History of the Yelm Irrigation District
by Georgia Justman
Introduction: The following was given to the city of Yelm by the Justman family. In this account, written after World War II, Georgia Justman examines the history of the Yelm Irrigation District, including its relationship to the McKenna Lumber Company.
The Yelm Irrigation system was originally built by the Yelm Irrigation Company, composed of landowners on Yelm Prairie. The water right was filed by L.N. . Rice, James Mosman and Tom Chambers for 100 c.f.s. and is on file in the State Department of conservation and Development, State of Washington. The main canal to the Prairie was completed in 1916 and the lateral system in 1917. The Yelm Irrigation District was organized in November and a bond issue of $250,000 was voted in January 1918 and the irrigation system purchased from the Irrigation Company for $143,000 of which $53,000 was paid in cash and $100,000 in bonds at 90%.
The water for this project was diverted from the Nisqually River about 12 miles above the upper end of the project. Diversion was made by a brush and rock weir across the river. This was very costly and was in grave danger of being swept away by extreme high water. In 1941 funds were allocated for the reconstruction of the diversion dam at the intake on the river.
The main, or diversion, canal originally consisted of 9.25 mils of wood flume, 4×8 feet.
The development of the Yelm Irrigation District was closely related to the lumbering operation in the vicinity. The first settlers in the district were laborers in the McKenna Lumber Mill. It started March 1, 1908 and operated continually until July 7, 1930. The company carried on logging operations and manufactured lumber, shingles and lath. The capacity of the plant was 200,000 board feet a day. 375 men were employed for one shift. The plant operated 2 shifts part time. At the time the Company quit operation there was still enough timber for another 20 years. The faced 3 options.
1. Pay less for stumpage
2. Cut wages for labor
3. Shut down
They shut down for 2 years and hoped for better operating conditions but nothing changed so they began to liquidate the plant in 1932. In 1942 when the report was written, it was still going on.
In 1911, 3 years after starting the mill, the two presidents of the McKenna Mill become interested in developing an irrigation district on the Yelm Prairie. The Company had acquired several hundred acres of land on the Yelm Prairie and hired L.N. Rice of [The Engineering]Company of Seattle to subdivide the land into 5-15 Acre [ acts]. On the Justman land deeds it says McKenna irrigated tracts lot 6 A and 6 B etc.
The McKenna Land Company sold land to their employees so they could make part of their living on the farms. The sold the land with no down payment, furnished lumber to build their house and barns and some assistance to buy cattle, hogs and chickens. The company hired a full-time farmer to instruct people how to farm.
Arthur and Esther Justman moved to Yelm in 1920 and bought 20 acres from McKenna Land Company.
A. J. Justman worked as Night Depot agent in Tacoma for the Railroad and also was the Manager of the Olympic Ice Cream Company in Tacoma so this made him experienced in running an office and handling large sums of money.
We know A. J. Justman was Director on the Irrigation District in 1929 along with G. M. Lightle and B. E. Strablow when the 8th Annual Yelm Community Fair book was printed. We know A. J. Justman served as a Director on the Ditch for 20 years but have no record for the exact dates. According to the paper published in 1937 Ray Cruikshank was the secretary and manager of the Ditch for the past 6 years so that goes back to 1931. Mr. D. R. Hughes states he was Chairman of the Board in 1937.
Three Directors were voted in for 4 Years at a time. They hired the superintendent, secretary, ditch walkers, carpenters and all the employees. The assessment or tax per acres was $3.00 at the first. In a letter written in 1942 it was mentioned by a Farm Security Administrator that the assessment would have to be raised but did not say how much.
In 1932 with a record producing crop of berries, the growers found themselves facing a situation where the price of cane berries was considerably below the cost of production. Many of the settlers out of work and depending upon the berry crop as a sole source income were unable to carry on.
A. J. Justman rented Mr. Harold Wolf’s warehouse for a Berry Receiving station in Yelm. The farmers would bring their berries to the receiving station for weighing and they received a slip for the amount of berries brought in. A. J. Justman and his sons and other hired drivers trucked the berries to the Olympia Canning Company. This was in the 200s. Art Justman Jr. drove truck from 1939 when he was 17 until after the war in 1945.
