New History Book, 10 Years in the Making, Tells Onalaska’s Grand Story


    The biggest and best book about the birth, heyday and eventual collapse of the giant mill town of Onalaska has now been published, and it’s gripping.

    I started my perusal by flipping straight to the end — the quick and devastating dissolution of the Carlisle Lumber Co. in 1942, a full 40 years before I came to know and love the community where I went to school through third grade.

    Onalaska will always be my hometown, and thanks to this new 438-page book by researcher Victor J. Kucera, I now can better learn its remarkable story.

    He actually begins the book almost a century before the name “Onalaska” is first used in 1914 for the newly announced mill town along the Newaukum River. Kucera follows the intertwined stories of the Carlisle family, the Pennells, a former Centralia mayor named Guerrier (whose namesake milltown existed on what is now Guerrier road off state Route 508) and others who cashed in on the virgin stands of timber stretching across the hills of the Midwest, South and Northwest.

    The book looks at the glory years of the 1920s, the agony of the 1930s (including explosive labor strife that ended with precedent-setting federal legal decisions) and the deliberate dismantling of the enormous lumber enterprise in the early 1940s.

    I received my copy of the book a few days ago, and I’ve been skipping around. One moment I’m under 200-foot canopies of old-growth trees; the next I’m riding the “Galloping Goose” railroad on what is now state Route 508; now I’m watching as the company’s train tracks are dynamited during a drawn-out, painful union fight.

Childhood Memories

    For Kucera, retired from a career in public relations and lobbying for telecommunications companies, this is only the start of what he plans as a three-volume series of loosely related books.

    The second, about the Alpha Prairie east of Onalaska, is dearest to his heart.

    Two sets of his great-grandparents settled in Alpha. Theodore Myer, a German, was the third settler to arrive, in 1869. Theodore’s son, Val, worked for the Carlisles leading an additional team of loggers who made the final cuts before the company was dissolved 70 years ago.

    Kucera, 66, has fond memories of visiting his family in Alpha as a boy, including a glimpse of the Onalaska smokestack from the back seat of a Volkswagen in about 1960.

    The Onalaska book began with his research about Alpha. He kept uncovering information about the early days of Onalaska, so he decided to write up a short summary of what he learned. That became a pamphlet, and eventually a book.

     Kucera, who splits his time between Alaska and Arizona, has been working on this project for the better part of a decade.

    He dedicated it to Margaret Shields, the senior librarian at the Lewis County Historical Museum in Chehalis, noting her tireless help as he researched.

    “I worked hard on it. I tell you, when he called, I jumped,” said Shields, herself the author of a book about her own family’s heritage in the nearby North Fork Newaukum valley.

    Kucera’s book is the only history book written about Onalaska, except for two cookbooks with a chapter of history at the beginning, Shields said.

    “It’s a complete, thorough history,” Shields said.

    Debbie Knapp, director of the Lewis County Historical Museum, agrees.

    “I think it’s the most highly researched book that’s been done in a long time,” Knapp said, noting how valuable the index alone will be for people researching family history.

    All proceeds from the book go to the museum. Kucera said what he earns from the deal is freedom — he said he has spent thousands of hours writing the book in a converted tool shed and traveling the country. He visited every site, including forgotten areas in the middle of nowhere, associated with the Carlisle and Pennell businesses.

    “I almost ended up in jail in Arkansas,” he said.

Why the Fascination?

    Last fall, as he visited Lewis County’s Onalaska on a another research trip, I walked with him through the streets of my hometown and asked him why he was so fascinated by a place where he had never lived.

    Appropriately, he answered with a story. He recalled one of his many conversations with a bright-eyed Onalaska and Cinebar stalwart who died a year ago at age 98.

    “Chrissie Jones said to me once, ‘You’ll find you’ve been blessed to live in two time periods,’” Kucera said to me.

    For many of the old-timers with whom he talked, he was the only person who knew all the old names, the streets, the events.

    One man, whose body was wracked with pain from cancer, called Kucera every day to talk about his dad’s old store in the boom town of Onalaska.

    Through countless such conversations, the stories became real. Through this book, they take on new life for us.

    For those of us with a bit of Onalaska in our hearts, this book is an unexpected blessing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have been.


About the Book

    “Onalaska: From Kansas to Washington... via Wisconsin, Arkansas, Minnesota and Texas 1886-1942,” by Victor J. Kucera

    Price: $29.95 (Members of the Lewis County Historical Museum get a 10 percent discount.)

    Where to buy: Available at the Lewis County Historical Museum,, 748-0831

    What’s next: Author Victor Kucera has a second book nearly ready for publication. “Alpha: The Classic Hills of the Alpha Prairie, Washington,” will detail the history of the pioneer community east of Onalaska with a look back to prehistory and Native American use of the area as a major trail. He also has a third book planned. “Quinze Sous,” which takes its title from a former name for the Newaukum River, is about early European exploration of Southwest Washington.


Trivia From the New History Book ‘Onalaska’

    One Name, Four Towns — The name Onalaska comes from a mill in Onalaska, Wis., that was dismantled and rebuilt in a Carlisle-Pennell company town in Arkansas. The name, which evoked the boom years of logging in the upper Midwest in the 1870s and 1880s, was then used at company towns in Texas and in Lewis County. (page 21, 78)

    ‘Leviathan of the Woods’ — Cables were tied around trees as an enormous steam donkey slowly pulled itself through the “jungle” toward the future Onalaska site in 1914. Locals who had never seen equipment so large followed “with eyes bulging like saucers and mouths agape.” (page 194)

    Mr. Tower (Avenue) — The namesake of Tower Avenue in downtown Centralia, a rich easterner named Charlemagne Tower, owned the land that eventually fed the Onalaska mill operations. (page 30)

    Ride the Galloping Goose — For decades, the way to travel from Onalaska to Chehalis was on a train called the “Galloping Goose” on tracks where state Route 508 is today. (page 344)

    Presto! — Onalaska has ties to early experimentation with charcoal briquettes, the forerunner of today’s Presto Log. (page 317)

    Big Money — The Carlisle Lumber Company was worth $3,638,140 ($49.4 million in today’s value) when it dissolved in 1942. (page 324)

    Global Workers — Onalaska in the 1920s and ‘30s had large groups of Japanese, Swedish, Greek and Italian immigrants working. The area east of the Presbyterian Church was the Japanese neighborhood with such streets as Nippon and Tokyo avenues. (page 225)


Onalaska to Host All-Class Reunion

    At least two descendents of the Carlisle family will join “Onalaska” author Victor Kucera as guests at Sunday’s all-class reunion in the Onalaska High School gym.

    Organizer Mary Wisner, a 1962 Onalaska graduate now living in Puyallup, said the reunion has been growing dramatically, increasing from 40 attendees a few years ago to 500 last year.

    Miss Lewis County and this year’s Dairy Ambassador, who both hail from Onalaska, are expected to attend.

    The reunion starts at 10 a.m. on Sunday and lasts until about 6 p.m., or “until the last dog is hung,” Wisner said with a chuckle.

    Meals are potluck style, and the event is free.


    Brian Mittge, assistant editor of The Chronicle, welcomes comments and news tips via or (360) 807-8234.