History of the Cowlitz County Peace Officer

Cowlitz County has had a colorful history. Through it all, the Peace Officer has always been there. From the first Sheriff who who had to perform a public hanging to the deputies who had to corral a maurading elephant. Join me as I gather the facts and true stories that describe the journey of the law enforcement officer in Cowlitz County from 1854 through today.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

One Cell Jail Cell

When I initially wrote about Cowlitz County’s First Jail (January 22nd Blog), I new at the time that the jail cell sitting at the Cowlitz County fairgrounds was not the first jail in the county. The first jail in fact was a room used to store firewood in the Kalama courthouse.

That revelation was a bit disappointing since having the jail cell that housed the three men hanged for murder in Cowlitz County would have been an important piece of history (in my mind anyway). Well, this is where the other interesting phone call that I received comes in.

Once again, thanks to Leslie Slape at The Daily News, I received a call from Walter Hanson who lives outside of Woodland. He left me a mysterious message saying he had information about the jail that is sitting at the Fairgrounds. More importantly, he mentioned that the jail cell at the Fairgrounds was not the first jail. How did he know this? He knew this because HE has the original jail cell.

I immediately called Walter back and set up a time to meet with him at the Burgerville in Woodland the following Monday. When I arrived at Burgerville, I met up with a lively bunch of gentleman who I had the pleasure of losing the daily coin flip affording me the opportunity to buy everyone’s coffee. The discussion was lively and a bit reserved since none of them knew who I was.

One of the gentleman (96 years old), and I’m sorry but his name has slipped my mind, stated that his father knew Robert Day. Robert Day, as you’ll recall, was the first documented hanging in Cowlitz County. According to him, the only reason Robert Day hanged that June day was because he fired the first shot. As the story goes, Robert Day and James Beebe were having an ongoing property line dispute. When they stepped out onto the road to settle the dispute, shots were fired and James Beebe died.

Subsequently, I’ve been told that the family of Robert Day and James Beebe still reside in the Lewis River Valley and I’m hoping to meet each family to learn more about what really happened on that day. The rest of the conversation bounced all around that morning before it turned back to the original reason I was there, to hear about the jail cell.

Walter said that he has been in possession of the jail since the late 1960’s. According to him, the jail cell that he has was from the courthouse in Kalama. When the City of Woodland incorporated in 1906, they built a new city hall and jail. (According to my records, Woodland did in fact build its town hall and jail in 1906. It was 16’ x 24’ and cost the city $285.) The cell, according to Walter, was given to Woodland to use since they didn’t have a cell for their jail. The cell was used in the Woodland jail for years before it ended up underneath the stairs at the original fire hall.

Nobody really paid any attention to the iron cell under the stairs other than to store junk inside of it. As time went on, the cell made it’s way out into the back of the public works lot and then eventually to a private business in downtown Woodland where it was used to store fertilizer. When word came out that the cell was to be cut up for scrap, Walter Hansen recognized the historical value of it and offered to take it for preservation purposes. He cleaned it up and painted it battleship gray. The cell was then mounted onto a trailer and he used it in events like the Planter’s Day parade. Since then, it has been stored in the barn on his property collecting dust.

We then drove to his property and I had the opportunity to see the jail cell. Wrapped in the darkness of the aging barn, resting atop a trailer with flattened tires, sits the piece of history I’d been looking for. A large, square, gray, …… thing. It was a 10’ x 10’ ugly piece of metal. And boy was it ugly. No windows and no bars, simply a large, square, gray…. thing. At first sight, I actually had to try and figure out what I was actually looking at.

We walked around to the back of this, thing, and Walter opened the stiff, iron door to reveal the emptiness of the interior. Nothing but blackness. Using a flashlight, you could see that there was no floor thanks to the years of fertilizer. You could also see where the bunk once hung from the wall but is now forever lost to history. On the door is a small port window that Ben Holmes would have opened to pass meals to Robert Day.

Could this be the jail cell that W.A. Williams sold to the county commissioners in 1892 for $2000 (which is the equivelant of $45,000 in today's money)? Is this the cell that housed the three men hanged by the County? If this is the jail cell purchased to protect Robert Day, what a fantastic piece of history sitting before me. Now, keep in mind, I haven’t proven that this is in fact the original jail cell, yet, but I’m confident it’s close. ~ DcU ~

Sheriff Benjamin Lechmore Holmes

As it turns out, my theory of how the hanging of Robert Day must have affected Former Cowlitz County Sheriff Ben Holmes appears to be right on. Shortly after the article about my historical journey appeared in The Daily News (thanks Leslie), I received a couple of very interesting phone calls. The first was from a gentleman named Mark Holmes (the second I will describe in another post). Mark is the great-grandson of Ben Holmes and was very interested in talking with me about his great-grandfather and provided me with some great information about how Ben Holmes was indeed, a good man.

