Puyallup -- Thumbnail History

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 1/22/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8447
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Puyallup (Pew-al'-up), a suburban city of 36,790 (2007) about five miles southeast of Tacoma, was once the hub of an agricultural cornucopia. The Puyallup Valley is the ancestral home of the Puyallup Tribe and after 1850 began attracting white settlers who were drawn by the rich alluvial soil. The Indian War of 1855-1856 drove the few homesteaders to Fort Steilacoom and they did not begin returning in any numbers until 1859. Subsistence farming mutated into the agribusiness of hops, an ingredient of beer. From 1870 to 1890 the valley was one of the world's foremost hop-growing areas, producing spectacular yields and spectacular fortunes. When hop lice destroyed the crop in 1891, farmers turned to berries and flowers for cash crops. The town was platted in 1877 by Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), hop tycoon, entrepreneur, politician, author, and civic gadfly. Notwithstanding sawmills and woodworking plants, agriculture remained the valley's major industry through World War II. But competition from California and foreign growers doomed the berry industry and most of the flower industry moved to the Skagit Valley. The postwar boom accelerated pressure on farmlands as housing developments and malls marched easily across the fields. Today, Puyallup acknowledges its agricultural past primarily through the Puyallup Fair and the Daffodil Festival and Parade, private nonprofit organizations that have become year-round mini-industries. In addition, Puyallup and environs remain home to one of Western Washington's major retail auto centers.

A Fecund Valley

The Puyallup Valley for thousands of years was home to a band of Native Americans --  800 to 2,000 of them -- called the “pough-allup,” or “generous people” by the Yakama Tribe, with whom they traded. The valley, watered by the glaciers of nearby Mount Rainier, was thick with fir, spruce, alder, vine maple, cedar, and cottonwood trees, and the undergrowth a tangled thicket of salal and salmonberry. The Indians  lived in permanent cedar longhouses and enjoyed an abundance of fresh- and saltwater fish -- especially salmon -- clams, game, berries, nuts, and roots of the camas and potato-like wapato. They lived well and could afford to be generous. The river which fed the valley, however, flooded regularly and was clogged with logjams.

The first known white man to explore the valley was Dr. William F. Tolmie (1812-1886), who was sent from Fort Nisqually to care for Hudson’s Bay Company trappers in 1833. By 1852, several men, living with Native American wives, had staked homestead claims under the 1850 Donation Land Act. The Indians at first welcomed the settlers but trouble soon developed. Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862), no Native American sympathizer, pressured local tribal leaders into signing the Medicine Creek Treaty on December 26, 1854. The treaty, which forced the tribes onto inadequate reservations, was weighted heavily in favor of the whites and tribal anger erupted in violence in 1855 when members of two white families were killed on the nearby White River. Armed resistance resulted in the Indian Wars of 1855-1856,  whites fled to Fort Steilacoom, and Indians burned and looted cabins in the Puyallup Valley. A few whites survived in the valley during this period, but settlers did not begin returning in significant numbers until 1859.

The Puyallup School District was formed in 1854, but there was no formal schooling until 1861. Itinerant preachers visited the valley occasionally in the early days, but the first congregation was organized on November 16, 1867, when the Reverend Rudolphus Weston helped organize the First Baptist Church. “His efforts bore all the marks of a revival ... .” (Price-Anderson, p. 32)

The Meekers Arrive

Ezra Meeker, who had emigrated from Ohio in 1852 with his wife, Eliza, and other family members, had tried homesteading in Kalama, on McNeil Island, and at a soil-poor, mosquito-infested farm called Swamp Place, southeast of Tacoma. The Indian Wars drove Ezra and his extended family to Fort Steilacoom, along with the other settlers, but then the ever-resourceful family opened a promising mercantile business. In 1861, Ezra’s brother, Oliver (1828-1861), was sent to San Francisco to acquire an inventory. On the return voyage, the ship along with Oliver and the inventory was lost in a storm on January 5, 1861. The family was left with few resources.

