The name Ezra Meeker is a big deal around these parts. He has streets named after him. His home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is itself a history museum. An oxen team he owned and drove is on display at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, in taxidermied form.
But for many, the name Meeker is no more than that; for others the Meeker name may trigger a glimmer of recognition as “some pioneer guy.”
That’s true as far as it goes, which in Ezra Meeker’s case isn’t much of a journey compared with the figurative and literal traveling Meeker accomplished in nearly 98 years of life.
A new biography written by Dennis Larsen and published by Washington State University Press aims to fill out the historical record of Ezra Meeker as pioneer, politician, civic leader, promoter, writer, farmer, merchant, railroad builder, miner, financier, international businessman, historian (as an advocate of remembering the Oregon Trail, his original route to the Northwest) and, most of all, as the book title suggests, “Hop King.”
Ezra Meeker may have been a man of the 19th (and early 20th) century, but his life story is completely contemporary for business in the early 21st. He tried many careers; many of them, including the one in which he built and lost his fortune ended in disappointment. But up to the last, Meeker’s reaction to failure was to throw himself with enthusiasm and vigor into the next opportunity.
In modern terms, he was a serial entrepreneur.
Larsen, a retired Yelm High School history teacher, has written books about Meeker (and plans another). Meeker himself generated a shelf of books about his life and work. In the introduction to “Hop King,” though, Larsen notes that no comprehensive biography has been written about Meeker, and his contribution to the growth of the Puyallup Valley and the state of Washington have been overlooked.
For “Hop King” Larsen focuses on a slice of his subject’s life, the 1880s and 1890s that were, as the subtitle suggests, “Ezra Meeker’s Boom Years.” They were also the bust years. To understand that story, the book delves into the history of a crop and industry of which little evidence remains locally.
Hops are a vine-grown seed cone that, when harvested, dried and processed, provides beer with its distinctive flavor and aroma. Washington is still a big deal in hops, accounting for nearly 80 percent of U.S. production. With the national boom in craft brewing, interest in Washington hops remains strong.
But to see commercial production of hops in Washington, you have to cross the mountains to the Yakima Valley. Along Interstate 82 you can see hop fields, with their networks of tall poles and wires. Hop vines grow from the ground to the top of the lattice of wires, following strings. The American Hop Museum is in Toppenish; in recent months you could have watched the progress of an expansion project at a hops processing plant.
But Washington’s hops industry got its real start in the Puyallup Valley. Meeker and his father, casting around for a new venture, tried growing hops for a brewer in Olympia. They found the Puyallup area conducive to production and began adding acreage. Others joined in.
From humble beginnings the business grew, with shipments to San Francisco, then to the East, eventually to London (New York state and England were two competing hops-producing regions, although yields and quality in the Northwest made it a leader).
What brought the industry down was a lethal combination of a tiny bug — an aphid or hop lice — an economic recession that drove prices below production costs and Meeker’s own overleveraged position, having acted as broker and lender to other growers. His mortgaged properties were auctioned off. Meeker was on to the next project, gold mining in Canada.
Tweak a few details and Meeker’s experience in the hops business sounds much like the housing finance crisis or the tech bust. Meeker, Larsen says, was “afflicted by his self-identified tendency to always think big, not just building castles in the air but also investing in actual foundations on the ground.” Meeker himself had, early on, warned of the danger of the hops business due to price volatility.
But Meeker was, as Larsen describes, a born risk-taker. “Building castles in the air I hear you say,” Meeker wrote to his wife in 1895, his business teetering toward collapse. “Well, we shall see; there is nothing like trying. … I have been building castles in the air all along.”
Castles in the air can endure, or they can be nibbled away by bugs. That’s the gamble for serial risk-takers like Ezra Meeker. It’s a cautionary tale that never ages, no matter how old it is.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.