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South Hill in the 1930s

by Carl Vest

South Hill today can be aptly characterized as either urban or suburban.  But that condition is a recent happening, relatively speaking.  As you sit in traffic jams along Meridian Avenue, 94th Avenue, Shaw Road, or wherever, do you sometimes speculate what it must have been like on the Hill in earlier days?  Most of us can only wonder how the local people lived and what they did.  The written record that has been left is very sparse.  It seems that keeping journals and writing about life on the Hill was not a priority for most of our past residents. 

Some, however, have left a few writings, giving us momentary glimpses into the past.  The Gabriel Gabrielson family, for example, once owned a farm on what is now 86th Ave. E, near its intersection with 152nd Street E.  These folks did keep a few journals, primarily during the 1930s and early 1940s, which gives us some insight.

During this period farm animals were very important. This family had several cows used for creating dairy products and also as breeding stock.  These creatures were not, however, just a dairy herd, they were practically family pets.  They were given names: Boots, Mollie, Brindle, Patty, and Pigie are mentioned in different accounts.  Boots, for example, gave birth to a calf on February 1, 1935, again on February 21, 1936, and on January 17, 1937.  Records of births from the other cows were similarly recorded.  There were also horses, which were used both as working farm animals and for off-farm jobs.

Growing food for the animals, the family, and other farm uses was also of significance.  The planting dates for important crops were recorded.  Potatoes were placed in the ground, for example, on May 16 and May 21, 1935 and in 1936 on May 10th.  Corn was planted on May 21, 1935 and June 5, 1937.  Oats were sowed on April 3, 1936 and April 29, 1937.  Weather was always of concern and it was noted that it snowed three inches on March 27, 1936 and that they had to start feeding hay to the animals on November 21st of the same year.

In addition to farming, Hill residents also supplemented income by off-farm work.  The McMillin Reservoir, for example, was an employer of some importance in the 1930s.  Mr. Gabrielson worked there from time-to-time undertaking the following duties: cleaning, repairing reservoir building, repairing wood-stove pipe, blacksmithing, carpentry, repairing leaks on pipe line and other tasks.  One journal entry noted that he started working at the Reservoir on April 9, 1936, and his duty was “sweeping.”

It was also in the mid 1930s that the Federal WPA (Works Progress Administration) began a stimulus program by creating public works jobs during The Depression.  Mr. Gabrielson participated in that effort, being assigned chores on the Hill, in Tacoma, and as far away as Enumclaw.

While this was one family, it was probably typical of many on the Hill during that period.

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