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South Hill Once an Area of Small Farms

by Carl Vest

Looking about South Hill it’s hard to visualize that the area was once an agricultural community.  Farm size settlements were the norm, however, from the late 19th century to well into the twentieth.  At first the farms were large tracts, some as big as 360 acres – or a full Section in the platting grid system.  But by the 1940s and 50s most of these earlier areas had been subdivided so many times that a typical parcel might be about 40 acres.

The logging of old growth timber was one of the earliest agricultural practices.  But that way of life had run its course by the early decades of the twentieth century.  Hop farming was also an early undertaking.  That effort subsequently gave way to fruit and berry farming.  Finally by the mid century most farms were small and were operated to support individual families rather than being large commercial operations.

By the end of the agricultural period on the Hill it is interesting to speculate about lifestyles.   Generally these people were not pioneers.  They came later.  And, while it’s not possible to describe a typical farm operation of the middle 20th century, there are extant, for instance, records that do illustrate the period.  The Gabrielson brothers, Ole and Gabe, for example, came to the Hill in the 1920s.  Ole settled on 40 acres near what is now 87th Avenue and 152nd Street.  His brother Gabe bought a second 40 acre ranch near present day 146th Street and 86th Avenue.  Significantly, Gabe kept a Journal that gives some insight into this period.  In the early 1940s we know that he worked at two jobs.  The 40 acres were farmed but he also worked as a laborer in other places.  His lifestyle was probably typical of many people on the Hill at that time.

As a farmer Gabe kept a variety of livestock.  Both chickens and cows were maintained for family food and for producing products that could be sold.  Horses were held for farm work since motorized farm tools were not affordable.  Pierce County public records show that in 1943 Gabe owned two work horses, four milk cows, one bull, and two heifers.  The cows had names:  Bell, Peggie, Grace, and Patty.  About every nine months each produced a calf. Most calves were sold for veal when they weighed about 120 pounds.  Each spring Gabe faithfully “set” his poultry hens on eggs to hatch young chickens.

Plowing the land started in March.  Potatoes were planted in May.  Oats and clover were seeded In April and May.  In the fall, about November, the pasture was seeded.

As a laborer Gabe worked at times for the County.  In August 1941 he was employed on the water pipeline at White River.  In early 1942 he started work at the McMillin Reservoir on the Hill where he stayed for several years.

So Gabe Gabrielson is probably typical of the small farmer on South Hill at the time.  He died in May 1948 and is buried in the Woodbine cemetery.

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