From one-light town to blooming city: The evolution of Yelm

Population has more than tripled over the last 20 years


Editor’s note: This year, Yelm will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city’s official incorporation, which took place on Dec. 8, 1924. Every month this year, the Nisqually Valley News is presenting an aspect of the city’s history since its incorporation. The evolution of Yelm over the last 100 years, with a focus on the last 30 years, is the topic of this month’s edition.

Longtime Yelm residents often look back at the small town in which they grew up in a similar manner. They reminisce about the one stoplight at the intersection of First Street and Yelm Avenue being the “only light in town” and the quiet ambience.

“When we went to school, the first street was literally a blinking light. I’ve seen this city grow from literally a one-light town to what it is today,” Yelm High School Class of 1993 graduate Anthony Romans said.

What Yelm is today is beyond what residents such as the late Nancy Newby Skewis would have imagined. In a Nisqually Valley News article by historian Ed Bergh from Nov. 19, 2015, Skewis was quoted as saying, “When we moved to Yelm in 1967, there was a small white street sign along the highway near our road that said ‘Welcome to Yelm Pop. 735.’ I frequently wondered how far off it was from reality in any given year.”

In its first census after its incorporation in 1924, Yelm had a population of 384 people and slowly grew over the next three decades. However, from the 1970 census to the 1980 census, the city’s population exploded from 628 people to 1,294 people. The biggest boom took place over the last 30 years, with the population nearly doubling in each of the last three censuses:

• 1990: 1,337

• 2000: 3,289

• 2010: 6,848

• 2020: 10,617

Yelm’s explosion over the last three decades extends to the economic realm as well, which has played a role in the growth of the population. The city’s collection of local businesses in the 1960s and 1970s, like Wolf’s Store, Barnard’s Feed and Grain, Hutniks, Patterson’s, Mosman Realty, Evelyn’s Diner and more evolved into a blend of household names, as well as local shops. The addition of businesses and organizations such as Walmart (2007), Yelm Medical Plaza (2011), the Boys & Girls Club (2020), Olympia Federal Savings (2015) and Goodwill (2011) among others within the last 20 years has helped Yelm become more than a stretch of road that drivers pass through without stopping.

Yelm has also expanded its housing, particularly in the last four years, including developments such as Tahoma Terra by Soundbuilt Homes, Wyndstone Apartments, Ridgeline Apartments and Mountain View Meadows by Century Communities. The city’s school district, Yelm Community Schools, has seen considerable growth and upgrades, recently, with major renovations done to Yelm Middle School and Southworth Elementary School in the last half decade. 

Because of Yelm’s expansion in every category, the population continues to increase, schools are seeing record numbers of students enrolled, and prospective business owners are viewing Yelm as a desirable spot to operate and thrive.

“Businesses can see the potential in Yelm and the potential for growth,” said Amanda Muñoz, former executive director of the Yelm Chamber of Commerce, in 2023. “We’re nicely located in between all of these big areas like Lacey and Olympia. We have a really awesome population here who loves to shop locally and support our local businesses.”

Using the census’ American Community Survey, HomeSnacks ranked Yelm as the fifth fastest-growing city in Washington state and the fastest growing community in Thurston County.

The reality of Yelm’s population of 735 in 1967 is far from a reality in 2024. While the one-light town of the past will live on through storytelling and historic documents, the city known as “The Pride of the Prairie” has not lost its small-town feel for longtime residents. Yelm’s parks, walking paths, historic buildings and view of Mount Rainier can still be described as “a scene fit for an artist” as James Longmire, one of Yelm’s first settlers, once said upon arriving in Yelm.