Yelm, McKenna and Roy
Small towns that make you want to sit down and stay
The Seattle Times July 23, 1972
By Byron Johnsrud
This is another in the continuing series on communities in and around the Seattle area.
ROY SCULLY and I sat hunched over our coffee at the counter in Dottie’s Cafe in Yelm. Five men and women, all in their 40s, sat behind us having their morning coffee at a table.
“I don’t care if it’s here in Yelm, in Roy or McKenna or wherever, I like to give new things first,” a woman said.
“Yeah. If you can,” a second woman said.
We gathered they were discussing how to help the victims of house fires or other family disasters.
‘”It’s the kids that bother me most.”
In the mirror behind the counter we could see the speaker was a great hulking bear of a man.
“All their toys gone and they’re too young to understand.”
“At that age they forget quick,” one of the … women said,
“I know. But the kids still get to me most,” the big man said.
Now here, by happy accident, was a great start on what Roy, a baseball buff, had insisted on calling our “Tinker to Evers to Chance Expedition.”
In our continuing pursuit of life as it is lived and enjoyed in smaller communities we had chosen that day to visit Yelm, McKenna and Roy. Yelm was on first, and right off the bat we had run onto one of the heartwarming facts M small-town life — the neighborly rally-’round-the-cause spirit of helpfulness in time of trouble.
Not that an urban center like Seattle has a heart like a drying olive in a dirty martini glass. Look at Neighbors in Need.
But in urban centers, such enterprises require organization and leadership. They lack that person-to-person, one-on-one quality. In Seattle, help for the stricken requires a great deal of planning and thought. In Yelm — or Roy or McKenna— it’s spontaneous.
LEAVING the kindly party in Dottie’s we walked down the sun-washed street. A sign in the window of The Chief Tavern intrigued me.
“Female pool players wanted,” it read. The woman on duty explained.
“It’s for a bit of a tournament we have every Tuesday night. Maybe we can get enough good players to go to a big tournament in Seattle. You gotta make your own fun in a town like this, Mister.”
“How about the boys?” I asked.
“Maybe we’ll give them a shot on Thursday nights,” she said. “They’ve already asked if they can come Tuesdays if they wear miniskirts.”
I rejoined Roy and we strolled on down the the street until we spotted the office of The Nisqually Valley News, a weekly. Dailies are delivered from Olympia and Tacoma, but little communities like their own local newspapers.
Inside we met Don Miller, the editor-owner. He is a pleasantly round (not fat), youngish man who obviously enjoys his life.
“No,” he said in answer to a question. “I gave up job printing quite a while back. Figured a guy should have some time off.”
What’s the social life like in Yelm?
“It’s a great sports town,” Miller said. “We’ve had some really great high school teams.”
Yelm schools, kindergarten through high school, enroll more than 1,500 youngsters, which is more than double the town’s official population. The kids come from surrounding communities.
“Of course you can’t spend all your time going to high-school ball games,” Miller said. “Like any place else, we have our civic hassles now and then. Got to have something to keep the blood stirring.”
BEFORE coming down we had read a prominent Washington historian who wrote that the original name was Chelm, meaning “heat waves rising from the earth,” which, it was behev were sent by the Great Spirit to make the earth bountiful. Somehow those heat waves had made much sense to us. They didn’t to Miller either.
“OK,” he said. “But we always heard started out as Yelmum, which was Indian Prairie Flower, or something like that.”
Roy, a flower lover, insisted on making it the official version. Question settled.
We asked about an attractive log building had noted that housed the Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce. Miller told us the W erhaeuser Co. had donated the logs.
“And some they don’t know to this day they ‘donated,'” his assistant added.
Miller then sent us to see Yelm’s mayor, Mrs. Lora B. Coates. She operates a sizable antique shop that looks like a warehouse on the outs and a fairyland inside.
“I sell to people from all over the state a beyond,” she explained. “I’d go broke if didn’t.”
Our “heat wave” historian wrote that the area was settled first by the Longmire family on “Yelm Prairie” late in 1853. No, insisted Mrs. Coates, the Chambers family came first, as far back as 1846 and the area outside town was a still is known as Chambers Prairie. But such is the way of the frequently all-too-sketchy Washington State history.
“Not that the Longmires weren’t important here,” she said, explaining that a different Longmmire family branch was the one associated with Mount Rainier.
“They were a very energetic family,” s said, “and in the old days expeditions wc formed up here to start for the mountain.”
Mrs. Coates, as had Miller, noted that Yelm in Thurston County, was surrounded on thi sides by Fort Lewis, Olympia and Tacoma. (It is sort of a bedroom community for the fort.)
Industrially, Yelm consists mainly of a sizable wood-fabricatin plant and the General Cable rewind plant. The wood-fabricating plant makes the big spools on which the other plant rewinds cable. The wood-fabricating plant also specializes in interior finishings for mobile homes. And, of course, there are the stores and other enterprises dealing in the usual goods and services required by all the residents, even those who work elsewhere.
