By Edgar Prescott (The Sunday Olympian February 10, 1980)
The night of Dec. 29, 1979, the former Yelm Community Church was destroyed by fire. The Yelm Fire Department received the first call, the Nisqually Valley News reported, at 10:55 p.m. when flames broke through the roof of the ancient wooden structure which was constructed early in the century.
Even in early days, residents of Yelm prairie were sometimes allowed the privilege to attend church . Floss and Dick Loutzenhiser and Franklin King, in the booklet, “Stories of Yelm,” recount that on occasion’s ministers along with visitors, which at least once included Gov. Stevens and his family, rode out to Olympia to provide services. Such meetings were held in the Longmire home and were followed by dinner gatherings.
Earl Howell, in “Methodism in the Northwest,” records that Sunday school was organized on the prairie in the 1860’s in the home of James Longmire. Early Methodist ministers serving the area were John F DeVore, Ebenezer Hopkins, and B.F. Brooks. Beginning in 1899 classes also were held in the nearby Eureka church.
Cleora Paine was there. “It was 1889 when my father took out his homestead,” she remembers. “At that time the people in the community were building the Eureka school. It was on an acre of land donated by Mr. and Mrs. John Algyer, who had come originally from Eureka, Calif.
“The building served not only as a school. For 10 years we had church there and Sunday school. Then Mr. and Mrs. Algyer gave us another acre of land closer to their residence so that the community might have a separate church. It was six or seven miles from Yelm. It would be at the south end of the Beckman place.
“The church was completed in 1889. My two sisters and I were present at the dedication. Everybody was there: the Langdens, the Algyers, the Morrises, the Smiths, and the Ferbrashes. There were several families of each of them. Mr. and Mrs. True were there and Mrs. W.J. Inman and Miss Emma Cawdry. They were sisters of Mrs. Spencer.
“The Rev. A.J. Joselin preached the sermon that morning in the place of C.G. Morris who was our regular minister. Sermons were different, more punch, and they lasted for an hour or more instead of maybe 20 minutes the way they do now. People weren’t in such a hurry to get home to watch a football game. After services they went to each other’s houses for dinner.
“At first the church was only one room, but after the Ladies Aid started holding meetings there, the men in the community built a little kitchen in the back. We had dinners there and social gatherings. We didn’t mind that there were no separate rooms for Sunday school classes. The little ones had a corner, the intermediates, the young people, the adults; we each had a corner of our own.
In 1907 we installed our new bell. It was just before Christmas, the day Mr. Pollard died. We had his funeral the day after Christmas, and we tolled the bell 36 times, once for each of the years he had lived. Every Sunday they rang that bell, all the years I was home. We could hear it at our place a mile away just as loud and clear as if it had been next door.
“We walked to church in those days. [through] pastures and crawled over the fences. Most everybody walked except the Morrises. They had a team and a buggy. We didn’t drive, we girls. We were afraid of the horses. They were too lively. The folks didn’t go to church much. Father was too busy.”
“We had everything a church needed. We had an organ and a choir, and we had Dwight Wells. He had gone to the Eureka school and was a natural musician. He and his father and mother, his married sisters, Mrs. Thorn and Mrs. Smith, and a brother, Herb, were all wonderful singers. On special occasions they sang duet or quartet arrangements. We liked that. After Mrs. Thorn and her sister moved away, we young folks took over, my sisters and I and the Robinson girls and the Conine girls.”
Though both Rainier and McKenna Methodist churches were active at the turn of the century, “Methodism in the Northwest,” makes no mention of a Yelm Church prior to 1909. Floss Loutzenhiser, in her story of the Yelm Community Church, tells of a log school house built on the Yelm Prairie which was used as a community gathering place and also as a church whenever a minister was available. There is no record of the time of its demise.
Thirty-five years ago Dow Hughes, who had come to town in 1896, told of a frame building about a quarter of a mile east of town, which served as both church and school. “It was Presbyterian,” he said. “The preacher was a good man. He worked for me in the blacksmith shop. He conducted services every two weeks. Alternate Sundays he preached in Roy.”
Apparently Dow’s assistant was not the only minister to serve the community. Floss Loutzenhiser writes: “Church services were held whenever the presence of the Rev. Ebenezer Hopkins of Tumwater, the Rev. B.F. Brooks, presiding elder from Olympia, M.O.R. Thompson or the beloved Father Taylor made it possible.”
Floss also recounts that in later years the noise of Sunday baseball on the school grounds often competed with the sermon . . . [People eventually] considered that the building was too small, too dingy and uncomfortable.
James Mosman Sr., a resident of Yelm since 1892, complained bitterly that the community continued using the building long after it had become inadequate either as a school or church.
“I suppose we would still be using it if it hadn’t burned down,” he told me in 1946, a year or so after I had come to town to teach. He confessed that he had prayed for such a conflagration, but disclaimed any responsibility for starting it. “There were those who accused me,” he said.
A new school was built west of the tracks, and during the summer, meetings were held to promote the organization of a new church, which was to be strictly non-denominational.
Fortunately, most of the records of the period have been preserved. Among them is a half-sheet, a little brittle from age:
“The Ladies Aid of Yelm. Sale afternoon and evening of April 24th. Ice Cream and hot coffee from 11:30 A.M. Auction sale and short program in the evening to close with box lunch. Proceeds to pay for finishing church so it can be used. “All ladies please bring box lunch.”
This was one of the flyers announcing the “famous ice cream festival” which Floss told about: “It was held west of the track on the present site of the Shoe Repair and Fixit Shop, which at the time was open prairie. A truly remarkable setting was arranged by the committee which transplanted small fir trees to form a make-believe grove about the area where white covered tables were set up.”
A couple of months later, on July 13, 1908, the records reveal that the church building committee, selected at evening services the night previous, met at Mr. Hughes’ store and proceeded to organize the committee by the selection of a chairman and secretary-treasurer:
“On motion Mr. Murphy was chosen as chairman of the committee. “On motion Mr. James Mosman was selected as Secretary-Treasurer of the committee. “On motion the whole committee was authorized to solicit subscriptions. “Mr. Medley read his report as Treasurer: Money received at stand $40.80. Paid out for Ice Cream $15. Expense on Ice Cream $1.45. Paid to Mosman Bros. For groceries $.40. Total Paid out $16.85. Received on subscription $5. Total receipts $45.88. Total on hand $28.95.
“Committee asked to submit plans for new church. Mr. Murphy & Mr. Mixel submitted one plan each.
“Committee spent much time figuring on plans and estimating approximate cost of material and labor to erect new church. It was decided that at least three hundred and fifty dollars was needed to purchase the material.
“Motion was carried to adjourn until Tuesday night, July 14, 1908.” James L. Mosman “Secretary”
“A subscription paper was always in evidence at the Mosman Brothers Store,” Floss records. “Officials and workers at the McKenna Mill were petitioned. Dedicated women drove the length and breadth of the rutted, rock strewn prairie collecting donations.”
Among the preserved papers and documents is such a subscription paper; two sheets more than a foot log on lined paper with inch-and-a-half red margins at the left. It is dated July 1908: “We the undersigned agree to give the sum opposite our names for the building of a chapel for religious purposes in Yelm. Payment to be made on demand to James L. Mosman, Treasurer of the Building Committee.”
The subscription list starts boldly with $50 donations by James Mosman and Dow Hughes. There are a few $25 and $20 donations, one by the baseball team which, by the way, was never marked as paid; but the great majority of subscriptions range from $1 to $5.
On Aug. 15, 1908, another meeting of the building committee was held at which it was “moved and seconded that the committee accept the two front lots of donated by the McKenzie Brothers instead of one front and one back.”
There is a lapse of more than a month before the records indicate any
progress toward construction, a receipt dated Sept. 26,1908: “Received
from James L. Mosman Sect. & Treas. Of Yelm Church Building Committee the sum of two hundred & twenty nine and 34-100 dollars in payment in full for 16,916 ft. lumber.” The receipt was signed by George Lockead.
Most of the receipts, however, were for wages, paid mainly to C.H. Robbins and John Pohrman. The earliest I found was dated Jan. 29, 1909. It is signed by C.H. Robbins: “Received from D.R. Hughes $25 and from James Mosman $23.75, amount due me for labor on Yelm Church to date.”
The following month Robbins listed his hours of labor, day by day, Feb. 18-27, a total of 87 hours for which he assessed a charge of 34 ? cents per hour.
It is recorded in remarkably legible longhand in the old church record book that “funds and labor to the amount of about one thousand dollars were secured, and the building was enclosed.” A treasurer’s report scribbled in pencil on three torn-out pages of notebook paper shows that through Jan. 26, 1910, a total of $580.73 was paid in subscriptions. On the back of one of the pages is the account of expenditures of $509.92 through May 27, 1909.
Sometime in 1909 the building program slowed to a stop. “The money was exhausted and so were the laborers,” it was reported in “Methodism in the Northwest.”
“Neglected home duties claimed the workers,” Floss writes. “The little church sat forlornly by the side of the road. Not until a farmer offered to buy the building to be used as a barn was the committee stung into action.”
“We discovered that non-denominational ministers were hard to find,” James Mosman told me nearly 40 years later. “We advertised the church for sale to any denomination that would run it. The Methodists were the only ones interested.”
The building committee met in final session on Sept. 4, 1909.
“Motion made by C.A. Robbins and seconded by James Mosman to transfer Yelm church property to Methodist denomination under the following conditions: that said church pay the sum of two hundred dollars to pay off the debt and complete said church and also to build a parsonage on said property inside of six months from date or said transfer becomes null & void.
“In case the said conditions are not fulfilled the church shall revert to its present owners on condition that they pay back the amount the Methodists have put in.”
“Motion carried to transfer.”
“Motion made by C.A. Robbins and seconded by James Mosman to post three motions in conspicuous places, that anyone dissatisfied with transfer put in claim for the amount of subscription inside of fifteen days.”