Historic Ohop Valley farm getting new life as school campus

The Scandinavian farmers who came to the Ohop Valley in the 1880s used their horses, shovels, dynamite and any other means necessary to turn the landscape into farmland.

The valley 30 miles south of Tacoma, just outside Eatonville, was swampy, thick with brush and prone to flooding from the shallow, meandering Ohop Creek. But the land was cheap, and with a little sweat equity, it was home.

The traces of their work disappear a little more every year, as conservationists work to restore the habitat they molded. But a small corner of their world will live on, thanks to a project to save the Kjelstad-Burwash farm.

Norwegian dairy farmer Henrik Kjelstad arrived in the valley in 1890 and married Olava Hansen, another Norwegian immigrant in the valley, not long after. With the other families who lived in the valley, they cleared the swamp and trenched the creek, deepening it to reduce flooding and rerouting the bed along the east end of the properties. On their own homestead, the Kjelstads built a barn, filled it with cows, and went about raising their two children and running their farm.

The 114-acre property stayed in the family until four years ago, when the Nisqually Land Trust purchased it for $750,000. By then, the Scandinavian farmers in the area had largely moved on. The salmon that once ran in Ohop Creek were long gone, and the century-old Kjelstad-Burwash barn, the centerpiece of the last fully intact farm in the Ohop Valley, hadn’t housed cows in decades.

But soon, the Kjelstad Homestead will find new life when the Eatonville School District turns the historic barn and the 3.8 acres that surround it into a hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) campus focused on agriculture.

Eatonville School District Superintendent Krestin Bahr said she was surprised when Rich Williams, president of the Eatonville Community Foundation, approached her to ask whether the school district would be interested in using the farm.

Williams said the foundation tasks itself with preserving the history of Eatonville, and especially the Eatonville School District. He said many of those involved in the foundation had grown up with the Kjelstad family and watched the farm with interest.

Joe Kane, executive director of the Nisqually Land Trust, said the trust has been buying properties in the Ohop Valley since the 1990s in an effort to restore the salmon habitat destroyed by the farmers when they trenched the creek. When they bought the Kjelstad-Burwash property, they planned to tear down all its structures, a stipulation of the funding they received from the Washington State Salmon Recovery Board.

But then the Eatonville Community Foundation stepped in.

“Our primary focus was to convince the land trust to save the farm,” Williams said.

Kane said Bahr met the idea with enthusiasm, and about 18 months ago the land trust donated the 3.8 acres occupied by the homestead to the school district. The donation includes the 103-year-old barn, which was placed on the Washington State Heritage Barn Register in 2007.

The barn itself likely won’t be ready when the campus opens, because it still needs to be renovated to be safe for student use. The school district is looking for a grant for the project. Instead, she said students will work on the surrounding land and in other structures on the property, as soon as January.

When they do renovate the barn, Bahr said they plan to make it a STEM research center, complete with green technology and a commercial kitchen.

Bahr said the program also will partner with Pacific Lutheran University to house student teachers on the property. She said it’s an excellent opportunity to get teachers into a rural area, where they’re needed.

She said she hopes to involve not only traditional students, but at-risk, special ed and home-schooled students as well, and hopes the marriage of STEM and agricultural fields will be inspiring.

“That’s a whole field students could get into,” said Bahr. “Agriculture and agribusiness — that’s a really up-and-coming marketable job.”

Stephen Burwash, the last owner of the Kjelstad-Burwash property, can attest to how agriculture is evolving. He arrived on the farm for the first time in 1936 when he was 14, and never really left until he moved to a Tacoma retirement community four years ago.

During that time, he said he watched the business change. No longer do farmers sow their seeds by hand, walking back and forth across every acre of their property as he once did.

“It’s all computerized now,” he said. “All you have to do is sit in an air-conditioned cab with the radio and power steering. A tractor will practically steer by itself.”

That kind of mechanization has dramatically increased on farms, especially in Eastern Washington and the Midwest, said Brian Bodah, Pierce County director for Washington State University extension. Bodah, who has a degree in agricultural engineering, said STEM in agricultural fields has never been so big.

“Self-driving tractors are developed by engineers and driven by computer programmers,” Bodah said. “The development of some of these pesticides, that’s all science, all chemistry.”

Bahr said students at the planned STEM campus might grow their own crop to learn about sustainable agriculture, catalog and observe wildlife, work with the Nisqually Tribe to study indigenous plants, or help with the conservation efforts of the Nisqually Land Trust.

“This is how we build the next generation of conservation advocates,” Kane said. “You get kids out there in the dirt — they’ll remember that. That will live with them. That’s how you build that sense of, ‘This is our land. This is our resource.’ We’re excited about that.”

Hannah Shirley: 253-597-8670, @itshannah7