Charles Carr was found guilty.
He turned his own story over, claiming he regretted what he said. But at the height of war fervor in Thurston County 100 years ago, Carr went down in history as a disloyal American. At least according to the top education official in Washington State.
Carr came to the South Bay School in 1908. His arrival made the newspaper, in which the county superintendent mentioned how hard it was to find and keep good teachers.
These were the days when dozens of small rural districts dotted the county. There was no bus to school, children had to be able to walk to and from their homes. And the school house for Carr and his students shared a building with the South Bay Grange.
He ended up on a committee to select books for schools across the county, judged track meets and generally did the things that young educators would do if they wanted to get ahead. And he did get ahead. He was named principal of South Bay School in 1912.
Carr ran for Republican precinct committeeman, served on a local roads board and generally became involved in his community. As a citizen of rural Washington State, Carr set out to make his mark on the land. He ran his own ranch, advocated for vocational agricultural education and helped form a farmers’ cooperative.
Then as the school year got underway in 1911, he rushed into a burning house just 300 yards from the South Bay school house. A mother had gone across the road to see an neighbor, leaving her two children alone in their home, which was quickly consumed by flames. Carr came out with the children, unharmed, and returned to the flames to help retrieve the family’s cream separator and two beds.
In 1915, Carr was arrested for beating his wife and sister in-law, but those charges never went to trial. Whether by fact or by arrangement in a time when men who beat their wives rarely saw justice, Carr carried on through life as a civically engaged farmer and educator.
And then history turned on Carr. The Great War had raged across Europe for years, and in the spring of 1917, the United States turned its eyes east and declared war on Germany and its allies. The entire country, including Thurston County, shifted to an unsure war footing.
At a meeting where his neighbors and co-workers were gathered to buy war bonds, Carr said they were all doing the wrong thing.
“I would not raise one finger to help this government win the war. It is unholy and unrighteous war and it is a war for commercial purposes,” witnesses (including Carr himself) testified Carr said just months after the first American troops arrived in Europe.
The tide of history and public opinion were not on his side.
The Thurston County sheriff went after draft board slackers. Men who had registered in the summer of 1917, but hadn’t completed the process, including a physical exam, were brought in by local authorities. The newspaper noted that the men were mostly “foreigners.”
Local businesses, families and civic organizations threw open their doors to soldiers flooding in from across the nation to the hastily established Camp Lewis just across the county border. Local boards planned food rationing efforts while new clubs encouraged residents to plant their own gardens.
Despite all his work in the community, Carr stood alone and the neighbors he served had to decide what to do with him.
The school board didn’t take very long to consider firing him, but Carr was able to rally support among his immediate neighbors. The local board deferred action, as did the county school authority, passing the buck for weeks until it ended up on the state school authority’s desk. By February 1918, the state superintendent of public instruction Josephine Corliss Preston charged him with unprofessional conduct. All they could do to him in the end was take away his profession.
Several witnesses came forward and told a consistent story of Carr boldly calling out the war effort and America’s involvement.
Under cross examination, Carr himself crumbled. He added historical context to his statements, pointing out that if you looked back to 1871, the war in Europe really was commercial. He pointed out his work for the local Red Cross and food rationing efforts.
“This was a very bad mistake,” Carr said to his lawyer in the public hearing on his worthiness of being an educator. “I am loyal to the government and if I am called into service I will go, but I want to be placed where I will not have to kill a man. My religious beliefs make me think killing is wrong. If I said I would not raise my finger to help the government, I meant I would not raise a gun to kill a man, but since that time I have changed my mind. I would kill Germans if I had to, because I believe that is right now.”
But just over a week later, Superintendent Preston revoked Carr’s license to teach.
In part, she wrote that: “The utterance of such un-American and unpatriotic remarks would have been deplorable under any circumstances, but uttered by the teacher in the schoolhouse at a public meeting called for the purpose of supporting the Second Liberty Loan and in the presence of children of the school, they are all the more deplorable.”
Carr lost his job and any further record of him in anyone’s community thinned. He appealed the ruling, but the state board of education upheld the decision. The Carrs would disappear from Thurston County, the lives they had built, gone behind them.
Months later, Carr and his family were called into local court for unpaid debts.
Almost exactly four years later, he was admitted in a public hospital in northern Idaho for chronic patients. He died a month later.