Introduction: In 1998, members of one of Yelm High School’s U.S. History classes conducted a small number of interviews were residents of Yelm who were living the town during the 1930s and 1940s. The following are some memories that were shared with the students.
Bob Wolf – Interviewed by Holly Joslin
What do you remember about the irrigation canal?
Well, of course as it was coming in, or after it had been around for awhile, I didn’t have any feeling that there were problems. I grew up with the idea that-hey, it irrigated around and we had a wonderful canal. Right up town, practically, where we could go swimming all summer long, in The Ditch- as we called it. I do remember that my dad had an interest in a berry farm out a ways. And because of the irrigation they were able to raise blackcaps and raspberries. I remember that because of those crops- berry crops, bean crops- we leased kind of a shed, it was an outer building from our grocery store (where the present ex-Jayhawks building is) to a man who collected all the berries and beans- and then shipped them on to canneries and so on. So at that point I really didn’t know that they were beginning to have problems. As World War II came along, and I was in the eighth grade, suddenly we became aware that there were many problems. People were going to work in the shipyards, so as a result they weren’t quite as interested in raising- so the irrigation system really got into a lot of trouble. And actually one of my closest friends- she and I went all the way to school together- her mother was the secretary of the ditch, and she knew that things were really going badly. As a little addendum to that, after it finally did go belly-up, which is in the early fifties- and that’s way past Depression time, that’s when I came back to Yelm to live with my wife. And we tried to get a loan to build a home, and we were not allowed anything- they would not deal with anyone out here because of the declining irrigation system. So fortunately, with my dad having been in business- he had to go over to the bank and co-sign for us. And he did that for two of his employees as well, who were trying to build homes. Now, of course, there’s none of that problem, but a lot of us had real problems at that time. The irrigation system was great at the time it was created, but it more than served its purpose and became a really bad thing and went bankrupt.
Were there as many farms, or were there mostly small farms?
Lot of small farms, Holly. In fact, that’s my feeling of growing up- of all these people out here. I don’t think they commuted anywhere or did anything. They were depending on the farms- you know- animal, dairy, beef, and then the beans, berries, and so on. I suppose prior to W.W.II I don’t think there was anybody that commuted anywhere. Maybe a few people worked over in Olympia, but remember that was a long trip to go over there- to commute back and forth. So I think of Yelm as strictly a farming community. Oh, and then a lot of people worked in the woods, too, with the logging industry.
Leila Eide – Interviewed by Crystal Kepler and Masha ________
What kind of chores did you do around the house?
Well, because we had a big garden and I wasn’t the oldest child. My oldest sister got to do the housework. And so, in those days there was an irrigation ditch that ran from the Nisqually down through Yelm and often the big irrigation ditch has these little branches. And you had to apply for water and they gave you a time you could use the water and you could use it from, three or four hours. And that was your time to use that water and that’s when you had to use it to irrigate your garden because around here it doesn’t produce unless it’s watered. That was one of my jobs. Seeing that the irrigation water got to all the rows in the garden. And one of the biggest problems was molehills because if a mole happened to get there the water would go down there, it wouldn’t go on down hill. That was quite a……….
When was berry season?
Usually between the middle of June almost to the first of August, because strawberries come first but we didn’t have a lot of strawberries. We had what they called blackcaps in those days. We made a lot of blackcaps. They’d haul them over to Olympia to a big cannery in Olympia and they’d haul them over there. During the war they used the blackcap juice for printing. Then raspberries and some blackberries. After several years people started growing beans. And that was another thing, bean season would go clear into the fall so, kids could start picking in the early Spring and pick all through summer and into the fall.
How old were the berry pickers?
Some of them started when they were six or seven years old because they’d go with their parents. There was no limit on age then. Now, you can’t hire a young person to pick berries. You could in those days. Anybody could pick berries.
When did the berry farms leave?
Probably right around the war time [World War II]. Just before jobs changed, the whole economy changed. People changed the type of work that they did and they couldn’t hire people to work on the farms and there wasn’t the market that there was then. They started selling off their property and building houses on it. That’s when it stopped.