(Rainier and later Yelm, WA)

In 1917 Martin J. Gruber (1877-1956) and Benjamin J. Docherty (1885-1926) built a lumber mill just south of the present (1999) town of Rainier WA.

Gruber, born in Oshkosh, WI had come west with his family in 1890. His father had built a store in Winlock WA and after some college, Gruber returned as a licensed pharmacist to work with his father in the store.

When the store burned in December 1911, Gruber worked for a short time with C.A. Doty (Doty was married to Gruber’s sister, Wihelmine) at the Doty Lumber Co., Doty, WA. Later he went to work at the Heybrook Lumber Co., Heybrook, Snohomish County.

(Doty was also one of the organizers of Emery & Nelson Lumber Co. in Napavine. W.W. Emery was married to another of Gruber’s sisters, Emma.)

Benjamin J. Docherty was born in Grindstone City, MI, but grew up in Iron River (near Ashland) WI. He came west to Winlock with his employer (as a logger) Michael T. 0’Connell. Docherty was married to Gruber’s sister, Amalia (Molly).

The Rainier mill burned in 1927. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the site was used for the location of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Camp Rainier.

After the 1927 fire, Gruber and Docherty bought the Harstad Brother’s Mill in Yelm. The Harstads had built the mill (probably about 1920) just south of Yelm on what was known as McKenzie Lake. Two fires (1931 and 1936) coupled with the depression and labor unrest of the time caused the firm to “go under” in 1937.

When Gruber and Docherty could not meet their payroll, H. L. Wolf & Co.(merchants in Roy and Yelm) cashed their workers’ pay checks–as early as 1935.

Docherty had developed heart trouble before he was 50. He died in 1942. Gruber later went into politics and at the time of his death in 1956 was Thurston County Treasurer.

(Source: Gruber File, Washington State Historical Society)


Three times disastrous fires have taken a toll of Yelm’s commercial center.

In March 1908, fire started in the hotel kept by Will Waddell, now of Rainier. The hotel was situated where the bakery now stands. Many will remember that this fire was started when some clothes drying upstairs fell onto an over-heated stove pipe. It burned the hotel, and spread west to Hettick’s store, hotel, and their water tank, which supplied the town. To the east, it leveled the saloon next door and halted only when the wagon shed, built for the convenience of people trading, was torn down to stop it.

Some of these buildings where re-built and a few others were added. In July of 1913, however, a second fire was started. This time it was caused by a small child playing with matches. It began in a bake shop run by the Masco family, which stood on the present site of the Patterson drug store. It rapidly spread eastward to the corner where Field Motors now stands, wiping out business houses and three dwellings.

Again the town was rebuilt, and again a fire struck, this time on May 29, 1924. This time the fire started in the Wilson Hotel and spread to take in almost the entire business part of town. Fire departments came from nearby towns and fought valiantly but most of the buildings were of frame construction and were soon consumed. Although a grievous loss to the merchants at the time, it proved, as fires often do, to be a blessing in disguise. The town was rebuilt, this time according to the plans of recognized architects and city engineers.

Today Yelm stands a model town of many fire-proof buildings, paved streets and neon signs. In the spring of the entire length of the main street is abloom with Hawthorne trees.

Fire Departments

In 1927 the town of Yelm boasted one extra good Fire Chief, Ed Brown, and one soda acid fire extinguisher which Ed and Ray Norton cleaned and put in shape. There were then a few hydrants with 2 ½ (two and a half) inch outlets and about 300 feet of hose. A hose cart and the 30 gallon chemical completed the equipment for fire protection

Mayor Curry who was very fire-minded, promoted a better fire fund and a cart and the 30 gallon chemical coupled Studebaker truck, a forestry pump and 1,000 feet of hose were purchased, and a pump mounted on the Studebaker. This equipment gave better fire control, but still too many buildings burned. It was a hard task to find anyone to help take care of the fire equipment after a fire, and often Merle and Neal Curry and Jim and Lee Hendricks were the only help the chief could count on. In 1945 the mayor was again instrumental in getting a used truck. With local help, proceeds from a dance and some special assistance from Dan Carrew, Dwight Shultz and others, the department purchased a 500 g.p.m. pump and a 550 gallon water tank and mounted them on the truck. This better equipment brought out more help and the firefighters were able to get to a fire in better time and accomplish more after their arrival.

