“What is the South Hill?”
Speech to the South Hill Rotary
March 25, 2010
The Ram Restaurant
Today I’m going to talk about a very controversial topic, and that is South Hill’s identity. Because this involves talking about the history of South Hill, I have a disadvantage in this room, and that’s because Paul Hackett happens to know something about South Hill history. So Paul, you have my permission to throw things at me if I get anything wrong.
My family has a stake in the South Hill dating back almost 60 years. My grandparents bought 5 acres in 1952 over in what used to be called the Rabbit Farms area, near 122nd. And they raised their kids there in the woods and watched the hill grow up around them. Their property is on a hill of its own, and Grandma Wilma wanted a house on top of the hill with a view of the mountain. So they built their new house about 10 years ago, and the view is wonderful. She passed on in 2004, but my Grandpa Ed still lives up there on Zeiger hill. He claims that it is the highest elevation on the South Hill, but I have evidence from Google earth that it’s like the 2nd or 3rd highest. He won’t believe me.
But there are a few reasons that it is not easy to talk about the identity of the South Hill.
One reason is that it’s not clear to everyone exactly where the South Hill is located—or I guess I should say it’s not clear what’s located on the South Hill. Somebody was pointing out to me the other day that a newspaper article a few years ago was attempting to identify the location of Thun Field, and it started out by saying that it was near Tacoma, then that it was in Puyallup, and then that it was on the South Hill. But Thun Field is closer to Orting than it is to Puyallup. And once you go south of 176th, there’s people who claim to live in North Graham. And then there’s the confusion regarding the Post Office. Mail that comes to these parts has a Puyallup address, but it comes through the South Hill Post Office, so you can actually address something to South Hill, Washington if you want. It’s really a matter of personal preference whether you live in Puyallup or South Hill.
A second reason why it’s tough to talk about South Hill’s identity is that it’s not an official city, despite efforts in recent decades to incorporate. South Hill is actually a cluster of smaller residential areas, some of which are in the City of Puyallup and some of which are in unincorporated Pierce County. Each area has a bit different character from the next, partly because they were developed at different times and attracted some different demographics. Rodesco and Manorwood were mostly built in the late 1970s and 1980s. Sunrise and Gem Heights and Crystal Ridge have been built up over the last 20 years.
But there’s really nothing new about that kind of fragmented identity here. South Hill has never really been one single community. Originally, it was divided into several distinct neighborhoods, whose names are still mostly in existence in recognizable landmarks. Three of the neighborhoods were centered around old, small independent schools that each had their own school boards: Firgrove, Woodland, and Puyallup Heights. We are in the Puyallup Heights neighborhood here, which encompassed the whole mall area. My grandpa bought his property between here and Firgrove in what was then called the Rabbit Farms area, above Alderton. And places on the Hill acquired familiar names, like Willows Corner over where Border’s books is today. The Willows Tavern was one of the main hangouts on the Hill at one time, along with the Fruitland Grange and the schools, which doubled as community halls.
Most South Hill people were farmers, but a lot of them worked in the Valley. My grandparents bought their place from an English guy named Robert Newcomb who jumped ship from a British vessel in Canada, and moved to the Hill in 1930 and built the little house on the property. He raised chickens, but he made most of his small living by working seasonal shifts at Hunt’s Cannery downtown.
Many of the earliest settlers here were German families who came here to farm: the Kupfers settled on 160 acres at Willows Corner in 1878 and set up a hop farm, and then there were the Barths and the Mosolfs not far from them. The Patzners, the Glasers, the Muehlers, and the Bergers were all German families on the South Hill. This made the South Hill different, for example, from the North Hill, with its Norwegian settlers in the Mountain View neighborhood and Swedish settlers in the Edgewood and Jovita neighborhoods.
South Hill people got to know each other in their respective neighborhoods. So if you were growing up here, your identity with the larger South Hill was cemented when you headed down the hill to attend Puyallup High School. Kids from the South Hill had something in common when they were suddenly in the big town down in the valley. Until 1939, there was no school bus service from the hill down to the valley, so kids usually rode bikes down the hill.
