More than one hundred years ago, Olympia’s experience with being a neighbor of a major military base started with a jolt. Both Camp Lewis’ establishment and the United States beginnings preparations to enter World War I had a huge impact on Olympia in November 1917.
Every weekend in the late fall and winter of 1917, soldiers training at Camp Lewis just across the border in Pierce County would come into Olympia. The soldiers in training were looking for relief as they prepared to leave for Europe the next spring to fight on the Western Front.
As soon as the United States made the initial move to enter World War I, Pierce County leapt to action, passing a bond to purchase 70,000 acres and handing it over to the federal government for a permanent military base. A good portion of that land was not actually for sale as it was part of the Nisqually Tribe’s reservation. Initial construction began in May 1917. Within three months over 1,000 structures were built ready to house 60,000 men.
Soldiers streaming into camp for training would disperse each weekend to nearby towns looking to blow off steam. And a vast national organization of nearby base towns rose up to meet their expectations.
Even in contributing to a fund to underwrite recreational activities for soldiers, Olympia was promised much more in return. Olympia community leaders were on tap to raise just less than $1,000 of the $4 million national fun, but “considerably more will be allowed to this city for expenditure here in entertainment of the soldiers…”
Said one military leader of the need for such an outlay: “The soldiers become lonely with a loneliness that is almost unbearable. Do not blame the boys if they fall, the fault is ours, not theirs.”
In mid-November, the Red Cross broke out the pies and hotdogs for a day long round-up held at the Carlyon race track in Tumwater. It was a Tumwater native that had been attached to the 316th ammunition train, Sergeant Cook, that brought the mounted unit back to his hometown. A special train brought hundreds of soldiers into town for the horse show.
While grand scale activities like the round-up, dances and hotel accommodations were arranged, it was sometimes the personal relationships that were really advocated for. The Washington Standard in early December editorialized:
“Whenever you see a soldier boy wandering around the streets, a stranger in a strange city, walk up and get acquainted with him and make him feel at home, glad that he came to Olympia for his short vacation from camp. And, if you can, take him home to dinner and give him a real home meal and a taste of the pleasant home atmosphere he misses so much…”
Two special trains were arranged for the first weekend visitors in November, in addition to an “auto stage service.” The visiting soldiers were housed in private homes and 50 cots laid out on the floor of the Chamber of Commerce office.
Said the Standard: “You can see it in their faces, hear it in their conversations, note in all their acts of jolly appearance. For the citizens of Olympia had literally opened up their homes and taken them in…”
“I’m going to France and I’m going to do my part. I’m not afraid of any German or bunch of Germans that’s over there,” added an unidentified soldier. “But when I sat down at the table… this noon and saw what those people had fixed up for me, I just broke down and cried. It was the first bit of home I’d had since I landed in camp three months ago.”
The newspaper also reported that the well established businesses did not raise their prices to take advantage of the money coming in with the soldiers. But apparently, some entrepreneurs from outside the city took advantage of the situation, offering drastically marked up prices for rides around town. “(B)ut they were promptly squelched by the (Red Cross) committee,” reported the Standard.
As the units began to deploy late in the winter and spring, the visits from Camp Lewis began to peter out. While visiting soldiers never really did stop venturing into Olympia, the numbers seen in 1917 were not met until the dawn of World War II.