Above all else, Sedro-Woolley’s landscape and people reflect a town founded on the value of hard work.
“It’s grit,” said native Mike Janicki, whose family’s logging business runs deep in the town’s history. “It didn’t matter if you were the judge’s son or the dentist’s daughter, it was expected that everybody worked. That’s just what we did.”
Janicki, 52, remembers picking strawberries and digging tulip bulbs at age 8 alongside his peers, now his adult friends and colleagues.
During his youth, adults usually worked in one of three professions: logging, steel manufacturing or at the nearby state mental institution.
The common background of the people in this small town has given them a strong sense of community. It’s the type of place where people are identified by their neighbors, what curve of the road they live on and who they’re related to. Everyone is connected somehow. Loans and business deals are still often made with a handshake.
History and industry
The boom and bust history of Sedro-Woolley cannot be separated from its industry.
The town grew up at the turn of the last century around a coal mine, a cedar mill and a steel company.
While the coal mine died out in the 1920s, logging, coupled with wood mills and Sedro-Woolley Iron Works (now known as Skagit Steel), would serve as employment mainstays for the next 50 years.
David McIntyre, long-time owner of the steel mill, began Sedro-Woolley’s tradition of a successful family taking care of the town, giving money back to the community for its steady and loyal workforce.
“From 1915 to 1970, Skagit Steel was the economic backbone of Sedro-Woolley,” said Noel Bourasaw, a local historian and editor of skagitriver-journal.com.
The large industrial park, with its towering, stark buildings, still takes up 40 acres in the heart of the city.
In 1909, the government built Northern State Hospital, a mental institution just east of Sedro-Woolley, which eventually housed more than 2,000 patients and created hundreds of jobs.
Farmers began working the fertile soil in the surrounding area.
People flocked to the area for the bounty of work; many were “Tar Heels” from the mountains of North Carolina. They brought with them a deep appreciation for work, family and church, as well as gospel music and bluegrass. They also came with the recipe for moonshine that’s still made in bathtubs and frequently poured at backyard parties.
For years, Sedro-Woolley thrived.
“It used to be a rip-roaring town,” said Jim Butler, while he sat eating breakfast at the bar of the Iron Skillet, a longtime locally owned diner with the slogan “Good food. Lousy service.”
The 1970s brought tough times to Sedro-Woolley. Skagit Steel switched hands multiple times among large companies.
Northern State Hospital closed and logging slowed as regulations limited areas for harvest. Wood mills started closing. Thousands of jobs disappeared.
Sedro-Woolley has never fully recovered.
Many residents say the town would have “dried up and blown away” altogether if it weren’t for the citizens’ determination to keep Sedro-Woolley alive.
“Our town would have been gone if it wasn’t for true grit of our people,” Janicki said.
In large part because of his mother, Annie Janicki, the town pulled together to raise money for the threatened school programs.
“They decided if we can save the school, we can save the town,” Mike Janicki said. “Everybody went out with pickups and gathered scrap metal, old logging equipment and abandoned machinery.”
The citizens raised $30,000 to save the sports programs and poured their energy into educating Sedro-Woolley’s youths.
“There was a whole group of women that played bridge together with my mom,” Mike Janicki said. “They just decided that Sedro-Woolley had been a redneck community long enough.”
They pushed their children to go to college, get experience out of town, then come back and invest in their hometown, he said.
“It brought a nucleus of families together that wanted Sedro-Woolley to be more progressive,” he said. “It fundamentally changed the way this community thought of itself.”
The Janicki family and its several companies are among the biggest employers in the county. They have also carried on the McIntyre tradition, helping fund public projects and serving on local boards.
With the changing times and regulations, they have molded their logging business to include more sustainable harvesting. They also expanded into robotics and composite manufacturing, catering to companies like Boeing with airplane parts.
“We had to reinvent our-selves,” Janicki said.
A glimpse of the past can be found downtown every morning as groups of old-timers gather to drink coffee. There are distinct groups — the ones who get together at Joy’s Bakery, across the street at the Hometown Café or a few blocks away at Huston’s Barber shop — but their conversation is usually the same: stories from the good old days and new local gossip.
