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Exploring The Back Roads of Washington State: A Visit To Pe Ell Is A Visit To Our Past

Historical site as one approaches Pe Ell

Historical site as one approaches Pe Ell

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 warm welcome!

A warm welcome!

Small town school pride

Small town school pride

A section of "downtown" Pe Ell

A section of "downtown" 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.

Rebecca Ambrose, a gracious host

Rebecca Ambrose, a gracious host

A sign of the economic past and future

A sign of the economic past and future

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The hub of town

The hub of town

Another in this series from my friend Sally

The People

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

Another fine addition to this series

Where the history of Pe Ell lies in rest

Where the history of Pe Ell lies in rest

Another in the Back Roads Series

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.

Lake Tahoe

A visit to Israel

Another fine Exploring article

Exploring New Zealand

And a trip to Arizona

And a trip to Nevada


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 15, 2013:

True words, Deb! It is the poor man's drug of choice nowadays and a deadly one indeed.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on November 15, 2013:

Pe Ell sounds like a good place to raise a family. Sadly, meth is everywhere, but sadder still, the fools that make it will eventualy burn the house down.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 14, 2013:

So do I, Glimmer; towns like this one are the backbone of this country. If you come I'll be your tour guide.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 14, 2013:

Jamie, thank you for your thoughts. Write me at you have something to add to this I'll be more than happy to add it to the article.

Claudia Mitchell on November 14, 2013:

Pinning so that when I make it out to your neck of the wood I can visit. Love places like this.

Jamie on November 13, 2013:

Starstream, please before you pass judgment on our town and school at least take a moment to look up facts and don't make assumptions off one article. Pe ELL is ranked 7 out of 10 based off Washington state test scores and has always had the finest computers. Around 1995 there was a statewide competition for $10,000 that a group of students won and started a video productions class that still happens today. Pe ELL is a terrific school that I graduated from and am proud to be sending my son to. I left after high school for ten years and traveled to all kinds of places, Germany,Austria, Rome, and across America as well, I settled back down here for my son. It might not be a big town with lots of money but we are a family based town and our loggers work hard and keep our town afloat.

Bill I enjoyed most of what you had to say but for more information you should have skimmed the book about our town that sits at the Doty store. There is a lot more to our town than a gas station, restaurant, pub, and store.

There is a lot of history in every small town. You just have to be open to find it!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 09, 2013:

drbj, the townsfolk aren't even sure of the origin of that name. We could not find a consensus anywhere we looked or will remain a mystery I'm afraid. :) Thank you and have a great weekend.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on November 09, 2013:

Like many very small towns in the U.S. today, Bill, Pe Ell has the same unique problems of unemployment and few dollars for community improvement. But the inhabitants you have written about seem to be as intrepid as their ancestors.

The name, Pe Ell, intrigued me but Wikipedia has three different possible explanations so you pays your money and takes your choice. Voted Up and very interesting.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 08, 2013:

Yes they do, Brian! Very well said my friend. Thank you!

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on November 08, 2013:

Up and Interesting.

Seasons, lives, towns, empires, and mountains come and go and come and go.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 08, 2013:

You are very welcome, Doc; thanks for coming along.

lovedoctor926 on November 08, 2013:

This is a great first entry series. Informative and interesting. Good visuals too. Thanks for taking me on this tour. Voted up useful, awesome.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 08, 2013:

Hey DJ, glad you made it safely to Florida. I'll try to get the names of the drunk and floozy and add them to the article. LOL Your wish is my command.


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 08, 2013:

Thank you again Eddy. Love to you and Dai.


DJ Anderson on November 08, 2013:

Great article on Pe Ell, Bill. You did not miss a thing, other than naming the town drunk and the floozy!! And, as we know, every town has one of each. Ha, ha

I loved that you gave us a taste of small town, USA. You did an A+ job.

We are at our small home in FL. Temps we 85* when we arrived.

It does not take long to get behind in making comments.

Thanks again for this great example of Exploring The Back Roads.


Eiddwen from Wales on November 08, 2013:

What a wonderful journey you have taken us on once again Billy and here's to so many more. Lots of love to you and Bev from Wales.


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 07, 2013:

Aww, thanks Dianna! I have a long way to go with that camera but half the fun is in the learning.

Dianna Mendez on November 07, 2013:

The small town in America faces many challenges with the changing economy. I hope this town finds a way to pull out of the affects. I see you are becoming quite professional with that new camera. The Lion King music as quite good.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 07, 2013:

Joe, I'm trying to imagine a town in Washington that doesn't have a favorite watering hole. LOL Does one exist anywhere in this country?

Thanks for taking the trip with us my friend. It was a lovely drive in the country. Next stop for the series...Wilkinson. Stay tuned.



