Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Meeker Mansion: The House that Hops Built

Ezra and Eliza Jane Meeker were true Western pioneers. In 1852, they hitched their oxen to a wagon, bundled up their 7-week old baby, and followed the great migration westward across the Oregon Trail. By the time they arrived in Oregon five months later, Ezra had lost 20 pounds, Eliza was so weak she had to be carried up the riverbanks, and they possessed only $3 between the two of them. Nevertheless, they continued their journey north to the Puget Sound area where they struggled to make a living in a number of endeavors. By the mid-1860s, they found their way to a farm east of Tacoma, built a log cabin, and planted a field of hops.
Hop growing was new to the Northwest, but the crop was known since the 11th century in Europe as an important flavoring and stabilizing ingredient in beer. Several disastrous crop seasons in Germany drove up the price of U.S. grown hops and made Meeker a wealthy man. Known as the Hop King of the World, he made many trips to Europe acting as a broker for fellow Washington hop growers. On one occasion, he took along Eliza Jane to England, where she was presented to the royal court and Queen Victoria.
Once exposed to the finery and adornments of royal London, Eliza became a bit dissatisfied with life in a log cabin and decided they needed a house more befitting their station in life. Ezra agreed, but only if Eliza Jane paid for it. Three years and $26,000 later, the impressive 17-room, Italianate Victorian mansion was complete and ready for occupancy.
Only a few years later in the early 1890s, a scourge of aphids wiped out the Washington hops crop and, combined with a national recession, Meeker lost everything. The house remained only because its title was in Eliza’s name. Upon her death in 1909, Ezra left the property and went on to pursue his role as self-appointed Protector and Promoter of the Oregon Trail. The house served as a hospital and was later sold to a Civil War widow’s organization, The Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, who ran the place as a retirement home. The property was sold again in 1948 and operated as a nursing home until 1970 when it was handed over to the Meeker Historical Society.
During its years as a medical facility, the beautiful wood paneling and stenciled walls and ceilings were painted over numerous times and a dropped ceiling was added. The Society has worked diligently to restore the house to its former glory and visitors can now enjoy a glimpse of the good life in 1891. Only a few of the furnishings belonged to the Meekers, but all are from that era and the local area.

One of the most striking features of the house is the woodwork. The rooms feature different hardwoods including bird’s-eye maple, ash, cherry and oak in wainscoting, flooring, trim and the main staircase. The ornate stenciling on the ceilings and art tile on the fireplaces are all befitting a woman once presented to the Queen of England.
In the upstairs billiard room, there is a small display of photos showing Ezra Meeker’s many adventures after leaving the house. His concern that the Oregon Trail was disappearing due to negligence and private property development led him on a one-man crusade to mark, map and memorialize the route that had brought him West. Again, at the age of 76, he hitched up a covered wagon with oxen and this time, headed east, following the trail in reverse. During the trip, he installed rock monuments and encouraged others to do the same. He continued to Washington where he met with President Teddy Roosevelt. During his remaining years, Ezra followed the trail four more times: by wagon, automobile, and, in 1924, in an open cockpit biplane. He was planning another trip in a truck built for the occasion by Henry Ford when he passed away at the age of 97.
The Meeker Mansion is located near downtown Puyallup (between Tacoma and Renton), and is open for tours from noon to 4:00 pm, Wednesday through Sunday, after March 1. Admission is $4 (adults) and $3 (seniors). To learn more, visit their website where you can view a virtual tour through the house, or by calling 253-848-1770.

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