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Major party for a small town

The town of Wilkeson is buzzing with activity, all geared toward this summer’s big centennial celebration.

At the heart of the planning process is the Wilkeson Centennial Committee, formed more than a year and half ago to prepare for the July 18-19 festivities. The celebration will be coupled with the Wilkeson Booster Club’s Annual Handcar Races, now in their 34th year.

“Among the many projects we are working on, our major goal is to complete a town monument, one dedicated to all the coal miners and quarrymen who put our town on the map,” said Donna Hogerhuis, one of the primary organizers.

Most people do not realize the significance of the small foothills town, she said, noting that Wilkeson once boomed with thousands of immigrants. The local mines played a major role in keeping Northern Pacific Railroad’s creditors at bay around 1876, long enough to keep their charter and complete the transcontinental line connecting Tacoma to the east coast.

The town’s history is forever tied to the railroad, as Wilkeson was named for Northern Pacific surveyor and secretary Samuel Wilkeson.

Among the town’s ambitious projects is a permanent monument, being carved by Yelm artist Paul Keeslar. The monument will appropriately be made of sandstone and depict two scenes: a miner in 1942 emerging from a mine, and quarryman in 1910 shaping sandstone pavers. The commemorative monument will sit near Town Hall along state Route 165 at the new Centennial Park.

Centennial Committee members, with a lot of volunteer help, are developing two new small interpretive parks – one devoted to the Northern Pacific Railroad along Railroad Avenue and the other for the monument.

A red caboose, a local landmark from the early 1990s, will get a facelift by the Wilkeson Eagles Club and be moved to a new home on Railroad Avenue. Interpretive signs with photos will tell the story of the railroad and Wilkeson’s birth.

The committee has kept busy raising more than $30,000 through community auctions, dinners and rummage sales, and also has landed a Pierce County grant. They are currently awaiting news on an additional $10,000 state grant.

The committee has evolved into an nonprofit 501(c)3 historical society and is accepting donations.

“We have a nice collection of historic photos already alongside a few artifacts,” Hogerhuis said. “We have a request in to the council for rooms in town hall which are currently vacant, to begin a small museum with rotating exhibits.”

Anyone willing to donate local mining materials or Wilkeson memorabilia, she said, can contact organizers at P.O. Box 300, Wilkeson, or call 360-829-4281.

Eventually, the group plans to develop a kiosk with historical content for Wilkeson’s Coke Oven Park. The remains of 30 beehive coke ovens are found northeast of town. When the town was booming, 160 coke ovens burned night and day to smelt coal into coke for the shipping industries and business in Tacoma. Some also was shipped as far as San Francisco. Today the site is used for the Wilkeson Handcar Races.

Other centennial projects in the works are development of an arch banner, a school artwork project and exhibits. There’s also an ongoing speaker series, which has its fourth installment at 7:30 p.m. May 12. “May’s Vote” is a living history presentation funded by Washington Humanities dealing with the women’s suffrage movement. Wilkeson was incorporated in 1909, just a year before women earned the right to vote.

Other centennial news includes a new downtown centennial mural, to be painted soon by local artist Quincy Quigg.

The centennial celebration has not gone unnoticed by area legislators. Rep. Dan Roach and Sen. Pam Roach got wind of the town’s plans and both the House of Representatives and the State Senate on March 27 issued a proclamation to Mayor Janet Kepka.

The July 18-19 weekend celebration is a collaborative effort between the town of Wilkeson, local businesses, the Wilkeson Booster Club, the Wilkeson Eagles Aerie 1409 and the new Wilkeson Historical Society. Festivities will kick off at 10 a.m. July 18 with the town’s monument dedication, followed by the annual parade at 11. The Seattle Coassacks, a renowned motorcycle stunt and drill team, will perform at noon. Afternoon activities include the handcar races, lawnmower races and an old-fashion tug-of-war contest at the Coke Oven Park. The downtown area will feature vendors, music and games for children. July 19, the Carbon Canyon Model T club will host an antique car show in front and back of the Eagles Hall in downtown Wilkeson. The Eagles Club, the only Wilkeson fraternity to survive, will be sponsoring an exhibit on Wilkeson fraternities. History buffs are encouraged to bring photograph albums to share at the hall.

Vendors wishing to participate or anyone wanting to enter the parade should call Trisha Summers at 360-829-0917. For information about the races, contact Zach Pries at 206-349-2300.

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