Irrigation from Edgar Prescott’s Memoir


Introduction: Edgar Prescott, a teacher at Yelm High School and a resident of the town, summarized the impact of the irrigation saga in the following section of his memoir on file at the Washington State Historical Society.

But we were thinking more in terms of a house that was sitting up on a solid foundation, one that hadn’t had termites eating on it for years and that had a green lawn around it and beds to plant flowers. There were houses like that in town. And it wasn’t that we couldn’t afford to buy a house. The four or five thousand dollars we were making between us had probably about as much buying power back then as the sixty thousand or so a pair of teachers like us would be subsisting on today.

The problem was that there wasn’t a bank in the country anymore that would lend money, not to us or to anybody else for the purpose of buying Yelm property.

Right there in town in 1948, among all those wonderful people, there was going on what you might call a bloodless, up till then anyway, civil war, and it was all on account of the Yelm Irrigation Company that I told you about a few pages back. For all it had been such a heroic accomplishment, there were a lot of folks claiming that irrigation had retarded the town’s growth, and was leading to its ruination.

According to the figures they were throwing around back then four hundred and thirty nine acres, ten per cent of all the first class land, had already been taken over by the irrigation district for non payment of assessments, which were ten dollars an acre for irrigable land, and one dollar and a half for non irrigable land, and which you were expected to pay whether you got water or not. Of the four thousand three hundred acres in the district suited to irrigation, they claimed, no more than thirty per cent was being farmed. The flumes were shot, the ditches were leaking, the district was dose to three hundred thousand dollars in debt, no new families were moving in because there wasn’t an acre on the prairie that the irrigation district didn’t have a lien on, and there wasn’t a bank in the world that would lend a dollar to buy with, and what was more, the damned land wasn’t worth farming in the first place because there wasn’t an acre on the prairie that the irrigation district didn’t have a lien on, and there wasn’t a bank in the world that would lend a dollar to buy with.

But in spite of the rocks, at least until the war got going, a lot of folks on the prairie had persisted in farming. Clear back in 1910, Mr. Schneider told me about it a bunch of citizens had got together and started work on a ditch that would bring irrigation water from the Nisqually River to the prairie. They had got the job done too, even though it took a good six years to complete.

They still pointed back to a peak year in the twenties when more than nine hundred tons of blackcaps had been harvested. They bragged that beans grew like mad in the rocky soil, and pointed to Tony Alongi. When practically everyone else had gone to work in some war plant in Tacoma or Seattle, he had stayed home and farmed. Tony could grow anything – onions as big as your head, squash. Why Tony had made better than two thousand dollars from less than an acre of black caps just this last summer.

But mostly now the high priced water was draining away from rocky ditches and worn out flumes, heavy wooden canals supported on framework trestle’s, like old-fashioned railroad bridges. They crossed and recrossed the roads, spilling small waterfalls on the asphalt below and drenching all the cars that passed under them.

Source: Edgar Prescott files, Washington State Historical Society

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