The valley began to repopulate slowly and Ezra and his family returned in 1862, the same year a post office was established -- called “Franklin.” Meeker sold the old Swamp Place to Dr. Charles H. Spinning, a physician just appointed to serve the expanded Puyallup Indian Reservation. “Of the nearly 400 treaties negotiated with Indian tribes from 1778 to 1871 only about two dozen mentioned any kind of medical services.”  (Puyallup Indian Health Authority website.) The Medicine Creek Treaty is one of these.  Under Article 10, the United States agreed “to employ a physician to reside at the said central agency, who shall furnish medicine and advice to their sick, and shall vaccinate them ...” (Medicine Creek Treaty, Article 10).

Farming was subsistence-level until 1865, when Charles Wood, an Olympia brewer, imported hop roots from England. Brewers use hops as a preservative and to give beer its flavor. The Meekers obtained some of Wood’s hop roots, planted them, and an agribusiness was born. Hops will grow in almost any climate, but they thrived in the Puyallup Valley, producing more quality hops per acre than in other hop-growing areas around the world.

Hops Growers Grow Rich

In 1877, Meeker platted 20 acres of his farm to create a town. Some controversy remains over who named it “Puyallup” -- Meeker or A. S. Farquharson, a stave mill owner -- but Meeker was quoted as saying he “bore the onus” for giving the town its name (Price-Anderson, p. 46). Others quickly added properties, rivalries developed, and Puyallup grew rapidly.  

By 1884, there were more than 100 hop growers in the valley and Ezra Meeker had more than 500 acres in the vines. But Meeker, ever the entrepreneur, built kilns to dry the hops, then formed a hop brokerage, and soon he, along with his wife, was traveling regularly to Britain as “The Hop King of the World” (Price-Anderson, p. 41). Meeker and his agents “scoured the world and eventually cornered the hop market” (Kolano, p. 61). Hops “brought into the State more than $20,000,000, and now gives employment to 15,000 people annually,” according to an 1891 article in The New York Times.

The nouveau-riche farmers built mansions, none more spectacular than Ezra Meeker’s 17-room Italianate Victorian showplace, its design and construction under the guidance of his wife, Eliza. It is now maintained by the Ezra Meeker Historical Society and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

A few of Puyallup’s leading citizens incorporated the town in 1888, but two years later the Washington State Supreme Court declared that incorporation illegal.  On August 16, 1890, the 1,500 citizens of Puyallup approved a new, legal incorporation and Ezra Meeker was elected mayor. Meeker cut a wide swath through the valley’s early history -- as entrepreneur, author, lobbyist, historic preservationist, public servant, civic and religious benefactor, and pioneer gadfly. He left an indelible legacy in the valley.

A Neat Little Place

In August 1888, an article in The Northwest Magazine described Puyallup as “a thrifty, neat little place, growing steadily, and looking forward to doubling or trebling its present population of five hundred when the rich loam soils of the valley are more extensively cleared.” The article noted that “Labor in the picking season would be dear in Puyallup were it not for the Indians, who come in great numbers from the reservations on Puget Sound and even ... British Columbia.” Many Indians, the region's first migrant workers, came from as far as British Columbia to pick the hops, and later berries. The Indians from Canada maintained dual Canadian/American citizenship.” 

Then Chinese, no longer needed to build the West’s railroads, migrated to the valley to compete with Indians and others for picking jobs. According to historian Larry Kolano, “The Chinese remained unmolested until the Depression of 1893, when jobless whites decided to run them out of the valley” (Kolano, p. 62).

But all was not totally bucolic in the valley. Coal was being mined at the head of the valley, and the Northern Pacific Railway had laid track through Puyallup. Eighteen trains a day, including coal trains, other freight trains, and passenger trains passed through the town of Puyallup.

End of the Hop Era 

The hop bonanza ended abruptly in 1892, when hop lice, an occasional scourge elsewhere in the world, invaded the valley’s fields, wiping out the industry and several fortunes, including Meeker’s. Berries had been introduced to the valley in the late 1870s and succeeded hops as the primary cash crop, followed later by flower bulbs. Meeker focused his attention on his mercantile business in Puyallup. When gold was discovered in Canada’s Klondike in 1896, he opened a store in Dawson City and filed a mining claim, but never found gold and went broke again. Meeker would go on to become a Pacific Northwest booster and the primary force behind memorializing the Oregon Trail. He donated property to the city for a park, and contributed anonymously to several churches, despite the fact that Prohibitionist preachers often vilified him for his contribution to alcohol consumption by raising hops.