Early in 1946 a trailer pumper and ladder, an extra pump with 600 ft. of 2 ½ (two and one half) inch hose were acquired from the War Assets Administration. That year a law was passed allowing a town to be within a district. Thurston County Fire District No, 2 was organized with William Mosman, Arthur Trimble and William Gifford as directors. The Fire Department or Protection District now has a 2-ton Dodge truck with a 500-gallon tank and a 500 g.p.m. pump, Boston fire ladder and 16 trained volunteer firemen.

Farm Industry Pervades Yelm (1910)

Thriving Little City Is Set in heart of Rich Dairy Industry
Stock Raisers Profit
Lumber Production Also Aids to Activity of Established Community in Good Hunting Region
The Daily Ledger July 17, 1910

Yelm, July 16 – Freight cars today hide a part of Yelm from the view of passengers of trains on the Northern Pacific tracks, which run through the place. These cars, forming several trains, were being loaded with telegraph poles, piles, hewed ties and posts. All except the ties were products of the Whitlach mill, Yelm’s main industrial plant, which cuts about 40,000 feet of lumber a day. The poles, piles, ties and posts covered the ground for a block extending from the railroad tracks. They were being shipped to various points in Washington and Oregon, especially in this state, where railroad building is just now causing larger exports from the sawmills.

The railroad ties are exports hewed from timber that is cut down just outside Yelm and are hauled to the railroad station in big wagons, which are coming and going constantly. The ties are being brought in so fast that there was today a great pile of them awaiting shipment. The piles and telegraph poles are also turned out by the mill workers faster than they can be handled by the railroad men, so that the first view of Yelm that the stranger gets is one that reminds him of a big lumber plant itself.

Located 24 miles south of Tacoma, Yelm is purely a village, never having been incorporated. It has about 200 people that it calls all its own, but the mill workers, farmers and others in the immediate surrounding country, who make this their trading and shipping point, would more than double that figure. Though it has never taken to expansion through boom methods, it has gone along contentedly, its business people being successful and its troubles being few. . . . .

Named After Indian Chief
How the name of the settlement came to be selected is a matter that will probably interest a large number of the people who travel on the railroad to points beyond this place. The brakeman’s yell of “Yelm” generally nettles the person who has not heard the name before, and repeated yells of the station’s title do not enlighten the puzzled listener, who doesn’t succeed in clearing the mystery until he reads the name painted in big white letters on the little red depot. It has happened here just like it has in many more of the towns of Washington at the settling time—the Indian titles were drawn upon to fittingly designate the community. The old chief who held forth in this vicinity was called Yelm Jim. It was decided by the settlers to take for a title the first end of this name so the place became Yelm.

This section is chiefly noted for cattle raising and dairying, though there is quite a large area of the productive prairie land here devoted to the growing of grain. The wheat runs from 20 to 25 bushels to the acre and oats from 30 to 40 bushels. The dairy interests are the larger and the success of those there is room for a great increase in this district. Only cream is being shipped away from here, and some days the shipments go as high as 200 gallons.

Stock Raising Profitable
Stock raising is very profitable. Owing to the climatic conditions the cattle graze the year round. During but a few weeks do they require stall feeding, and that is only in exceptionally rainy weather. The stock is of a very high standard, too. Of the numerous stock raisers, L. N. Rice is one of the leaders. He had 400 head of sheep alone in the spring, when he disposed of half of them. There is a great need for a creamery here, which would undoubtedly prove very successful, owing to the immediate supply and the ever waiting market in the larger cities to the north and south.

As a pleasure spot the country about Yelm is specially attractive. Shooting and fishing parties are constantly making their way hitherward during the open seasons. Only a couple of miles from the railroad station are the finest of fishing streams. Lawrence lake, Clear lake and the Des Chutes river team with trout, which the sportsman with rod seeks out generally with success. Along the prairies, marches and open timber the man with gun finds China pheasants, bob white and native quail and snipe, while late in the season the river and lakes swarm with mallard, teal and other choice ducks.

On Main Wagon Road
Yelm’s main thoroughfare is the road from Tacoma to Olympia that is used by auto owners, and it is a dull day in the buzz-wagon line when the machines that whiz through the place do not number two score. This road is kept in good condition in this vicinity. Being under country control, Yelm is a “dry” town, and since the change by which its two saloons were closed came about, there has ceased talk of voting on the question of incorporating the settlement as a fourth class city. “now that there are no saloons there is no need to incorporate, for we get along all right and don’t need any special revenues,” said one of the settlers.

