Lacey -- Thumbnail History

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 9/01/2020
  • Essay 21095

The City of Lacey is located between the City of Olympia and the Nisqually River in northeastern Thurston County. Originally known as Woodland and also sometimes referred to as Chambers Prairie, the community that became Lacey was founded in 1852 by Isaac Wood (1800-1869). The settlement grew slowly at first, but the 1890s brought increased growth and a new name. In 1891 alone, a train depot and a horse racetrack opened, as did a post office, which was named Lacey. Saint Martin's College (later University) opened a few years later. By the 1920s the name Woodland had been supplanted. Population and development increased after World War II, and Lacey incorporated as a city on December 5, 1966. Entering the third decade of the twenty-first century Lacey was one of the fastest-growing cities in Thurston County, nearly matching Olympia in population.

Early Settlers

Tribal groups including the Nisqually and Squaxin, along with other speakers of Lushootseed (or Whulshootseed), lived throughout the Puget Sound region for generations before non-Native settlers arrived. Their culture was particularly connected to salmon but they planted, harvested, hunted, and fished for food from the prairies and mountains to the rivers and the salt water. The first non-Indians reached what would later be Thurston County in 1792 when a British expedition explored the southernmost point of Puget Sound where Olympia would later develop. But it was another 50 years before the area changed dramatically with the arrival of new settlers.

By 1843, non-Native settlers were traveling across the Oregon Trail with hopes and dreams of a new life in the Northwest. George Bush (1790?-1863), a free African American, and his close and trusted friend Michael Troutman Simmons (1814-1867), an Irish American, led a party of 31 men, women and children from Missouri west by wagon train, ultimately settling at the southern tip of Puget Sound. Bush, Simmons, and their party arrived in what would become Olympia in November 1845 as the first American citizens to settle in the Puget Sound basin. The settlement was named New Market and later changed to Tumwater. (What would soon become Woodland, and later Lacey, east of Olympia was not settled yet.)

Charles H. Eaton (1818-1879) settled on a neighboring prairie on a squatter's claim, since there was no law governing the taking of land at that time. Eaton built a cabin on the land and named it Eaton Prairie. He lost his land in 1849 after returning from the California gold rush with his brother Nathan Eaton (1822-1883). Later, in 1851, after passage of the federal Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, Charles Eaton would take a donation land claim. His brother took a claim on the south side of the prairie.

In the fall of 1847, Irish-born Thomas McCutcheon Chambers (1795-1876) and his wife Latitia (or Letitia) Detzel Chambers (1795-1852), a cousin of U.S. President Andrew Jackson, arrived from Clackamas County, Oregon, with their children and the families of George Brail (1809-?) and George Washington Shaser (1815-1899). With nine covered wagons, 70 head of cattle and 18 head of horses, they settled southeast of Olympia on land they named Chambers Prairie.

In 1848, the year that Oregon Territory (then including what would become Washington) was established, William Pattison Sr. (1798-1873) and his family settled on Chambers Prairie. Pattison had six sons -- Nathan, James, William G., Charles, Robert, and John. The family lived in a two-room cabin. Three of the sons would take land claims next to their father.

In the spring of 1851, Freeman W. P. Tyrrell (1820-1889) arrived with his family and settled in the southeastern part of Chambers Prairie. He was granted a land claim on October 20, 1851. Joseph Harrison Conner (1814-1856) and family settled on Chambers Prairie the same year. Conner was granted a land claim on December 1, 1852, and named his land Conner Prairie.

On January 12, 1852, Thurston County was created by the Oregon Territorial Legislature and named after Samuel Royal Thurston (1816-1851), the territory's first delegate to Congress. Six days later on January 18, Isaac and Catherine (1805-1904) Wood were granted a 320-acre donation land claim located north of Chambers Prairie. They named their land Woodland Prairie.

South of Woodland Prairie, William Rutledge (1794-1872), a veteran of the War of 1812 as a private in the Pennsylvania Militia, also took a land claim in 1852. So did Stephen Ruddell (1816-1891), who arrived from Oregon that year with his family and immediately began farming on Chambers Prairie. On February 21, 1852, Ruddell took a 320-acre donation land claim. Ruddell would marry a total of three times. He was a highly respected member of the community as a farmer, legislator, public officer, and soldier.

David Phillips (1801-1872), a widower from Portland, Oregon, settled on the prairie in 1852 with his three children David, Dorcus, and Hulda. Samuel Klady (1806-1895), also a widower, arrived from Illinois in 1852 with his son William E. Klady (1832-1859), who would serve as a school teacher.

In the summer of 1852, John Nathan Low (1820-1888) and his family settled on the west side of Chambers Prairie. In the fall of 1852, Archibald McMillan (1810-1893) settled on the eastern side of the prairie, as did William S. Parsons (1806-1866).