South Hill people who attended PHS had a reputation of being from the country. They were usually lower class farm kids. They didn’t always fit in with the kids from the Northwest part of the Valley, where the elite in town lived. So if you were from the South Hill, people at school knew that. The South Hill was rural and simple and poor. There are very few grand old houses or landmarks that remain, because the houses were simple. But it’s important to remember that the South Hill was also a strong community of friends.
The South Hill produced some notable heroes during World War II. I’ll mention one, Leonard Humiston, who grew up right where Bethany Baptist now stands. He attended the Puyallup Heights School and graduated from Puyallup High School in 1935. He joined the Army Air Corps right out of school and by December 6, 1941 he was at an air field in California, dispatched to the Philippines. And they had to stop for refueling at Hickam Air Base in Hawaii. And as they approached, the morning of December 7, they were listening to Hawaiian tunes on the radio, and then they saw smoke in the distance. Then some planes started flying their way, and they thought the Navy was providing an escort. But when a Japanese A6M2 Zero flies right up and starts in with the machine gun fire, and here they are unarmed, so they turn back to sea. After awhile they made a second effort for a downwind landing at Bellows Field, but as they came onto the runway they couldn’t stop and careened into a ditch. And just behind them, here come this big flock of Zeros and they were strafing this downed plane. And when this native son of the South Hill got out to seek refuge at Bellows Field, he had just survived the first American air combat of World War II.
A couple of important things happened on South Hill during World War II. One was the landing of a Japanese balloon bomb in the middle of the woods on the Hill on March 3, 1945 right near where Zeiger Elementary stands today. It was apparently a dud. The second thing was that about that same time, the U.S. Army was finishing a small airstrip for training purposes. John Thun ended up purchasing the airfield in 1950.
A number of people moved to the Hill in the 50s and 60s during the Postwar boom. The people who came during these years set down roots on the Hill and raised their families here. Many of them started businesses on the Hill. My own family came here during that time. The Boy Scout Troop that I grew up in and that I still assist as a volunteer leader was founded by George Newcomer in 1951 at Woodland School, and it helped to accommodate some of the new families who were moving into the area.
1968 was an important year, because that was the year that Rogers High School opened, which became a community center for the whole South Hill for the next generation. My dad was in the second graduating class from Rogers, 1972.
And the 1970s is when the Hill started really growing big-time. There was little official coordination. There were battles between community leaders and the county over development. Paul Hackett was the leader of the South Hill Community Council in its early days. South Hill developed a fairly laissez faire quality that remains an important part of its DNA to this day. That was reflected in the Hill’s housing boom and the growth of the Meridian corridor.
That growth happened quickly. The first wave of growth was in the late 60s and early 70s, and that was symbolized when Piggly Wiggly, Pay N Save, and a few other stores opened at Willow’s Corner in 1973, with Ma’s Place just up the road from there. The second wave came within the decade as Safeway and Ernst sprung up at 116th. In the third wave, South Hill became the focus of shopping in the greater Puyallup area. When the Mall opened in the 1980s, it really shifted a lot of shopping from the Hi Ho Shopping Center and various smaller stores in the Valley to larger stores on the hill, which continued to expand along Meridian over time. And Fairchild Industries opened its plant on the Hill in 1981. And of course each of these waves brought new housing developments on the Hill.
But with its development and consumer emphasis, South Hill has also had a few major community gathering spots that have opened up in recent years. The first was Pierce College Puyallup, which was founded by the great education statesman Buster Brouillet in 1989. The second was the Mel Korum Family YMCA, which started 10 years ago and has really become a central place for activity on the Hill. And the third was the second high school on the hill, Emerald Ridge in the middle of Sunrise, which opened the same year as the YMCA.
