Exploring The Back Roads of Washington State: A Visit To Pe Ell Is A Visit To Our Past
The Road Less Traveled
About ten miles west from the city of Chehalis on Highway 6, a historical roadside marker attracts the attention of travelers. There one will learn of the old pioneer village of Claquato, established in 1859. The original church still remains, as does a cemetery of the same name. The rest of the village, once a thriving logging enterprise, has gone into the pages of history never to be seen again.
Perhaps Claquato is the perfect introduction to the town of Pe Ell which is found twenty miles further west on the same Highway 6. Perhaps, too, Pe Ell is the perfect example of what has happened to thousands of towns across this country as the economy has been forced to change.
As one drives along that highway, with the Chehalis River bordering the road on the right, one can easily see how these lush forests, rolling hills and rich farmland attracted hard-working, independent people back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. If a man was willing to work hard enough, there was money to be made in the felling of trees and the tilling of soil.
But times change. The forests, once teeming with magnificent old-growth timber, depleted, and the life of a farmer became tenuous at best as major farming corporations made it practically impossible for a small farmer to function in this ever-changing world.
So it was for Pe Ell.
A fun video
The Economics of Change
Pe Ell was officially incorporated in 1906. Millworkers and loggers flocked to this evergreen land; farmers, lured by the dark soil enriched by annual flooding, found that crops practically grew themselves in the early years. By 1907 the population of Pe Ell was 1000 and showed signs if increased growth and prosperity.
There were three dry goods stores, two general stores, three grocery stores, two barber shops, five saloons, four hotels, a newspaper, banks, a blacksmith, opera house and brothel back in 1909.
Today one finds a pub, one restaurant, one antique store, one grocery store and a gas station.
The economics of change!
Today the population of Pe Ell is 632. Most are small farmers and employees of the major lumber and paper company Weyerhauser. 91% of them are white and the median income is $27,000.
By the numbers, here is how Pe Ell compares with the rest of Washington State:
- Median household income is below the state average
- Median house value is below the state average
- Unemployed percentage is above the state average
- Black race population is significantly below the state average
- Hispanic race population is below state average
- Median age is below the state average
- Foreign-born population percentage is significantly below state average
- Number of college students is below the state average
- Percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree is significantly below the state average
Simply stated, Pe Ell is a town trapped in a time warp, as so many towns across the United States are. Towns built upon dying industries such as farming, logging, fishing or manufacturing, with no alternative when those industries dry up, find themselves struggling to stay afloat, and so it is with Pe Ell.
Another in this series from my friend Sally
- Exploring the Back Roads of Paris and a French Market - Marché Pyrenees
One of the best ways of immersing yourself into the sights, sounds and aromas of the French way of life is to visit a French market such as Marché Pyrenees in Paris - France.
Rebecca Ambrose is the owner and sole-operator of the Candlelight Inn, a restored three-story building in the center of town. It is now an antique store; Ms. Ambrose has plans to transform it into a bed and breakfast. At times during its history it was a hospital, a home for nuns and a home for “unwed mothers,” a euphemism for brothel.
Rebecca has lived in Pe Ell since 2004. Once a director of non-profit organizations, she fell in love with the building she now restores and purchased it with lofty visions of the future. She says she loves living in Pe Ell and that the people are the reason for that love.
“The people in this town are hardy. They do not whine or complain about their lives, no matter how tough those lives have been. People look out for each other here, and they handle their own problems quietly and with pride and determination,” she told us.
She continued: “Back in 2007 there was a horrendous flood. We had 22 inches of rain in 24 hours, and the winds flattened portions of the surrounding forests. The fallen trees blockaded the river, and the water rose so rapidly that escaping the town was impossible. In fact, the second highest percentage of rooftop rescues happened that year in Pe Ell, second only to Katrina. People were remarkable during it all. They just hitched up their pants and did what they had to do to survive and help each other.”
Ah yes, the people.
