As new development continues to help Thurston County grow, we often find ourselves needing a break from the quick pace of expansion. While each new building brings jobs and revenue to the region, sometimes looking backwards at our region’s history helps to reconnect elements of our community that may be slipping away. One unique example of the bridging of the present and our past is found in one of the overlooked corners of the county. Just a few short miles from Tumwater and Olympia, out along the prairies and farmland, the community known as East Olympia is one of the last places to feel the march of progress. Since 1916 East Olympia Elementary and its community have been working together, representing one of the many proud legacies found around our county.
What is now known as East Olympia started in the 1840s when Andrew Chambers and his family, were among the first settlers in the area that would later become Thurston County. The land the family occupied and claimed was known as Chambers Prairie after the Chambers’ original plot of land had been sold to numerous families, leading to the creation of this small community. Growing slowly, the community built its first school in 1916. In 1917 Chambers Prairie School opened its doors for 28 students in two classes with two teachers.
In 1933 the name of the town was changed to East Olympia to help avoid confusion, as the city of Olympia’s mail and train depot were located there. Four years later, in 1937, the elementary school became known as East Olympia.
Around that same time, the school acquired a bus to pick up students, which eventually led to a pretty amazing story.
In the 1950s, when the area was still extremely rural, the bus driver, who was also the janitor, received permission from the principal to do something pretty remarkable. Because the region was removed from the rest of the main cities of the county, school lunches were provided by the parents of the students. When the bus would come along to pick up the children, parents would greet the driver, Mr. George Tindell, with food donations for all the students. While this may sound odd, this is not the amazing part.
Because the majority of food donated included fresh vegetables grown by the parents, Mr. Tindell got permission to shoot deer he saw while driving the bus route. If he saw a deer, he would stop the bus and shoot it whether kids were on the bus or not. He would then drop the students off at school and return to the deer, eventually taking the meat either directly to the school or to the grocery store in the community to be stored in their refrigerators. While the shooting of deer was not a common occurrence, the fresh venison became a memorable and important part of the life of a student at East Olympia.
East Olympia Elementary has always had a close connection to the community. Across the street from the old elementary school, there was a volunteer fire station. If there was a call to the fire department, the alarm would ring and the principal at the time would warm up trucks for the volunteers. If volunteers were slow in getting to the station or the need was severe, he might even go and fight the fires himself. The fire station also doubled as a school building. Since the old school did not have a gym, the fire hall would also hold PE classes and assemblies. This lasted into the 1980s.
These stories were shared by Cindy Tobeck, a current third grade teacher at East Olympia Elementary. As a way to get her students and the other children at the school interested in its history, she had her class research and put together a book about the history of East Olympia, focusing on the elementary school, which turned 100 years old last year. Cindy frew up in the area when it was still incredibly rural, once even riding her horse to school. After finishing elementary school at Easy Olympia, attending local middle and high schools, and eventually graduating from college, she came back to teach in the school she attended, demonstrating the strength of community and love for the region that many who live in East Olympia maintain.
In 1989, a new school building was constructed and is still in use today as East Olympia Elementary. The new building allowed for five times as many students and expanded the boundary of the school, which became part of the Tumwater School District in 1963. While the demographics and socioeconomics of students at East Olympia have changed over the years, the spirit and pride for its history have barely waned.
The work of the community to ensure the best for their kids continues to this day. The firefighters and school still have a close relationship, especially when the firefighters help with the annual Thanksgiving feast and on field days. In 2016 the PTO even rekindled an old tradition that had stopped in the mid-1980s – publishing a cookbook with recipes from parents and teachers at the school.
Through these actions and teachers like Cindy Tobeck ensuring the kids at East Olympia Elementary know their regional history, the tight-knit community of East Olympia stands a chance to remain close for a long time to come.