Throwback Thursday: Lewis County

Washington map showing Lewis CountyFounded in 1845, Lewis County is the oldest county in Washington, named to honor Meriwether Lewis of the Corps of Discovery. It was so large at the time that it is known as the “mother of all counties,” as half of present-day Washington state was carved from its borders.

George Washington, leading African-American pioneer in Washington

George Washington, a leading African-American pioneer and founder of Centralia. Photo from the website of the Secretary of State:

In 1850, an African-American man named George Washington came to the Pacific Northwest to escape racial discrimination in Missouri. Laws still barred him from owning land here, but with the help of his white adoptive parents, James and Anna Cochrane, George was able to occupy and later own land at the junction of the Skookumchuck and Chehalis Rivers. George and his wife Mary Jane filed the plat to establish the town that would become Centralia, now the largest city in Lewis County. As a leading citizen and benefactor of the town he founded, George Washington is considered a leading African-American pioneer in the Pacific Northwest.

Lewis County and the Law

The Lewis County Bar history highlights two notable and unforgettable members: Lewis County’s first Judge, Hon. Edward F. Hunter, and another prominent member of the bench, Hon. Alonzo E. Rice.

C.D. Cunningham of Centralia noted “the type of lawyer that practiced this profession at the turn of the century and before is as extinct as the dodo and the dinosaur. He is no longer to be found at the American Bar.” In 1908, Cunningham learned of the legend of Judge Edward F. Hunter.

Judge Hunter “drifted” into Shoal Bay, Pacific County, prior to statehood and started practicing law. Before Washington, Hunter practiced in California and engaged in a gunfight in Sonora, wounding his adversary. Hunter had engaged in a “shooting affray” with a man named Drake because Hunter represented a mining company involved in a dispute with another mining company.

Hunter was “something of a brow-beating, swaggering type… he was a little, fussy man, doubtless disagreeable in private life.” Drake was called as witness by Hunter and “upon cross-examination he was severely scored by Mr. Hunter.” The attitude of Hunter was so offensive a confrontation followed, in which Drake pushed Hunter off the sidewalk. Hunter said, “You have done what no other man ever did and what no man can do and live.” Hunter shot Drake three times and was arrested; Drake recovered — minus an arm. Prior to his arrival in Washington, Hunter was also charged with killing two men on separate occasions — neither resulted in a conviction. Upon becoming a judge in Washington, Hunter rarely discussed his past.

When attorneys came to see him for the first time, they noticed “a large red scar around his head starting at one temple and ending on the other side of his head at about the ear. It was subsequently learned that this disfigurement resulted from an encounter the judge had with a grizzly bear.” A bear he claimed to have killed. Judge Hunter “seems to have been acquainted with John Barleycorn,” and he gambled, but those vices never seemed to influence his decisions.

Judge Alonzo E. Rice came to Centralia from Nebraska in 1890 to set up his law practice. He was “not what might be termed as the most industrious lawyer. His office was in disorder much of the time and his filing system consisted of a table where he piled much of his correspondence.” Like Judge Hunter, Rice was also “a friend of John Barleycorn” in the early years of his practice.
Judge Rice “possessed a world of patience and would, without interruption, apparently listen attentively to arguments of counsel, however long, ill-founded and devoid of reason, logic, or precedent.” He also used humor in his rulings. In a divorce case, an attorney was arguing that the judge should order additional attorney’s fees. The judge meditated for a moment and said, “The court has already allowed you $20 for temporary attorney’s fees and it will allow you $5 more, making $25, and if this is not sufficient you will just be obliged to live on cheese and crackers like the rest of us.”

Judge Rice had an ongoing difficult relationship with private attorney J.E. Willis. Willis appealed a decision to the Supreme Court, which affirmed Judge Hunter’s ruling. Infuriated, Willis printed and distributed a pamphlet entitled “Crimes and Misdemeanors of His Honor Alonzo E. Rice, His Court a School for Scandal.” He distributed the pamphlet in the courthouse and even during court sessions. In it, he related that Judge Rice was “a skunk to be skinned,” who was part of a conspiracy to loot the treasury and cheated people out of their money.

After being defeated for re-election, in part because of the slander against him from Willis, Judge Rice returned to private practice in Chehalis. After he died in 1938, his gravestone was marked by only his name, his year of death, and the inscription “Judge and Jurist.”

See the other counties featured in our Throwback Thursday series:

Adams County
Asotin County
Kitsap County