A smallpox epidemic struck the Puget Sound region in 1891-1892, and when panicked Tacoma families tried to escape to the Puyallup Valley, they found that “A ‘shotgun quarantine’ was ordered by the town council. All Tacomans were to be kept out of the town ... . While Tacoma and Seattle suffered, Puyallup maintained its strict isolation and its health” (Kolano, p. 69).

The town fathers created a police department September 10, 1890, and a fire department on September 19, 1890. The fire department was formed two days after the Great Puyallup Fire, which destroyed much of the downtown.

Progress in Agriculture

On March 9, 1891, at the apex of the hop bonanza, the Washington State Legislature approved the Puyallup Agriculture Experiment Station, which was part of the new State Agricultural College of Washington in Pullman. Puyallup Valley farmers Darius M. Ross and his son, Charles, donated land for the station and it was built in 1984. What is now (2008) the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center has evolved into a 360-acre research institute that examines biological, environmental, and social issues far beyond the visions of its founders.  Among its many successes is its widely emulated Master Gardener Program.

On October 4-6, 1900, a group of Puyallup Valley farmers and others cobbled together an agricultural and livestock exhibition to promote local products, calling it the “Valley Fair.” It evolved into the Puyallup Fair, now the major showcase for the Western Washington Fair Association, a nonprofit organization that operates a year-round hospitality and convention business. The fair, which attracts 1.6 million fairgoers each year, is the largest state fair in Washington, one of the largest in the country, and remains the anchor of the city’s visitor industry.

As the century turned, poultry and dairy farms appeared in the valley and sawmills and woodworking plants flourished, but berries -- blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, loganberries, and gooseberries -- remained the most lucrative cash crops. By 1912, the Puyallup and Sumner Fruitgrowers’ Association had 1,300 members and was considered the largest association of fruit growers in the world.

Berries remained a major crop, now mostly for jams, but around 1910 George Lawler introduced daffodils to the valley and they thrived. "By 1927, the valley was producing 23 million bulbs and by 1929, 60 million” (Price-Anderson, p. 92).  Puyallup Valley bulb farmers sponsor their first Daffodil Parade on March 17, 1934, to promote their crop. The parade was a modest procession of automobiles and bicycles festooned with daffodils. The Daffodil Festival is now institutionalized, a year-round production managed by a nonprofit organization. There are four sequential parades in one day -- in Tacoma, Puyallup, Sumner, and Orting -- and the organization oversees other events through the year, including several more parades.

Changing Times

But another event was a precursor of the valley’s nonagricultural future. In 1912, the  Pierce County Auto Company was formed to sell Ford automobiles. “From this and all the other automobile retail companies that sprang up in the early 1900s came the legacy of Puyallup’s claim to have the most and cheapest cars in the area” (Price-Anderson, p. 75). Indeed. As of 2007, the Puyallup area still was one of the state’s major retail auto sales centers, generating about 25 percent of the city’s sales-tax revenue, according to Ellie Chambers, Puyallup economic development officer.

One civic controversy that marked that period involved street names. Meeker had given streets the names of trees when he platted his town in 1877 -- Ash, Alder, Fir, Spruce, Maple, and on through the forest. But in 1911, the city council and mayor changed the street names to numbers in preparation for the coming of free mail delivery to Puyallup homes. Citizens, including Meeker and the influential Puyallup Women’s Club, objected and the issue simmered until 1914. Today, with few exceptions, the streets remain numbered.

The town prospered during the World War I years. In May 1919, University of Washington President Henry Suzzallo (1875-1933), speaking at the dedication of Puyallup’s new city hall-civic center, said: “If every community in the United States were in the robust condition of the Puyallup valley, the whole country would be in a splendid condition” (Price-Anderson, p. 89.)

