Rod Coates Remembers

Memories of Yelm in the late 19th century was captured by Chris Fruitrich in his newspaper story about longtime resident of Yelm Rod Coates. Coates, at that time in his nineties, had arrived in Yelm in 1889 when he was four. Here are some of Coates’ recollections of Yelm at the turn of the 20th century as described by Freuitrich.

Coates was educated among 25 students at the one-room Yelm School. He remembered his teacher Fred Brown, from Olympia who moved to Yelm for $30 a month plus room and board. Each child at the school was obligated to house and fed Brown in his home during the school year.

While Coates was working his way toward graduation from gammar school, his father died leaving six children at home to be cared for (three older children had left home). Following the eighth grade, Rod Coates entered the business world.

His first job – the one that taught him not to work too hard – was as a hand at Sam Price’s dairy farm. The work started at 4 a.m. and was finished about 7 p.m.

By the time Coates was 17 years old, he was ready to go into business for himself. Using lumber hauled down from a small mill on Lawrence Lake, Coates built a livery barn on what is now the main street corner in Yelm.

Rod remembers his days with the livery as some of the most fun. Several times a year he and two or three hands would trek south across the Columbia River (on a ferry, there was no bridge) to buy horses.

We paid $7 per head or $10 for a mare and colt, Coates said. I would break them myself and sell them for $35 or $40

Rod’s attitude about self-employment seems out of keeping with a routine that, for years, saw whole families going to the hop fields fo Puyallup during the season to earn enough wages to tide them over the winter. Perhaps the fact the bottom fell out of the hop market shortly after the senior Coates death influenced his ambitious son.

While Rod’s father was the town’s justice of the peace, the younger Coates had other than law book methods of keeping things on an even keel in Yelm.

The Coates livery stable was next door to one of the two saloons and therein-young Rod often mixed it up with drunken clientele.

They used to say, when I was younger, how was it Rod didn’t get into a fight today? he remembered.

Seems when somebody got drunk and said an unkind word about Coates I’d floor him.

Following a smile to draw across his face, Coates begins what is obviously his favorite saloon brawl story by saying, This is nothing to brag about but . . .

The episode Rod likes to remember happened when the Milwaukee Railroad was building its road near Yelm. The Milwaukee hired many Chinese laborers for the job and one night Yelm’s lively saloon was visited by about 30 Chinese and other workmen.

Rod was just strolling past the front door of the establishment and on looking saw four or five of them working over the bartender. He summoned help and me and two or three other fellows started at the door and when we were brought there were 15 or so of them laid out on the floor . . .

Doing his own thing gave way to more responsibility for Coates after he was married. The livery business was replaced by a butcher shop, a grocery-hardware store run by him and his brother-in-law, two small tie mills, a larger lumber mill and many building projects.

Coates was the prime contractor on Yelm’s then famous Irrigation District canal which ran into the valley and kept good and coming in through many droughts and hard times.

Rod was a director of the irrigation district at the time it was taken over by the federal government and scrapped. That was his only entry into the political life of Yelm . . .

Coates will probably leave a mark on the Yelm landscape with his buildings more than anything. A hotel he an a carpenter put together still stands on the town’s main street, its top floor removed and its main floor housing a taern. The house Coates built for himself more than 60 years ago is still called home. . . .

Through all his property and construction dealing, Coates has had a first hand view of this nation’s inflation.

"That doesn’t bother me a bit in the world," Rod said about inflation.

Coates remembered buying 20 acres of berry fields for $700 in the early [19]20s. After a couple of years of berry production he sold it for $1,200. I heard recently a fellow sold three acres for that same land for $7,000 and there was nothing on it, Rod said.

He also sold his livery stable property for $1,200 back in the early 1900s and now says that same street corner is up for sale with a $90,000 price tag. . . .

One shot of inflation that really jolted Coates came when he was running his large lumber mill. Rod was paying his employees $1.25 per day at the mill when word came down that Henry Ford was paying his auto workers $5 per day in Detroit.

"Henry Ford put me out of business," Coates laughed.

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