After five years and a significant community effort, the Yelm Water Tower renovation is nearing completion. The newly restored 125-foot structure has several fresh coats of paint, improved anchoring, a computerized lighting system, and an enthusiastic fan base who has been working tirelessly since 2016. A ribbon-cutting and lighting ceremony will take place on November 23 along with a public presentation of appreciation at the Yelm City Council meeting for all the community members involved. “This was an incredibly collaborative effort and the way this project was completed with so many people working together, it is one of many examples of what our community is all about,” said Michael Grayum, City Administrator.”
Thanks to local business owner Steve Craig, the catalyst and driving force behind the project, and the nonprofit board of Save the Historic Yelm Water Tower, an organization he founded with other community philanthropists, the tower has been on the state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation register since 2017. It is the only tower in Washington State with that designation. The recognition comes with some requirements, however. The tower’s colors need to be historically accurate, which means it can’t be painted in alternative hues for holidays or special events. Craig found a way around that issue that allows for variety while maintaining historic integrity: lighting displays.
“We’ll be using a computerized lighting system that can do different scenarios,” he explains. “It can be Seahawks colors during football games and reflect different holidays. The one I’m looking forward to is New Year’s Eve, because not only can you do the lighting, we can create a mini-version of what happens in New York City with lights coming on in spectacular fashion at midnight. It could become an annual event.”
“The innovative lighting system will make the tower a tourism attraction and a symbol of celebration during holidays and community events,” said Grayum.
When Craig first began paying attention to the tower, it was in danger of being dismantled. In 2016 the Yelm City Council was having conversations about the cost involved in tearing it down due to rust, erosion and structural issues. “They were leaning in that direction because at that point it was empty and they had built a new water tower,” says Craig. “They didn’t necessarily want to invest in restoring the old one.” When he approached the City on the topic, Yelm Mayor J.W. Foster was excited because the tower renovation compliments the creative vision of Yelm’s recently established Arts Commission and will enhance the community festivals we have created and the improvement we are making to the historic downtown area. Mayor Foster told Craig he had the full support and approval of the City, but no funding.
Enter legislator J.T. Wilcox who represents Washington’s 2nd District. Craig contacted him about securing funding through the State Capital Budget. “Representative Wilcox is a big supporter of Yelm and has a degree in history from Washington State University,” Craig notes. “He’s history-minded and this was a project that he liked.” Over a four-year span, Wilcox helped to get $450,000 in state funding allocated toward the restoration.
Local contractors have been integral to the process, starting with Tracy Connally, owner of Connally Finishes LLC. Typically, Connally works on heavy equipment like bulldozers and excavators, but when Craig asked him about the water tower, he agreed to take it on. “He had never done anything like this before,” Craig says. “We started in August 2020 and then monsoon season started. He was putting up plastic tarps and the wind would blow them away. It was very challenging, and we agreed to wait until spring.”
But as it turned out, the weather was the least of their problems. Shortly after he began work on the project, Connally lost his stepmother. Within the next year, his brother-in-law died in an accident, and the following spring, his father died. “It was a very traumatic series of things for the family to have to deal with,” says Craig. “Through all of this, Tracy and his family, including his mother, prevailed and got the job done. It’s been incredible.”
The next step was getting the town name on the side of the tower. Craig recalled meeting Michael Heaton, a Yelm resident with a background in sign painting. “I contacted him, and he said, ‘I’m not afraid of heights,’ which was an important factor,” Craig says. “It was an almost six-hour process to get the letters done. It’s satisfying to have a Yelm person put ‘Yelm’ back on the tank.”
Craig credits his nonprofit board members—Barrie Wilcox, Beverly Vines-Haines, Margaret Clapp and EJ Curry—for their unwavering support of the renovation, calling their support nothing short of incredible. One member at least had a pre-existing relationship with the tower. Curry’s parents owned the local telephone company and every year her father would climb up the tower to hang Christmas lights.
With its mission complete, the nonprofit will dissolve after the ribbon-cutting ceremony and the City of Yelm will take over maintaining the tower. Public Works Director Cody Colt believes it will be a community asset for years to come. “It’s huge to revitalize the tower and have it standing over festivals that happen in the park from now on,” he says. “We’ll be redoing the landscaping and putting up a wrought-iron fence and an interpretive kiosk that will explain the project and its history.” A representative from Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, the tower’s original builders in 1946, plans to attend the ribbon-cutting and lighting ceremony.
As the holiday season kicks off, keep your eyes peeled for the first of many festive light displays to come. The community sees the newly renovated tower as a beacon of light on the Yelm prairie. “New York has the ball, Seattle has the space needle, and Yelm has the tower,” said Craig. Learn more by visiting the City of Yelm’s website.