Nestled in the Nisqually Valley, the city of Yelm, Thurston County, is home to 10,707 residents (2021). Its name is believed to come from the Coast Salish word "shelm," which means "land of the dancing spirits," a reference to the shimmering heat that rises off the prairie floor during the summer months. For generations, the area was inhabited by members of the Nisqually Tribe. One of the earliest white settlers was James Longmire, who arrived with his family from Indiana in 1853, pioneering a wagon route over the Cascade Mountains at Naches Pass. As a Yelm founding father, Longmire represented the town in the territorial legislature and helped explore what was to become Mount Rainier National Park. Once the Northern Pacific Railroad began to serve the area in 1873, Yelm attracted more settlers, mostly farmers and loggers. In 1916, one of Western Washington’s first irrigation systems was installed at Yelm, providing benefits to the region’s agricultural economy. The city was incorporated on December 8, 1924. Once renowned for its berry and vegetable crops, in the twenty-first century Yelm is home primarily to commuters who work in Olympia, Tacoma, or Centralia, and military personnel stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
James Longmire: From Indiana to Yelm
Yelm and the surrounding area are the ancestral home of the Nisqually Tribe. The town name is said to come from the Coast Salish word "shelm," meaning "land of the dancing spirits," which refers to the heat generated by the prairie floor during the dry summer months. The earliest white settlers came in the mid-1800s to join the Hudson’s Bay Company sheep farmers. In 1853, Yelm founding father James Longmire (1820-1897) traveled to the area with his wife and children.
Born in Indiana of German heritage, one of 13 children, Longmire married Susan Nisley (1821-1847) and together the couple had two children. After she died in her mid-20s, Longmire married Virinda Taylor (1830-1912). They had nine children, four born in Indiana and the others born later in Washington Territory. In March 1853, Longmire left Indiana with his family, traveling first by steamboat to St. Joseph, Missouri, and then by wagon train westward. By the time they reached the Cascades that fall, there were more than 30 wagons and 150 people in the group.
The settlers were told that a wagon trail existed over the rugged Naches Pass at an elevation of 4,928 feet. They started the climb but soon found the information was incorrect. "At the time, there was no road down this descent, and no alternative route for the wagons ... With no other option, the settlers lowered the wagons down the incline one at a time by rope, with one end tied to the wagon axles and the other looped around a tree and held by several men who let it out gradually ... As the men lowered the wagons, the women and children followed the circuitous Indian trail down the slope ("First Emigrant Wagon Train Crosses ...").
Their journey established several firsts: It was the first successful wagon-train crossing of the Naches Pass, Virinda Longmire became one of the first white women known to cross the Cascades, and "their party was the first to cross the Columbia River north of The Dalles. In traversing the Cascades they forded the Green River sixteen times and the White River seven times” (“Mother of Longmires Dies at Advanced Age”).
Longmire and his family took up farming on the prairie. He represented Yelm in the territorial legislature and played an important role during the region’s Treaty Wars of 1855-57. During that conflict, Quiemuth, a Nisqually chief, had grown tired of fighting and asked that Longmire take him to meet Washington Territory’s first governor Isaac Stephens (1818-1862) so he could surrender. "He went to Mr. Longmire’s house and they two and several others came by night to Olympia. They met the governor, had a conversation, and Mr. Longmire and Quiemuth lay down in a vacant room to sleep. Mr. Longmire was aroused by hearing pistol shots and scuffling in the room. He saw by the dim firelight a man fall and rushing to him found it was Quiemuth, speechless and dying. He had been stabbed and shot by assassins" ("James Longmire is Dead"). The assailants were never found.
In 1870, Longmire assisted in the first known expedition to reach the summit of Mount Rainier and he successfully summited the mountain himself in 1883. That year he discovered hot springs around Mount Rainier and filed a land claim for the property. Two years later, he established a wagon road for easier access to the springs and built cabins "at what is now called Longmire along the Nisqually River southwest of Mount Rainier's summit, which the family developed into a major tourist destination. Longmire's sons followed in his footsteps as guides and explorers on Mount Rainier, and named many of the features around the mountain" ("First Emigrant Wagon Train Crosses ..."). Longmire lived there until his death in 1897, respected and well-liked by all who knew him: "Mr. Longmire had a striking personality and when once seen his imposing presence was rarely forgotten. He was genial and cordial in address, and had a princely courtesy, which did not forsake him, even in the darkest hour of his illness" ("James Longmire is Dead").
