To head east out of Seattle you have to cross the Cascade Mountain Range. It’s worth the long uphill climb though because within the space of a few minutes you emerge from dense, wet grey into sunshine, and things start to look pretty bright. Just about the time you’re getting hungry you’re at Cle Elum—the beneficiary about 100 years ago of improvements to the Sunset Highway, now I-90, between Seattle and Spokane. Back then the town was booming, with 2 banks. Owen’s Meats had already been in business for 25 years, and 10 year old Ray Owens got his first job swatting flies before they brought in the first refrigerated meat case in Kittitas County.
For us, a stop at Owen’s for their indescribably good beef jerky has long been the main reason to get off the freeway at Cle Elum. But this time, being ready for lunch, we headed for Mike’s Tavern kitty-corner from Owen’s. It’s full of old photos of Cle Elum folk through the decades, a pool table and a few regulars at the bar. One very large photo got my attention—I couldn’t figure out what the mix of farmers in coveralls and business men in suits was doing, standing around holding pans over their heads, and with a bunch of pans and things lined up on the ground behind them. After asking a few folks about it, a lady said Gordon, at the end of the bar, would know.
And Gordon did in fact know. In 1944 the fire department needed a new fire engine, but because the war was on, you couldn’t just buy one. The town had to collect enough scrap metal to equal the weight of a new fire engine—contributing it to the war effort. Gordon went and got another photo from the far end of the wall and brought it over: the new fire engine, made possible because a town of about 2,500 farmers, miners, bankers, housewives, timber and railroad workers got together to give up 6,000 pounds worth of bedpans, lunch boxes, bed springs, old cars and car parts, and other metal stuff I can only guess at.