived at 510 S. Gold St. And Fred S. McAtee, a wheat farmer in Yakima and later Ellensburg, died in June 1956 in Spokane.

The last of the McAtee children, Marie Elizabeth “Mamie” McAtee Peterson, was 92 when she died April 10, 1974, at a nursing home in Centralia. Her husband, Walter William, whom she married in 1901, had died in 1937.

Now, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.