By Dennis M. Larsen
Washington State University Press
Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index
A Northwest pioneer who traveled across the Oregon Trail in 1852, penniless and uneducated, settled in the Puyallup Valley and, by his accomplishments, placed it on the world map: Ezra Meeker was a visionary, a dreamer, and a risk taker. In his new book, Dennis Larsen, a former social-studies teacher and independent historian, tells the story of Ezra Meeker's rise and fall empathetically and with historical accuracy.
Ezra, along with his brother and his father, settled in the Fern Hill district of Tacoma but the Indian Wars of the mid-1850s forced them to go to Steilacoom, where they opened a store. This was Ezra's first business venture, and it had an unfortunate demise but, always optimistic, he returned to his farm and in 1868, after his father's successful venture in growing hops, he planted two acres of the crop. This became the beginning of an economic empire in the Puyallup Valley as he promoted Northwest-grown hops in New York and London and became the "hop king" and one of the wealthiest men in Washington Territory.
Despite his wealth, Meeker lived with his family in a modest cabin and contributed to the development of the town of Puyallup, serving as postmaster, founding the library, and aiding in the creation of Puyallup Valley schools. His hop industry required the hiring of hundreds of workers to pick the fields, including Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. During the Chinese Expulsion of the 1880s he helped make Puyallup a safe place for Chinese workers. A generous and honest man, Meeker was also pugnacious as witnessed by his part in numerous civil court cases, his clashes with Alexander Farquharson in business, and Edmond Meany over Chicago World's Fair finances.
After traveling to New York, Europe, and Asia finding markets for his hops, Meeker would come home with more visions for his valley. Sugar beets were introduced but did not thrive and a railway from Puyallup to Tacoma floundered but not before Meeker built a hotel for its passengers. He also became heavily involved in many other activities, including serving as Washington Territory Commissioner to the New Orleans Exposition, agricultural editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, president of the Washington Pioneers, and trustee of the Puyallup Water and Light Company, in addition to indulging his wife with the building of the Meeker Mansion.
The last decade of the century, however, brought heartbreak and financial problems. Meeker had raised a nephew, Frank, from childhood to his entrance to Cornell. He was rightly very proud of him, but unfortunately the young man not only disgraced the family with his adulterous behavior but also became a swindler. Then hop lice descended on the valley, destroying the hops crop, and this along with other financial disasters caused Meeker's downfall. By 1896 he was no longer a wealthy pioneer nor the hop king.
Still optimistic, Meeker left farming and ventured into mining. He went to British Columbia, working under the banner of the International Mine Development Company and in the Yukon from 1898 until 1901. The last of his remarkable 98 years of life were spent traveling over the Oregon Trail, placing markers along the route to memorialize it.
The author has noted both his passion for this early figure in the history of Washington and the fact that there has been no comprehensive biography of his life. As Larsen states in the preface, his workroom is filled with notebooks of Meeker's correspondence, archival boxes of newspaper articles, and bookshelves lined with books written by and about him. That he has used them with success can be seen in the bibliography, the extensive pages of notes, and the well-written narrative.
This is a distinct contribution to the history of Washington. The only glaring omission is a photograph of the Meeker Mansion.
By Mary T. Henry, November 27, 2016