McCleary -- Thumbnail History

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/31/2006
  • Essay 8046
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McCleary is located at the southern end of the Olympic Peninsula in eastern Grays Harbor County, 27 miles east of Aberdeen and 15 miles west of Olympia, the state capital. The surrounding area is heavily forested and timber harvesting and manufacturing wood products has always been the mainstay of the of the local economy. The city was named for Henry McCleary, who built a sawmill there in 1897 and then went on to establish a company town with two large factories that manufactured plywood and doors. In 1941, Henry McCleary (1861-1943) sold the entire town, including the manufacturing plants, to the Simpson Logging Company (now Simpson Timber Company) in Shelton. The city was incorporated on January 9, 1943. Over the next four decades, Simpson eventually exhausted its supply of virgin timber and shut down most of its old-growth logging and milling operations. By 1985, environmental regulations and economics forced the company to close all the plants in McCleary, except for door manufacturing. Today, the Simpson Door Company is the city’s main industry and largest employer with some 500 workers. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, McCleary had a total population of 1,454.

Henry McCleary's Mill

Henry McCleary, his wife, Ada, (1861-1932) and young son, Charles, migrated to Washington state from Guernsey County, Ohio. in 1890. Henry had considerable mill experience and landed a job in Tacoma as foreman at the Foy and Son sawmill. In 1897, Henry McCleary and Edward Foy became partners in a small sawmill in an area near present day McCleary called Garden City. 

The following year, they moved the sawmill two miles east to Summit and established McCleary Camp on the former mill site of Andrew Estes.  In 1899, McCleary purchased Foy’s share of the sawmill operation and then sent for his brother, William, and wife, Flora, in Ohio.  After William arrived in Summit, he spent much of his time managing a logging camp for the McCleary Timber Company, and locating and cruising timber for the sawmill.

Within a Vast Forest

Summit was a small community located just north of present-day McCleary.  It sat in the middle of a vast forest, providing an abundant supply of virgin timber to the mills in the region.  The village had a general store, with a post office, a saloon, and one-room school house. In 1899, Harold P. Craft, the postmaster and owner of the general store, had the only telephone, which served the entire area.  According to the 1900 U.S Census, the population of the Summit Precinct in Chehalis County (precursor to Grays Harbor County), was 483.

Once established in Summit, the McCleary Timber Company expanded rapidly, along with an accompanying community of mill workers.  An insatiable demand for lumber in California and overseas fostered large-scale logging and mill operations.  Finished lumber could be easily shipped on schooners from Aberdeen or sent by rail, as the Northern Pacific Railway had tracks running close to the camp.

There were also many small mills in the vicinity, which mainly cut shingles. Cedar was abundant in the foothills nearby and, because it could be cut into bolts in the woods, did not require heavy equipment.  These small shingle mills were quite lucrative and each one also had its own community of workers who lived in shacks and tents.

Becoming a Village

Over the next decade, McCleary Camp grew rapidly and soon became a village.  In 1901, a one-room schoolhouse was erected, large enough for 60 children.  The first public building in the camp was the New Dance Hall, built in 1903 by John Elwing and John Deter, two mill workers.  Since it was large and mostly empty, the dance hall also became the area’s first multipurpose building, used for various community events and gatherings.  The Summit Post Office was moved to McCleary Camp in 1910, and officially renamed the McCleary Post Office.  According to the U.S Census Bureau, between 1900 and 1910, the population in Summit Precinct in Chehalis County had increased from 483 to 750 people.

On June 3, 1906, Henry McCleary’s sawmill caught fire and burned to the ground.  The camp had no volunteer fire department or fire fighting equipment.  All the workers were able to do was move rail cars and stores of lumber away from the fire and watch the mill burn.  Fortunately, a bigger and better sawmill was under construction at the time.  Within a few weeks, the new sawmill was in operation.

Busy and Burgeoning

In 1907, Henry McCleary’s youngest brother, Leonard, and his wife, Harriet, came from Ohio to work at the McCleary Timber Company.   Leonard held various positions from machinist to supervisor.  When Harold P. Craft retired from the post office in 1921, Leonard was appointed postmaster and remained so until he retired in 1944.

During the summer of 1910, Henry McCleary had 40 acres of land cleared for a new door factory.  He had been providing clear fir lumber to the Chehalis Fir Door Company for several years and when the company declared bankruptcy, Henry acquired the entire operation.  He had over 2,200 piles driven into the ground, providing a foundation for a 900-foot-long door plant.  The huge building was finally finished in 1912.  All the machinery and equipment had been moved from Chehalis to McCleary, along with most of the employees, and the McCleary Door Company started manufacturing fir doors at record pace.

