Yelm: Biggest Little Town Around
The Sunday Olympian January 25, 1981 By Dave Hendrick
In 1970, Yelm had 632 people and an assessed property value under a $1 million; today, it has over 1,100 people and an assessed property value of $17.6 million. It is Thurston County’s fastest growing town.
“Watch it,” the passenger said to the driver as they passed the 35 mph speed limit sigh which stands just inside the Yelm city limits on Highway 510. “The cops will get you here.” The driver nervously chuckled, then tapped his brakes, slowing the car down from 40 to 35 mph.
The car had traveled hardly 50 yards before the driver spotted a police car which was tucked away on a driveway between a salvage yard and a sign bearing the words, “GET US OUT OF THE U.N.”
A mustachioed man in a policeman’s uniform was operating a radar gun from behind his patrol car’s steering wheel.
“Isn’t that just like small towns?” the driver said. “Speed traps everywhere.”
Although speed traps might be “typical” of some small towns, that is not true in Yelm. Only two speeding tickets were issued last month.
But Yelm is guilty of having a few “typical” characteristics of small towns. And one of the characteristics is that it is slowly (but too rapidly for some) changing from a small town to a large town — complete with shopping centers, higher taxes, rising property values, crime, traffic hassles, more churches and schools. About the only two things that haven’t come to Yelm in the last 10 years are better streets and more taverns.
Folks in these parts even have come to realize that Yelm no longer is a one-horse town that no one ever heard of.
“Anymore, when you tell people in Olympia that you live in Yelm, they don’t say, ‘Oh, you live clear out in Yelm?’ Yelm has come into its own,” said Roberta Longmire, president of Yelm Business Association.
Although Yelm remains one of Thurston County’s smaller towns, it is the fastest growing community in Thurston County, based on the 1980 census figures. And Thurston County is among the fastest growing areas in the nation, according to Yelm Mayor Lora B. Coates who was quoting a recent article found in the Wall Street Journal. The population had been stagnant for many years before 1970, when 632 persons called Yelm home. Since then, the population increased by 82 percent, to 1,152. A large portion of the growth has occurred through annexations of areas which later grew in population. In 1970 Yelm’s borders covered 246 acres. Today, it covers 642 acres. Its appraised property value in 1970 was $955,468. Today it is more than $17.6 million.
“I just liked it,” said Shar Isom, a Montana native who six years ago moved to Yelm with her ex-husband who was stationed at Fort Lewis. “I don’t know. I moved back to Montana once, then came back here. I like it because it’s a small town. It’s like the one I left in Montana. Everyone knows each other.”
Mrs. Isom works at the Top of the Box hamburger shop, a building which is in the shape of a cheeseburger. The building itself is a symbol of Yelm’s growth. Three years ago it was moved to the Wolf’s Shopping Center parking lot from Seattle.
Mrs. Isom hit on a common reason more folks are moving to the small, rural towns. The people in the small town setting feel they are a greater part of the community because everyone knows each other. But there are other reasons city dwellers are pulling stakes and moving to the hinterlands. Among them – escape.
“The large towns have become too complex for them,” said Carolyn Bobbs, an urban planner at The Evergreen State College. “There is an increasing number of people who want to escape the ills of the cities.”
Small towns, she said, “have a completeness about them.” They are attractive because modern businesses and services are there, but the rush of the cities isn’t.
“It’s just a scale that is more manageable for them,” Ms. Dobbs said.
Long-time resident, fire chief and ARCO service station ‘ owner George Cowles goes along with Ms. Dobbs’ observations.
He says Yelm’s growth has gone in cycles. Back in the late 1920s when 7-year-old Cowles moved with his family to Smith Prairie, which is in the Bald Hills, Yelm was going through a period of growth.
When the depression hit, Yelm grew larger because umber companies were recruiting folks to move there from the Midwest,
Growth was slow but steady up until World War II. When he war ended, the sociological rend around the nation was a return to the cities. That says Cowles, was when Yelm’s growth became stagnant population stayed fairly constant.
