Yelm incorporates on December 8, 1924.

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 2/15/2023
  • Essay 22673
See Additional Media

On December 8, 1924, the City of Yelm, Thurston County, is incorporated. A special election to decide the matter was held two days earlier on December 6. After the votes are tallied, the results are 72 in favor and 48 opposed. R. B. Patterson is elected as the town’s first mayor, assisted by Chauncy Grover as treasurer. The push to incorporate is led by the Yelm Women’s Civic Club in reaction to a devastating fire in May 1924. Firefighting units had to be dispatched from Olympia and Tacoma, but by the time they arrived two hotels and at least six businesses had been destroyed. One of the first orders of business for the new city government is to establish a fire department and water system to fight future fires.

Vote for Incorporation

In 1920, Yelm and environs recorded 1,224 residents, up from 605 citizens a decade earlier. On November 24, 1924, a petition signed by 74 residents was filed, requesting a special election to decide whether the town should incorporate. Notice of the upcoming election was publicized for more than two successive weeks in the Nisqually Valley News, a local weekly paper founded in 1922.

The special election was held December 6, 1924. A total of 72 votes were cast for incorporation, with 48 votes against. Officers elected that day were R. B. Patterson for mayor and Chauncy Grover for treasurer. Five city council members were also elected: Harold Wolf, Theo Harstad, P. J. Martin, Clarence Fox, and J. K. Hill. Incorporation papers were filed with the secretary of state on December 8, 1924, and announced in The Seattle Times on December 9, 1924. Yelm was one of four Washington cities incorporated that year; the other three were Bingen, Longview, and Winthrop.

First Order of Business

The push for incorporation was said to come from the Yelm Women’s Civic Club after the city suffered three large fires in just over 15 years: 1908, 1913, and 1924. The May 1924 fire destroyed much of the business district, including two hotels, a pool room, shops, and a garage. Before the blaze cut off communications with the outside world, a dedicated telephone operator remained at her desk in one of the burning buildings to place a call to Olympia for help. Once Patterson became mayor, one of his first tasks was to work with the new city council to establish a fire department and create a water system to fight fires. Many of the buildings that exist along Yelm’s main streets were built after the 1924 blaze.

The first school in Yelm was a private school established by founding father James Longmire (1820-1897), who had traveled to Yelm from Indiana with his wife and four children in 1853. In 1919, a high school was built for the community but it was destroyed by fire in 1941 and rebuilt.

Yelm Becomes Commercial Hub

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Yelm became a commercial hub at the center of a large rural area that served smaller communities in Thurston County. "In 1999, the Yelm Cinemas’ developers performed an area market study. It identified a far larger customer base than just Yelm’s 3,289 residents. The study estimated 65,000 people within a 15-minute radius; 640,000 people within a 25-mile radius" ("Yelm is Becoming Commercial Center"). The statistics surprised business and government officials alike.

With the increased growth, many residents feared their way of life would slip away. "City officials acknowledge hearing residents voice their fears that Yelm’s small-town atmosphere could diminish with added economic development. No formal anti-growth movement has formed so far. ‘From time to time we hear people say, It’s not like what it used to be,’ said [Yelm city administrator Shelley] Badger. ‘But we also hear positive comments saying, It’s nice to be able to attend a movie and shop in town'" ("Yelm is Becoming Commercial Center"). During a five-year period from 1997-2002, Yelm added a Safeway grocery store, Rite Aid pharmacy, Starbucks coffee shop, and movie theater.

Citywide Beacon of Light

In 1946, the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company built a 125-foot-tall, 50,000-gallon water tower for the city. It is one of a dwindling number of similar water towers that exist nationwide. Located across from City Hall, the tower had been decommissioned and was so rundown that people were calling for its demolition. That’s when Yelm arts advocate Steve Craig stepped in. In 2016, Craig argued that the historic water tower, once renovated, could become an artistic and iconic symbol of the city. He formed a citizens group called Save the Historic Yelm Water Tower, which successfully lobbied to get the tower added to the Washington Heritage Register in 2017.

With that designation in hand, the water tower received $150,000 in state funds for restoration and another $303,000 to pay for a state-of-the-art lighting system, inspired by the lights on Seattle’s Space Needle. On November 23, 2022, while the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey filled the night sky, a ribbon cutting and lighting ceremony were held at the base of the tower. 

In 2018, Yelm acquired and renovated the former FairPoint Communication building to serve as a new City Hall, which became part of a city campus that also houses police, courts, and the community center. At the same time, the city purchased 18,000 square feet of vacant land to the southeast of the newly renovated building. Both parcels were purchased for $925,000. The city plans to build an Education & Innovation Center on the undeveloped lot that would house community learning, economic development services, and the Timberland Public Library. The planning process was slowed by the pandemic; stakeholder interviews, surveys, and open houses were held in 2021 and 2022.


City of Yelm, website accessed January 3, 2023 (; "Election to Incorporate the Town of Yelm," December 16, 1924, Record of Incorporated Cities and Towns, Office of the Secretary of State, Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington; "Yelm Votes to Incorporate,” The Seattle Times, December 9, 1924, p. 18; Cecelia Nguyen, "Yelm is Becoming Commercial Center," The News Tribune, January 30, 2002, p. B-3 (; Abby Spegman, "Former Yelm City Hall Could Soon Serve Children and Veterans," The Olympian, April 2, 2019 (; Steve Klein, "Yelm’s Historic Water Tower Restored as Iconic Symbol," JOLT: The Journal of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, February 18, 2022 (,5107); "A Short History of Yelm," Yelm History Project website accessed December 29, 2022 (;


Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You