By JENNIFER K. BAUER
The Inland Empire is prime hop growing territory; in 2015 Washington state supplied 75 percent of the total U.S. harvest. The crop’s history can be traced back to one man, an Oregon Trail pioneer named Ezra Meeker who arrived in Oregon Territory penniless in 1852 and became one of its wealthiest citizens. His story is told in a new biography “Hop King, Ezra Meeker’s Boom Years,” by Dennis M. Larsen, who believes Meeker deserves more recognition for his influential role in Washington state history.
Meeker planted the first hops in the mid-1860s in the Puyallup Valley. His star began to rise when he became the direct supplier for brewer Henry Weinhard. Meeker eventually came to be called the “hop king” and was one of the nation’s largest hops exporters, opening trade to England and Japan.
In his personal life, Meeker managed a large extended family and was active in politics and the women’s suffrage movement. His wife, Eliza, oversaw the construction of the Meeker Mansion now maintained by the Puyallup Historical Society.
In the 1890s, Meeker faced financial ruin. The hop industry failed because of an infestation of pale green aphids, hop lice. Several big projects went bankrupt in the depression of 1893. Ever looking forward, Meeker turned to supplying vegetables to miners in the Yukon and Klondike gold fields, a story that is told in Larsen’s 2009 book “Slick as a Mitten.”
Larsen, a retired high school history teacher who lives in Olympia, researched Meeker’s life by reading the nearly 50,000 letters preserved by the Washington State Historical Society. He is also the author of “The Missing Chapters: The Untold Story of Ezra Meeker’s Old Oregon Trail Monument Expedition” and plans to write another book on Meeker detailing his final years promoting and preserving the Oregon Trail.