Folks began leaving the large towns and cities, Cowles said the migrants mainly were young middle-class persons who had lived the good life with their parents during the 50s and 60s. He said the young people seemed to realize the “good life” wasn’t really very “good.” So they broke away from the cities and the middle class life. Some of those young folks found their way to Yelm.
Cowles calls the new migrants “latter-day pioneers.”
“Did you ever get the feeling in the spring that you needed to get out and work in the dirt? Work in the garden, even if it’s only for a few days? It’s instinct to work the land.”
It’s that same kind of instinct that attracted newcomers to the rural, pastoral setting of the small town, which lies just south of the Nisqually River near the Pierce County line.
“It (Yelm) is a little better,” Cowles said, “It’s a little easier … a little laxer in enforcing all the rules that are enforced, in places like Olympia and Seattle.”
One important feature about Yelm’s growth is that most of it is occurring outside the downtown area. Much of the main street looks just as it did 10 years ago. Storefront signs haven’t even changed much.
Businesses which have cropped up in Yelm during the last 10 years include Jayhawks Shopping Center, Pioneer Village (which contains a vacuum cleaner store, a restaurant, a chiropractor’s office, a jewelry store and a health food store),two new doctors, two attorney’s, and a couple of chiropractors.
“We’ve had a lot of new businesses come in,” said Roberta Longmire. “Ten years ago people shopped out of town, but now, they mostly shop in Yelm. The only reason they go into town now is for specialty items.”
But with the baby comes the bathwater. In Yelm’s case this means increased crime, the need for increased government services and more money to run the school district.
Although crime statistics weren’t kept in Yelm for eight out of the last 10 years, Yelm Mayor Lora B. Coates said the major growth strain has fallen on the police department. In 1970, the town got by with a one-person police department. But now, the department has eight persons, two of whom are dispatchers.
The most startling effect on the crime rate is the use of drugs, mostly marijuana, and burglaries.
“The growing pains are terrific,” said Louise Longmire, director of the Yelm Senior Center. “We’ve got a lot of problems with dope. We can sit here (at senior center which is on the main street and a few doors down from the police department) and see it going on. It doesn’t do any good to turn them in.” Mrs. Longmire adds there have been three break-ins at the senior center during the last year.
“We can’t be as trustworthy as we used to be,” said Fire Chief Cowles. “Most of the crimes are kids’ things.” He agreed most of the serious crime involve burglaries.
The city crew also has increased. The water and street department 10 years ago got by with one person. There were 187 city water customers. Now, there are more than 400 customers, and the department needs a water superintendent, a part-time water maintenance man and a part-time clerk.
The city administration 10 years ago only needed one clerk. Now it needs her, Lyla Eide, and a part-time clerk.
The school district, which includes McKenna, also has had to expand to cope with the growth.
According to school district records, the district school population increased from the 1,424 in 1970 to the present enrollment of 2,035.
In 1971 Southworth Elementary School was built, and in 1976 enlarged. The McKenna Elementary school was enlarged in 1977. The new Yelm High School was built in 1978.
Yelm School district also is facing a levy and three bond issues for 1981-82 school year. The levy is for $718,171 for maintenance operations, transportation and extracurricular activities. The first bond issue is for $3.7 million for a new elementary school and remodeling the middle school. The second, for $990,000, is for building outdoor sports facilities such as a track, five tennis courts, a football field (no stadium) and a baseball field at the high school. The third bond issue, for $700,000, is for a swimming pool at the high school.
In general, it is difficult to determine if growth has helped or hurt Yelm. That, as in beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
But as far as the mayor’s concerned:
“I hear a lot of people saying Yelm is growing too fast,” said Mayor Coates. “They say they wish things could be like they were 30 years ago. But we know that’s impossible … we’ve acquired fine people from growth, too.”