A humble rocking chair that might once have belonged to Puyallup pioneer Ezra Meeker has been returned to — maybe — its rightful home.
The chair had been in the possession of Puyallup native Grant Pelesky’s family since the 1950s. The family story is that it once belonged to Meeker, the founder of Puyallup.
Pelesky and his wife recently downsized, and he decided that donating the chair to the Meeker Mansion was the right thing to do.
“I ultimately thought its rightful place in history is back in the mansion,” the South Hill man said Tuesday as he took one last sit in the chair.
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Ohio native Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852 with his family, settled in the Puyallup region and begin growing hops. Soon, he was very wealthy.
But by all accounts he was a “Beverly Hillbillies” type of nouveau riche — more comfortable in a log cabin or camping on his beloved Oregon Trail.
“He was one of the richest guys in Washington at the time, but didn’t live that way,” said Puyallup Historical Society historian Andy Anderson. “He’s not a guy who grew up with wealth. He’s not a Vanderbilt. He becomes a hugely wealthy guy still living in a log cabin.”
But Mrs. Meeker, the former Eliza Jane Sumner, didn’t want to live in a log cabin any longer.
The couple built their mansion in 1890. Wired for electricity — though Puyallup was not yet electrified — it had all the modern conveniences. Murals were painted on ceilings, and the three-story home was filled with opulent furniture, at Mrs. Meeker’s direction.
“He may have moved stuff out of his earlier residence,” Anderson said.
And that might have included the rocking chair.
Mrs. Meeker died in 1909, and Ezra soon lost interest in the house. He left Puyallup in 1910 to retrace the Oregon Trail. It wasn’t his first time doing that. Or his last.
“He spent the rest of his life doing the Oregon Trail thing,” Anderson said.
In 1912, the house was rented and used as a retirement home for Civil War widows, among other purposes. It was sold in 1915.
Before the mansion was rented, furniture was given to family members and sold off.
Meeker died in 1928 at age 97, just as he was about to begin another retracing of the Oregon Trail, this time in a specially built “Oxmobile” given to him by Henry Ford.
“It’s been quite the conversation piece,” Pelesky said of the chair last week.
His part of the story begins in 1954, when his father bought a concrete business at 629 E. Pioneer Ave. in Puyallup, one block east of the mansion. It’s now Puyallup Transmission.
“Sitting in the corner of the office of that business was this chair,” Pelesky said.
The owner of the concrete business said he had bought the chair in a sale of furnishings from the Meeker Mansion just before it was rented in 1912. The man threw the chair in with the purchase of the business.
When Pelesky went to college in Bellingham he took the chair with him. (It survived a stint in an off-campus apartment with four college students.) There, he got his teaching certificate.
Pelesky went on to teach at Ezra Meeker Elementary — the same school he had attended as a child.
“I took it to school on an occasion or two,” Pelesky said. “One kid got out of it with a gleam in his eye and said, ‘Mr. Pelesky, that chair really rocks.’ ”
Though he knows donating the chair is the right thing to do, Pelesky will miss it.
“There’s something very therapeutic about rocking chairs,” he said.
Meeker was a man dedicated to historical preservation, and he served on the board of the Washington State Historical Society. Today the society possesses one of his covered wagons, as well as some of his papers.
Lynette Miller, head of collections for the society, evaluates many artifacts brought in by well-meaning citizens. She uses a three-pronged approach to establish authenticity.
“One is what you can learn from the artifact itself and one is what you learn from the owner,” Miller said. The third step is research from historical sources.
Many of the items brought to the society have stories attached, some wildly inaccurate.
“There’s always a lot of old family stories about things we know that aren’t true,” Miller said.
Some are painfully obvious.
Recently somebody brought in a Washington State map dated 1870.
“When you looked down at the bottom it said, ‘Reprinted 1952,’” recalled Miller.
She is not involved in the Meeker chair return and could not evaluate its authenticity.
But she did find the stories intriguing.
“Nobody was really gaining anything from that story,” Miller said. “So that does lend credence.”
On Tuesday morning, Pelesky loaded the chair into the back of his 1968 Ford Ranchero and drove to the Meeker Mansion.
There, Dave Price, owner of the Pioneer Antique Mall in Puyallup, was waiting.
Price has been an appraiser for more than two decades. He looked the chair over while it was still in the back of the Ranchero.
He said it was from the correct period.
“It’s your typical rocker that you would buy at any furniture store back in the day,” Price said. “It’s not handmade. You can see the nuts-and-bolts construction. It’s your average rocker from the late 1890s going into early 1900.”
If it did belong to Meeker, it might have been something he bought when his wife wasn’t looking.
“It’s not the construction you would see a very wealthy man having,” Price said.
The Meeker Society has no inventory of original furnishings.
“There is no known photo from inside the house,” Anderson said.
While Price said Meeker could have owned the chair, it would be impossible, without a historical photo, to prove it.
“It could have been a part of his family, that’s without question,” Price said. “What we can’t do is say that it was Ezra Meeker’s chair.”
The rocking chair is only the latest piece of Meeker furniture to be returned to the mansion, Anderson said. And it won’t be the last.
On May 30, a great-great-granddaughter of Meeker will collect a settee (a small couch) from a cousin in San Francsico she’s never met and then drive it to the mansion.
“They claim that Ezra bought it in England,” said Bob Minnich of the Puyallup Historical Society. Price will evaluate that piece as well.
Seven years ago, the society took possession of a grand piano that once belonged to the Meeker family.
Several people in the area had claimed to have the Meeker piano. But a photo in The News Tribune from 1941 shows the piano with a story discussing its former Meeker ownership.
“It’s a lot stronger documentation than anybody else had,” Minnich said.
One piece in the house, a secretary desk, left the mansion in 1912 with a family member. It was donated to the Meeker Mansion five years ago.
Nearby is a dining chair, one of three in the mansion.
“We know where one of the armed chairs is. It’s the same guy who had the desk secretary,” Anderson said. “He said, ‘If I get tired of it, we’ll consider bringing it.’ ”
Upstairs, a bed, chest of drawers and a chair in the Meeker bedroom were all donated by various Meeker descendants.
“Every so often a piece just falls out of the sky,” Minnich said.
On Tuesday, the rocking chair was placed near the secretary desk in the mansion.
A “Please don’t sit here” sign was soon added.