In March 1865, pioneer Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) plants hop vine cuttings on his farm in the Puyallup Valley. The plants flourish and Meeker continues to expand his plantings over the years. By the early 1880s Meeker is a wealthy hop merchant with a branch in London selling hops on the world market.
Pioneers to the Puyallup Valley
Ezra and Eliza Meeker (1832-1909) immigrated to Oregon Territory from Indiana in 1852 over what would later be immortalized (largely due to Ezra Meeker's efforts) as the Oregon Trail. They moved to the Puyallup Valley in 1862 with their young children and began subsistence farming.
In March 1865, Ezra Meeker's younger brother John stopped by Ezra's cabin en route to their father Jacob Meeker's home near Sumner. He carried with him cuttings from hops plants that Olympia resident and brewer Charles Wood had been cultivating in his garden. Wood, evidently more intent on brewing beer than on farming, had promised to buy any hops Jacob Meeker might produce. Ezra Meeker helped himself to several of the cuttings, planted them, and watched them flourish. Jacob Meeker also planted his cuttings successfully.
The Puyallup Valley seemed ideally suited to the cultivation of hops. Hop fields are visually distinctive. The plants are usually set eight feet apart in little mounds with one or two tall poles erected near each mound. Cord or wire runs from the ground to top of the pole and the hop vines climb it rapidly, sometimes growing as much as a foot per day. The cone-shaped hop flowers are harvested by hand then dried in kilns. Dried hops are used to flavor beer.
Ezra Meeker later described how hop fever spread throughout the valley:
"The following September (my father) harvested the equivalent of one bale of hops, 180 pounds. That was sold for eighty-five cents a pound, or a little more than a hundred and fifty dollars for the bale. The sum was more than had been received by any of the settlers in the Puyallup valley, except perhaps two, from the products of their farms for that year. My father's near neighbors obtained a barrel of hop roots from California the next year, and planted them the following spring -- four acres ... [In 1867] I planted four acres, and for twenty-six successive years thereafter we added to the area planted, until our holdings reached past the five-hundred-acre mark and our production was over four hundred tons a year. None of us knew anything about the hop business, and it was entirely by accident that we engaged in it" (Meeker and Driggs, p. 201).
Meeker remedied his ignorance by studying how hops were grown in Europe. He discovered that the secret to a high-quality hop crop was allowing the flowers to fully mature, drying them at a low temperature, and then baling them while they were still hot.
Meeker built his first hop-curing house near his cabin in what is now (2006) Pioneer Park in 1868. He continued adding acreage to his fields, clearing land and planting larger crops each spring. In time he employed up to 1,000 harvesters, many of them Indian and some drawn from as far away as coastal British Columbia and Alaska. Portland brewer Henry Weinhard was a steady customer.
Heyday of Hops
In 1882 most of the British hop crop failed, driving prices up. Meeker sold 100,000 pounds of hops at 70 cents per pound that year, a $70,000 yield. Meeker later wrote,
"Finally our annual shipments reached eleven thousand bales a year, or the equivalent value of half a million dollars -- said at the time to be the largest export hop business of any one concern in the United States. At one time I had two full trainloads between the Pacific and the Atlantic, on their way to London. I spent four winters in London dealing in the hop market" (Meeker and Driggs, p. 203).
During one of these London winters Eliza Meeker was presented at court to Queen Victoria (1819-1901). A tribute to Meeker, printed in The Puyallup Press on September 21, 1939, stated that Meeker "made speeches in London which were printed in the papers. London brewers admitted that he had cornered the market ... the hop industry was to bring $20,000,000 in fresh money into the Pacific Northwest ... Ezra was hop king of the world" (p. 36).
In 1883 Meeker published his first book, Hop Culture In the United States, a treatise on hop growing in Washington Territory. Meeker wrote, "This treatise is not published with a view to induce people to embark in the business of hop-raising, but for the purpose of enabling those that contemplate engaging in, or are already in it, to avoid the mistakes of early pioneers ... none of the pioneers in hop-growing in Washington Territory knew anything of the business; many of them had never seen a hop-vine growing before the planting in the Puyallup Valley" (p.4).
By 1891 Ezra Meeker was cultivating 500 acres of hops and had an interest in almost every other commercial hops crop growing in the Pacific Northwest.
The 1892 Hop Lice Disaster
In 1892 disaster struck: hop lice devastated the Meeker's hops crop and those of other growers from California to British Columbia. The crop sold at a fraction of the expected price, and the Puyallup hop industry never rebounded. Meeker later wrote:
"One evening in 1892, as I stepped out of my office and cast my eyes toward one group of hop houses, it struck me that the hop foliage of a field near by was off color -- did not look natural ... I walked down to the yards, a quarter of a mile away, and there saw the first hop louse. The yard was literally alive with lice, and they were destroying the quality of the hops ... At that time I had advanced to my neighbors and others upon their hop crops more than a hundred thousand dollars, which was lost. These people simply could not pay, and I forgave the debt, taking no judgments against them, and I have never regretted the action. All my accumulations were swept away, and I quit the business -- or rather, the business quit me" (Meeker and Driggs, p. 204).
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.