The history of the Yelm, Washington area – like every place in America – started long before it became a city. First named Shelm by the Nisqually due to the way the heat waves danced across the open prairies, it was a crossroads for Native American trails leading to the Cowlitz River and Naches. These trails were used for trade with white settlers – and eventually the Northern Pacific Railroad. This year marks the Yelm Centennial and the City is celebrating with some fun things to do in Yelm that you won’t want to miss!

old back and white photo of Yelm, Washington
After three fires nearly destroyed Yelm, Washington, a push was made to become an official city in 1924. Photo courtesy; City of Yelm

Yelm, Washington: A City Built by Fire

“Yelm was built out of fire,” shares Line Roy, City of Yelm communications and recreation coordinator. “Three fires threatened to end everything. One in 1908, One in 1913, and the most devastating in 1924, in which the entire business district of Yelm burned to the ground, directly leading to the incorporation of Yelm.”

Since Yelm was still not an official town, there was no fire department or fire hydrants. Roy explains that even if help had come from nearby towns with a fire department, it wouldn’t have helped. The 1924 fire devasted the settlement. Most of the buildings found in Yelm’s downtown district today were built after the fire of 1924. Some good came from the tragedy, however: it is believed the Yelm Women’s Civic Club pushed for the town’s incorporation.

“The special election was held on December 6, 1924, with incorporation papers filed with the secretary of state on December 8,” shares Roy. “A total of 72 votes were cast for incorporation, with 48 votes against, and RB Patterson was elected as Yelm’s first mayor. Once Patterson became mayor, one of his first tasks was to work with the newly seated city council to establish a fire department and create a water system to fight fires.”

Since the City’s incorporation in 1924, the population has grown from about 384, according to its first census, to just under 11,000 now. Roy notes that while the population grew slowly until the 1970s, it has continuously doubled every 10 years since then.

fireworks light up the night sky over Yelm, the historic water tour is seen to the left.
Celebrate the Yelm Centennial with events throughout the year, including Fourth of July, Prairie Days and a birthday party. Photo courtesy: City of Yelm

Celebrate the Yelm Centennial With Things To do in Yelm

Celebrate the Yelm Centennial whenever it’s convenient for you with their self-guided historical walking tour. Just download the Historic Walking Tour of Yelm and you are all set! The pamphlet gives a brief history of Yelm, a map with 10 historical sites listed, along with photos of each site and an excerpt about them. All sites are ADA-accessible. The great thing about the walking tour is you can do it whenever you want and take as long as you want – maybe stop and have lunch or shop in the locally-owned businesses on your way!

In addition to the walking tour, the City is planning a birthday party in December, a museum pop-up, a Centennial mural and more. Be sure to follow the City of Yelm on Facebook for updates! 

downtown Yelm cross roads with a mural on the side of a building depicting Mount Rainier with the words, 'Yelm - Gateway to Mt. Rainier.'
Known as the Gateway to Mount Rainier, Yelm, Washington, is a great getaway destination. Visit in 2024 and experience the Yelm Centennial celebration. Photo courtesy: City of Yelm

Yelm Prairie Days and Concert

This year, the free Yelm Prairie Days will be even more fun as they celebrate the Yelm Centennial. If you’ve never been, it’s definitely worth the drive. Shop fun local vendors selling all kinds of things, from thundereggs to handmade jewelry and tasty treats. Try your hand at axe throwing or other fun old-time activities.

And this year, be sure to not miss the Party on the Prairie: Centennial Celebration Concert happening June 22, 2024, at 5 p.m. at Yelm City Park (108 SE McKenzie Avenue). The evening will include Nashville recording artist Adam Craig with local favorite Hoque & Moore opening. Then, stay for the spectacular drone show, all a free part of Prairie Days! There will be vendors open during the show with food and drinks available, including a beer garden. Bring your blankets and lawn chairs.

We are so excited to celebrate our Centennial year,” shares Roy. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Yelm has had such a storied history and to get to highlight some of that, while also celebrating the changes and growth our community has witnessed, is an incredible honor.”

Make 2024 the year you discover charming Yelm, Washington. If you’re looking to make a weekend of it, check out the Prairie Hotel or the Conley Suites Bed & Breakfast.

For more Thurston County activities, events and visitor information, visit the Experience Olympia & Beyond website.


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