In August 1890, Yelm school teacher Fay Fuller (1869-1958) became the first white woman known to summit Mount Rainier. While teaching in the classroom at Yelm one day, well-known mountaineer Philemon Beecher Van Trump (1838-1916) visited the students. He and Fuller became friends and Van Trump invited her to join his Mount Rainier summiting party. Wearing an outfit of her own fashioning, Fuller reached the summit two months before her 21st birthday. She later quit teaching to become a journalist and remained passionate about climbing throughout her life, founding climbing clubs and mentoring women climbers. Mount Rainer’s Fay Peak is named for her.
Berries, Dairy, and The Yelm Ditch
The prairie land around Yelm attracted farmers and cattlemen; expansion boomed with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1873. By the early 1900s, the crops of choice were berries, particularly raspberries, strawberries, and loganberries. In 1908, Yelm was home to 50 residents; by 1926 that number had increased to 400. One of the biggest employers was McKenna Lumber Company, founded circa 1914. Knowing that affordable housing would ensure an ongoing supply of reliable workers, McKenna purchased land on the Yelm prairie, subdivided it into five- to 15-acre tracts, and offered it to its mill employees at a reasonable price. They gave employees tips on how to farm and taught the women domestic skills.
In 1910, Yelm officials began to explore irrigation as a way to increase crop productivity and draw more settlers to the valley. After five years devoted to planning and construction, the Yelm Irrigation Project was completed on June 29, 1916 – one of Western Washington’s first irrigation districts. "The Yelm Ditch, as it was popularly called, was the product of an enthusiasm rising from the pre-World War I agricultural boom in the United States. Farm prices were good, demand for produce was high" ("A Short History of Yelm").
The opening of the irrigation project was a day of great celebration for the community. "An excursion of more than a score of autos left Olympia this morning for Yelm to participate in the ceremonies of formally opening the irrigation project to reclaim Yelm prairie, which represents an investment of $100,000 in the digging of a ditch that will water 6,000 acres" ("Yelm Irrigation Project Opened"). Among the dignitaries was Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919), who spoke about the state’s need for greater agricultural development. A picnic in Rice’s Grove capped the day’s events. For several years after, Yelm residents gathered for a celebratory picnic on the anniversary date of the irrigation project opening.
Yelm Incorporates in 1924
On December 8, 1924, Yelm was incorporated. The impetus was said to grow out of the aftermath of fires in 1908, 1913, and again in May 1924, which destroyed much of the business district. The 1924 fire was attributed to a defective flue in Wilson’s Hotel. Before it was over, fire had destroyed two hotels (Wilson’s and the Yelm Hotel), Clyde Anderson’s pool room, Otis Longmire’s meat shop, H. L. Wolf’s store, Neal’s Garage, and Patterson’s drug store. "Telephone and telegraph wires were quickly severed by the flames, and all outside communication cut off. Before this happened, however, a plucky girl telephone operator stuck to her post in one of the burning buildings, and called help from Olympia" ("Dynamite Used ...").
Fire units came from both Olympia and Tacoma. "At this point, residents of the town fighting the fire brought dynamite into play, and saved the Odd Fellows Hall and The Grange warehouse. The total loss is estimated at $60,000" ("Dynamite Used ..."). Determined not to be caught shorthanded in the future, the Yelm Women’s Civic Club pushed for incorporation. One of the main orders of business for Yelm’s first mayor, R. B. Patterson, and the city council was to create a water system to fight fires and establish a fire department.
Reaping the benefits of plentiful irrigation, Yelm became an agricultural center known for vegetables such as beans and cucumbers, in addition to all kinds of berries. In 1929, as the nation was entering the Great Depression, more than 800,000 tons of berries were produced on 485 acres, with a gross return of $64,000. But the years of expansion were soon to end. "That same year America fell into a great depression what would leave a laceration on berry farming in Yelm, but the depression wasn’t the only reason that berries in Yelm would soon go under and make way for the dairy 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 was given to the farmers of Yelm to assist them with funds that had been lost by the shortcomings of their crops" ("Farming in Yelm"). Later, maintenance issues with the Yelm Irrigation Project became overwhelming and by the late 1940s, it ceased operations.
