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Centralia's Founder Bicentennial Celebration
By Lisa Loving | The Skanner News
Published: 24 August 2018

The town of Centralia, Washington has been celebrating its founder all year, but last weekend was the crowning event in the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington.

George and his wife, Mary Jane, were African American settlers who came across the Oregon Trail and established the town, almost exactly halfway between Seattle and Portland.

Despite the rainy weather, about 100 people gathered Saturday in Centralia’s George Washington Park to celebrate a new series of three bronze statues depicting George, his wife, and their faithful dog, Rockwood. The statues were sculpted by local artist Jim Stafford, and cast at a foundry in Tacoma. View slideshow below.

In attendance on Saturday were elected officials including City Councilor Joyce Barnes, Mayor Lee Coumbs, Mayor Pro-tem Max Vogt, and former Mayor Bonnie Canaday.

The dedication of the statues was the culmination of an entire year’s worth of events celebrating Washington’s life. The bicentennial kicked off on the founder’s 199th birthday last year on August 15.

“The more I learned about George Washington, the more I admired him,” event organizer Brian Mittge said. “He overcame incredible obstacles in his life -- all the hardships of pioneer life, as well as the extra, unfair burdens placed on African Americans by law and custom.

"He's a great American and an important figure in our Pacific Northwest heritage.”

Mittge said the best part of this year’s events has been their ability to draw engaged audiences.

“I've been so moved by his example of bringing people together,” Mittge said. “We live in a time of division today, but it was even worse during George's lifetime -- slavery, the Civil War, and more. If he could unify people then, we can work toward unity now.”



George Washington was born Aug. 15, 1818 in Virginia, the son of a White mother and a free man of African descent. The family story says that the birth mother gave George to a White couple, Anna and James Cochran, to be taken out of Virginia and raised as a free man.

The Cochrans adopted George and started moving to free states. First they moved with the child to Ohio, then they settled in Missouri. But in 1850, the terms of Missouri’s new statehood made it a slave state; so the whole family decided to move again to avoid the chance that George could be captured and enslaved.

In 1850, Washington and the Cochrans headed across the Oregon Trail together. They arrived in Oregon, but decided to continue north towards Seattle, settling where the Chehalis and Skookumchuck Rivers meet.

Because they were White, the Cochrans were able to file a land claim. After the Washington Territory became independent of the Oregon Territory in 1853, George was able to buy the land from his adoptive parents because the new territory did not make it illegal for African American people to own property.

Washington turns family land into a small city

Washington’s genius emerged years later, when he realized that his family‘s land was on the path of the soon-to-be-built Northern Pacific Railroad; that’s when he decided to turn it into a small city. George filed a plan with the state, then he and Mary Jane mapped out their town and named its streets (the new bronze statue of Mary Jane shows her holding a Centralia map and pointing out the streets).

By 1872 Centralia was an important stop along the railroad; it became a boomtown for transporting locally-produced timber, coal and dairy products to the rest of the world.

Centralia was officially incorporated in 1886. Mary Jane died at age 49 in 1889; George Washington was 88 years old when he passed away in 1905.

George was known to help destitute families with groceries or rent money; he also donated more of his family’s land for municipal features such as parks and a library.

Mittge says the most important thing people should know about George Washington is that his personal motto was “Peace and Plenty.”

“He wanted everyone to have that, and he generously helped people by giving them work, food, clothing and more,” Mittge said.

“I also love this quote that we have from him as he talked with his wife and step-son about his commitment to helping their neighbors, even if it meant personal sacrifice: ‘I want to do right by my fellow men. And if I do, I'll never lose anything by it.’"

Centralia History: Medal of Honor

centralia warr memorial statue medThe Sentinel statue, in Centralia, Wash. was built in remembrance of four Legionnaires killed in the Armistice Day Riot of 1919. Photo by Bernie FosterLocal military history buffs should start planning your trip to commemorate the life of Dexter J. Kerstetter; a World War II US Army veteran and the first son of Centralia ever named as a US Medal of Honor recipient. He is buried about 70 miles north of his hometown, in the military graveyard at Tahoma National Cemetery, 18600 SE 240th St, Kent, WA.

In 1945, Kerstetter served in Company C, 130th Infantry Regiment, 33rd Infantry Division, and is credited with leading his platoon to capture a key location in the Philippines. He had served as a cook’s assistant for his entire career until suddenly grabbing a weapon and leaping into action during an attack on his comrades’ position.

Kerstetter died in a boating accident in 1972, where contemporary accounts say he gave up his life to save someone else.


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