Yelm Irrigation District

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
            D.R. Hughes
            Henry Moyer
            George Lanphear
            Ray Cruikshank
            Ww. Goodwin
            James Mosman
            J.M. Hales
            Jack Peugh
            Louis Cochrane
            Jack Harris
            R.S. Sparling
            Chester Reichel
        Agency Representatives
            Extension Service;
            Bureau of Agricultural Economics:
            Farm Security Administration:
            Farm Management Department, State College of Wash.
    Submitted by Arthur J. Justman Jr. and Georgia Justman

Dan Carew, Yelm’s Self-Styled ‘One-Legged Cop’, Is Busy Man

The Daily Olympian January 12, 1949

This is the final article of a series about Yelm and its residents which was prepared by a Daily Olympian reporter. The articles are designed to acquaint residents of Southwest Washington with the activities of a progressive community.

By Bill Fox

This is the story about a self-styled “one-legged cop.” His name is Dan Carew, and he’s marshal and midwife of Yelm.

Dan has been holding down this double title for nine years, in the town 22 miles south and east of Olympia.

Mr. Carew lost his leg in an accident in World War I but that fact doesn’t bother him now. “it’s only a foolish man who worries over little things in life,” he says

Being Jack-of-all-trades is an easy job for Dan. From his office in the Yelm Administration Building, he directs traffic control, the duties of a jailer, and assists the Yelm Fire Department whenever he is needed–which is quite often, because he’s a man of experience.

“This business of being town marshal in a community the size of Yelm,” Carew reflected,” is touchy. You see, I know ever man, woman and child around here and sometimes it’s my painful duty to toss one of them into the pokey—some close friend, perhaps.”

“However,” he added with a smile, “most of the people of Yelm are pretty well-behaved, and I don’t find myself in such a spot, too often. It’s mostly the folks who think they can race through our town at forty or fifty miles per hour that cause me trouble. It’s my job to point out to these drivers that Yelm is pretty much concerned with its youngsters—that’s why we can’t allow cars to clip through at high speeds.”

Getting back to Dan’s being a midwife. It’s the second time that he has had the job of assisting at the birth of a baby. Just a few days prior to The Daily Olympian reporter’s visit to Yelm, the marshal was called upon to assist a young mother. “And it was a fine bouncing boy,” he state proudly.

Three years ago, Dan was called upon to help another mother with her baby, and that was when he received his first experience in this line, which seems to have paid off, according to Carew.

“I’m an old timer at this business, now,” he smiles. “Know exactly what to do—although, except in emergencies, I’ll leave it to one of several fine physicians we have here in Yelm!”

Walking back to his office, Carew pointed out Yelm’s pride and joy, the new Administrators Building, which houses the Yelm Fire Dept., the jail, library, city clerk’s office and Carew’s rolltop desk. Mainstay of Yelm’s fire dept. is a new, eight-thousand-dollar truck, outfitted in Portland. A short time ago, the residents of Yelm subscribed to the amount of $6,000 to pay for another pumper and hose cart, which was built in Olympia. The entire amount was raised in three weeks. The department also has a trailer, equipped with pump and hose racks, capable of throwing 550 gallons of water per minute.

These are the things closest to Carew’s heart. They add up to one thing: When you drive through Yelm—drive slowly. If you would like a cup of coffee, look for Dan Carew, a self-styled one-legged cop who is everybody’s friend. He’s also town marshal and midwife.

Yelm is Center of Progressive Irrigated Agricultural District

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.

By Bill Fox The Olympian. January 9, 1949

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.

“Our 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 full 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 with 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.

“Our 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?”

Yelm Area Has Own Weekly Publication

This is the third article of a series about Yelm which was prepared by a Daily Olympian reporter. The articles are being printed to acquaint Olympians and other Southwest Washington residents with the achievements and activities of a progressive community which has become important to the economy of this region.

By Bill Fox The Olympian. January 11, 1949

The first edition of The Nisqually Valley News rolled off the press in February 1922, published in Yelm, by Elmer Fristoe.