The Northern Pacific depot here is one of the few on the line that has a woman operator. She is Mrs. N. B. Mullin and her hours of work are during the daytime. It is a novel sight to watch this alert woman at her responsible task, and she makes an interesting picture as she darts out of the station and to the tracks, where she places offers in the hands of a train hand as a freight goes by without hardly hesitating.

Two young women who are popular here are daughters of the postmaster. They are misses Edna and Alice Hughes. Both assist their father in distributing among the Yelm’s people the many letters sent here, and in preparing missives for the outgoing mails.

Yelm Personals
A parsonage is being built for Pastor Anderson of the M. E. church.

At present J. L. Mosman is kept very busy in his general store, especially in the line of farm implements, the farmers preparing for harvest time.

L. D. Clarke and his wife and son have left Yelm for Idaho, where they will make their future home.

J. Clarke has retired from the hotel business on account of his wife’s health.

Olive Coates returned to Yelm last Sunday from Montesano, where she had been visiting her sister, Mrs. Robert Shore.

Yelm’s Agrarian Past

Field of blackcap raspberries (Courtesy Yelm Historical Society)

The steadily growing town of Yelm.

  The Yelm prairie, as James Longmire recalled, was “covered with grass that was belly high to the horse.” When he arrived in the mid 1800’s the prairie was dominated with fescue grasses that were a native species to the area and would later be harvested for by farmers. The farmers used the grass to feed their livestock and to sell to other livestock producers for a profit.  Access to the land was helped by federal government policies which made land relatively easy to obtain. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and, later, the Homestead Act of 1863, placed land ownership within the reach of many with cheap prices and minimum residency requirements.  Yelm is increasingly becoming a bedroom community for people who work outside the town.  Few people know that Yelm once prided itself on being the “Berry Capital of Washington”. Yelm, originally was a farming community.  In fact, before there was a town, there were scattered farms on the prairie and surrounding hills.   Beginning with small subsistence operations, agriculture in Yelm developed into a more market oriented operation by the twentieth century. 

The work that followed, turning prairie into productive farm land, wasn’t intended for the weak of heart.  Many became self-sufficient and grew enough to keep their family needs satisfied. The main reason for the isolation of many farmers was that the 160 acre or 320 acres sections that were claimed were so big that the closest neighbor would be quite a ways away. The reason for the limited expansion of agriculture at this time was simply there wasn’t a large enough work force to create an agricultural based community, however that would soon change. According to the 1870 U.S. Census every able bodied male in the Yelm area was either listed as a farmer or as a farm laborer.  Subsequent census data shows that while the population on the prairie increased, the percentage of total workers gainfully employed in agriculture would decline.   

 With the arrival of the railroad in 1873 and the actual formation of the town of Yelm work was found off the farm.  More importantly, as the timber industry took off in the last decade of the 19th century, jobs were increasingly found in the mills and timber camps surrounding the prairie.  In fact, as this trend continued, Yelm’s inhabitants were arriving in increasing numbers from former timber states like Minnesota and Wisconsin and less from farm belt states like Indiana or Iowa. Those that lost out became laborers on other farms. By 1920, only half of working men and women considered themselves to be farmers.  Those farmers that could survive bought the land from those that couldn’t.  Increasingly farmers focused their attention on berries and dairy products.   

The produce of choice in Yelm during the early 1900’s had become cane berries; blackcap raspberries, blackberries, and raspberries. These berries were native to the land and thrived in the area. The production of the berries, during the peak year of 1929,  exceeded 800 tons of berries on 485 acres. The gross return for that year was $128,000 at 8 cents a pound.  Agricultural prices for many products, however, were declining during the twenties.  The American economy, as a whole, began reflecting signs of the Great Depression at this time with higher unemployment and decreased prices.  The depression wasn’t the only reason that berries in Yelm would soon  lose their pre-eminence and make way for an expanded dairy and egg industry. The mosaic plant disease spread through Yelm crippling many berry farmers and killing 79% of the berry crops in Yelm and the surrounding areas. Farms that depended on berries for their major source of income were lost and forced to sell to dairy farmers. After this disaster many farmers turned to government aid programs of the depression. Close to $70,000 dollars was given to the farmers of Yelm to assist them with funds that had been lost by their diminished harvests.    The dairy industry in Yelm at the time had consumed a large part of the land in the area after the mosaic disease hit the berry industry. The dairy farmers in the area, because of there need for many other materials, just didn’t milk cows they, also grew silage and corn for their own livestock. This was a major reason that the dairy industry owned so much land in the Yelm area. The dairy industry appeared to be much more successful than the berry industry in 1939. The profit was a 29% return for the dairy industry compared to the 15% that berry growers obtained.  

