OPINION: The birth of Grays Harbor amidst political turmoil

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Historically Speaking

By Linda Thompson

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On June 10, 1915, 102 years ago, Grays Harbor County was born. Renaming the county wasn’t the only fight. The fight to divide what was then Chehalis County was foremost on the minds of businessmen of the day.

The Vidette carried an article on Dec. 18, 1885, addressing the question of where to put the county seat. We were still Chehalis County at the time. William Moore, of Satsop, had a petition written by J. J. Carney, of Elma, asking the legislature to grant to the citizens of Chehalis County the privilege of a vote. Mr. Beckwith, in the upper end of the county, had also gotten a large number of names on a petition.

The issue was so controversial professional men resorted to name calling.

It wasn’t until March 16, 1906, that a vote was actually taken. According to a Vidette article, Election Day was stormy and turnout for the issue of county seat was expected to be light. Those expecations couldn’t be further from the truth. Nearly every registered voter had his voice heard. Elma and Montesano lead in the numbers, but it is not stated that either of them won. Later articles do refer to Montesano as the county seat of Chehalis County.

The Olympian Daily Recorder on Feb. 1, 1907 reports that the hotly contested fight over renaming Chehalis County developed into a fight to divide the county and make the western part of the county Grays Harbor. Aberdeen and Hoquiam businessmen representing the Chamber of Commerce and other bodies visited Olympia to invite legislators and members of the press to come, by special train, to Aberdeen. The reason was to show the governing bodies and press the merits of renaming part of the county.

An effort by the two towns to have the county seat changed from Montesano to somewhere between Aberdeen and Hoquiam failed. The proposed line of that division had not been definitely marked out, but would have extended from the southwest corner of Mason County southwesterly, passing between Montesano and Aberdeen. With that division, the new county, Grays Harbor, had about 25,000 people and Chehalis County was left with 15,000. The Chehalis county delegation to the legislature was united in favor of the county division.

By the middle of the month, the Olympian Daily Recorder noted that Harborites were out in force. Those seeking division showed up in great numbers, while those opposing were smaller in number, but were more eloquent and hard-working, the paper stated. The senate and the house were both in favor of letting Chehalis County “fight it out” for themselves. Opponents to the bill showed up wearing buttons that read “CHEHALIS.” But Ed Benn and other advocates of the division had been on the ground for several days. They had chased every vote they could find.

Representative Hogan was the first to talk for the division. He claimed that the east so dominated the polities of the county that the Harbor region had been sacrificed. He proposed the bill was an equitable division of territory.

W. H. Abel of Montesano, described by Ed Benn as the leading criminal lawyer of Chehalis County, censured Hogan. He said Hogan was elected to represent all of the people of the county, not just those of one section. Abel went on to say he believed the dominating cause for the plea of division was Benn’s desire to name the county sheriff to replace the present sheriff who was about to resign. Abel said Benn had asked the county commissioners to appoint the man Benn favored. The county commissioners refused and Benn set about the task of diving the county.

Abel was hot when he addressed Senator Polson. “You were carefully guarded,” he told the committee, “on the trip in order to prevent a possible meeting with opponents of division. When the citizens of Hoquiam were invited to attend the banquet given in your honor, strict instructions were imposed to invite none save those who favored division. No man was asked to speak at that dinner who was opposed to division.”

C.W. Miller, a banker of Aberdeen, was another stout opponent of the division. He had been for the division until he had learned of plans of certain citizens of Aberdeen who had set aside lots they planned to sell to the new county for the building of a courthouse.

W.I. Agnew of Aberdeen, who favored division, said he had come prepared to submit argument on the merits of the proposal. He described Abel as an “unmitigated trader, who had been a populist, and is now a democrat assisting in the election of republican office-holders”

C.T. Hall of Hoquiam returned the compliments of the evening to Agnew, describing him as a “predatory attorney.”

In the house committee a similar exchange of personal respects were taking place. E. L. Minard, of Elma, was telling of the ‘crime’ that was bound up in division and Benn was explaining that the cry against the proposition came from those who were politically “in.” He allowed no animosity to creep into his address and kept his listeners laughing.

The Elma Chronicle, Feb. 25, 1911 , “PEOPLE UP IN ARMS TO OPPOSE COUNTY DIVISION”:

“Representative Citizens from Cosmopolis, Aberdeen, McCleary, Oakville, Porter, Satsop, Montesano and Elma and contiguous districts met at the Elma Commercial club rooms Tuesday evening to take steps to prevent the passage of the bill to divide Chehalis County.

“Earl France, chairman and C.H. Boynton, secretary, worked hard to explain the tax burden that would be left to the eastern part of the county if it were to be broken off from the rest of the county. Property taxes were plummet due to lost land, leaving the east end of the county with the minority in population to pay for the new courthouse in full. A $350,000 debt that could not be shouldered by the minority that would be left.

“An aggressive campaign was planned and Neil Cooney of Cosmopolis, J.R. O’Donnell of Elma, Henry McCleary of McCleary and Will France and Wm. Bush of Montesano were selected as an executive committee to take charge. A campaign fund was provided. It was decided to send at least one representative from each town to Olympia and Senator O’Donnell, Mr. McNeill and others left for the capital Wednesday morning.”

The county did not divide into two. The name did change to Grays Harbor County by a court order signed by the governor on March 15, 1915, to be effective June 10 of that year.

Linda Thompson is the editor of the McCleary Museum Newsletter. She has been a volunteer at the museum since 1990.