New Age Is Fast Becoming Old Hat In Yelm -- Small Town Learns To Live With `Ramtha'


YELM, Thurston County - Mount Rainier hovers over Bob's Tavern and the Yelm Barber Shop and the kitschy metal cheeseburger adorning the roof of Top of the Box Burgers.

Except for the cheeseburger, it's the same view residents have had for four generations in this bedroom community 17 miles southeast of Olympia.

These days, though, the locals are having to learn to share their turf with Ramtha, a 35,000 year-old warrior from Atlantis, and with the thousands of wealthy newcomers who have flocked to town to meet him and his celebrity ``channeler,'' J.Z. Knight.

In more ways than one, it's a new age in Yelm.

Take last week. About 800 people from all over the country drove to Knight's 50-acre ranch at the Yelm city limits.

As they have at similar meetings since last April, most paid more than $1,000, including room and board, for a weeklong seminar with Knight, who claims that Ramtha speaks through her. All the action takes place inside the pyramid-topped walls of Knight's $2 million mansion.

While ``the Ramsters'' - as some folks call Knight's devotees - are in session, there are few signs of change on Yelm Avenue, the main drag.

Down at Jennee's Restaurant, business is slow. But the cook and the waitress know it will pick up when the Ramtha followers adjourn for the day. And as two men slide into a Naugahyde booth for an afternoon coffee, their conversation has the easy feel of familiar ground.

``Them Ramtha still in town?''

``Yeah, they break up at 5.''

It wasn't always so commonplace. Past seminars, as recently as last fall, upset and divided the town.

When Knight built her place in 1983, she immediately became Yelm's best-known and most controversial resident. Many old-timers, accustomed to 1930s-vintage cottages and unkempt single-wide mobile homes, thought her opulent house with its pyramid-power parapets was a bit much.

Then, when she began encouraging other Ramtha followers, or ``masters,'' to move to the area, some feared a replay of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's takeover of Antelope, Ore. The town clergy warned of cults and devil worship. Some merely bemoaned the sudden traffic jams on Yelm Avenue.

But for the most part, such wariness has subsided.

``You still get some people complaining about the Ramsters. But I think most of us found out they don't have three heads,'' says Lou Bamer, owner of Yelm Barber Shop. ``And I never heard of any of 'em running around the park naked and tying our virgins to a stake.''

Part of the town's growing acceptance has to do with the realization that Ramsters are good for business.

New Age spirituality, it seems, appeals to people with money. And those who have come to Yelm spend it freely. Also, thanks to Ramtha's platitudinous teachings - feel good about yourself, make the most of every situation - ``them Ramtha'' turn out to be friendly, easygoing people.

Rita, the waitress at Jennee's, said she's never known a Ramtha follower to complain about a meal, demand faster service or stiff her on a tip.

``If I waited on nobody but Ramtha people all day, my life would be a lot happier,'' she says.

Bill and Diane Thompson, who live next door to Knight, say most news-media accounts overstated the initial tension in town. Diane Thompson, who works for the local school district, says Knight has quietly donated money to the schools every year.

``The Ramsters are good neighbors,'' Bill Thompson says.

Then there's the real-estate market. After years of depressed values, land now is at a premium. Retired farmers happily sell large tracts for inflated prices to equity-rich Ramtha followers from California, Florida and elsewhere.

Here's a not-atypical ad in the latest edition of the local paper, the Nisqually Valley News:

``Country estate . . . all on 60-plus acres with a year-round creek and an absolutely breathtaking mountain view. A very special place that feels like home. Offered at $595,000.''

Goodie Moeschl, the real-estate agent handling the property, says she has no doubt it will sell.

``It's nice that there's growth because that's business,'' says Dan Longmire of Yelm Realty. ``But personally, I'd rather see the town like it was 40 years ago. Everybody knew everybody, and that's what I liked about it. . . . It used to be if a stranger came into town, he stood out like a sore thumb. It isn't that way anymore.''

Longmire knows something about how things used to be. His great-great-grandfather, James Longmire, was one of the first white settlers on the Yelm prairie, and at least one history book credits him with being the town's first citizen.