It’s enough for now, Madame Mayor said. “We don’t want to be ruined as a comfortable small town by some big, rampaging industry.”
We agreed heartily and spun on down the highway a piece to see how things were doing in McKenna.
THINGS were very much all right in McKenna — meaning that life’s quiet, peaceful way had changed but little.
Yelm lies on a plain between the Nisqually and the Deschutes Rivers. McKenna sits on a wide, shaded bend of the road with the Nisqually chuckling cheerfully at its back door. Or the front door, depending on the direction of your approach. You can park virtually anywhere except the center of the road, and that’s nice.
Yelm and Roy (the town, not Scully), I’m sure, would be happy to agree that McKenna is the prettiest spot of the three. It spreads out on a fertile flat created by the Nisqually. Tall trees filter the sunshine and a knoll here and there dots the landscape. It was named after a man from Wisconsin who established a sawmill at the townsite in 1906.
Roy (Scully, not the town) decided the light and shadow at the moment weren’t the best for picture-taking. So we went into a place labeled with beautiful simplicity “Tavern.” The tavern’s shadows didn’t do much for us. The proprietor wasn’t sure his establishment was the former town hall or the old company store of Mc-Kenna’s early lumbering fame. So we left.
“Them newspaper guys come around every couple of years,” he said as we walked out.
He may be right. But The Seattle Times archives show that the last visit of any consequence by a Times reporter was by Alice Staples back in 1958. (Mrs. Staples recently retired from her latter-day post as real-estate editor.) Her beautifully sensitive account in 1958 goes just as well for today.
In the early days of McKenna’s lumbering activity, the town was “a jumping, jiving community where the lights never went out,” Mrs. Staples wrote. The depression of the 1930s hit the town hard. Why didn’t it become a ghost town as did many another in those days?
“McKenna was a good place to live and raise our families,” an old-timer told Mrs. Staples. The people here were like one big family and when one needed help the others pitched in.
“I can remember when there weren’t any jobs and our menfolk banded together and cut and sawed firewood. They hauled it to Tacoma and sold it and everybody got along. When some got jobs, they helped those who still didn’t have work.”
The spirit is much the same today. People stay on because “it’s such nice place,” although many now commute to earn their daily bread.
ONE REASON McKenna survived was because “the company had a heart.” In sore straits itself, it made things as easy as possible for its former workers, turning over to them the company-built houses on whatever kind of in-stallment buying the residents could manage. The company itself managed to pay off most or all of its debts and still maintains an existence of sorts.
The company originally owned the town’s water system and still does, although its liquidators wish the town would buy it up. There are no water meters. In 1958 residents paid a flat $2.50 a month. Now the monthly tab is $3.50. Ah, inflation.
Members of the Daskam family, as they have since its inception, still run the business of the water system for what’s left of the corporate life of the lumber company.
Most of the company-built homes still exist, many of them substantially unchanged.
“They ought to,” a descendant of one of the original families said. “They were built to last, made out of the finest lumber available anywhere.”
Some of the “civic” structures still are there, too. The old lumber mill bunkhouse beside the Nisqually River now is an old folks’ home. The original company store still exists, although the original town hall has burned down.
The Hull name is large in McKenna history. Members of the family live atop a knoll at the town’s edge. Edgar Hull is the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. C. E. Hull. The elder Hull was the mill’s chief machinist. He came to town in 1912 when the mill was founded. Edgar was a child then. Glenn Hull was born in McKenna, as was Alfred Hull. Kirby Hull, a nephew, lives across the street from Edgar in a handsome old home shaded by towering trees.
But McKenna has its influx of new blood from time to time. There’s young Warren Lasher, for one. He’s from New York state. He works in the town’s only service station.
“I’ve been here a year,” he said. “And I’m going to stay. I like it. I’m sick of big towns for more reasons than I can say.”
But back to the Alice Staples 1958 account:
“The town, a well-kept, quiet little community, seems a world away from the hectic, pell-mell bustle of modern-day living. McKenna has a constable and a justice of the peace but neither has any business to speak of.”
That couldn’t be said any better today. It’s a spot that says “sit down and stay.” Several generations have.
But, since the sun wasn’t quite sinking in the west, Scully and I moved on down the road to Roy.
ROY, and Yelm as well, to a degree, remind the visitor of Midwestern villages, perhaps because they lie in a prairies setting of somewhat drier country lacking the lushly verdant qualities common to most Western Washington areas. But there are trees, hillocks and valleys aplenty to dispel any notion that one has been plunked down in the center of North Dakota.
We drove down Roy’s main street, turned the first corner and stopped to inspect an old, heavily weathered barnlike building. A time-dimmed sign read: John Napora Horseshoeing.