The McCleary Hospital was completed in 1913 and, for the first time, the town had a physician.  Dr. Burton E. Fleming, and his wife, Louise, a registered nurse, moved from Aberdeen to staff the facility.  McCleary Timber Company employees paid for medical service through monthly payroll deductions.

The modest village soon became a busy company town, attracting workers and new families from the surrounding area.  The decade between 1910 and 1920 was a period of rapid growth and construction.  A new townsite was platted and the company began building houses for the new mill workers moving into the area.  The small houses, all painted gray, were available to rent at a nominal charge.  At the same time, several businesses, rooming houses, and other basic commercial enterprises were established to service the needs of the burgeoning community.  The town was especially busy during World War I (1914-1918), supplying spruce lumber for aircraft production.  In 1920, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the unincorporated town of McCleary in Grays Harbor County (established from part of Chehalis County in 1915), had a population of 1,250.

In addition to being one of the most modern and productive plants in the West, the McCleary Door Company had the reputation of being the largest “exclusive” door factory in the world (meaning only doors were manufactured).  The plant could produce 8,000 doors per day and in 1923, broke all manufacturing records by producing and shipping more than 300,000 doors during a 60-day period.

McCleary’s biggest and most disastrous fire occurred on Monday, December 31, 1928 when the door plant burned.  Only a firewall and the heroic effort of employees and the volunteer fire department, saved the rest of the factory from destruction.  The damage was estimated at $750,000, but, fortunately, Henry McCleary had had the plant insured.  There was one fatality, Albert Calloway, who had evacuated, but then returned to the building for some reason, and was overcome by smoke.

McCleary's Twenties and Thirties

During Washington state’s prohibition years (1916-1933), McCleary had a reputation for making high quality moonshine whiskey.  The secluded forest was the perfect place to hide portable distilleries, and making homemade liquor became a cottage industry.  Northern Pacific freight trains brought the dry ingredients into town by the carload and, unknowingly, carried away bottles of moonshine which were then distributed by bootleggers throughout the West.

McCleary continued to prosper until the Great Depression hit the nation in 1929. In 1931, after 26 years in operation, the McCleary sawmill operation finally closed down after the supply of old-growth timber owned by the company was depleted.  Over the next several years, the sawmill, planing mill, and other shops were dismantled and the machinery was sold to other mills and scrap dealers.  The seven-acre mill site was eventually transformed into a recreation area called Beerbower Park (now Rainbow Park and City Park).

Door Manufacturing

Door and plywood manufacturing operations in McCleary continued production throughout the Great Depression (1929-1939), using fir trees purchased from the Simpson Logging Company and shipped in from a McCleary-owned sawmill in Shelton.  By 1941, however, most of the region’s virgin timber was completely gone and the door factory was scheduled to close, leaving just the plywood mill in operation.

The Shelton economy had become dependent on McCleary business and when the Simpson Logging Company learned Henry McCleary, now 80, wanted to retire and intended to sell his properties and holdings, the company was ready to negotiate.  Simpson was only interested in acquiring the door plant and plywood mill in McCleary and the sawmill in Shelton.  The acquisition would enable the company to integrate its entire operation with options of selling fir logs on the open market, producing lumber, or manufacturing plywood and doors.  However, there was a catch.  Henry McCleary wasn’t interested in selling the manufacturing facilities only. He wanted to sell the entire town, including buildings, streets, and utilities that had been neglected for years and were in deplorable condition.

Negotiations continued throughout the summer and fall of 1941, with little progress.  Finally, Henry McCleary set a deadline for midnight, December 31, 1941, or he would close his entire operation, including the town.  An agreement was reached at 11:00 p.m. and the Simpson Logging Company immediately became the largest employer in eastern Grays Harbor County.  On New Years Day, much to the town’s relief, a notice was posted on the McCleary Company’s office door, advising of the sale and requesting all employees to continue working as usual.

An Old Town Renewed

But, the Simpson Logging Company also became the landlord of McCleary, a ramshackle town of about 300 families that was without sanitary or storm sewer facilities and desperately needed improvements and repairs to water and power systems and to roads.  At a town meeting, the citizens of McCleary were advised to incorporate, establish a municipal government, and learn to run the city’s business, allowing Simpson to concentrate exclusively on manufacturing wood products, and providing community employment.