William Mahard (1810-1888) took a land claim on November 1, 1852, settling east of Chambers Prairie. He never married and is buried in the Western State Hospital Memorial Cemetery. Also in November 1852 John Melvin Hawk (1818-1883) settled in Chambers Prairie with his family. His wife died January 1853 leaving him with six young sons. The children were cared for by many different families on the prairie. Hawk would remarry and have seven more children.

Schools and Blockhouses

On March 2, 1853, Washington Territory was created. That June, Thurston County had a reported population of 996. In the summer of 1853, the first school established in the area was constructed near the Ruddell home.

The school was built by a group of residents that included Stephen Ruddell, Archibald McMillan, James T. Phillips, and David J. Chambers (1820-1896). The log-cabin-style structure was 16 by 20 feet in size with a fireplace, a chimney made of sticks, a puncheon floor, and a cedar-shake roof. There were five windows and the walls were seven feet high. The one-room school held 6 to 10 students. The first teacher was George W. Guthrie (1829-1854).

Tyrus Himes (1818-1879) arrived with his family on October 21, 1853. They initially settled on Chambers Prairie, and on November 9, moved into a one-room log cabin east of the prairie. Also that November, Eliza Jane Leedom Hicks (1832-1853), the young wife of Urban Easter Hicks (1828-1905), died. Her father-in-law, Stephen Ruddell (stepfather of Urban Hicks) set aside a small tract for a needed cemetery after her death. The cemetery was named Ruddell Pioneer Cemetery.

Over the next several years, more new settlers and their families arrived in Woodland and what had started as a small close-knit community grew into a permanent settlement that would be seen as the beginning of Lacey's history.

During the Indian War of 1855-1856, triggered by the efforts of settlers and the territorial government to confine Native Americans on reservations, many pioneering settlers from Chambers Prairie enlisted. An estimated 47 blockhouses and stockades were built around the region to provide shelter and protection, with five of them located on the prairie. The first stockade enclosed a barn and two acres of land near the home of Andrew J. Chambers (1825-1908). The second was a blockhouse on John N. Low's land, followed by a blockhouse and stockade on the Ruddell property, a stockade on Nathan Eaton's land, and finally a blockhouse on David Chambers's property.

Despite the precautions there were casualties among the settlers on the prairie, including William Nathan White (1816-1856), the father of seven children. On March 2, 1856, as White, his wife, her sister, and two children were leaving church services and Sunday school, attackers fired on the family. White, who was not armed, was killed in the struggle. The wagon carrying his family escaped, saving their lives. The war ended in June 1856.

In 1860, Wood and two of his sons founded the Union Brewery, the first in the area, in Olympia on the northeast corner of 4th and Columbia near the shore of Budd Inlet. The brewery building came down in 1909 and a garage was built in its place. Historian Gordon Newell quoted Washington Standard editor John Miller Murphy writing then that "the remaining pioneers would give five dollars for a glass of that cream ale" (Newell, 238).

A Blast of Change

The Woods sold some of their land to John M. Adams (?-1890) in 1883. By then, blasts of change sweeping the country were about to move through the prairie. On June 1, 1890, the United States Census formally announced the western frontier no longer existed and that the migration westward would no longer be recorded. The "Wild West" was gone. In July 1890, Adams sold and subdivided the land he had acquired, selling seven acres to the Northern Pacific Railway as a right-of-way for its rail line being constructed through the area. Adams also platted "Adams Acre Tracts," the first plat recorded in the Woodland neighborhood. The plat is filed in the office of the Thurston County auditor.

By April 1891, the Northern Pacific Railway tracks and the Woodland Train Depot had been completed. The two-story depot included living space occupied by the station master and his family on the second floor. The depot provided the area's main transportation link for almost 25 years before Highway 99 (Pacific Avenue) was built through Lacey in 1914, and continued to serve the community until 1933. A replica of the depot was completed in 2020 "just a little to the west of where it originally stood. The original spot was partially in what is now Clearbrook Street" (Erin Quinn Valcho email).

On May 25, 1891, Isaac Chase Ellis (1832-1910), an Olympia businessman and former mayor and a lover of horses, opened one of the largest horse racetracks in the region close to the new train depot on a property he dubbed Woodland Park. Despite the efforts of Ellis and subsequent owners, the Woodland driving park, as it was sometimes called, never achieved success as a racing venue.

