The Railroad as and Engine of Progress

 By the early 1870s, the future townsite of Yelm was owned by George Edwards and John McKenzie. Edwards, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee, acquired most of the western part of the future town through purchase from the United States. John McKenzie owned all of the land in the eastern portion of what would become Yelm.

 The defining moment for Yelm came when the Northern Pacific Railroad extended its line from Portland, Oregon to Tacoma in 1873. This route followed the old Hudson’s Bay wagon road through Yelm Prairie. A business and residential district quickly grew along Yelm Avenue where this road crossed.

 Yelm, as a community did not exist before the railroad. According to one town historian, “nothing resembling a business community existed prior to 1873… West of the tracks, at its intersection with the wagon road to Olympia, Metcalf and Treat built Yelm’s first store. This was followed within a few years by another store east of the track (P.B. Van Trump and Balletti). These businesses, together with a blacksmith shop across the road, served the needs of prairie residents for years.” (Prescott, 1979) Prescott goes on to write:

“The railroad never gave us much in the way of service,” James Mosman told me. “Trains stop only on the flag. Neither passengers nor freight had any shelter, only a board platform and sometimes on the ground, rain or shine. The company never got around to building a station until 1912.”

The Yelm business district and its residential area grew to become the commercial center for the prairie, with an economy based on dairy farms, grain and cattle. Farmers shared this environment with sawmills and shingle mills. By the 1890s, the Nisqually River was used to transport shingle bolts to a mill located at its mouth. As the twentieth century approached, lumber work provided a principal means of employment for local residents.

An 1888 directory of Puget Sound lists 54 men living on the Yelm Prairie. We do not know how many of these were married, or the names of their wives and children. We do know that 49 called themselves farmers, two were a laborer and a logger, and three (Robert and James Longmire, and P.B. Van Trump) were identified with business activity in the area. The complete list follows:

Yelm Area Residents in 1888

(Source: Puget Sound Directory. 1888)

Balletti, Charles – farmer

 Balletti, Giacinto – farmer

Bastian, Issac – farmer

Cabana, Joseph – farmer

Capen, George B. – farmer

Chambers, David J. – farmer

Chambers, David J., Jr. – farmer

Chambers, Thomas M. – farmer

Chipman, John – farmer

Chipman, William B. – farmer

Conboy, Thomas – farmer

Conine, J.C. – farmer

Corterelli, Antonia – logger

Enfield, A. – farmer

Finader, John – farmer

Finader, Richard – farmer

Gardner, Moses – farmer

Gonyear, Mrs. Catherine – farmer

Gourd, Peter – farmer

Haizman, Georhe – farmer

Hull, William – farmer

Jones, J. B. – farmer

 LaFlame, Charles – laborer

Larney, Joseph – farmer

Lawrence, S. D. – farmer

Longmire, Frank – farmer

Longmire, Elcaine – farmer

Longmire, George – farmer

Longmire, James -capitalist

Longmire, John A. – farmer

Longmire, Robert – general store

Lord, William – farmer

Lortz, George – farmer

Lynn, James – farmer

McDonald, Wiskum – farmer

McKenzie, A. S. and J. A. – farmer

McVittee, James – farmer

Otto, Joseph – farmer

Pollard, Asa – farmer

Powell, C. W. – farmer

Powell, T. N. – farmer

Price, Alexander – farmer

Price, Archibald – farmer

 Price, Mrs. D. – farmer

Price, J. B. – farmer

Redmond, George – farmer

Rossiter, John S. – farmer

Smith, Thomas – farmer

Sotzen, George – farmer

Stafford, H. B. – farmer

Stone, Jacob – farmer

Sumpter, James N. farmer

Sumter, T. E. – farmer

Van Trump, P. B. – general store and hotel

Thus, as Washington was approaching statehood, Yelm was still evolving as a town. That the prairie was a home for families is clear, for a school and church were a part of the social and cultural environment. That is desired community status and communication with neighbors is seen in the early existence of the Yelm post office.

The history of Yelm’s post office capsulizes the creation of the community. With the exception of a period between November 1880 and May 1881 (when the mail was delivered to Tenino), Yelm Prairie has had a post office. It was first named Yelm on August 18, 1858, nine months after its creation at Fort Stevens. Until 1974, when Moses M. Metcalf became postmaster, the various post offices were located in homes situated througout the prairie. Metcalf moved the postmastership into his 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.

Children first “attended school in a one-room log cabin purchased from McLane Chambers.” According to Edgar Prescott, who is the source for much that follows, “a young man named Dolby, whom James Longmire had met in Olympia, served as its first teacher.” The school term lasted about three months. In 1881, there were twenty children attending school. Eventually a one-room school building was constructed east of Yelm. This was also used for Presbyterian Church services. When a fire destroyed the structure sometime prior to 1907, separate school and church buildings were constructed. Prescott, reporting James Mosman’s reminiscences, continues the story. “We built a new school west of the track, and we began soliciting for a new church. We took out corporation papers on November 5, 1907. John McKenzie and his wife donated two lots as a site for the building. Everybody cooperated in raising money. We wanted a community church, but we soon discovered that non-denominational ministers were hard to find. We finally advertised the church for sale to any denomination that would run it. The Methodists offered the only bid, and we granted them the property for $150.”

 (From: A Guide to Historic Resources of Yelm, Washington 1994)

Leave a Reply

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