It’s really interesting to think that the South Hill lagged behind the Valley in terms of its development basically by 100 years. Ezra Meeker platted downtown Puyallup in 1877. Most of what we know as the South Hill has happened within our lifetimes—within my lifetime. I can remember when the ground we’re standing on was underneath a forest across the street from the brand-new South Hill Mall. South Hill is much younger than the Valley. Somebody was telling me recently that he was in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and reminded that the Willamette Valley is 50 years older than Seattle because of the settlement patterns, and you can tell. The houses, the historical memory, is like the Midwest rather than the Northwest. And it’s like that with Puyallup – its development is basically 100 years older than the South Hill.
But the South Hill does have these deeper roots on which we can draw, and I think as the South Hill continues to develop, it’s important to figure out what sets this place apart. What are the strengths that we can build on? What are the historic things that predate South Hill’s boom that we can draw upon to make the community better for the future?
Well, my grandpa likes to say that it’s the people that make any community or organization what it is. There are really four categories of people on the South Hill.
The first and smallest category are the real old-timers, the ones who if you asked where they grew up would tell you Rabbit Farms or Puyallup Heights or Firgrove. Many of them, as I said, were from German families. These people are very traditional and many of them are related to each other. You can meet many of these people if you show up at a meeting of the South Hill Historical Society. There was a reunion last summer for the old Firgrove School and it was like a family reunion for about three families that are all married into each other.
The second category are the people who moved to South Hill after World War II to raise their families here, start businesses here, and who have spent their lives in the community quietly building it, people like my grandpa Ed who was a principal at Firgrove and opened Wildwood Park Elementary School in 1966 and then Pope Elementary School in 1981 and finished his career at Sunrise Elementary after it had opened to accommodate the families in the Manorwood area.
A third category includes people who probably grew up in the Puyallup area or at least worked locally, and they moved to the Hill or stayed on the Hill because there was room to grow in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I was talking with Gerry Moody before the meeting, and he’s part of this group. Some, like my uncle Karl, grew up on the South Hill, then worked here, and raised his family here. Others may have started out in the Valley or Tacoma, but the South Hill was a good place to start a family and find a house.
The fourth category of South Hill residents includes the most recent newcomers, young working families that commute to jobs across the spectrum: blue collar workers, service workers, tech workers, military personnel from McChord and Ft. Lewis. Along with the growth of South Hill as a bedroom community there has been continued growth in local businesses as well as local schools. There are now 16 elementary schools, junior highs, and high schools on the Hill. With growth there have also been a variety of social challenges for the South Hill community, including the obvious congestion, as well as some crime, and poverty.
But for all of its imperfections, I am proud of my family’s roots here. And I think that as South Hill continues to develop, it can preserve those roots and cultivate a sense of place in the rising generation. Men and women need to have a sense of place, a sense of home if they are to live decent lives. And if we call the South Hill home, we must do everything we can to make it better.
And I would suggest three specific things that can be done to make South Hill better.
The first has to do with teaching newer South Hill residents the history of this community. As things change, it’s important to cultivate an awareness of how things have been in the past so that we can have a sense of continuity. And so I’d ask those of you who are interested in local history to consider joining the South Hill Historical Society. The Society has been a labor of love for Paul Hackett and others like Don Glaser and Carl Vest, but we need new blood and a renewed determination to tell the story of South Hill.
The second thing that we need to do is to preserve some of the older landmarks here. You’ve seen some of the old street names on street signs, like Glaser Road, Patzner Road, and Muehler-Berger Road. The next thing to be done is to preserve the old Firgrove School, which was built in 1935. Paul and others are working to place Firgrove on the National Register of Historic Places. It would be wonderful if community groups could purchase the building for use rather than allowing it to be demolished. People need physical reminders of their history.
And finally, let me commend you for what you’ve done as a Rotary Club to make the South Hill a better place. Rotary has been an important part of the Hill since 1983. All I can say in conclusion is to keep doing what you’re doing. Thanks for having me.