A Short History of Yelm

  A Short History of Yelm

The history of Yelm’s post office capsulizes the creation of the community. With the exception of a period of time between November 1880 and May 1881 (when mail was delivered to Tenino), Yelm Prairie has had a post office. It was first named Yelm on August 18, 1858, nice months after its creation at Fort Stevens. Until 1974, when Moses M. Metcalf became postmaster, the various post offices were located in homes situated throughout the prairie. Metcalf moved the postmastership into him home and store at Yelm, thus being the first to locate it in the new community. In 1881, Frank Longmire became postmaster, and the post office was moved to his store. Dow R. Hughes, postmaster from 1907 through 1934, moved the post office in 1925 to the Mosman Building, where it stayed until 1968. (A full list of postmasters is provided at the end of this history.)

Yelm greeted the twentieth century with the creation, in 1901, of three plats that formally established the blocks, lots and streets of the town. These included the Yelm Addition, situated immediately to the northwest of the railroad tracks near Yelm Avenue, and two filed by John McKenzie which platted his land southeast of the tracks. Ten years later Ole Solberg purchased the old George Edwards

George Edwards House

claim and, in 1916, platted a portion of it as Solberg’s First Addition. This land was located northwest of the railroad tracks. With Solberg’s filing of a second addition in 1923, the historic town of Yelm was complete.

The first quarter of the twentieth century was a period of growth, development and re-development when fires plagued the town in 1908, 1913 and 1924. In the process its population grew from 50 (by 1908) to 400 (1926). The business district acquired all the trappings of a small town emporium designed to serve the loggers, lumbermen and farmers living nearby. Close friendships were formed with McKenna and Roy, Pierce County neighbors situated north of Yelm along the northern Pacific line. (A listing of Yelm businesses is provided at the end of this history.) The agricultural development of Yelm during this time was related closely to lumbering operations. Many settlers were employees of the McKenna Lumber Company. This firm, in acquiring land for a power site also obtained land on the Yelm Prairie. “Officials of the company encouraged their employees to purchase tracts and to build homes of their own. They believed that such a policy was to the advantage of the employees [and would] promote a more stable labor supply for their lumbering operations.” (WSU, 1943) The land was divided into five to fifteen acre tracts, and was offered to mill employees at reasonable terms. The company provided an agriculturalist to give advice and a home demonstration agent to help the farm-working wives. In this way lumber workers could “increase their earnings through producing a part of their food.” By 1912, when the Northern Pacific Railroad elevated Yelm to official station status, the town had assumed the form still visible today. Businesses, as they had since 1874, concentrated along the rail line and Yelm Avenue, centering at the crossing of these two routes. Surrounding this district were the residential neighborhoods whose architecture reflected the vernacular styles popular in the builder’s manuals and design catalogs of the day. Later, some houses were prefabricated at the Gruber and Docherty Mill, located near Yelm. Some were imported logging camp bunkhouses modified to meet family needs. Others were constructed by local carpenters, such as Charles Mittge. The first quarter century also saw the creation of one of Western Washington’s few irrigation districts. The impetus for this project came in 1910 when a few prairie farmers viewed irrigation as a way to increase productivity, and to invite more families to settle in the area. The Yelm Irrigation Company was organized, issued stock, and began construction. On June 16, 1916, the project was completed. The Yelm Ditch, as it was popularly called, was the product of an enthusiasm rising from the pre-World War I agricultural boom in the United States. Farm prices were good, demand for produce was high. This Golden Age, however, did not last. By the 1930s the economics of farming and problems of maintenance were taking its toll on the irrigation system in spite of Works Projects Administration (WPA) and State assistance.

When the Yelm Irrigation Company ceased operations by the late 1940s it was also faced with the changing demographics of the prairie. Farmers were being replaced by commuters. According to one local resident commenting later, “The people work for Weyerhaeuser. They work in Olympia or Tacoma or at Fort Lewis. They don’t want to farm. They want a place to live and raise their families. Yelm should be a bedroom town.” (Prescott, 1979) On December 8, 1924 Yelm was incorporated as a city. It was one of four in Washington State to do so that year (Bingen, Longview and Winthrop were the other three). The Yelm Women’s Civic Club started the movement following the May, 1924 fire that destroyed much of the business district. The purpose of incorporation was to allow the construction of a water system to fight fires, and one of the main orders of business for Yelm’s first Mayor, R.B. Patterson, and his council was to establish a fire department. Many buildings seen today along Yelm’s main street were built following the 1924 fire. They types of business uses were similar to those of the past, except for one thing. By 1926, Yelm had an automobile dealer to supplement the garages located there prior to the fire. The modern age of commuting had arrived.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *