Yelm is Center of Progressive Irrigated Agricultural District

Yelm is Center of Progressive Irrigated Agricultural District

(Bill Fox – The Olympian)

This is the first of a series of entertaining and informative articles about the prosperous and progressive city of Yelm, located on a fertile prairie 22 miles from Olympia. The stories were written by an Olympian reporter who visited Yelm several times to obtain pertinent information about the steadily-growing community.


On a fertile prairie 22 miles southeast of Olympia is a progressive, prosperous, friendly community. It is Yelm.

A center of lucrative agricultural activity, and having civic-minded residents, it has the means and enterprise that are necessary to the development of a good educational system and other advantages uncommon in most settlements of its size.

The population of Yelm is listed as 489, but there are many who are not counted in that figure, as they live outside the city limits, on rich farmlands, supporting the area’s primary income source, dairy farming.

The business section of Yelm is small, but growing rapidly. It boasts many fine stores. The people work hard, putting in long hours, but they can still find time for relaxing at community dances, picnics and other social gatherings. Yelm’s theater attracts many who enjoy the latest movies.

The source of Yelm’s name is a matter of conjecture. It is said that roving tribes of brown-skinned people drifted across the Bering Sea and into Western Washington. One of these early tribes was called Yelm-Pusha. Other historians believe that the early Nisqually tribes gave prairie the name Shelm, which indicated  shimmering heat waves observed above the land in the Summer. It isn’t definitely known whether the tribe took its name from the prairie or if the area was named after the tribe, but the name is of Indian origin.

The area is a natural trailway and it is believed that many thousands of persons walked or rode the historic trails that cross Yelm Prairie. Indians, Spanish Seamen, Englishmen and Frenchmen trading for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Japanese blown ashore by adverse winds, Chinese working for prospectors in search of wealth—all these and perhaps many more saw Yelm Prairie hundreds of years ago.

As the white man came in, he improved the rough trails making them wider and better as his needs required. The turn of the century interestingly enough found many persons riding between Yelm and Olympia on bicycles.

 These are some of the highlights of Yelm’s history. The complete chronicle of the area was recently published by Richard and Floss Loutzenhiser, titled The Story Of Yelm—The Little Town With The Big History.

 The background of another chapter of Yelm, its irrigation system, would fill a book. If one were to ask any resident what his favorite topic of conversation is, the answer would be–irrigation. This is understandable when one examines the situation to find that thousands of persons depend on the land for a living in that vicinity.

J. A. Conner is chairman of the board of directors of the Yelm Irrigation District and Roy Hansen is superintendent.

The district was organized in 1910 when several persons realized the possibilities of developing, by irrigation, that part of the Nisqually Valley which was known as Yelm prairie. It was not easy, however, to bring water into the area. Water was carried from the Nisqually River, thirteen miles away, to Yelm prairie by a series of canals and wooden flumes.

Within the Yelm Irrigation District there are approximately 6,500 acres, of which 4,350 acres are first class land, according to Mr. Conner.

“Out principal crops are green beans, sweet corn, filberts and berries,” Mr. Conner said. “Of course everyone knows that Yelm is famous for blackcap berries which thrive exceptionally well, and that the area is noted for dairy products and poultry.”

 Mr. Conner explained that during the war, a great number of farmers of the vicinity went into munitions industries and the armed forces. As a result, the district suffered a serious setback.

 “However, since the end of the war, we are rebuilding the irrigation system and right now things look pretty good for Yelm.”

In 1945 the first step was made toward rehabilitation of the system when bonds were voted to install pumps to lift water 75 feet into a canal near the Centralia Dam, it was believed that this plan would eliminate the necessity of replacing all the old wooden flumes above this point and would therefore be more economical. However, the Yelm Irrigation District officials found that several of the wooden flumes would still require replacing the remaining flumes with ditches as soon as funds are available.

“In the last two years, a great deal of work has been on the distribution system,” Mr. Conner pointed out. “This has been mostly maintenance work such as cleaning ditches, replacing wooden siphons with concrete and in general, improving temporary structures with permanent ones.”

Considerable work has also been done, improving the natural streams within the district for the purpose of making  fill utilization of these streams as integral parts of the system.

Chairman Conner explained that there is a definite trend in the vicinity towards sprinkler irrigation. “This results in better distribution and application of the water, as well as being more economical for each farmer,” he said, “this method is also very satisfactory for permanent pasture in connection wit the production of dairy products,” he pointed out.

In April of last year, the Enumclaw Co-operative Creamery built a new plant at Yelm, of which Art Loney is manager.

“Yes, we dairy people are vitally interested in the Yelm Irrigation Project,” he said. “Proper sprinklage and fertilization are the two main factors one must consider to realize a greater percentage of return from the farm lands in this vicinity.”

He illustrated his point by telling of one man who had four pastures of two acres each. The farmer employed the latest methods of irrigation and fertilization and consequently saw his land return as high as nine tons from the eight acres every month. This is more than double the average yield.

The dairy manager says that the creamery picks up, pasteurizes and ships out more than twenty thousand pounds of grade C milk every day. Grade A milk is shipped directly from the farmers to bottling plants in Olympia and Tacoma. The creamery in Yelm does not bottle and milk, as it is primarily concerned with supplying ice cream manufacturers.

In explaining the routine of his creamery, Mr. Loney pointed out that the plant receives pickups from seven trucks, each bringing in capacity loads—some trucks even making two trips daily.

“Out most important development in the offing right now,” Mr. Loney said, “is a condensing machine which we hope to install very soon. We would use it primarily during the peak months of March through August, when the creamery handles more than forty thousand pounds daily.”

“Yes we believe that Yelm is a pretty good place in which to live,” Mr. Loney explained. ”The irrigation project is a big one, but it has the support of everyone in the vicinity—and with that many people behind something how can it fail?”

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