War Years and After

Puyallup’s growth slowed during the 1930s Great Depression, but World War II brought full employment. Still, it left farmers without pickers and many in ruin. It also brought universal Bond drives, Victory Gardens, aluminum collections, gas rationing, air raid watchers -- and one somberly unique wartime experience. In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) ordered 120,000 West Coast Japanese residents into internment camps. Those the Seattle area and from Alaska were sent to a hastily constructed staging area on the Puyallup Fairgrounds before being shipped to the Camp Minidoka relocation center in Idaho. It was called, somewhat incongruously, Camp Harmony. “Local students were stunned to discover their classmates behind the fence, unable to attend class or play ball with them” (Price-Anderson, p. 103). Some of the valley citizens felt compassion for their interned neighbors; others did not.

Puyallup’s growth had spurted during the war and the 1950 U.S. Census recorded 9,955 residents. And growth would continue as housing tracts crept across the valley farmlands. During the 1950s, competition from foreign and domestic sources was threatening the berry industry and farmers were trying crops such as rhubarb and Christmas trees. Puyallup itself was experiencing growing pains, with disputes arising over law enforcement, garbage collection, and civic construction. In 1951, in the midst of these squabbles, the City Council adopted a city manager form of government. The council appointed the city manager and mayor was selected from among the council.

Flooding had been a recurring, almost annual, problem throughout the Puyallup Valley’s history and it persisted despite channeling, diking, straightening, and dredging the Puyallup River. In 1948 Mud Mountain Dam was completed on the White River, a Puyallup tributary. At the time, it was the highest rock- and earth-filled dam in the world and, for the most part, it solved the problem.

Farmland Threatened

Meanwhile, the valley’s farmers remained under siege on several fronts. The bulb industry was moving to Skagit County, and by 1974 farmland preservation was becoming a political issue, as it was in neighboring King and other Western Washington counties. A citizens group, Prime Land Action Needed (PLAN), tried to save Pierce County’s agricultural land, but farmer Wally Staatz told a Kiwanis Club meeting: “Let’s face it ... This is no longer an agricultural area” (Price-Anderson, p. 127). Pierce County voters were given an opportunity to vote on taxpayer support of farmland preservation in 1985, but this failed when not enough voters went to polls.

Puyallup had a brief flirtation with high-tech industry in the early 1980s, when Fairchild Semiconductor obtained a 92-acre property on South Hill. It employed 900 in 1985, but soon folded. The property, a civic “white elephant,” had been owned by a succession of high-tech companies but never was developed. It was sold in October 2007 by Arizona-based Microchip Technology to the Benaroya Company, a well-known Seattle developer of industrial parks, for about $30 million, far below Microchip’s asking price of $93 million.

By 2007, Puyallup’s sense of community was undergoing change. South Hill, with its 120-store mall surrounded by new developments, was developing an identity of its own. Downtown Puyallup, like many such downtowns, had been resurrected, with the focus on collectibles -- antique shops and boutiques. There were three mainstream high schools – Puyallup, Rogers, and Emerald Ridge – and their strong rivalries are a big part of the community bonding.

The Western Washington State Fair, the city’s iconic reminder of its agricultural past, generates ambivalence. The traffic mess “is considered a nuisance, but at the same time, there’s a great deal of pride for the community. ... People take off work, vacation time, so they can work at it,” said Heather Meier, editor of the Puyallup Herald. Some farms remain in the valley but agriculture remains “a big struggle,” she said. The county continues to attempt to preserve farmland, with “mixed reviews.”

Demographically, the city was about 88 percent white in 2007, almost 5 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and the remainder African American, Native American, Pacific Islander, or other.


Lori Price and Ruth Anderson, Puyallup: A Pioneer Paradise (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing Company, 2002); Puyallup Indian Health Authority website accessed December 4, 2007 (http://www.eptha.com/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Treaty of Medicine Creek, 1854,” (By Walt Crowley), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 27, 2007); Larry J. Kolano, Puyallup Perspectives (Tacoma: Graphic Press, 1976); “Hop Growing in Washington,” The New York Times, September 10, 1891, p. 9;  “The Town and Valley of Puyallup,” The Northwest Magazine, August 1988, p. 15; Frank Chesley telephone interview with Ellie Chambers, November 21, 2007; Lori Price, “Puyallup Streets Once Bore Names,” Pierce County Herald, December 8, 1985; Frank Chesley telephone interview with Harriet Meier, December 20, 2007.

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