Farming On South Hill
by Carl Vest
South Hill is no longer considered an agricultural area. But such a role has been a significant part of its recorded history. It was in the late 1800s — 1880s & 1890s — when settlers started moving onto the Hill. The first crops they harvested were trees. The land was cleared, some spaces by individual settlers, other parts by large organizations. This work made way for the establishment of farms.
All kinds of farms were created at various times. There are records, for example, of dairy, berry, chicken, rabbit, fruit, flower and even tree farms. An entire community was named for the producing of rabbits, known as “The Rabbit Farms.” It exists today as a housing community, just to the east of the contemporary YMCA facility. Also entire neighborhoods were created devoted entirely to the cultivation of berries and fruits of various kinds. Some examples of these also still exist in the names of specific localities: Half Dollar Berry Tracts (about Meridian and 128th Street) and the Fruitdale Garden Tracts (in at least four different places on the Hill). Many of these were successful endeavors and their products were shipped world-wide during the periods just before and after World War II.
One of the earliest large scale agricultural ventures on the Hill was the raising of hops, a necessary ingredient for the flavoring of beer. Hops give beer its flavor and aroma. In the late 1800s and early 1900s several major hop-producing farms emerged on South Hill, all having international reach in the distribution of their products. Three families led the industry: the Mosolf’s, the Kupfer’s and the Muehler’s. The Mosolf and Kupfer farms were located on the northern part of the Hill near where the mall containing Home Depot is now located. The Muehler’s were further south, near where the Pierce County Airport is now positioned.
Hops are not a native plant in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, hops are not native to the North American continent. The introduction of the plant dates from about 1629 when it was brought from Europe by the Massachusetts Company. Afterwards the cultivation gradually spread to other parts of the country. The first hop plantings in the Puget Sound area actually came from England. They were imported by an Olympia brewer about 1865. The importer, Charles Wood, gave some roots to John Meeker of Steilacoom, who in turn passed them on to his brother Ezra Meeker in Puyallup. This introduction initiated the so-called Hops Boom (1880s & 1890s) in the Northwest. The boom didn’t last long. The hop plant is very susceptible to high humidity. That’s why the industry now thrives in the dry valleys of central Washington and not on the coast, or in the Eastern US where they have high humidity.
All evidence of the hop industry on South Hill has disappeared. There is one hop barn still in existence near McMillin, just off the Hill, but all the local structures have been destroyed to make way for various developments.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.