By MIKE WALES
Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of stories intended to introduce readers to the people of the southern Puget Sound region.
Asked to describe Yelm, a former resident said simply, “It’s a town of extremes.” Scattered among its 1,440 citizens are a 77-year-old pilot who has lived in Yelm 39 years, a 75-year-old town marshal who has held county commissions under five sheriffs, and a lot of folks who remember the town’s legend —- a hobo who lived there 33 years.
The hobo’s memory is inscribed in everlasting stone on a drinking fountain in front of the fire hall on main street.
The deputy marshal, Charles S. “Chuck” Donaldson, is still in Yelm and can be seen walking the streets, his uncle’s old pistol snug at his hip, his cigar clamped in his teeth.
Floyd Phillips, the pilot is still flying.
The extremes crop up in Yelm when you take a close look at the old and the new.
To the uneducated eye the town resembles a thousand other small towns in America, each with its past and most at rope’s end as the world passes them by.
Although Yelm can boast that its first hotel still stands, it can also boast of new blood coming in. Yelm has experienced an influx of young people that has increased the population from 970 in 1979 to 1,440 in 1981.
This almost guarantees Yelm is not slated for the boneyard of old towns. Longtime residents prefer the status quo; young folks seek change.
An example is Jim and Elizabeth Slopak, who designed and built Yelm Frontier Village at the corner of Mossman Street and Highway 507. The young couple’s 10-shop center has been a major boost to Yelm’s economy, as have several other construction projects around town.
Virgil Baker has about completed an office and business complex just west of the main section of town, and ground is being broken for a new Maxwell station.
While new businesses are appearing in Yelm, old businesses such as Wolf ‘s Department Store, which has been in Yelm since 1922, are healthy and thriving despite the sometimes grim economic picture faced by businesses in bigger population centers.
The town’s tax base remains as solid as Wolf’s store, with a total valuation of $21.1 million.
Yelm raises money through a 3.072 millage rate per $1,000 evaluation, a 4 percent business and occupations tax on all businesses except Yelm’s independent telephone company, electric company and natural gas company.
There is nothing unusual about Yelm’s budget. Of the $647,456, the biggest amount, $138,238, goes to the police department with other departments cutting up the rest.
If one person has left her mark on Yelm it has been the mayor, Lora B. Coates, who has held the position for 13 years.
The first Coates came to Yelm by ox cart in 1889, and the family has lived there ever since. Mrs. Coates operated an antique store on the Rainier Highway for 26 years, helped guide the town through its growing pains and still oversees the five-member council.
A conservative, Mayor Coates has been a strong supporter of law and order, a fact that the younger and more liberal residents of the town seem to accept.
There are other old-timers who have left their mark on Yelm. Lee Edwards, Bill Mossman, Emmett Stewart, Rod Coates, and the first Longmire, Robert, who operated the first store in Yelm when the town was simply called Yelm Prairie and was little more than a railroad stopover for the Northern Pacific.
At times Yelm has needed a tough law enforcement agency. It has had its share of shootings, beatings, rapes and kidnappings, and many of its residents, loggers, farmers, day laborers and soldiers from Fort Lewis, live close to life in the raw.