By Steve Klein
Many readers of Shaking may not be aware of recent news from Southeast Thurston County: Yelm. Olympia is well known for the state capital’s iconic building, Lacey is building a train station to represent connections to its past, and Tumwater’s connections to the falls and brewery are classic.
Now Yelm has a recently restored iconic symbol with the recent restoration and inauguration of its historic water tower.
As a Yelm Arts Advocate, Steve Craig always says, “It always starts with a conversation. Steve served on the board of the now disbanded Yelm Business Association (YBA) as chair of the arts committee, and first suggested in 2016 that the dilapidated and disused water tower of Yelm could have both historical and artistic significance. The 125-foot-tall, 50,000-gallon water tower was built in 1946 by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, and is one of the few water towers of its type in the United States. It’s the same company that built the iconic Warner Brothers water tower in Burbank, California.
Doors opened for Craig as he reached out to several people throughout his mission to promote his idea of saving the tower, which was being considered for demolition by the city. Craig formed the non-profit organization “Save the historic Yelm water tower” group and they were successful in having the tower listed on the State Historic Register, the only such tower to have this status in Washington State. The group then raised $150,000 in state money to be used to renovate the structure; Craig credits Washington State Representative JT Wilcox for sponsoring the project and making it part of the state capital budget.
Craig again approached representative Wilcox with a proposal to light the tower with computerized lighting inspired by Seattle’s Space Needle. Wilcox was then successful in securing $300,000 in the next capital budget for lighting, fencing, landscaping and an interpretive gazebo. The computerized LED lighting system comes from the Czech Republic.
The Town of Yelm held a ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorating the restoration on November 23, 2021 at the Yelm Community Center, which faces the tower. The ceremonial light was turned on at dusk to the music of 2001 Space Odyssey, as the tower lit up the Yelm night sky.
Yelm City Council created an arts commission in 2021 to which Craig was nominated and elected as chair. He plans to use Yelm’s historic water tower as an artistic and creativity-boosting anchor for the benefit of the entire Yelm community in the future. “The artistic part is that we’re going to use colorful computerized lighting so we can have a variety of different displays depending on the occasion, like New Year’s Eve, 4and July games and the Seahawks. I believe it will not only be a historic icon, but also a work of art that people will enjoy all year round,” added Craig. He received comments from the state arts commission that Yelm Tower may now be eligible for the Governor’s Arts and Heritage Award by combining art and history, which the arts commission of Yelm could sue.
At the base of the tower will be an interpretive exhibit that will teach visitors the history of Yelm’s iconic symbol, joining the historic structures of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater. The Water Tower is located in downtown Yelm, across from Yelm Town Hall.
Steve Klein publishes the Yelm Community Blog