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Paving of Meridian—Burning of Dance Hall

by Carl Vest

It was 83 years ago this month that the citizens of South Hill experienced two events that should be remembered as local history.  One incident concerns the road we now call Meridian Avenue.  The second episode was the loss of a local landmark.

It was on Friday, August 14, 1931, that the completion of a portion of Meridian Avenue was celebrated.   The thoroughfare was first laid-out in the 1890s and given the official name Ball-Wood Road.  It terminated at about present-day 160th Street.  In the years that followed the roadway came to be known by a number of other local names, and by the 1930s was called the “Farm-to-Market Road.”  It had also been extended southward to the community of Graham, but only as a basic dirt and gravel farm road. 

By the late 1920s it was felt that the entire Farm-to-Market Road needed to be paved.  Of particular concern was the ten-mile section ending at Graham.  A grassroots citizen effort was undertaken to get the road improved.  This effort eventually proved successful and the finishing of the project was considered so important that it was a cause for celebration.  It was reported that some 500 people came to a dedication ceremony, which was held at “The Willows.”  The Willows was a popular South Hill dance hall and meeting place located near the present-day intersection of Meridian Avenue and 112th Street (39th Avenue SW, in the Puyallup system).

The commemoration was sponsored and structured by three organizations:  the Puyallup Heights Improvement Club; the Puyallup Chamber of Commerce; and the Kiwanis Club.  They called it an ”Inter-Community Celebration.”  The affair was not a cut-the-ribbon and go home event.  The ceremony started with a community singing session, followed by speeches from a number of prominent people.  The orations stressed the importance of the road in bringing communities together and the economic benefit that would now be enjoyed by all.  The program also included some solo vocal acts as well as a comedy skit.  Afterwards, the group remained for an evening of music and dancing.

This was a major event on South Hill.  Five hundred people assembling in a rural community for a road dedication was an important and impressive occurrence.  At that time the population for the entire South Hill area was probably no more than a few thousand people.

The second event happened immediately after the party, on Saturday, August 15, 1931.  Or, you could say late in the evening of the festival.  In the account described above it was noted that the road dedication and celebration took place in a locally popular dance hall known as The Willows.  News accounts reported that the festivity did not end until about midnight.  Subsequently, about an hour later, the roadhouse burned to the ground.  Arson was suspected.  Locks had been broken.  The odor of gasoline was evident.  The fire did not appear to have any connection with the commemoration that had just been held.  It did, however, destroy a well-known and very early landmark on South Hill. 

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.