Not a Military town

March 19th, 2008 by Ken

I was talking with an Olympia businessman recently who was trying to do some business at Ft. Lewis.  During the course of his meeting with military officials he came away impressed.  “They really love Lacey at Ft. Lewis,” he said.  “That’s all they could talke about.”

Thurston County, Lacey and Olympia lay adjacent to the second largest military base in the United States – – Ft. Lewis.  Along with Madigan army hospital and McCord air force base, it would seem only appropriate that Olympia and Lacey would have become typical military towns.  

It happened to Lakewood, to Steilacoom, to Tillicum to Dupont and to some extent to Tacoma.  They were all impacted by their location near Ft. Lewis since the base’s opening prior to World War I.

But it didn’t happen to Lacey or Olympia or anywhere else in Thurston County.  What happened?  Why didn’t Lacey or Olympia become typical military towns.

To really understand the answer to that question we have to go back to World War II and the Olympia Airport.  During WW2 army military pilots used to train at the Olympia Airport and flew scouting missions out over the Pacific looking for Japanese sumarines and planes.

Across the street from the Olympia Airport sat the Airport Inn, a typical Northwest tavern.  It was here that pilots, when off duty, would hang out and it was at the Airport Inn where local boys also found time to lift a beer or two.

One evening the two groups met, exchanged words (no one is certain over what but is was suggested a girl was involved) and a fight broke out.   Nearly two dozen people were involved.

After investigating the incident, the military commander at Ft. Lewis put Thurston County off-limits.  And it remained off limits for decades.

Soliders arriving at Ft. Lewis were told to look in Pierce County for housing and to stay away from Thurston County.  And they did.  For all of the 1950’s and most of the 1960’s it was rare, extremely rare, to see military uniforms anywhere in Thurston County.

But someone was looking at Thurston County – – the retired military.  They saw Thurston County as a great place to retire.  It wasn’t a typical military town with bars and other pleasures drawing hordes of young men, and it was close to the PX and Madigan.  Thurston County was the perfect place for retired military to land.

No one knows percisely when the off-limits ban was ever lifted.  Some even doubt that it ever was.  Still, by the 1960’s and war raging in Vietnam, and thousands of troops going through Ft. Lewis,  military uniforms were still a rarity in Thurston County.   It wasn’t until 1968 that military units even marched in the Lakefair Parade.

Lacey’s embrace of the military came about gradually.  Many retired military had settled here and had spread the word and soon officers began settling their families in or near Lacey.  They were eventually followed by enlisted personnel who also moved to Lacey with their families.  Lacey was welcoming, had affordable housing and good schools.

But it was the Iraq War which really bonded Lacey and the military together.

The invasion of Iraq and the call up of military reserves brought the war home.  Many local residents were called to duty and their hardships resulted in recognition of the hardships all military families faced.

Hawks Prairie Rotary Club began its Military Family Support March raising money to help military families.  The City of Lacey, Hawks Prairie Rotary Club and Evelyne Betti joined forces with the developers of the Costco Plaza to build a statue honoring military families and the rest is well-known.

Lacey and its military families have long since forgotten when Thurston County was off-limits and soldiers weren’t welcome her.

(Personal note:   I’ve been asked how I know this information.  I remember the Airport Inn and had a few drinks there myself.  The story was told time and time again by the regulars who used to frequent the tavern.  I was stationed at Ft. Lewis for 3 years in the early 60’s and couldn’t understand why soldiers didn’t travel into Thurston County.  I was always told, by everyone, that it was off-limits.  I put all that information together and came up with this story.  It first ran in Ken’s Corner & The Real News  in March 08.)

Posted in Informational

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