“This is the BS corner,” said Ron Tingley, 69, the town’s retired postmaster, at the barber shop. “There won’t be many facts here, but there’ll be a lot of stories.”
Tingley sat alongside life-long steelworker John Sines and Terry Russell, longtime owner of the since-closed CNR Sporting Goods, as 86-year-old barber Norm Strode cut hair. They talked about when the better steel-head fishing brought hordes of tourists and when the downtown was packed with shoppers.
Down the street, Russ Snell, a jovial retired logger who spends his days either in downtown Sedro-Woolley or on his motorbike, sipped coffee with another group of old-timers at the Hometown Café.
Snell, 74, moved to Sedro-Woolley from Kansas when he was 5 years old. His father was looking for more logging work. Snell started logging at age 13.
“We killed them four trees we had in Kansas, so we had to come out here,” he laughed.
Outgoing and talkative, Snell often gets carried away telling stories at the café.
“I spent nine hours here one day,” he said. “That was the record. I kept sitting in here and when I was about to leave someone else I knew would come in and I’d have to listen to their lies.”
On occasion, Ernest Queen wanders downtown to join the men, though they joke it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. Queen is a 78-year-old self-described Tar Heel whose voice rings with a thick Appalachian accent.
Queen, who has his own bluegrass band, has the deep wrinkles of a man who has worked outside his whole life. He usually wears a large cowboy hat, jeans and cowboy boots as he tends to his beef ranch just east of Sedro-Woolley.
Queen moved to Sedro-Woolley in 1955 for the logging. Shortly after, he met his wife standing on the street at the town’s most revered event, Loggerodeo.
“I guess that was our first date,” he said of the Fourth of July spectacle celebrating everything logging and patriotic.
Queen reminisced about his own time as a logger.
“The biggest tree I cut down was 15-foot through,” he said. “You don’t get that kind of timber anymore. It’s a thing of the past.”
He also remembers the risk, which was part of the reason he left the profession to become a farmer.
“I’ve come so close to being killed up there,” he said. “When you talk about the woods, it’s a dangerous life … You take a bunch of loggers and they’re tough guys. They had to be tough.”
A tough town
In a place where people work hard for what they have, there is disdain for those who don’t. Thieves aren’t liked.
The Sedro-Woolley area has a reputation for confronting criminals in action. In just the past two years:
* A private investigator and veteran shot two masked men after they broke into his home.
* A 69-year-old woman beat another armed home invader with a duster until he fled.
* A store owner confronted two robbers on different occasions, once breaking a leg as she jumped into a robber’s getaway car window.
Citizens have tackled thieves in stores and in neighbors’ houses, holding them down until police get there.
“That’s a hell of a good sport,” laughed Rick Judd, who sat with Snell at the café.
Snell agreed, adding, “Hardworking people are honest and expect other people to be, too.”
There is a reason the Sedro-Woolley High School wrestling program has won 11 state championships, including six in a row from 2002-07 and the very first one in 1953.
“The town was created from hard-core, logging-type workers in the rigging and the choking and their kids are brought up that way,” said Sedro-Woolley wrestling coach Jay Breckenridge. “The two are so similar. It takes a certain type of person to be a logger and the same type of person to be a wrestler. And, it’s not a whole lot of fun, but the benefits are so great.”
Wrestling training has included carrying the 200-plus-pound coach up and down the football bleachers or bucking hay bales.
“Serious, hard physical work,” Breckenridge said. “They don’t shy away from hard work and that’s what we expect in wrestling.”
It’s not just the wrestlers who are dedicated.
The town packs the high school gym during tournaments and duals, cheering on its team.
Barb Morgan remembers watching those tournaments as a child, with the spotlight shining on the wrestlers and everyone watching.
“That was just so cool,” said Morgan, now 46. “I couldn’t imagine being under that light and the glory of that.”
With no girls’ wrestling team during her high school days in the early 1980s, Morgan became the boys’ manager.
Then, seven years ago, she created the first girls’ high school wrestling team here, which has followed in the boys’ tradition by bringing home three state crowns.
Bars and brothels
There is a flip side to a group of people who work hard. They also like to cut loose.