A very old man with a cane was tottering up a slight rise in the road about 50 yards away. Scully and I wondered if he could make it and whether we should offer him a hand. We needn’t have worried. When he saw us examining the old building he came on like Riva Ridge and by the time he hit the downslope he was fairly flying, his cane scarcely stirring the dust of the road.
He turned out to be the John Napora of the weathered sign and a swell old gentleman he is.
He said he was 92. Later, others in town told us that 92 maybe was more than half of it, but not much. He said he had shoed horses and done blacksmithing jobs in Roy for some 70 years. But he had quit, he said, and wasn’t about to begin again for anybody or anything—this despite the fact that little Roy has a large fame for its annual rodeos, the next installment of which is scheduled for September 3 and 4.
A pretty young woman wandered up and joined the conversation. She said she wasn’t a native but had been “farmed out” to relatives in the town “every summer since I was old enough to have a memory.”
“So I feel like a native,” she said.
But now, freshly graduated from college, about to be married and move elsewhere, she had her mind on things other than Roy.
“Oh, but I’ve had some very happy times here,” she said just a bit wistfully.
She said she was interested in writing and pointed out Murray’s General Store across the railroad tracks. She said she’d taken lots of pictures inside and out and had written a piece on the place.
“It’s been in the same family in the same place since 1889,” she said. “Now that’s really something.”
Roy and I gave her some advice (probably bad) on selling her work and decided not to spoil her chances by concentrating overmuch on Murray’s store in our piece.
“Young talent should be encouraged,” we agreed.
WE CAN also get pretty lazy sometimes on these excursions, especially when clear running water goes rollicking by and a sweet, cool breeze frolics in the trees.
The water in this case was Muck Creek, only a few yards from where we were chatting. The creek isn’t mucky, even murky and we didn’t find out the origin of the name. We did learn that an early-day land company had thought the stream needed more dignity and had renamed it the Douglas River. But pioneer honesty soon prevailed and it became Muck Creek again. The town, too, once was named Muck, but was renamed “Roy” after the son of James McNaughton, who platted the townsite in 1884.
Scully then spotted a tiny white church straight out of New England and we rushed off to get a picture of it as if it were about to disappear.
The Town Hall was just across the railroad tracks, and I strolled through its unlocked rooms and corridors unmolested. Not a soul could I find.
The upstairs, I decided must be the courtroom and the spot where civic decisions were made. The town jail occupied a small corner of the big downstairs room. The barred door stood ajar. Inside were two cots. They looked as though they hadn’t been used in a long, long time.
Next we took a look inside the Murray store and it was a good thing we had decided not to poach on our young friend’s writing prerogatives. The dark-haired young woman minding the store was much too busy to talk.
True, most of the customers in the cavernous old building were small boys and girls making their deeply thoughtful and elaborate choices of penny candy. But that can be a busy and important business, too, and the young woman transacted it with great good will and infinite patience. However, she did take time to point us the way to the home of Roy’s mayor, Leon (Chief) Rediske.
The mayor was away, at his paying job in Tacoma, but his wife did the honors—after we had surmounted certain hazards, the chief of which was a sign on the yard gate reading: “Beware. Vicious Dogs.” And there was a great amount of yapping going on. But Mrs. Rediske assured us it was all a joke.
“Our friends thought our dogs needed some status,” she explained. “One of them is Poodle and something or other else and the other is thoroughbred dog pound.”
No, Mrs. Rediske said, there wasn’t much industry in town. The most prideful is the Silva-seed plant.
“It was founded by Charles Manning,” she said, “He invented a new way to extract the seed from fir cones. Others use the same system now, but his plant here was the first.”
Another was the Sazik Lumber Co. beside the railroad tracks bisecting the town.
THE TERRITORY around once had been mostly farmland, she said, but much of it had been taken over by the Fort Lewis expansion. Now, she said, horse-raising and horseback riding were big and there still were some dairy farms, a big hop ranch and nurseries producing fir, pine and spruce seed.
We told her we had read in a history that many fine old buildings still existed in the area, and she sniffed a bit at that.
“A few,” she conceded. “But it’s a shame the way some of the fine old houses have been allowed to run down. And some of them have been ‘modernized’ until you wouldn’t recognize them.”
She reverted to the Fort Lewis expansion and the changes it had brought about in area life.
“But maybe it’s a blessing in disguise,” she said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to see the town much bigger, anyway. I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world. Just the way it is.”
That’s the way it is with small towns. Their people love them and they very seldom leave them by choice. It’s a way of life that seems to breed a happy philosophy for living.
But now the sun really was sinking in the west (wherever else?), as the travelogues say, and Scully and I had to set off for home.
That meant we had to miss Rainier, another little town in the same area. We regretted that. But there will be another trip another day, Rainier.