With the community developing rapidly, in the spring of 1891 an application was sent to U.S. Post Office headquarters in Washington, D.C., to establish a post office to be named Woodland. The name was rejected because there was already a Woodland in the state (straddling the Clark-Cowlitz county border some 20 miles north of Vancouver, Washington). The Post Office requested that residents select another name, and Lacey was chosen. It is believed, but not definitively established, that the name "Lacey" derived from Oliver Chester (O. C.) Lacey (1841-1905) of Olympia, a real estate agent and promoter, and later an attorney, who arrived in the area around 1889.

On June 29, 1891, the first Lacey post office opened in George Warren Carpenter's (1852-1927) new general store. Carpenter was appointed postmaster for the growing community. Mail was brought by train and delivered to the store. The post office did not have a building of its own for years, and for a long time the mail was handled in various stores and other locations, including the Woodland Hotel.

Thurston County received a visit on August 9, 1895, from Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), better known as Mark Twain, writer and humorist, and a friend of Lacey resident Urban Hicks -- like Twain, born and raised in Missouri. Twain stayed at the Olympia Theater and in the evening gave a 90-minute solo lecture.

Saint Martin's College (later University) opened its doors in Woodland on September 11, 1895, in a three-story masonry building with gables and a cupola. What was then was an all-boys boarding school was founded by Benedictine monks from Minnesota, who began construction of the building in 1893. Although classes in the new school started on September 11, there was initially only one student -- Angus McDonald of Shelton -- and he arrived late. He remained the only student for several months, but the monks taught all his classes as if they were fully occupied. Despite this beginning, Saint Martin's went on to grow steadily over the years.

Lacey: A Tight-knit Community

By 1900, Lacey had become a tight-knit community. In November 1902, the name of the depot was changed from Woodland Train Depot to Lacey Train Depot. Residents petitioned for the change to make the depot name consistent with the post office.

In 1909 and 1911, President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) passed through the Lacey Train Depot on his way to Olympia. It is not known if the president got off the train in Lacey or if spectators were able to get a good view of Taft. On October 6, 1913, the first county fair opened in Lacey on the grounds of the old Woodland driving park. By 1915 with Pacific Avenue completed and providing another way for travelers to access Lacey, train ridership had declined due to the popularity of paved roads and the newly developed automobile.

Just after 1910, Frank A. Mullen (1872-1949) opened his waterfront property on Pattison Lake to visitors. By the late 1920s, some 20 summer resorts had sprung up around Pattison and several other lakes scattered across southeastern Lacey, attracting visitors from all over the state. Along with Pattison, resorts were developed on Hicks (originally Rutledge) Lake; Long (originally Tyrrell's) Lake; and Southwick Lake (also known as Ruddell Lake). Gwinwood, located on Hicks Lake, was among the most prominent of the summer resorts. On 40 acres of lakefront, owner and operator Gallatin Gwin Hicks (1855-1929) had an 18-room mansion that served many guests and reportedly had earlier been visited by his father Urban Hicks's friend Mark Twain. The mansion would be dismantled in 1960. Ford Parker "Moon" Mullen (1917-2013), son of Pattison Lake resort owner Frank Mullen, was an accomplished athlete who played on the 1939 University of Oregon team that won the first NCAA college basketball championship and in 1944 played one season of major league baseball with the Philadelphia Phillies (then also known as the Blue Jays) before serving in World War II.

As Lacey grew and changed, the name Woodland gradually disappeared from the area. The last major name change came with what had been the Woodland voting precinct. By 1924, the precinct was also named Lacey.

The Great Depression of the 1930s impacted Lacey as it did cities and towns around the world. The Jingle Club (originally the Elks Jingle Club), a community organization, and KGY, an early radio station founded by Father Sebastian Ruth of Saint Martin's College, helped offset some of the worst of the economic downturn of those years. The Jingle Club utilized the radio station to raise money and coordinated with other organizations to help the community.

Originally built in 1931, the Evergreen Ballroom located in Lacey at 9121 Pacific Avenue hosted a wide range of entertainment over the years, from Fred Astaire to Janis Joplin. Original owners Walter (1889-1946) and Mary C. (1895-1970) Sholund constructed the building as a barn-style roadhouse. The ballroom burned down twice, first in 1932, when the Sholunds quickly rebuilt and reopened it, and then on July 20, 2000. Among the many musical talents who appeared there, trumpet king Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) played in concert at the Evergreen Ballroom in 1944 and 1951.

World War II brought major expansion of the U.S. Army's Fort Lewis and neighboring McChord Field, located a short distance east of Lacey in Pierce County. After the war ended in 1945, Lacey experienced rapid growth. Large numbers of both active-duty and retired service members were assigned to the fort and the airfield (which became McChord Air Force Base after formation of the U.S. Air Force in 1948). Many brought their families to make their home in the region, and Lacey proved to be a particularly popular and convenient community for military families. This influx profoundly changed the area's economy, population, and social structure.


