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Skagit River Journal

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Charles M. Dwelley,
Concrete publisher for 40 years,
and his historic Skagit family

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore ©2005
(Chuck Dwelley)
Young Chuck Dwelley. These photos courtesy of Doris Pollack

      Charles M. "Chuck" Dwelley spent 40 years as the voice of the town of Concrete, after originally being assigned there in the months just prior to the October 1929 stock market crash to edit a failing small-town weekly newspaper, the Concrete Herald, which had gone bankrupt. His early days as an editor were not auspicious at all, especially for the grandson of one of Skagit County's earliest pioneers.
      Along the way, he actually eclipsed the publicity and historical reputation accorded to his grandfather, Joseph Franklin Dwelley, and he grew into a significant journalist rival for his mentor, Frank Evans, publisher of the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times. His voice became pre-eminent for all things upriver in the Skagit Valley and he pushed badly needed infrastructure and transportation projects, while he opposed others that he considered boondoggles or frivolous. His value for historical researchers was insured when he published his memories of his adopted town, So They Called the Town Concrete, in 1980. That book has recently been reprinted by the Concrete Museum. Anne Bussiere, who took over as editor of the Herald for owners Bob and June Fader in early 1984, now owns Annie's Pizza Station in Concrete. She told us about a letter that Dwelley wrote to her in February 1984, after she wrote a "scathing editorial." We found that letter from the Feb. 2, 1984, issue, in the collection of Concrete historical material belonging to late Serge Sibley, which was transferred to our safekeeping in 2003:

To Anne Bussiere, Editor, The Concrete Herald
      I was very pleased to see the two column editorial in the last issue of the Herald. This had been a tradition of the Herald for over forty years and brings back the memories of the tragedies and triumphs of my early years in daring to print my very own thoughts weekly in a publicly circulated publication.
      In time I became both an established "whipping boy" within the valley, but also a nationally quoted editorial writer, worldwide if you count the Readers Digest, Time and the Ladies Home Journal.
      In the beginning I didn't know any better and after directing a complaint about cement dust at the Superior Cement Co. I was called down to the office to face the then superintendent, C.L. Wagner. He told me that in the past all items appearing in the Herald concerning the plant were to be first brought to his office for approval.
      I, feeling my new title as "Editor," and with more spunk than I knew I had, replied that I was going to run my paper without any outside censorship and that included the cement plant and its dust. He took a good long look at me, then said, "You're right, kid, and By God, I'll back you all the way."
      From then on I wrote what I thought and took the pressure and lots of hard criticism, lost a few ads once in a while but they all came back. Was threatened with the proverbial "horse whipping" with no lashes being taken. I made mistakes, but admitted them humbly, made errors and lost sleep over them. But, all in all, it was a heck of a lot of satisfaction and worth all the grief.
      I started out with an ancient Linotype [typesetting machine], a four-page cylinder press and a few cases of hand-set type. The Linotype had two fonts, one 9-point and the other 12. All the larger headlines had to be set by hand, also all the advertisements.
      Thank goodness you will never have to lift a solid chase of hand-set type and try to slide it onto a bed of a cylinder press. You may have heard of "pied type," but you can't believe the sight of a couple day's work spread all over the floor in the original separate pieces.
      This, of course, was back in the "good Old Days." All you have to worry about now is when the computer blows up, all this is history. Music for old timers. My real purpose of this letter is to congratulate you on the appearance of the Herald, the excellent writing and photography, and most of all, your move into the Editorial Column. Tell it the way you see it and don't back off with the fear of criticism. You have the vehicle . . . to the moon, and good luck.
      Sincerely, Chas. M. Dwelley

Four years earlier, Dwelley recalled — in the epilogue to his book on Concrete, the early days of his reign at the Herald:

See the extensive section on Charles M. "Chuck" Dwelley, which was created by Larry and Josef Kunzler as part of their program in August 2006 to honor Dwelley by installing a plaque on the Dalles Bridge, one of Dwelley's most important projects.

      Charles M. Dwelley, for over 40 years the publisher-editor of the Concrete Herald, is eminently qualified to compile and write the history of the Concrete area.
      His material was drawn not only from his own memories but from actual accounts of on-the-spot witnesses whose lives and those of their parents and grandparents were bound with the ups and downs of the community, together with stories and photographs from his voluminous files collected during his years as owner of the area's only newspaper.
      Sent to Concrete as a young man, barely 21, to take over a bankrupt weekly newspaper in 1929, just before the Depression struck, Mr. Dwelley eked out a living of sorts until he managed to put the Herald on its feet financially and retire the mortgages some ten years later. Meanwhile, he was establishing a reputation, which grew to statewide and eventually nationwide, as a top editor and writer. His short editorials have been reprinted in numerous daily newspapers and national magazines and reread over radio stations throughout the country. He served as president of the Washington State Publishers' Association in 1958-59 and is a life member of the organization.
      He sold the paper in late 1970 to Robert and June Fader, present owners and editors. Mr. Dwelley and his wife now make their home near LaConner, Washington, and still are active in their writing interests. Mr. Dwelley has been involved in the writing and publication of the series of books published by the Skagit Historical Society, personally editing the latest one, Skagit Memories, and writes a column, "The Bridge Tender," pithy commentary on current events, carried each week in the Channel Town Press, LaConner newspaper.

