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The Willows: A South Hill Neighborhood

by Carl Vest

Generally, in most social interactions when asked, “Where do you live?,” we reply, “South Hill.”   Most of us consider South Hill our community —our neighborhood.  But such declarations are of recent origin, relatively speaking.  In earlier periods Hill locations were identified by naming distinct communities or districts, each called by a specific title.  In the mid twentieth century, for example, there were neighborhoods called the Willows, Firgrove, Puyallup Heights, Woodland, the Rabbit Farms, and others.  None were legal entities.  But during those times when asked where they lived people would use the vicinity name with South Hill as a secondary descriptor.

One neighborhood that grew to commercial importance was the Willows.  It has been described as being the first shopping center on South Hill.  It was that area situated around the intersection of present day 112th Street (39th Ave. in the Puyallup system) and Meridian Avenue.  In prior times 112th Street was also known as Airport Road (and as Airport Way).  While the locale is now generally referred to as the South Hill Mall there are still some remaining vestiges of the Willows label.  There are, for example, a number of business names that have Willows incorporated into their identifiers.

The name Willows can be credited to the work of a man named Al Delano.  In 1939 he bought most of the land around the intersection.  He increased his holdings in 1944 to include acreage across Meridian Avenue.  At that time there were only a few homes and businesses close by.  The land did, however, support a large number of willow trees.  So Mr. Delano named the intersection “The Willows” and promoted the name at every opportunity.  Previously, It had been known as Kupher’s Corner, after a family that had a home nearby.

At the time of Mr. Delano’s purchase there was a tavern, a grocery store, and an automobile service station on the property.  During the next two decades he developed a rather large commercial center.  By 1957, for example, the businesses included a barber shop, a food store, a tavern, a cafe, a lumber company, and a trailer court.  During this period The Willows was in fact considered the center of expansion efforts into central and east Pierce County  It was said to be the transportation hub for Hill people working in and about Tacoma and for those coming through the area to visit such places as Mt Rainier.  This was a continuation of the pattern set by World War II employment when the local people supported the war effort at jobs primarily on the tide flats.

Businesses around the road intersection have continued to expand to this day.  The South Hill Mall, the Willows Shopping Center where Borders Books is located, and the commercial strips in both directions from the intersection, are all part of the original Willows site.  Unfortunately, the name has almost disappeared.  Other than a few signs adopted by local businesses there are no markers to show that there was once a vibrant neighborhood called Willows.

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