One year the canneries stopped buying berries. The Olympia Canning Co. only bought berries that were signed up. A J Justman found a canning Company in Oregon who would buy the farmers berries and saved the crop for the farmers who otherwise would have lost everything. They said, “Art we will never forget you for this.” The one that said it sold to someone else the very next year.
In a letter written by Albert Molenaar, a State Water Utilization Technician, states, The Yelm Irrigation District has approximately 3500 acres of irrigable land under its canals and laterals. Recent estimates in my report on the District’s Irrigation system indicate that…half was actually irrigated in 1942 and acreage in 1943 will be considerably less than in the past season…During the last few months farmers…have quit farming and gone to work in war industries…Of farmers operating in the area only 25% were left by the middle of October 1942…Many retain their homes and just live on the farm. This exodus of farmers is attributed to high wages in war industries and difficulty in getting labor to harvest the crops. The main reason, in my opinion, farmers are very poorly suited to farming in the Irrigation District Area. The number of farm units is reduced from 275 by the census survey in 1939 to 100 units now 1942…The committee members are faced with getting the land that is vacated back into production. Unless they are successful in their efforts to find operators for the land, a large percentage of the cultivable and irrigable acreage will lie idle in 1943. This idle land will seriously effect the welfare of the Yelm Irrigation District…because revenue will not be collected from idle land.
In the Yelm area are some 3500 acres of irrigable land of which 2000 acres will lie idle in 1943.
In the past farmers have depended on small acreage of highly intensive and specialty crops, mainly cane berries…Mosaic disease in the canes and several years of low prices for the crops have brought about a great reduction in berries. The trend is to go toward dairying and a limited diversity of poultry.
In the Land Use Report it states, “During the past few years individual landowners as well as the District has been hard hit financially. 79% of the berries were destroyed by mosaic disease. A careful survey shows 60-70% of the settlers in the irrigation district are receiving some form of public assistance.”
A failure of this District would be a serious matter not only to the inhabitants, but to Thurston County as well.
In 1946 right after the War Mr. Kanff, Jack Conner, manager of the Puget Power in Yelm at that time, and one other man were elected to the Ditch Board. These men were the ones who raised the Irrigation Tax to $10.00 an acre and spent a lot of money trying to fix up rotting flumes and ailing ditches and put in concrete siphons under the roads. The directors at that time tried to raise the tax to $20.00 an acre. The farmers got together with Mr. Harold Brogger of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and formed a group called the Taxpayer Association. They put pressure on the Directors so they left the Irrigation Tax at $10.00 an acre. This was in 1948 and 1949 and Art Justman Jr. remembers it was $6.00 an acre before that. If people could not pay their Irrigation Tax their land was taken over by the Irrigation District. They had 2 years to redeem their land or it would be sold to the highest bidder by written bids. Many people lost their land.
In the last part of 1949 Governor Arthur B. Langlie appointed Arthur J. Justman to close the Irrigation District together with the Department of Conservation and Development. There was so much opposition to the closing of the Ditch that good friends were on opposite sides. The town with their small garden plots got their water but the farmers with large acreage faced $10 an acre for 3 years in a row and not getting water on their land. The town business men who made money off the Irrigation District and the people who were employed wanted to Ditch to continue.
The Director of Conservation and Development told Arthur J Justman that the State could cancel the Bond Issue indebtedness for they had done so for other Irrigation systems in the State, but because of the opposition to closing the District, an extra charge of $10 an acre was assessed to pay of the Bond Issue.
Many could not pay and lost their land.
Bill Goodwin Jr. was the attorney for the closing of the ditch.
Some slanderous things were published in the Paper and A.J. asked Bill Goodwin, “Should I sue?” Bill said, “No, Art! We will win them with Love!”
The District operated from 1918 until 1950-32 years. A J Justman was on the Ditch Board for 20 of those years counting the year it took to close the District.
Sources: Bureau of Agricultural Economics letter written by Albert Molenaar-State Utilization Technician
Report of the Yelm Land Use Planning Committee submitted February 1942 concerning the Yelm Irrigation District.
Members of the Committee:
A.J. Justman, Chairman
Bureau of Agricultural Economics:
Farm Security Administration:
Farm Management Department, State College of Wash.
Submitted by Arthur J. Justman Jr. and Georgia Justman