I was driving down Southwest Chehalis Avenue on my way to work last week when I happened to glance at the old basketball court near Southwest Chehalis Avenue and Southwest Third Street. The sign above the entrance read: “Millett Field.”
I wondered to myself why a basketball court was called a “field.” So, when I got home that day, I did a quick internet search and learned the field next to present-day Chehalis Thorbeckes had been a semi-pro baseball field! How had I lived here my whole life and never known that?
I asked my grandparents about Millett Field.
“Hell yes I remember playing on that field,” beamed my Grandpa Bob. “I played there in Babe Ruth … felt like I was playing in Yankee Stadium!”
Early historical accounts claim that the first athletic events happened on Millett Field as early as 1896. Some lifelong locals I spoke with believed that some of the very first Swamp Cup football games between Centralia and Chehalis high schools occurred on that very piece of land.
The field was one of the original Chehalis Land and Timber Company shares owned by Daniel Caldwell Millett. Millett, born in Wisconsin, was a prominent local attorney who was good friends — and a fellow CL&T shareholder — with John Dobson, William West and other well-known “fathers” of Chehalis. He built a home for his family on Pennsylvania Avenue in Chehalis.
Following his death in 1908 (at age 61, following reported heart failure), the community collectively mourned. Millett had served terms as mayor and city attorney. The county commissioners issued a proclamation of mourning. That same year after Millett died, according to The Chehalis Bee-Nugget, the Chehalis Land and Timber company decided to formally deed the parcel of land to the city of Chehalis.
News articles in both The Bee-Nugget and The Centralia Examiner state that the property deed specifically limits the parcel’s use to athletic and playground recreation types of activities.
The grand opening of Millett Field in May 1908 was a city-wide holiday. There was a large parade, a town band on hand, speeches by Superintendent Hunt and Mayor West and a Chehalis versus Centralia baseball game. The Chehalis Bee Nugget detailed the planned events:
“Mayor West has declared a holiday from 3 to 5 o’clock, and the business men generally will observe it. A request has also been sent in by the mayor to the mills and factories, asking that employees be given the afternoon for this occasion. This will likely be granted also.”
In July 1923, The Bee Nugget warned the local ladies that they ought to keep a close eye on their husbands that week, because the Western Bloomer Girls’ baseball club scheduled a game against Chehalis.
In 1924, The Bee Nugget describes Millett Field as the “the best diamond in the northwest.” In addition to baseball, football was still occasionally played there — the Thanksgiving Day game was a beloved tradition — as well as an occasional boxing match. Large events were reported to bring more than 4,000 spectators to the field.
What are basketball courts today used to be tennis courts. They were installed around 1925.
Several sources I referenced state that Millett was the Bearcats’ home football field until they transitioned to the football field near present day Cascade Elementary School in the late 1930s.
The field was home of the Chehalis semi pro baseball team from about 1906 to 1949, appropriately called the “Timber League.” It included teams from Chehalis, Aberdeen, Elma, and Cosmopolis — all the timber towns were represented. It later was a Babe Ruth field starting in the 50s. It was replaced as the city’s major ball field when Stan Hedwall Park was constructed in the 1970s.
Up until Stan Hedwall and Recreation Park were built, Millett Field was one of the only athletic fields in the region that had nighttime lighting. Several articles in the 1950s detail efforts by private citizens, in partnership with the city of Chehalis, holding “light dances” and other types of events at Millett Field to raise money for outdoor lighting.
More than 25 local clubs attended the first meeting to discuss raising the $6,000 price tag for new lights. Only one remaining light pole stands today at the site (and a lone flagpole).
In the early 1950s, we start to see some of the first girls’ softball events appear at Millett Field in news archives from The Chronicle.
In 1956, due to a rail strike, Millett Field ended up — in a last minute turn of events — hosting the northwest regional Babe Ruth Tournament, which hosted teams from all over the northwestern United States and as far away as Wyoming. The New Year’s Eve 1956 edition of The Chronicle notes:
“Baseball provided the area’s top sports story of the year early in the month of August when a group of hard-working Chehalis Babe Ruth league enthusiasts were rewarded for their endeavors by the announcement, August 7, that Chehalis had been awarded the Northwest Regional Babe Ruth Tournament. … Millett Field, already one of the finest ball diamonds in Southwest Washington, was improved even more for the state tournament. A portable fence was installed both in the outfield and behind home plate and temporary bleachers were installed on the first and third sides of the field and behind the outfield fences by volunteers before the tourney opened.”
Citizens had even opened their own homes to house the influx of players, coaches and spectators who came into town for the tournament event.
This was “The Sandlot” era of baseball in Lewis County. You can feel the nostalgia lift up off the news pages when you read about Millett Field.
Through the years, from the early 1900s well into the 70s and 80s, numerous leagues hosted tournaments and seasons at Millett Field, including (of course) the Timber League and Babe Ruth, but also the Western Independent League, American Legion League, Slow pitch softball leagues — even Army teams played against the local Moose and Elks occasionally. Local high schools also played district tournaments on the field.
Slowly, over time, Millett Field began to fade from the public forefront as newer fields were built and improved. The old, rickety grandstands were torn down in 1979 and never replaced.
Fellow Chronicle columnist Brian Mittge told me that he remembers his sister playing soccer on Millett Field in the early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, the Washington state Ecology cleanup of American Crossarm & Conduit, formerly next door to the old field, shuttered the athletic field for good.
Today, the empty field is flanked by the tennis courts turned basketball courts — thanks to a mid-2000s partnership with the local neighbors on Chehalis Avenue — and a small, fenced play area, where Thorbeckes partnered with the city of Chehalis to bring in playground equipment.
Looking back on all I’ve learned about Millett Field, and reading first hand about some of the incredible community events that happened there, it grieves my heart to see the park fade from view.
May 2018 will be the 110th anniversary of the grand opening of Millett Field. Perhaps it’s time to explore reviving this hallowed piece of ground — a piece of land that is a true testament to Lewis County’s lengthy sports history and tradition of athletic excellence.
Brittany Voie is a columnist for The Chronicle. She works as the marketing director for Thorbeckes FitLife Centers.