Pendleton mill woven into Washougal's history

Company celebrates 100 years of processing wool in the city

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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photoJohn Nelson, great grandson of Chief Red Cloud, offers a prayer during Pendleton Woolen Mills' 100th anniversary celebration Friday. The eagle feathers used during the blessing belonged to Chief Red Cloud, Nelson said.

(/The Columbian)

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WASHOUGAL -- Over the years, the brass bell atop the brick machinery shop building at Pendleton Woolen Mills in Washougal has served as an alarm clock for workers who overslept and a reminder that lunchtime is almost over. On Friday morning, the bell served a ceremonial function, ringing in the mill's 100th anniversary operating in Washougal.

Six current Pendleton employees with more than 40 years on the job did the honors, pulling the rope attached to the bell. In doing so, they represented thousands of employees who have worked for the mill, where fabric is woven and blankets are made on a daily basis.

"I'm glad we were able to accumulate all those years but it's what we do every day that matters," said Mark Thompson, a 63-year-old frame fixer, who has worked for the company 45 years. "If we do our best and keep making good products, (the business) will keep going."

A crowd of around 200, many of whom were present or past employees, watched as Washougal Mayor Sean Guard decreed Friday as Pendleton Woolen Mills Day in Washougal, for its significant contribution to five generations of city residents. The ceremony took place under the shade of a 250-year-old white oak tree, officials noted.

"The mill could not be here without the community," Guard said, "and I'm not so sure Washougal could be here without the mill. They go hand-in-hand."

Friday's ceremony opened two days of festivities recognizing the mill's impact on the community. There will be a Lions Club 5K run/walk and a children's parade this morning, plus live music this evening in Washougal's downtown plaza.

Guard read letters from Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler praising the mill's legacy and ability to keep jobs in America at a time when most of its woolen mill competitors long since outsourced to other countries. Pendleton also has a mill in Pendleton, Ore., which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009.

Guard thanked the Bishop family, which owns the mill, for donating land for Steamboat Landing Park in Washougal and helping with the Pedestrian Tunnel that links downtown to the waterfront.

Friday's ceremony included a traditional Native American prayer recited by John Nelson, great-grandson of Chief Red Cloud. Native Americans were Pendleton Woolen Mills' first customers and remain strong supporters, said company vice-president Charlie Bishop.

As a token of appreciation for Washougal, Bishop presented Guard with a blanket called "Keep My Fires Burning," symbolizing efforts to keep the mill running and the importance of looking toward the future. On the blanket, a Native American elder shares stories with younger tribe members around a campfire.

In Bishop's address, he noted, "This celebration is really about the people."

Among the people listening was Dale Backes, a 52-year employee. Backes, Thompson, Fred Parrish, Dave Murphy, Eldon Stuhr and Mayva Quackenbush rang the bell, made in 1863 in Brownsville, Ore. Nancy Swearingen, a seventh Pendleton employee with 40 years, was unable to attend.

Backes, 71, noted after eating a slice of vanilla cake that he thought of his father and other Washougal residents during the ceremony.

"Pendleton's contributed to their lives and they've done the same for Pendleton," said Backes, the head mechanic in the carding department, which combs dyed and raw wool into strands for spinning.

Backes did not reflect on the first 100 years too long, though. "I've got to get back to work," he noted.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; http://facebook.com/raylegend;http://twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.