Trail marker would tell story of immigrant laborers

October 31, 2010 

If Northwest historian and Tenino native Edward Echtle has his way, the Yelm to Tenino trail maintained by Thurston County will someday have a historical marker detailing the role inland lumber mills and their immigrant work forces played in South Sound economic life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Echtle is researching the history of the Perry Mill at McIntosh Lake, which sat about at Milepost 9 on the 14-mile trail built on the original Northern Pacific Railroad line that ran from Kalama to Tacoma.

His goal, which has the support of the Thurston County Historic Commission, is to develop an interpretative display along the trail at the old mill site, to explain the rise and decline of lumber mills built next to rail lines in Thurston County.

“They came and went very quickly,” Echtle said of the mills. “There was a lot of them, and a lot of them burned to the ground to collect the insurance money.”

The dozens of mills from a bygone era were similar in size and often built right next to lakes for log raft storage and next to railroad lines for easy shipping of finished products.

The Perry Mill also was typical in its extensive use of immigrant labor. Echtle points out that many of the late 19th and early 20th century “second wave” immigrants found their first job in America in the mills. The work forces included Scandinavians and eastern and southern Europeans. Then by the early 1900s labor contractors based in Seattle and Portland and beyond began supplying the mills with Japanese work crews – some including families – to meet the growing demand for labor.

In many cases, according to Echtle, the Japanese mill workers replaced Chinese workers who were largely banned from immigrating in the 1880s.

By the 1920s and ’30s, many of the Japanese men had married “picture brides” and were raising families on farms throughout Western Washington until forced relocation during World War II disrupted that trend, Echtle said.

Echtle is the right person for this assignment. His specialty is Asian immigration and labor issues, and he’s done extensive research on the history of Olympia’s Chinatown. He also served on the Thurston County Historic Commission and the Olympia Heritage Commission. In 2008, he managed the reconstruction of the historic Yick Fung Mercantile and Canton Alley Apartment No. 6, which are permanent exhibits in the new Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, home of the nation’s only museum dedicated to the Asian Pacific American experience.

Living in Tacoma, Echtle serves on the Tacoma Landmarks Commission and still lends a hand to the Bigelow House Museum in Olympia, where he has served as interim director.

Echtle has already gleaned some interesting tidbits about south Thurston County lumber mills and their immigrant laborers for the trail marker.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview archived at the University of Oregon with George Murakami, who was a foreman in 1923 at the Fir Tree Lumber Co. mill at the intersection of Rainier and Stedman roads.

“Before, this mill had lots of Japanese but burned down last winter, so most (Japanese) go away,” Murakami said. “Besides, lots of white men idle now, so company don’t hire so many Japanese.

“(Americans don’t like Japanese because) too many Japanese come here,” Murakami continued. “Japanese are progressive and Americans jealous. Japanese follow Japanese customs and Americans don’t like, but I never have trouble. I have plenty of American friends.”

Then there are these comments from the 1923 superintendent of the Fir Tree Lumber Co. mill, someone identified as Mr. Miller.

“Generally speaking, we have found the Japanese very satisfactory,” Miller said. “One thing we have learned, however, is that it won’t do to mix them with the whites on the same jobs, because the whites will make it unpleasant for them. (But the Japanese) are willing to work overtime and Sunday work, and clean up the mill.”

Echtle is reaching out to the community, looking for descendants of former Perry Mill workers to add some personal perspective and depth to his historical marker project.

Anyone who can give Echtle a hand in this interesting project can contact him at 360-485-2396 or by sending an e-mail to tenalquot@gmail.com.

Incidentally, Echtle also has in his possession a newspaper article of the Perry Mill burning down, a total loss estimated at $25,000. In this case there was no insurance on the mill because there was a legal dispute over its ownership.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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