By now you’re likely aware that the annual spring cleanup of the Seminary Hill Natural Area was again successful in getting it ready for another season and, also, that the event was saddened by the announcement by the three Staebler sisters — Rebecca, Gretchen and Jo Ann — that their mother, Stellajoe, had passed away that very morning. I’ve written before that I consider her to be the one person I give the most credit for that magnificent piece of land existing today.
I’m referring to Stellajoe Staebler (wife of former Weyerhaeuser official George Staebler) whose sense of determination caused her to spend much of her century of life fighting for what she held dear. To understand her role in saving the area from being logged, it’s first necessary to give some background information from my own viewpoint after being caught up in the process.
Past columns have included much, if not most, of what I’m about to write, but newcomers increase rapidly enough to warrant writing it again. First of all, many people consider the natural area to be a part of Centralia’s parks department. It’s not. The land is owned by the city’s water department which in the 1970s found itself badly in need of money to comply with an order from the Washington Department of Ecology, requiring it to cover the two open water reservoirs on the hill that stored our drinking water.
In addition, the system of wooden culverts which transported that water from its source on the North Fork of the Newaukum River was showing too many signs of aging. It was first installed in 1914 and needed to be either replaced or abandoned. (Chehalis still uses the Newaukum River as its water source, but Centralia’s water is now obtained from wells on the valley’s floor.)
Another quick word or two to set the stage. At that time, Centralia was still governed by a three-member commission. As mayor, I was also police and fire commissioner. Bill Rickard was commissioner of public works and Jack Gelder was commissioner of finance, in addition to being manager of city hall. But I don’t think that any minutes of public meetings will show that Gelder ever voted against anything proposed by Rickard.
It was suggested that the hillside be logged to finance those projects. Bill agreed, based in large amount by his respect for Stellajoe’s husband, George, one of Weyerhaeuser’s top officials — indeed, the Weyerhaeuser building on Pearl Street is named for him. George, in true Weyerhaeuser tradition, was in favor of logging the timber, using the money to solve the Water Department’s problems and, then, re-seeding the land for the future.
Stellajoe disagreed. Over the years she had led many overnight encampments of Girl Scouts in that level spot about halfway up the hill. Additionally, the Staebler property adjoined the water department’s land at the upper end and, after George passed away, a good portion of that property was later donated by Stellajoe to the city’s natural area.
Public opposition began to grow as word got out about the proposed logging action and Stellajoe was at the head of it. She and many other citizens began gathering signatures to prevent it. She was infatigable. I’m sorry, but I’ve long since forgotten how many signed on in protest. It was enough, though, to cause some serious second thoughts about the proposed logging. Finally, she is credited with convincing her husband that the beauty of the property — and the opportunity it presented as a learning example of proper care for our forests — was more important than clear cutting.
History — and the family — is silent about whatever other means she may have used to achieve her goal.
When George changed his opinion, Bill changed his own thinking, Jack nodded in agreement and the commission was able to vote unanimously to maintain the property as a natural area. And, as mayor, I was able to sign the decision into law. It’s been the one single action of which I’m most proud during my 16 years in city government, and knowing Stellajoe made life easier and more pleasant as well.
Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at email@example.com.