Lacey: An Interesting History And Unusual Place Name

lacey wa history
The old Russell house/fire station on Pacific Avenue, served for a time as Lacey’s first City Hall after incorporation in December 1966. It was later moved to Lacey Street and transformed into the Lacey Museum. Photo courtesy Lacey Museum.


By Drew Crooks

hawks prairie casinoLacey, in northern Thurston County, is currently a growing city of over 42,000 inhabitants.

This community has an interesting history. For example, the name of Lacey is derived from a man surrounded by mystery, O. C. Lacey. This article will briefly look at the history of Lacey and its unusual place name.

The story of Lacey stretches far back into the past. For thousands of years Native Americans lived in the area and used its abundant resources of plants and animals. In the middle of the nineteenth century American settlers moved to the region in search of a better life. One immigrant was Isaac Wood, who in 1852 took a donation land claim of 320 acres. This claim included land which later became the Lacey Historical Area, a neighborhood just west of Saint Martin’s University.

lacey wa history
Lacey School, on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Carpenter, was for decades an important institution for the Lacey community. Photo courtesy Lacey Museum.

Over time a small community of American settlers developed in the place that is now called Lacey. It was first known as Woodland, a name that recognized the pioneer Wood Family which consisted of Isaac, his wife Catherine and their children. By 1891 several hundred people lived in the locality. A Northern Pacific Railroad train depot was built and a horse race track (Woodland Driving Park) constructed.

Inhabitants felt the need for a local post office. Consequently, the community sent an application and accompanying citizen petition to the U.S Government asking for the creation of a Woodland Post Office.

This request was denied by the government for the reason that a post office/town named Woodland already existed in Washington State, located near the Columbia River. According to official federal policy, the same name could not be used for two post offices situated in the same state. It would cause confusion in mailing in an era when letters were often addressed simply to a person and post office/town.

The Woodland community in Thurston County still wanted a post office. So a new petition was completed and turned in to the US Postal authorities. This time the proposed name was not Woodland, but Lacey. In June 1891 the federal government accepted the proposal. The Lacey post office was established and George Warren Carpenter appointed as its first postmaster.

He built a wooden structure near what is presently the intersection of Homann Drive and Lacey Boulevard to serve as the new post office.

lacey wa history
The old Russell house/fire station on Pacific Avenue, served for a time as Lacey’s first City Hall after incorporation in December 1966. It was later moved to Lacey Street and transformed into the Lacey Museum. Photo courtesy Lacey Museum.

What was the origin of the Lacey post office name? It seems to be connected to a mystery man. Called Chester Lacey in one newspaper article, this shadowy person was usually identified in newspapers and legal records of the time as O. C. Lacey. Contrary to some later historical accounts, he was never called O.C de Lacy or de Lacey. In the early 1890s, the enterprising individual worked variously as an Olympia-based real estate speculator, lawyer, and Justice of the Peace. Apparently hard hit by the economic depression of the later 1890s, he cut ties to the area and left for first Seattle, then Spokane, and finally parts unknown.

But why was Lacey proposed as the name for the post office in the second application to the federal government? This is a real mystery since the reason for the choice remains unknown. Surviving records do not indicate any particularly strong ties between O.C. Lacey and the people seeking a post office. As a result of the 1891 federal decision, the community for a time had two names: Lacey for the post office and Woodland for everything else. Eventually Lacey became the name for the whole community.  Still the Woodland name has not completely disappeared from the area. Woodland Creek and Woodland Elementary School, for example, still keep alive the old nomenclature.

Lacey grew slowly over the years. Volunteer organizations and schools helped unify the small community. The Lacey School, located on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Carpenter Road, was an especially important institution from 1913 to 1968. In 1968, the building became the North Thurston Public Schools administrative offices. District headquarters left the structure in 1986, and the building was demolished eight years later. Today a Safeway store, constructed to look like the old school and bearing an historical marker on one side, stands on the site.

lacey wa history
South Sound Center, located in downtown Lacey, furthered population and business growth in the 1960s. Photo courtesy Lacey Museum.

The post-World War II era saw a definite increase in the numbers of people who lived in Lacey. 1966 proved to be the decisive year of change for the locality. In October 1966 the South Sound Center opened in downtown Lacey. It was the first major shopping center in the area, both promoting and symbolizing further population and business growth. That same fall the local voters approved the incorporation of Lacey in an election held on November 8.  Quite appropriately, the officers of the new city took their oaths of office in December at the South Sound Center mall.

Preserving and interpreting the story of Lacey are the major goals of the Lacey Museum, which is currently housed in the old Russell home/fire station/first city hall that was moved to Lacey Street. One interesting artifact at the Museum is the school bell from the Lacey School. Current plans are to construct a replica 1891 Northern Pacific Railroad train depot on Pacific Avenue to serve as a new city museum. This structure would be dedicated in December 2016 to mark the 50th anniversary of Lacey’s incorporation. It would honor the interesting history of a community that was named for O. C. Lacey, a man who remains mysterious to the present day.

Further Reading

Palmer, Gayle, and Shanna Stevenson, edited, Thurston County Place Names: A Heritage Guide (Olympia, WA: Thurston County Heritage Commission, 1992).

Stevenson, Shanna B., Olympia, Tumwater, and Lacey: A Pictorial History, Revised Edition (Norfolk, VA: The Donning Company/Publishers, 1996).

Weaver, Lanny, “The Hunt for O.C. Lacey,” Lacey Museum, July 1995.


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