Yelm During World War I: “Workers Never Before Got Such Wages”
By Ed Bergh
“War is hell.” It was a brutal destructive activity and J. C. knew that to be true from his personal experience. On the home front, however, those who were economic producers in Yelm (food, timber, lumber, etc.) benefited financially from the conflict. Only a few years before the war started the Yelm irrigation system had been completed opening more land to cultivation. With the war in Europe crisscrossing continental farm land and so many men at arms, food production there decreased. Demand for American grown crops increased. Demand increased prices. The chance for additional riches increased the acres being utilized in Yelm. J.C. summed it up in a 1917 letter, “Well the Nisqually is flowing thro’ Yelm and the millennium is fast approaching, in the minds of the promoters. All prospective millionaires.” Money was rolling in. At the J.C. ranch “the boys are milking 24 cows—gets $240 per mo. out of ‘em” Farming was making money. People were moving to Yelm. J.C. estimated thirty new families had arrived in 1917. (Later he put this number at 200, which probably was an exaggeration) New buildings were springing up on the prairie. Land was sold for $175 an acre, then $200.
Around Yelm the forests were being cut down at an accelerated rate. The McKenna mill employed 300. The Whitlatch mill southwest of town, Gruber-Docherty near Rainier (at that time), the Hammerschmith operation southeast of Yelm, and the McKenna mills stepped up production. Their logging railroads worked their way towards fresh stands of timber. Increased production meant a greater demand for workers. In order to attract workers, wages went up. For farmers like J.C.’s son, he could no longer attract workers or hire teams of horses at the pre-war rates. An inflationary spiral was beginning to be noticed out on the Yelm prairie. J.C. wrote, “Isn’t the d—d war raising hell with the cost of living?”
Despite his pleading with the pension bureau about his infirmities, the septuagenarian bragged about making $11 haying and, more impressively, “I made $30 per day myself during harvest and put in 10 and 11 hours a day while others put in 8. I’m not an 8 hour man, not an I.W.W.” (The latter was a reference to the “International Workers of the World,” a radical labor organization which was promoting the eight hour day and sometimes through extralegal means.) Even public employees like teachers were experiencing extra dollars in their checks. “Edna and Pearl Price are both teaching at good salaries” in McKenna he wrote in 1917. “Workers never before got such wages.”
The cities were where the real economic action was. People started moving off the prairie to take defense industry jobs. “Tacoma and Seattle are booming.” Parenthetically he added, “[M]y two lots may be worth something yet!” Olympia shipyards, he reported, had contracted to build three ships at over a quarter of million dollars apiece. “Olympia is also forging ahead.” Men were leaving the farms and heading for the nearby mills or to war related industries. “The Dupont powder works is all up.” Just north of Yelm, across the county line in Pierce County “They are establishing the biggest post [Camp Lewis] in the United States.” According to J.C. the place was to be huge, 70,000 acres and an expected 66,000 men at arms. “So you see Tacoma will be booming soon.” He could not believe the country’s good fortune, “Oh, this is an age of progress. Workers never before got such wages. Democratic prosperity falling around in chunks for those that hustle,” he gushed. Times were so good he felt mildly guilty. Following a Thanksgiving with two turkeys on the table, probably in 1917, he reflected, “I’d rather they wouldn’t have gone to that expense when I think of the poor devils in Europe.”
The war ended in November 11, 1918. He hailed the results of the war as the final nails in the coffin of the “divine right of kings.” Like Woodrow Wilson J.C. believed that the spread of governments of, by, and for the people would make the world a more rational and a less dangerous place. In the election just. In the election before the armistice, however, the American public had rejected the Democrats and the Republicans had taken back the Congress.
The resulting peace was not what Wilson or J.C. had expected. Upheaval and revenge dominated the international scene. Arguments about expanding democratic virtue around the globe were shouted down by the voices of self-interest. In the U.S, within a few short years, farm prices fell dramatically, unemployment rose, repression of ideas increased, and the Republicans rode heightened discontent back into control of the presidency and the Congress in 1920.