The Yelm Terrorist
In June 1941, another significant fire challenged Yelm; this time Yelm High School burned to the ground. More than 300 volunteer firefighters and residents helped fight the blaze and carry equipment out of the building to safety. Determined a complete loss, the building was valued at $30,000, plus several thousand more for lost equipment. E. H. Bonney, president of the school board, promised that a new school would be ready for students in the fall.
In April 1963, big city crime came to Yelm when an armed 15-year old youth from Yakima, Frank Hugh Jeffries, disarmed the Yelm deputy marshal, took three hostages, stole a getaway car, and then held an elderly Yelm couple hostage in their home for eight hours. The perpetrator, known as the Yelm Terrorist in the local papers, kept Yelm "in turmoil through the night after Deputy Marshal Bill Morgan, 23, stopped a pickup truck about 9 o’clock for a routine traffic check. Jeffries, the driver, pulled a pistol on the officer, disarmed and handcuffed him, and took his gunbelt ... The youth next stopped a station wagon carrying John L. Hooper, James H. Hooper and George W. Collins, all of Yelm. He took their station wagon and next forced his way into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth MacAuley and held them captive for hours" ("Youth Caught After ..."). No motive was given and no one was seriously harmed. Jeffries was quickly apprehended in Olympia. At his November 13, 1963, trial, he pled guilty, was convicted of robbery and assault, and sentenced to 20 years in the state reformatory at Monroe.
Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment
In 1988, Judy Zebra ("JZ") Knight, born Judith Darlene Hampton in 1946 outside Roswell, New Mexico, founded Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment on an 80-acre campus outside Yelm. Knight believed she embodied a 35,000-year-old being called Ramtha the Enlightened One. For more than 35 years she has lectured, taught, and held events that attract thousands of participants from more than 30 countries. "Ramtha usually inhabits Knight before entering the auditorium, then may lecture for hours, seated in the middle or pacing around the stage. Tables for simultaneous translators line one wall, ready to render Ramtha’s words immediately into French, Italian, Chinese, German, up to 13 other languages for the international audience. Before the pandemic as many as 850 students could fit in the space, though for the past two years most of Ramtha’s lessons have been streamed virtually. The gender split among students favors women" ("The Ancient Spirit That Settled ...").
Knight has her share of skeptics and believers; celebrity adherents have included actors Linda Evans and Salma Hayek and novelist Michael Crichton. Undeniable is the fact that over three decades the School has had a major economic impact on Yelm. "Students come from all walks of life, cultures and ages, and many have relocated their homes and businesses to be near the school in Yelm. Some of the students have been appointed, elected, or have been candidates for public offices, and others have created businesses, served local industry, developed children’s education, and served in community organizations, which brings an international spirit to the City of Yelm" (Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment).
Yelm’s population in 2021 was 10,707. Many residents commute to jobs in Olympia or Tacoma; others work at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. "Downtown claims both a pho joint and a gastropub. Even Ramtha’s stretch of Yelm Highway swelled when the Wat Prachum Raingsey Buddhist Association built a stupa across the street, the temple’s gold-toned carvings and ornate sculpture a strange mirror to RSE’s campus" ("The Ancient Spirit That Settled ...").
The city sponsors community events throughout the year, including Jazz in the Park, Prairie Days, and a home and garden show. Yelm encompasses the fourth-largest school district in Thurston County, serving 5,900 students enrolled in six public elementary schools, two middle schools, and Yelm High School, home of the Tornados.
Many of the city’s parks have views of Mount Rainier. A favorite is the Yelm-Tenino/Prairie Line Trail, a paved path that accommodates cyclists and pedestrians as it wends its way for 14 miles through farms, forests, and wetlands. Outdoor recreation and sports are popular in Yelm, and Mount Rainier National Park is only a 45-minute drive away. The Yelm Historical Museum, operated and staffed by volunteers from the Yelm Prairie Historical Society, is open two days a week and features photographs and displays about the town’s pioneer days.