The Lacey Plywood Company purchased the Lacey Train Depot in 1950. The depot, which had been vacant since 1933, was torn down to make room for the plywood company's new 18,600-square-foot building. By 1962 the company would become the largest local employer. Beginning in the late 1950s, construction of Interstate 5 through the area changed traveling and contributed to growth in Lacey and nearby communities.

As population and development increased so did issues associated with rapid urbanization. The situation was described in an October 1966 Tacoma News Tribune article (as quoted in a 2007 county planning document):

"Less than 40 years ago, Lacey had no problems. It was scarcely more than a railroad station built by the Northern Pacific Railroad to serve St. Martin's College ... Most of its residents were either farmers or people with at least an acre of ground that liked country living ... It wasn’t until after World War II that residential developers took hold of the area and it really began to grow ... Most of the newcomers, like their predecessors, had some grievance, real or fancied, against the city where they earned their living ... More and more people flocked to the area and the district couldn’t build schools fast enough to keep up ... Earlier this year, the multi-million dollar South Sound Shopping Center started to open up ...The Country Cousins had become city folk and what once was suburbia now was decidedly urban ... During these past 20 years as Lacey was growing...problems were creeping in ... In addition to wall-bursting school enrollments, there were problems of drainage, sewage and police protection" ("Profile").

As the 1960s ushered in the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Vietnam War, advances in civil rights, the rise of the women's movement, and much more, Lacey grew to more than 8,000 residents. Malls and shopping centers increasingly became the place to be and hang out, to shop and eat. At the time the South Sound Center, Lacey's first indoor mall, opened in October 1966 it was the third-largest shopping center in the state.

The community was reaching the end of a slow but determined separation from from once-dominant Olympia. Rivalry between Lacey and Olympia had increased during the 1950s and 1960s as the Lacey area became more urbanized. The need for additional services to address urban needs led to debate between those who suggested annexing the area to Olympia and those who saw Lacey as a city of its own. The latter prevailed.

On November 8, 1966, residents approved the incorporation of Lacey with 1,586 votes in favor and 1,346 opposed. Lacey officially incorporated on December 5, 1966, as a third-class city. The first mayor, Albert Glen Homann (1897-1975), a city council consisting largely of local business leaders, and other city officials were sworn in. For a majority of residents, urbanization, growing pains, and being independent from Olympia were worth the change. Lacey climbed out of the shadow of Olympia and became its own municipality.

In 1970, Lacey's population was estimated at 9,696. In 1973, the mayor-council form of government was changed council-manager, with the elected city council appointing a city manager to oversee city administration. The city continued growing into a through the 1980s, bringing in more retail shopping and ongoing bickering with Olympia.

In 1974, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was established just east of Lacey's city limits to protect the Nisqually River delta and its fish and wildlife habitats. Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014), a Nisqually tribal leader, fisherman, and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, fought to protect treaty rights and was active in efforts to preserve and restore the delta. On December 18, 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law the Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act, which officially changed the refuge's name to Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Karen Fraser (b. 1944) became Lacey's first woman mayor in 1976, and went on to serve two terms. Efforts to establish museum to preserve local history began in 1979, and the Lacey Museum opened in 1981 at 829 Lacey Street SE in a historic home built in the 1920s and later used as the first city hall, which was moved to the site to become the museum building.

In 1984, Lacey was the first city in the state to recognize Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday. In 1986, the Historical Preservation Program was established. The program recognized properties in Lacey that were at least fifty years old.

Lacey in the Twenty-first Century

In 2005, the Lacey Woodland Trail was constructed and connected to a regional trail system that followed the old railroad tracks. The trail was renamed the Karen Fraser Woodland Trail in 2018. For those with outdoor interests, a Cabela's store opened in Lacey in November 2007 offering sporting goods and outdoor equipment.

Tumwater, just south of Olympia, is known for its brewery history; Olympia's identity is based on being the state capital; and as for Lacey, in the words of a newspaper editorialist, "it's just different" ("It's Time to Take a Fresh Look ..."). By April 2020 Lacey's population had reached nearly 53,000, and the city was coming close to surpassing Olympia as the largest in Thurston County.

Lacey's demographics are ethnically diverse, not least because of the diversity of the large number of military service members and their families who call the area home. The city's many ethnic communities are celebrated in an annual festival, a free event for the entire family featuring music, dance, artwork, food, crafts, and more.

The historic original neighborhood on Pacific Avenue around Carpenter Road and Saint Martin's University is the heart of Lacey, where it all started and home to the Lacey Museum, a replica of the original train depot, the Woodland Trail, and the site of the long-forgotten Woodland Park racetrack. One of Washington's fastest-growing cities, Lacey continues to balance planning for future population growth while preserving qualities its residents appreciate.


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