When James Longmire arrived in 1853, the prairie was home to some Nisqually Indians and a few settlers from the Hudson's Bay Trading Co., whose trail between Fort Vancouver and Fort Nisqually ran through present-day Yelm. According to ``Early Yelm,'' a book by Edgar Prescott, the town's name is a modification of the Nisqually word ``shelm,'' referring to the shimmering heat waves that rise on the prairie in summer.

Longmire, who came through the Naches Pass in the first emigrant crossing of the Cascades north of the Columbia River, fell in love with what he found. His journal, quoted in ``The Story of Yelm, the Little Town With the Big History,'' reads like a Nisqually Valley News classified ad:

``A beautiful spot, I thought, as it lay before us covered with tall waving grass, a pretty stream flowing through it . . . and the majestic mountain. It was a scene for the artist's brush and the most beautiful I had ever seen and good enough for me, so I bought a house from Martin Shelton.''

Twenty years later, after Longmire had a part in the end of the Indian Wars and helped bring more settlers to the prairie, Yelm had the beginnings of a business district. Thirty years after that, James Mosman helped found the first church - a nondenominational, community parish - and in 20 more years, following several spectacular fires, Yelm was incorporated in 1924.

Today, it's Knight's nondenominational spiritualists who are settling in Yelm and changing the business district.

Of course, the growth has brought problems of its own, apart from the early apprehension about the Ramsters. While the population of the town itself hasn't changed much - it's just over 1,400 today, compared with 1,294 in 1980 - the outlying area is one of the fastest-growing in the state.

Glen Nutter, superintendent of Yelm Community Schools, says the population of the area served by his district is 14,000. The six schools, all new since the early 1970s, already are overcrowded. And enrollment, already at 3,000 students, is growing by 100 youngsters a year.

Meanwhile, traffic is a mess. Down at the barber shop, owner Lou Bamer reminisces about the absence of congestion when he moved to Yelm 25 years ago. ``Now when you walk across the street,'' he says, ``you'd damn well better look both ways.''

The volunteer fire chief, Bill Steele, has a more pressing gripe. Sometimes traffic is so heavy on Yelm Avenue that it takes his crew four or five minutes just to roll a fire truck out of the station. ``It's completely unacceptable,'' he says.

And such delays didn't help three years ago when Yelm suffered a string of arsons that recalled the accidental but devastating blazes of the early part of the century.

To cope with it all, town leaders have joined Thurston County officials in writing a comprehensive land-use plan to manage growth. They're also working on plans to build a sewer system, although Knight and her people have opposed such a move, and to widen Yelm Avenue.

Don Miller, the Nisqually Valley News editor who mixes journalistic skepticism with small-town boosterism, says he and other old-timers are beginning to accept that the town is changing and that Knight and her group will be a part of it.

``I consider myself a little to the right of Genghis Khan,'' Miller says, ``and when you get a guy out here with a beard and a ponytail and he believes a little different than we do, well, it's a cultural shock, let's face it.

``This is a new experience for us old crocks who've been here for years. But I don't know that it's been all that detrimental. You know, at every Chamber of Commerce meeting I've ever been to, they've said, `Move to the Northwest.'

``Well, J.Z. just did a little better job of getting the message out.''

Even with the influx of wealth, however, Yelm remains a poor area. Nutter, the school superintendent, says the district's assessed tax value per student is $145,000, far below the state average of $210,000. And of the students who buy lunch at school, 54 percent are on a free or reduced-price program.

Contrary to the prevailing view, not every Ramster in town arrives with pockets brimming. A bulletin-board notice at Masters Info, the downtown community center for Knight's students, makes the point with a humorous reference to Ramtha's instruction to ``manifest'' your own destiny:

``I have manifested the loss of everything except a suitcase and a sleeping bag,'' the notice says. ``I desire to live and do almost any kind of work in the country.''

Those looking for signs that Yelm's past and present can get along might not need to look any farther than Masters Info. The New Age information center is in one of the town's oldest structures, the Mosman Building, established by the son of James Mosman, the early church founder.

Today, another James Mosman, great-grandson of the original, says it's fine by him that the Ramtha followers are renting from his family's Mosman Agency insurance business. At 77, Mosman still lives on the family homestead near town and grumbles only sporadically about his changing view of the disappearing prairie.

``We've been flooded with people, but you can't help that,'' he says. ``These people gotta live somewhere, I guess. It might as well be here in Yelm.''