Early on the morning of Thursday, April 1, a barn burned to the ground on State Route 507, a stone’s throw from Creek Street and the Yelm businesses that populate the area.
With the 120-year-old, wood-and-metal structure’s smoldering demise went one of the last vestiges of a once-thriving, iconic local farm. The farm’s clever play on words, in fact, adorned the side of the barn where drivers traveling east or west on SR 507 could quickly glimpse it if the surrounding locust tree blossoms weren’t too thick.
“A-Just-Man-Farm” the sign had read in 4-foot-high letters, both to signify the name of the family’s patriarch Arthur Justman Sr. and to identify the ranch’s A-J cattle brand. Some townspeople also evidently teased Justman and his 20-year-old son Arthur Jr. — who joined his dad in 1942 to run the 25-acre farm — that the sign referenced the men’s “just” and honest Christian values.
In their quest to make an honest living — and from their convenient location near town — father and son supplied the community with chickens, eggs, berries, milk from a Grade-A dairy, and later beef, but by the time Arthur Jr. died in 2016, the farm had reverted to selling just hay.
And now the commercially zoned land at 16731 SR 507 — that includes the family’s wood frame 1,800-square-foot ancestral home — is for sale. The property includes two different parcels: the home farm on 10 acres and another 5-acre parcel north of SR 507. The Thurston County Assessor’s Office lists the 10-acre property with a 2020-21 total market value of $680,400, $27,500 of that accorded to the property’s buildings of which the now defunct barn probably accounted for a few dollars.
The 1,152-square-foot structure’s ignominious coda seems to have simply added an exclamation point to the farm’s 100-year memorial.
“It’s sad, but everything comes to an end at one point or another,” said Ben Justman, 65, one of Arthur Justman Jr.’s six children, reached by phone Thursday at his home in Goldendale. “The barn was definitely a historic building in the Yelm area. It was sad to see it burn down.”
According to Battalion Chief Kevin Denton, with East Olympia Fire District 6, the fire began at about 4:50 a.m. on Thursday and burned until about noon. By the time Denton and his crew arrived at the scene, the barn — which was about a quarter-filled with hay — had already collapsed, and with it the telltale A-Just-Man-Farm sign.
“The barn was fully engulfed when we arrived, and there was no way to identify any writing on it,” Denton said Thursday. “It was a total loss, but no other structures were damaged.”
The barn contained no electrical power, Denton added, and nobody was seen leaving the area, so he couldn’t speculate on the cause of the fire. The property has been occupied at times by transients, Ben Justman noted, though Denton said there were no reports of people leaving the barn Thursday morning.
The Bald Hills Fire Department and the Southeast Thurston Fire Authority — aided by two fire engines, one aid unit, and two water tenders— also responded to the blaze, which required 6,000 gallons of water to extinguish.
Loral Lee Tustison, 68, the oldest of the Justman kids — and the only one still living in Yelm — rushed on Thursday from her nearby home to the barn as soon as she heard the news.
Tustison said her grandfather and the Yelm postmaster at the time painted the original barn sign around 1922, just after her grandparents had renovated, then moved into, the old farmhouse that already occupied the farm property.
Her memories, she said, flooded back that morning as she surveyed the remains of the barn where as a kid she had enjoyed so many magical moments. She recalled feeding the farm’s horses and cows, playing on the hay, swinging from the ceiling, and roller skating on what was then the barn’s second story.
On Friday when she returned to the site, her shock might have eased, but not the sadness in her eyes.
“And as I stood there looking at the pile of dirt, and the charred and twisted metal and wood, I just thought how quickly life was over and how all of our generations that were once here are now in all different spots,” she said. “It was almost like a death in the family, the end of an era.”
And the end, Tustison says, of a farm that was once “a drawing card for the community.”
“It’s sometimes hard to see what people call ‘progress’ these days,” she said. “Family farms are becoming extinct, and cities and towns are taking over. Who knows what’s going to happen to this land.”