Ezra Meeker’s Boom Years
Dennis M. Larsen ’68
WSU Press: 2016
The demands of craft brewing in the last few years, along with declining European hops production, has driven the price of hops up as much as 50 percent, creating a windfall for growers in Washington. It’s not the first time in state history that hops brought a grower financial success.
Puyallup Valley pioneer Ezra Meeker first started planting hops as a cash crop in 1867, and continued for decades after that. His father Jacob Meeker had obtained hop cuttings and soon the Meeker family was selling hundreds of tons a year, including through a lucrative and mutually beneficial relationship with Portland brewer Henry Weinhard.
After the British hops crop failed in 1882, Ezra Meeker earned his moniker “Hop King of the World” as he moved into the international market, became the largest hops exporter in the country, and sold 100,000 pounds that year. Meeker later made inroads with the expanding beer industry in Japan, increasing his wealth even more. Other farmers on both sides of the Cascades began to jump into the hops industry when they saw Meeker’s success.
Raising hops was a risky proposition because of high start-up capital costs and fluctuating hops prices, writes Dennis Larsen in Hop King, but that suited Meeker’s character. Meeker was certainly not meek, infuriating his business and political rivals with his tenacious nature. Meeker’s pugnacious spirit led to his part in 51 civil court cases in Washington Territory.
As a pioneer at the birth of Washington state, Meeker not only introduced a successful crop, he also ran for several political offices, founded the town of Puyallup, and advocated for women’s suffrage. But, as Larsen notes in the biography, Meeker faced his share of trouble.
Meeker lost his mother to cholera, a younger brother drowned, a second brother died in a shipwreck off of California, and he faced several other family tragedies. The Puyallup Valley hops industry founded by Meeker collapsed after hop lice destroyed his and other’s crops in 1892. While the hops industry remains very strong in Yakima and central Washington, it never recovered west of the mountains.
Larsen’s biography of Meeker portrays a complex and important figure in state history. Meeker’s influence on one of Washington’s signature crops, his political ambitions, and even his later advocacy for preserving the Oregon Trail show the pioneer sensibility that built Washington.