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We recently visited our newest sponsor, Plumeria Bay, which is based in Birdsview, just a short walk away from the Royal family's famous Stumpranch, and is your source for the finest down bedding. See our Journal feature on this local business and learn more details and how to order items at their website.

      The Concrete Herald was actually the second generation of another newspaper in another town. F.J. Wilcox launched the Hamilton Herald on Nov. 23, 1901, downriver in the town of Hamilton when that area was still promoted as the "Pittsburgh of the West." Hans J. Bratlie, a Norwegian immigrant, took over the paper in 1903 and it soon evolved into the Hamilton Herald-Recorder. Sometime in 1912, Bratlie moved the newspaper to Concrete, which was booming rapidly with the payrolls from the two cement plants. On March 13, 1915, Bratlie's three story Concrete Herald building on Main Street burned to the ground, and on July 2, seven buildings burned. They were rapidly rebuilt of fireproof concrete, but Bratlie had had just about enough fun in the newspaper business, so he moved his family to Ridgefield, Washington, where he and his brother made a small fortune in the Western red cedar business. Over the next 14 years, Bratlie sold the building, equipment and newspaper to a series of transient buyers. The town experienced a boom from 1923-26 with the construction of the dam on the Baker River, but by 1929 the publishers moved on and that is where Dwelley came into the picture. This story will soon be changed to this address. If neither file connects, please email us.
      When we checked census records, we discovered that Chuck and his first wife Helen settled in Concrete permanently by the time of the 1930 Federal Census. They lived on West Main Street and by the time the census was enumerated in June 1930, they had a two-month-old son, Arthur. Arthur was an only child. They published the Herald then in a small building that now houses the town's dentist's office. During the Depression years the old Ford dealership started by Clayton Lisherness failed and Chuck took over the building and remodeled it into a modern printing plant.
      The Dwelleys eventually bought and lived in a house that started life as a hospital. In his book, So They Called the Town Concrete, Dwelley explained that Dr. E.F. Mertz built the hospital in 1909 in the part of town that was then known as Cement City, and that Mertz served as doctor for both the original cement plants as well as covering the whole upriver region. Dr. Mertz and his wife lived on the upper floor while the hospital occupied the lower floor. Because Mertz took part of his pay in company stock, by the mid-1920s he was one of the richest men in town.
      Mertz remodeled the house extensively before the stock market crash of 1929, with the help of a decorator Dutch immigrant, Harold Regnander, and local contractor Leonard Everett, who was the son of Amasa Peg-Leg Everett, the very early pioneer who discovered the limestone that led to the cement industry and homesteaded the area east of the Baker River. By the end of World War II, Mertz was a widower and in 1945, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Chuck Dwelley outbid the Superior Portland Cement Co. for the property and the house. The Dwelleys remodeled extensively again and used the house as their home until 1953 when they sold it to the Lutheran Church for the "Shepherd of the Hills" congregation.

Charles L. Dwelley
(Dwelley family)
From l. to r.: Charles L. Dwelley, Charles M. Dwelley and Art Dwelley, three generations