On a recent Saturday night, music streamed out of the three bars downtown as people gathered on the streets to smoke and chat.
At the Overflow Tavern, a husky man in overalls with a gray handlebar mustache hanging well below either side of his jaw, sat in the back of the room. Three girls in their 20s sang karaoke, and a potbellied man with a cowboy hat sat at the bar drinking a beer.
“This is the real Sedro-Woolley,” said Eric Swedelius, a 53-year-old carpenter. “It’s not at the barber shop. This is where the young mix with the old. Everyone in Sedro-Woolley is here — or at the next bar, or at the next bar, or at the next bar or at the Elks.”
Sedro-Woolley has a long history of being the county seat for carousing.
And many years ago, city regulations used to state that the town could only have one brothel per two bars — and there were 17 bars, said Carolyn Freeman, president of the Sedro-Woolley Museum.
She laughed as she said her favorite brothel was “The Whoopee Noodle,” simply because of the name.
The brothel scene shut down in the 1950s after the U.S. Navy threatened to make the town off-limits for sailors if it continued the business, Freeman said.
That didn’t stop the bars from thriving.
Sedro-Woolley Police Chief Doug Wood said as a child, he remembers loggers coming to town specifically to drink and fight.
Back at the barber shop, Russell remembered, “They worked hard and they played hard.”
While it’s clear that industry and work shaped Sedro-Woolley’s character, it’s unclear how that ethos will carry the city into the future.
With fewer jobs and less-expensive property than bigger cities in the area, Sedro-Woolley has reluctantly become somewhat of a bedroom community. Not only do residents commute for jobs, they also leave for groceries, clothes and every-thing else box stores carry in nearby Burlington and Mount Vernon.
“It’s dead,” said Strode, pointing to the quiet down-town out the front window of his barber shop. “It’s happening to just about every small town. The malls have pulled everybody away from downtown.”
Other old-timers agreed, pointing back to better days, when jobs were plentiful and downtown was bustling.
“We have more bars and second-hand shops and pawn shops than anything else,” said Shelley Pallogi, 47, a waitress at the Iron Skillet.
“And in between them, empty stores,” Jim Butler added. “Let’s get real, if you smoked, you couldn’t find a pipe in this town. It’s the simple stuff.”
They want better retail.
Sedro-Woolley Chamber of Commerce President Pola Kelly said she envisions a revitalization similar to Fairhaven, a condo community south of Bellingham filled with trendy restaurants, bookstores and boutiques.
Pulver said Sedro-Woolley is “right on the cusp,” but there’s a drawback.
“We need to get more business in downtown to get more money in the area,” she said. “But there is still that old-school mentality that people don’t want a lot of change.”
Police Chief Wood, who spent time as a logger himself, is one of those people. He wants the town to move from “redneck to high-tech,” but doesn’t want the suspenders and overalls to go away.
“That’s the culture of the town,” he said. “That runs deep and a lot of people are proud of that heritage of hard, honest work.”
Mayor Mike Anderson said he’s tried to create a more friendly place for developers to come in and expand the city to the north. He said the face of Sedro-Woolley is changing. Suspenders and overalls are giving way to slacks and ties as young, educated commuter families move to the area, he said.
The city also is looking at buying the Northern State Hospital campus with the hope that it will help spur economic development.
Some entrepreneurs have found opportunities here amidst the grim economic climate.
Cory Gottschalk, 36, formerly of Everett, took advantage of what Sedro-Woolley had to offer: cheaper property and industrial space. He moved his family and his one-man boat-building business to the Skagit Industrial Park (formerly Skagit Steel) in 2007. He’s added 14 employees since then.
Mike Janicki says the future of Sedro-Woolley is with people like Gottschalk.
“The jobs will come,” he said. “I truly believe that as we go out of this recession, areas like the Skagit (Steel) complex will become huge incubators for small industrial businesses. For anyone who’s saying we’re dying, they’re looking backward, not forward. They’re still looking at the 2,000 jobs that were lost, not the opportunities that were created from that.”
The people of Sedro-Woolley have a track record of resilience in their favor as they search for a new purpose.
Janicki added, “We’re not that far from finding our identity again.”