Hawaiian Odysseus from Southeast Washington state on November 07, 2013:

Lovely piece about a quaint old town in Washington. I really enjoy your new series, Bill, and am very pleased to see others joining in the fun.

Got a kick out of the fact that even in a small town, there's a favorite waterhole for the good ol' boys and gals to enjoy a rousing Seahawks game.

Thank you for a most enjoyable read, my friend! Aloha!


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 07, 2013:

Alicia, thank you for noticing that; that is exactly what I wanted the focus to be on.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 07, 2013:

retired, thank you for doing that. I will check it out now.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 06, 2013:

Thanks for this hub, Bill. It was great to read a travel hub that focused on people and social issues instead of beautiful scenery. I love beauty, but it's important for people to read this type of travel article, too.

Leona J Atkinson from Oregon, USA on November 06, 2013:

Here's the link to my first one--which is a rewritten one that I had previously done, but I think I made it better now. My next one will be a totally new one. Hope you enjoy and thanks for inspiring.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

retired, my pleasure. Looking forward to your article.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Hi Ruby! Thanks so much for the visit. Yes, Pe Ell reminded me of a great many towns I saw in the time stopped in their area..

Leona J Atkinson from Oregon, USA on November 06, 2013:

Thanks for the link info Bill. Duh...I should have known that...anyhow I will be posting my article soon and linking to the others. Also, I really liked the video in your article, neatly done, and it was "cool"! :)

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on November 06, 2013:

I certainly did enjoy reading about Pe Ell, sounds like a wonderful place to live. It reminds me of my hometown in Il., once thriving, now just a shell . The businesses all moved to Mexico for cheap labor. Thank's for sharing Bill...

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Michael my friend, it is always nice having you hear. The hardiness of our ancestors and yes,a few in this modern land, is impressive and awe-inspiring. There are great lessons to be learned from those who came before us, if we are willing to learn.

blessings to you always


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Thank you vkwok; you are loyal indeed.

Victor W. Kwok from Hawaii on November 06, 2013:

This hub makes me want to visit. Great hub, Bill!

Michael-Milec on November 06, 2013:

Hello Bill.

Delineate. Walking alongside of you , seeing what you see, experiencing as you do is always pleasant privilege . Amidst the rest, hardiness of the people has impressed me by the original settlers determination ( similar to that of my childhood experience )- to work hard, maintain self sufficient keeping healthy body and spirit regarding contentment as a great gain. Your illustration of $27.00 median income-( if fully understood )- holding their hope high for a better future.

Great teaching lesson.

Voted up, beautiful and interesting .

Be blessed and prosperous.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Flourish, thanks for sharing that. This town reminded me so much of many I have seen over the years; you don't know how they hold on but they do and they seem happy doing it.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 06, 2013:

This brings back memories of a few small towns where I lived when I worked in the paper industry years ago. (I was a corporate employee but was dispatched to far-flung towns -- some of which were the size of this one -- for HR-related purposes. Usually it was connected with an extended labor issue, expansion, or acquisition. They definitely have their own charm. People in them were hearty and had stick-to-itiveness. Nicely written article.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

I am happy that you enjoyed this, DDE...thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Thank you so much, Kim! This was a tough one to write because of the reasons you gave. Your affirmation means a great deal to me.


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Oh thank you Carol! I wasn't sure what angle to write it from, but it ended up really writing itself. The history of the town is the story of the town...that and a group of people who don't know how to give up.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Well, Martin, thank goodness you have wonderful memories to call upon. Thank you for the visit and sharing that part of you.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Thanks John. There has been good results so far, so it will be interesting to see how many other articles we get for the series.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Hi Retired06.....well, you can use the link for this article and put it in the "link" capsule for your article...that should do it. Thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

Thank you Faith. In all honesty I would not want to live in Pe Ell; way too many problems in that town. But the people were good and it was a nice experience.

blessings always


Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 06, 2013:

Exploring The Back Roads of Washington State: A Visit To Pe Ell Is A Visit To Our Past you have enlightened me on this topic I knew not much until reading your hub. Great writing and always informative hubs

ocfireflies from North Carolina on November 06, 2013:


It takes a great writer to take a place that may not have as much going on as other places and still make it a worthwhile place to read about.

Much enjoyed even though also saddened.


carol stanley from Arizona on November 06, 2013:

Well I have gotta say I read it from start to finish. I love learning about small towns as to me they are the grit of our country. When we have traveled we always stop at the local bar/restaurant and chat with the locals. THe attitude is so different and people seem to care about each other and possessions not important. Meeting at the bar to social with neighbors and friends is the highlight of their day. Great hub and Icannot say enough about how excellent.

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on November 06, 2013:

Thank you for the tour. Funny with the things I had seen, T I now need a wheelchair to go outside. Stimuli makes me shut down.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 05, 2013:

Very interesting travel hub Bill. I know very little about the geography or history of