      Chuck's father, Charles L. Dwelley, died in 1964 and was honored with an extensive eulogy written by John F. Conrad, historian for the Pioneer Society. We have his handwritten notes:
      Charles L. Dwelley, our President in 1954, died recently at this home in Anacortes at age 84, only 16 days after his LaConner High School Alumni had honored him at [their] annual banquet, as a member of the [the] first graduating class of 1894, 70 years ago. He always attended our meetings, was here last year.
      Charles was born in LaConner in 1878, the son of Joseph and Angeline Dwelley, who came to Skagit County in 1871. His father, [Joseph F. Dwelley, was a descendant of Dwelleys who came over on the Mayflower [incorrect, see above]. [Joseph] was born in Maine but when a young man, moved to Wisconsin and when Civil War broke out was the first man in Calumet County to enlist. After the war ended, he headed out West and landed at San Francisco on his way to Whidbey Island, where he arrived in March 1870. [Journal ed. note: You can read a profile of Joseph F. Dwelley and a serialization of his famous autobiography at the special portal section about him.
      Soon afterward Joseph took up a claim in the south end of present Mount Vernon. Charles's sister Kate Maloy was born there [at the Skagit River homestead] in 1871, and still living, was one of the first two white children to be born in the county. His father was a carpenter and helped build for many old residents, including Dr. Kellogg at Coupeville. In 1875 [actually 1873], the family moved to LaConner to open a furniture store [store actually not opened until 1885].
      There the ambitious pioneer led a very active civil life besides his carpenter trade and business, serving for 50 years as Justice of the Peace, three terms as mayor, postmaster under President Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, and a member of the school board. He helped organize a GAR post and at the time of his death at age 94 in 1933, he was the last surviving member.
      Son Charles L., our deceased past president, was educated for bookkeeping and worked with Hayton Hardware Co. in LaConner and Mount Vernon until he moved to Anacortes 54 years ago [1910]. There he served two terms on the city council at the time that they bought the city's first fire truck and when the first street paving project was started. When the Anacortes Pulp Mill started, he was one of their first employees, remaining until his retirement.
      Presiding over our Pioneer Picnic in 1954, Charles had an extremely difficult task as his wife, Elizabeth Muth, who had served as Pioneer Association secretary for 12 years, had been critically ill and was unable to attend. They enjoyed the unique distinction of being the only husband and wife to serve concurrently as president and secretary. They were married in 1900. She died only six weeks after the 1954 picnic.
      Charles was one of the old timers who, in their business connections with many Indian customers, had acquired many Chinook Jargon phrases and he tried them out in introducing officers and speakers. In a write-up about the 1953 meeting, reporter Nellie Carter wrote: "At Registry Desk were Mr. and Mrs. Charley Dwelley of Anacortes, who faithfully perform their duties and greet cordially all comers. Seeing Charley and Elizabeth there each year is a part of the celebration." Now the last half of this faithful old pioneer pair is also missing from our midst.

According to census records, Chuck had two siblings, Dorothy, three years older, and William, eight years younger.

Charles M. "Chuck" Dwelley
      As he noted in the excerpts above, Chuck built the almost bankrupt Herald up during the Depression years of the 1930s until it became the voice of upper Skagit Valley. He became famous for his short-and-sweet editorials. His old friends and foes both noted that he had very strong opinions and was not afraid to speak out about any subject, locally or nationally. Larry and Jacob Kunzler recently combed through back the existing volumes of back issues of the Herald to find articles in their fourth volume of books about floods on the Skagit. We plan to share some of the history articles that they found. Chuck's 50th Anniversary edition of the Herald in 1951 still stands as one of the most important issues of newspapers in the county and has provided background for several of our Journal features.
      Those of you who are young and did not experience the country-weekly newspapers of old, really missed something so different from their modern counterparts. The vast majority of weeklies have become "fish wrappers," owned by a conglomerate and stuffed full of inserts every week that often outweigh the newspaper itself by two-or-more to one. Weekly editors back then were masters of their own domain and were often feared by local bigwigs and politicos, and either hated or loved by their readers. Regardless of the affection or lack of it, people would sometimes line up outside the office on Wednesday or Thursday, publication days, and patiently await the pearls of wisdom inside the paper, either editorials or advertisements or both.
      Anne Bussiere recalls one story about Chuck and the rival upriver town of Lyman. In those days, the highway — such as it was, two narrow lanes designed in the Model-T days, ran right through town, bisecting Lyman between the residential area between the highway and the river, and the mill area and log pond to the north. Chuck raced in his either to or fro through Lyman and was caught speeding and was given a ticket. In those days each town had its own court, presided over by the local Justice of the Peace or sometimes the mayor. Anne recalls that the long arm of the law was one of the Jake Koops family, but Chuck fought the ticket and won. "His headline was in something like 80-point bold, bigger than after World War II ended — WE WON!"
      After Dwelley sold the newspaper to the Faders in 1970, the Herald continued to cover the area from Lyman-Hamilton on the west to the North Cascades. In January 1989 the town was shocked to discover that the paper had been sold to John Falavolito. Within a couple of years, the Herald failed. Falavolito became famous for the meteoric rise of his cellular phone business, Consolidated Cellular, which also failed in 2002. For a brief time in 1992-93, the Skagit Argus newspaper tried to publish a special alternate upriver edition out of the Mount Vernon Argus office, with Anne Bussiere again covering news in the town. The re-plating of the Concrete pages turned out to be an awkward construct and that idea faded after a couple of years. We know very little about Chuck's life after he left Concrete, except that he lived at Shelter Bay near LaConner. He was married three times altogether. He and his first wife, Helen, divorced. His second wife, Alice Hurn Dwelley, died a year or two after they married. And his third wife, Helen Pemberton Dwelley, also a journalist, survived him and now lives in California. By the early 1990s, he and Helen moved to Tenino to live with his son, Art, who had become a leading historian of Thurston County. Chuck died there on Sept. 30, 1993, and Art died on Oct. 10, 2000. We hope that readers who knew Chuck or have information about him or his relatives will email and share with us.

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