Tillicum. It has its individual rhythm and hum, shaped by the freeway passing by and the Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Amidst the buzz, you’ll find a quiet pace of everyday life here with families taking kids to the park, military members coming home from work and people tending their homes and gardens. It’s a practical town, and one where life goes on – people frequenting the businesses on the main street, going to work or working from home and keeping up with each other in social media community groups.

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Named from the Chinook language, Tillicum means “the people” or “friends.” A sub-community of Lakewood, this town has its own personality and culture. As you travel on I-5, consider stopping by to support one of the local businesses. On the main street, you’ll find a variety of fast food open, as well as unique military surplus stores like the Foxhole Surplus. As a staple in the area, it’s a great place to get survival supplies, camping gear, sturdy clothing, and military memorabilia.

Tillicum
Serving Pierce County for over 35 years, the Foxhole offers military surplus items for both service personnel and the practical shopper alike. Photo credit: Gale Hemmann

One of Tillicum’s most beautiful areas is Harry Todd Park, now open for dog walks, picnics, boating and swimming. You’ll see a unique blend of custom military tailoring, drive-thrus, corner stores and people out for a stroll along the main street. In this quiet town, it’s not an uncommon sight this time of year to see boats and Sea-Dos cruising down to the lake. Water is a peaceful way we can all relax right now.

A hop, skip and jump from the bustle of Lakewood and Olympia, Tillicum still has that small-town feel and natural beauty in its park and waterfront. Talking to locals, you’ll hear many happy stories of this spot. “My favorite memory would be being at the lake in the summer,” says resident Kerri Williams. “There used to be a dock that went in a U-shape and diving boards. My friends and I would spend all day there at the corner of the dock.”

Tillicum
American Lake has always been a popular spot, from tourists who flocked to the area to modern-day locals who like to fish and boat there. Photo credit: Gale Hemmann

It still holds its charm. “I love the small-town feel,” newer resident Antonia Jones Dean says. “My favorite thing about this town so far is watching kids ride their bikes over to the park to swim.” The town has a church, elementary school, library and community center where you will find neighbors caring for each other.

The area was formed as a military base for the First World War. But did you know that Tillicum came into its own as a town in the 1950s? After World War II, the base town became a hit vacation spot for post-war families. Washington tourists flocked to it to overtake the old army barracks and recreate at American Lake. Many restaurants beckoned to weary passers-by on I-5 with their neon signs and down-home fare. Resident Liesa Gonner Molter worked at the Barbeque Inn for over 10 years before it shuttered. Though sad it closed, she recalls, “It was built back in the 1920s and just beautiful inside.” The iconic Galloping Gerties is a Tillicum go-to spot for over 30 years.

The Barbeque Inn was a popular restaurant along Tillicum’s main street, Union Avenue. Photo credit: Liesa C. Gonner Molter

Those who are seeking a smaller town feel and a quiet little hub away from it all may still enjoy stopping by the lake or even calling this area home. It’s a warm, genuine, no-frills area where you can find just what you need.

Tillicum, like many areas, has had its share of challenges in recent years. In fact, a local history article by Steve Dunkelberger notes the town has had its own boom, bust and boom cycle. It got a re-investment of life in the 1990s with increased local efforts on safety and connecting it with city services from Lakewood. In recent years, there has been a Habitat for Humanity re-build here, resulting in over 30 beautiful homes for families.

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Many locals will remember the Logistics Center sign at the entrance of Fort Lewis, now a familiar landmark along I-5. Photo credit: Gale Hemmann

“I love this small little town still to this day and will always call it home,” long-time resident Sharon Taylor says. “I recall back in the 60s hanging out in the park until darkness. There were woods behind the baseball fields with loads of trails. It was fun just being a kid. Yet it has its past bad things but that’s history. You make it what you make it.… My family has been here since 1921.”

Hopefully, as you trek down I-5, you’ll consider getting off the beaten path and visiting the small town of Tillicum. They’ll welcome your business and you’ll appreciate finding a quiet little pause amidst the main freeway speed of our lives.

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