Pe Ell has not had a recorded murder or rape in the past ten years. One senses safety in this town, although there has been a significant increase in thefts and burglaries over the same ten year period, an increase attributed to a growing meth problem among the youth and unemployed.
On the Sunday afternoon of our visit, the almost deserted main drag saw a drastic increase in traffic as the local church ended its service. The Pub began to fill up with customers as the Seattle Seahawk football team began their televised football game. Townsfolk were busy doing chores outside in preparation of winter and woodpiles grew and the sounds of chainsaws were ever-present in the distance.
It was, and is, a microcosm of small town America no matter which state you may be visiting, for there are thousands of Pe Ells sprinkled across this country, all facing a dubious economic future but carrying on nonetheless.
To New York we go
- Exploring The Back Roads of New York State: A Visit to Rosendale, NY
Rosendale, New York, a small town in what some consider upstate New York. Lots of history and interesting facts in a town settled in the late 17th Century surviving many ups and downs.
Another fine addition to this series
- Exploring the Back Roads of Nevada: The Black Rock Desert
An Installation in the "Exploring the Back Roads..." series discussing The Black Rock Desert located outside Gerlach Nevada.
Another in the Back Roads Series
- EXPLORING THE BACK ROADS of NEW ZEALAND's SOUTH ISLAND: Karamea to the Heaphy Track
One of Exploring the Back Roads of.... Series, this Explores the north of the West Coast to the road's end above Karamea, visiting Karamea, the Oparara Basin, Oparara River & the Heaphy Track
Small town pride
How To Get There
The Future of Pe Ell
It is hard to envision a positive future for towns like Pe Ell. The lumber industry is hanging by a thread. Farming is a no-win situation. As unemployment grows so too does drug use and alcoholism. The town leaders have no economic plan for the future, and without a solid tax base the chances of a healthy industry being attracted to Pe Ell are practically non-existent. There are no monies in the city coffers for community improvements, the school is in dire need of upgrading, and closed signs far outnumber open signs.
There are no natural wonders to see, no tourist sites and no recreational opportunities other than fishing the river. There is, in fact, no earthly reason why a tourist would stop in Pe Ell.
Still, a town is comprised of people and not economic indicators, and many of Pe Ell’s residents are ancestors of the intrepid settlers who once cleared and tamed this land. If there is hope for Pe Ell; if there is more to its future than a replica of Claquato’s history, then the hope lies in the people themselves.
Only time will tell.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
Authors note: This is the first of the new series “Exploring the Back Roads.” All writer are welcome to join. As was already mentioned in a previous article, all you are asked to do is use the same four words, Exploring the Back Roads, in the title; just change it to name your own state or country. Also, I encourage you to link to other articles in the Back Roads series.
I hope you enjoyed it. I will be back with another in this series in a couple weeks.
- Exploring the Back Roads of Lake Tahoe California: Tahoma
An Installation in the "Exploring the Back Roads..." series discussing Tahoma located in Lake Tahoe California.
A visit to Israel
- Exploring the Back Roads of Israel: Banias Nature Reserve.
Come along with me to see Banias, one of the most breath taking, beautiful places on earth.
Another fine Exploring article
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Small town. Good food. Pleasant accommodations. Beautiful beach. Need I say more? All this and more describes this quaint little community called Oceanside in Tillamook County, Oregon
Exploring New Zealand
- EXPLORING THE BACK ROADS of NEW ZEALAND's NORTH ISLAND: Orakei Korako, the Hidden Valley
One of Exploring the Back Roads of.... Series, this explores Orakei Korako in New Zealand's North Island; the Hidden Valley, thermal springs & outstanding scenery.
And a trip to Arizona
- Tonto Natural Bridge, Payson, Arizona
The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park offers one of the most beautiful sights in a comfortable family friendly setting.
And a trip to Nevada
- Exploring the Back Roads of Nevada: Bower's Mansion Regional State Park
An installation in the "Exploring the Back Roads..." series discussing Bower's Mansion located within Washoe Valley Nevada.