Though at this point in time, dairy farming seemed to be an unstoppable juggernaut, it too would soon take a fall and slowly fade from the scene in the Yelm area.  The problem was jobs.  With World War II looming and industries around the Puget Sound area gearing up production, finding workers was a more and more vexing problem for farmers.  Besides this, farmers merely went elsewhere to work themselves. Farming in Yelm had been one of the major incomes for the area early on in its history. The small, changing scene of Yelm has seen many faces.  From the days of subsistence farming to the heyday of the berry and dairy industry, agriculture was always one of the mainstays of the Yelm economy.  These endeavors gave the little town character and  that has been somewhat forgotten, but will always be a part of its history.     

Yelm in the 1920s


The Roaring 20s was a very interesting time for all.  The Great War was over; the country was experiencing unprecedented prosperity as well as some new and exciting developments. This decade also had its shares of downfalls.  During this decade the small town of Yelm was experiencing on a smaller scale the same new things and emotions as the rest of the nation.  The 1920s offered tragedy, new developments and fun and leisure activities for America as well as Yelm.           

 Those that lived in America during the twenties can recall real tragedy.  President Warren G. Harding died quickly and mysteriously.  Because of post-war nationalism the Ku Klux Klan was at the peak of its power and the entire nation experienced a series of mild recessions.  Yelm may have had a more turbulent decade.  In 1924, in the last of a series of three huge fires, Yelm almost completely burned down.  The origin of the fire is debated but most say it started on the porch of the Wilson Hotel.  The fire started sometime in the seven p.m. hour and spread quickly.  Because of strong winds and most structures being constructed of wood, the fire was able to consume most of the town in a short amount of time. 


 Yelm was without a fire department at the time so a bucket brigade was formed.  This valiant effort did little to stop or contain the fire and by Sunday morning, the entire town was charred.  The destroyed buildings included Patterson’s Drug Store, Yelm Post Office, Drew’s Confectionery, transformer house, the telephone office, Yelm Cash Mercantile Company, Yelm Hotel, Wilson Hotel, New Method Repair Shop, Fashion Barber Shop, Pastime Confectionery, Yelm Meat Market, Yelm Barber Shop, Yelm Realty, H. L. Wolf & Company, William H. Keller, Nisqually Valley News, Thurston County Utilities Company, U. S. Post Office and a county storehouse.  The total monetary loss was estimated at $125,000.             

  While a time of tragedy, the 20s in mostly remembered as a decade of exciting new developments.  The first nationwide commercial radio station was broadcasted as KDKA out of Pittsburgh.  Important literary works such as Reader’s Digest and TIME magazine were founded.  The Jazz Singer was released as the first feature length motion picture with sound.  New developments in Yelm contributed to making the town what it is today.  F. E. Grant and E. K. Fristoe founded the Nisqually Valley News in February of 1922.  Yelm finally established a fire department in 1927 after three tragic fires.  It was a meager fire department at first, but over the years, it has been built up.  A number of social groups and organizations founded by women worked to incorporate Yelm.  Such things as public waste baskets, road signs, a water pump and a library were added to the town.             

  The “Roaring 20s” were named so because of the endless amount of fun and leisure people experienced.  There was a renewed interest in motion pictures because of the addition of sound.  The new concept of “adolescence” enabled young people to have fun with less restriction.  Dancing gave way to the “Swinger” era.  Prohibition inspired “speak easies” led to a new fascination and a subsequent increase in moonshine production.  Yelm was also a hopping’ place in the 20s.  The annual community fair offered a wide range of categories to enter in to, so many in fact that every family member could have come home with a blue ribbon.  Community dances brought in people of all ages from surrounding areas to dance to the latest music.  Yelm was a center for running moonshine.  Because of it close location to Puget Sound, many members of the Yelm community were involved in illegal alcohol production.  Of course the most important leisure activity in Yelm was sitting on the front porch and having a conversation any person who just walked by.            

Just like every other part of America, Yelm had a variety of experiences in the 1920s.  Disasters like the tragic fire in 1924 led to the development of the Yelm Fire Department three years later.  Leisure was an important aspect of 1920s as life in Yelm.  Events in the 1920s contributed to make Yelm what it is today.