Yelm is a neighboring community, 22 miles south and east of Olympia, and it was there that Mr. Fristoe had to make a decision 27 years ago. He had been a traveling advertising salesman and was growing tired of living out of a suitcase. His wife was expecting their first child so the Fristoes decided to settle in Yelm, because Mrs. Fristoe’s parents lived there.

In his own words, Elmer tells why he became a newspaperman. “I had my choice of the road or a real home and a steady job, so I chose the latter. I had an opportunity to go into partnership with another man who had the idea of starting a newspaper in Yelm, so it seemed pretty logical to us to make our home near my wife’s folks.”

At first, Mr. Fristoe handled the outside work for the publication, selling advertising and promoting new accounts. But his partner, after a year, gave in to his wanderlust and sold out to Elmer, who has been the sole operator of The Nisqually Valley News ever since. He has printed more than 1,400 editions in his 27 years of publishing and estimates that he has turned out enough newsprint to stretch coast to coast.

Handling everything from the editor’s job down to copy boy, Mr. Fristoe has been a week-by-week historian for the residents of Yelm.

“I’ve recorded their marriages, births and deaths; I’ve written of their joys and sorrows, their ambitions and their disappointments,” he remarked. “Why, I guess that I know just about everyone around here—at least, they all know me, because they want to make sure I spell their names correctly!”

The Nisqually Valley News moved into its present building in 1924, right after the big fire which destroyed most of the town. Mr. and Mrs. Fristoe also live in the same structure because, as they put it, “We like to be close to our work.”

While The Daily Olympian reporter was talking with Mr. Fristoe, one of the residents dropped in to give him a bit of news. Excusing himself, the editor took out a copy pencil and in a matter of minutes had chronicled another personal incident about Yelm.

“Yes, that’s the way it goes,” Publisher Fristoe explained when his visitor had left. “We put out a weekly newspaper that is all about Yelm and this vicinity, and we think it’s pretty interesting to the people around here. Because it’s about their activities. We don’t try to compete with the metropolitan newspapers because we’re well-supplied from Olympia and surrounding cities. But the one thing that everyone likes to see in a newspaper is his own name—and that’s what the people of Yelm read in The Nisqually Valley News.”

Elmer believes that the expected cannery and food processing plant will bring many more persons to the neighborhood. This means more money spent and, consequently, more homes and interests.

As pointed out in a previous article in this series, a large corporation plans to build a modern cannery and a processing plant in Yelm for handling frozen foods—primarily berries, for which the community is noted.

“When we came here in 1921 from Seattle, we liked it right away,” the venerable newspaperman said. “Our early circulation figures showed we were distributing only 200 copies weekly, during the first year, in 1922, but now my wife and I are printing more than 1,000 copies every week.”

In speaking of the original purpose for which Yelm was founded, Mr. Fristoe said that to his knowledge, The Hudson’s Bay Company came into the territory in 1840 bringing cattle with it. The region was not only a herding area for beef cattle, but also a jumping-off place for persons traveling to Mount Rainier. It was in this manner, Mr. Fristoe believes, that Yelm began.

Farmers realized the wonderful opportunities of the soil and moved in to work it. They brought their families with them, necessitating the construction of schools, shops, stores, churches, and the introduction of doctors and civil government. The irrigation project has saved thousands of dollars for these farmers and they are proud of what they have done on their lands.

Elmer’s family life has been a happy one. He has two daughters living in Olympia. One is the wife of Robert G. Herness, who is a teacher at Tumwater School. The other, Mrs. Donald R. Miller, lives at twenty-second Avenue West. The State Department of Employment Security employs her husband. A son, Elmer Robert is head of Phi Alpha Delta, which is an honorary legal fraternity at the University of Washington. Hw is also a member of the State Law Review Board, and according to his father, will take his examination before the bar in approximately six months.

As he prepared to sit down at his linotype machine, Printer Fristoe commented, “Yes, I get a big kick out of this newspaper business. If you print things people agree with, you’re a nice guy and a good reporter, so far as your readers are concerned. However, if you write something that doesn’t exactly please everyone, your telephone rings like everything; you catch the dickens,” he smiled.

With his remark, Elmer Fristoe adjusted his eye-shade and went to work, writing news as he believes it should be, and which is his newspaper’s unwritten motto; “The news—true and timely.”