On December 5, 1942, voters approved incorporation and elected Lee Wills, mayor; Vernon Powell, treasurer; and William Rodgers, William Soller, Oscar Pearson, Howard G. Sherwood, and Ralph Rosser, city councilmen.  On January 9, 1943, McCleary was incorporated in the state of Washington as a fourth-class city.  It covered an area of 1.8 miles and had a population of approximately 1,200 citizens.  And on January 12, the Grays Harbor County Auditor administered the oaths of office to the first elected officials of McCleary.

To provide a stable tax-base for the newly incorporated town, the Simpson Logging Company insisted that the plywood and door plants be included within city limits, giving the town’s treasury an enormous tax boost.  Since the houses and buildings were in such poor condition, Simpson arranged with real-estate agent Frank Smith to arrange the transfer of ownership to Henry McCleary’s former tenants as soon as they had paid 18 months rent.  In exchange, Smith was given the listings for all vacant properties in town.  Ownership instilled pride in the new community and provided an incentive to clean up the town.

Simpson repaired McCleary’s water supply, which had been located within the door plant, by enlarging and improving an existing dam, building a new reservoir, and placing the plants and the town on separate chlorinated systems.  The company also improved the town’s electrical system by building a new power plant and installing a large transformer station. Simpson sold both utilities, valued at $40,000, to the town for $6,000, less than the cost of the improvements.  At the same time, Simpson modernized the door and plywood plants to produce more and better products.

Unfortunately, Henry McCleary didn’t enjoy his retirement for long.  He died at his home in Olympia located at 111 21st Avenue W on May 8, 1943. Henry’s first wife, Ada, had died after a brief illness on September 25, 1923.  A few months later, he had married Mrs. Hildur “Hilda” D. Simensen, a widow. William McCleary, age 62, died of a heart attack in Olympia on October 13, 1932.  After retirement, Leonard McCleary moved to Port Orchard where he died in 1956 at the age of 81.

Changing Times

On March 29, 1944, Congress enacted the Sustained Yield Forest Management Act in an effort to control the “cut and run” cycles that were depleting the nation’s forest resources, especially in the West.  The act authorized the U.S. Forest Service to establish cooperative units to manage growth and harvesting as a means of achieving community stability.  In 1946, the Forest Service and the Shelton Cooperative Sustained Yield Unit entered into an agreement for the joint management of Simpson-owned and federal forest lands, meant to ensure a continual supply of trees for the mills in Shelton and McCleary for a period of 100 years.

In the 1950s, McCleary enjoyed a period of renewal, with the addition of a new school and gymnasium, a police and fire station, library, city hall, and the Mark E. Reed Memorial Hospital.  In 1953, McCleary built the first complete two-stage sewage treatment plant at a cost of $500,000, financed by revenue bonds.  The town also improved the water system by installing new water mains, with automatic pumps, and a large storage tank with a 600-gallons-per-minute capacity.

The Simpson Logging Company eventually exhausted its supply of virgin timber and shut down most of its old-growth logging and milling operations.  By 1985, new federal and state environmental laws were in effect, requiring Simpson to extensively modernize their aging facilities.  The economics of the situation forced the company to close all the plants in McCleary, except for door manufacturing.  But, the Simpson milling operations in Shelton and Tacoma were retained and modernized to comply with government regulations.

The Bear Festival

The city celebrates its heritage every summer with the famous McCleary Bear Festival, started by Norman Porter, the editor of the McCleary Stimulator, and held on the second weekend of July.  The three-day celebration, which includes a Grand Parade and many other events, draws as many as 12,000 visitors from throughout the U.S. and Canada.  The big attraction, however, is a bear stew lunch, cooked in enormous iron kettles on outdoor stoves in City Park and served on Saturday afternoon after the parade.

Today, the Simpson Door Company, one of the oldest continuously operating door plants in the nation, is McCleary’s main industry and largest employer with some 350 workers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2000 Census, McCleary had a total population of 1,454 and has been at that approximate level since the 1980 Census.

Sources: Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); Ernest C. Teagle, Out of the Woods: The Story of McCleary (Monsanto, WA: Vidette Press, 1956); “U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder: McCleary, Washington,” U. S. Census Bureau website accessed November 2006 (; “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000, Geographic Area: McCleary city, Washington,” U.S. Census Bureau CenStat Databases website accessed November 2006 (; “McCleary, Washington,” McCleary, Washington, website accessed November 2006 (; “McCleary,” Grays Harbor Chamber of Commerce website accessed November 2006 (

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