Mar 2 2010

An Olympic Club Reunion

In the early 1970s, the reunion at Centralia of two talented friends fueled a wellspring of creative energy that resulted in intimate, unapologetic portrayals of two infamous Centralia subjects steeped in secrecy and intrigue-- the 1919 Armistice Day Tragedy and the Olympic Club.

Tom Churchill's book, Centralia Dead March, published in 1980, was the first thorough examination in 50 years of the nationally significant labor clash of 1919, and arguably was the first to initiate an open dialogue about the topic that left deep scars within the community. Because of its gripping narrative and raw, intimate characterizations, Churchill's book remains a compelling read for both students of labor history and fans of the mystery genre.

Don Iverson's artful photographs of the Oly Club shed light into the dark lair from which so many testosterone-and-beer-soaked tales were crafted. Generations of wives, mothers and daughters have alternately craved and spurned just such a glimpse into the notorious gentlemen's resort. Iverson's honest images, shot during the early 1970s, remove some of the mystery, depicting seasoned and scarred men playing comfortably in their stained-glass and mahogany sanctuary. The series of photos were published in a 1974 Seattle Post-Intelligencer photo essay about the Olympic Club, which subsequently was picked up by the wire service.

Oly History photoDon Iverson and Tom Churchill first met in the Seattle area as junior high school students. As boys, they shared a fascination for exploring the nooks and crannies of the city, getting acquainted with people and places definitely not highlighted in tourist guides. Tom stored away in his mind the scenes and characters they encountered while Don documented them with his camera.

After high school, Don went on to become a Seattle-area schoolteacher, and an active participant in the civil rights struggles of African Americans and Native Americans. Tom also went into education, where he asserted his passion for human rights, in particular the rights of laborers. As a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, Churchill began work on his groundbreaking examination of the Armistice Day Tragedy. He had first heard of the 1919 incident as a teenager hanging out at Iverson's house.

Oly History photoThe school friends reunited when Tom came back west to do research for his book. He learned Don and wife Donna had moved to Don's family farmstead outside of Centralia. Disillusioned by the turmoil of the '60s, Iverson had returned to his first love of photography. He opened a studio at the old family farmstead and began teaching photography at Centralia College. At the invitation of his old friend, Tom came to live at the farmstead while doing his research. Inspiration for both men was drawn from the historic rural setting, conversations with old timers, and excursions to the Olympic Club. In fact, Don, the farmstead, and the Oly Club all became important elements in Tom's book.

Oly History photoToday, nearly 40 years later, Tom Churchill and Don Iverson remain friends but have long since left Centralia for points closer to the Puget Sound. Both men, however, look back fondly on their creative periods here. It was one of those rare and magical instances when talent and inspiration collide with opportunity.

Don and Tom each have lodging rooms named for them at the Olympic Club Hotel, commemorating their connections with the place. Many of Don's 1970s photos of the Oly Club and its denizens are proudly displayed throughout the property. Don and Tom also helped us with the grand opening festivities for the hotel in 2002.


About the author: Tim is the McMenamins Historian.
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Comment on this Posting:

#1 woody

As a young man I worked for Weyerhauser in the Centralia area.The Olympic Club in the mid-70's was a unique watering hole that catered to the men only mystique of a earlier time. It had a smoke shop,lunch counter and a pool hall with old leather pocket full size pool tables-with Tiffany light fixtures that were a hundred years old-one of the last bastions of the old world. I dont know how much money I squandered away in this place on pull tabs and punch boards-The stories about the old days and glory days of Agnew Lumber and Weyerhauser, cedar pickers and day labor are a testament of the fibre of this area. Above the entry door of Olmpic Club was the script "Ladies Patronage is not Solicited" -definitely a different era

#2 Hipster@McMenamins

Woody: The place is pretty much the same today, visually, and while the "Ladies patronage..." sign is still there, women and families are most welcome!

#3 Gene Frederickson

Woody has it exactly right. I "discovered" the Olympic Club shortly after returning from the service in '71. I spent many an afternoon skipping classes at Centralia College so I could sit at the bar drinking fifty cent schooners and watching the Watergate hearings on TV. Learned how to shoot a decent game of 8-ball on those old tables. Once I got to the point where I thought I was pretty good I also managed to lose some bucks to some of the old loggers who hung out there. Last time I was in Centralia it was really good to see how well the old place has been prserved.

#4 Carolle Beswick

Centralia is my home town and I lived there for 32 years. I went to high school in the '50's and when I walked through town my Mom told me I couldn't walk on that side of the street because of all the men in the Olympic Club and the Owl tavern. And of course, being a girl in the '50's, I obeyed. Does anyone remember our neighbor Fred Baldwin? He was the cook for many many years.