Benjamin Lechmore Holmes was born in Doaktown, New Brunswick March 9th, 1837. Lewis, Ben’s father came from Sharon, Massachusetts and spent his adult life in Doaktown, in the lumber business. In 1862, Ben at the age of twenty-five, went to Sharon Massachusetts during the Civil War and joined the Union Army. He never returned to Doaktown. After the war, he left his relatives in Sharon and went to the logging center of Neceah, Wisconsin along the Lemonwier River and worked as a logger.

Susan Smith arrived in Neceah Wisconsin, from Ireland, in 1851 at four years old with her parents Patrick and Catharine Smith. Susan and Ben married in Mauston, Wisconsin on June 27th, 1870.

Jim Carter and Susan’s older sister, Mary Carter, were on the Kalama River Prairie in 1870 (the year Ben and Susan were married). Jim and Mary were doing well raising sheep and cattle as well as raising a family. The accounts of their success reached Ben and Susan in Wisconsin and they followed the Carters to Washington. Susan’s three brothers, Hugh Smith, Charlie Smith, and Jimmy Smith followed suit and came to Kalama.

In 1876, Ben and Susan packed up their children Annie Teresa and Lewis Charles and boarded the train for San Francisco. To get to Kalama from San Francisco, they went by steam ship to the Columbia River. After a month of travel, they arrived in Kalama aboard the T.J. Potter, a side wheeler.

Ben built his house on the Kalama River, “where the stream rushes out from the hills and deepens into many pools. He could see Salmon resting in them until they ascended into the rapids to spawn. He contemplated the swirling might of water emptying into the Columbia three miles to the west.” In 1885, the Washington Fisheries Commission built a fish hatchery consisting of one rearing pond and incorporated Ben’s house on his Kalama River homestead site. The home sat where the lower Kalama fish hatchery sits today.

Ben and Susan had two more children while living in Kalama. Francis Lechmore (1877) and John Warren (1879) bringing the brood to four. The Holmes children attended a one room school house that served the families of the early settlers. The pupils played games at recess and were accustomed to lend and borrow chewing gum from each other. In time, all walked the railroad tracks to Kalama to school.

A piano was a joyful addition to a home on the Kalama River Prairie. When one came to her home, Annie learned to play. A glorious day came to Annie and Charlie when they, many, many years later, entered the Dearborn Henry Ford Fiddlers Contest and competed at the Rivoli Theatre in Portland.

Little Francis and John were a bit more mischievous. The Holmes family had befriended an old Native American named Doc. Doc had lived his whole life in the developing territory of the Kalama River and would come daily for biscuits and baked beans. When he arrived, Doc would hold out his hat and Susan would fill it to the brim with beans and biscuits. One day, Doc came by not for food, but to retrieve his indispensable ax that Little Francis and John had stolen and hid. When confronted, the thieving rascals lied and claimed to know nothing of the ax. Charlie protested and said to old Doc, “Truff, truff” and led old Doc to where his ax was hidden. Susan was very proud of Charlie’s forthrightness in befriending and helping Doc.

Ben Holmes was born to logging. During seven years of homesteading in Kalama, he built and operated a saw mill. He had a yoke of oxen to handle the operation. It was natural for him to sign for a timber claim on the Coweeman River. Ben worked as a logger until 1889 when he was elected as the fourth Sheriff of Cowlitz County. He held the Sheriff’s Office for two terms leaving office in 1892. Ben Holmes was the first Sheriff charged with having to hang a man in the line of duty.

He was then appointed postmaster of Kalama of that same year. On April 1st, 1895, while walking down the sidewalk, Ben Holmes suffers the effects of a “paralytic shock”, causing him to fall on the sidewalk striking his head on the pavement. He was taken to his home where he later died.

Susan Holmes never remarried and her daughter, Annie, never married either. Annie spent a year in the galley of a river boat and for many years was a Milner in the ladies shop in Kalama. She and Susan moved to Portland in 1911.

Charles Lewis Holmes was a bridge carpenter and switchman for the OWRR and N system. He married Nadean Cook in 1905 and moved to Portland. Francis Holmes was a purser on the OWRR and N transfer boat between Kalama and Goble, Oregon. He moved to Portland in 1905. John Holmes was an accountant for the Union Pacific Company in Portland.

Mark Holmes is the grandson of John Holmes and said that the only information passed on through the years about Ben Holmes and the hanging of Robert Day was that it left a really bad taste in Ben’s mouth. “He had a problem with killing Robert Day and never got over it.” ~DcU~