Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Seven Reasons to Know Puyallup History

“Seven Reasons to Know Puyallup History”
By Hans Zeiger
Speech to Puyallup Rotary
January 6, 2010

I remember getting out of college a few years ago and thinking—I’ve studied a lot about the idea of community and tradition, but I just don’t feel the sense of connection and place in my own community that I should.

But before I did anything about that, I had this other interest in World War II history. I was watching Band of Brothers, and if you’ve seen it you know how there are interviews with the actual veterans of the European war in the beginning of the episodes. And I thought, boy, there are guys like that around Puyallup who won’t be with us much longer. So I started out in December of 2007 sitting down for about 5 hours with the late Paul Harmes, and he just opened my eyes to a great project. I thought, I want to write the story of one community during World War II. So I’ve been working on that now for a couple years and I’ve just been blessed with a deepening understanding of this community and the kinds of people who’ve lived here, not only war heroes, but decent and generous people from all walks of life.

The first reason to know local history is that it reveals our character. Puyallup means “The Generous People,” and I like to think that we live up to our name. Ezra Meeker set an early example as a philanthropist who gave a lot of land to the city and to churches. Warner Karshner led the fundraising drive for the Puyallup Valley Hospital, which became Good Sam, and civic groups and individuals did their part to build that hospital. In the course of my interviews I’ve come across some cool stories, like the manager of Queen City Grocery in the 30s and 40s, Marty Martinson, who volunteered his lunch hour to deliver groceries to shut-ins around town. And then there were the Puyallup families that opened their homes after the attack on Pearl Harbor to share Christmas dinner with the men of the 260th Anti-Aircraft Regiment who were far from home and temporarily stationed in Puyallup.

These are things that still go on, and the Lions Club is a big part of that.

Second, roots actually do count for something around here. For example, there is a very selective group of people who seem to join the Fair Board of Directors—namely, descendents of the people who were on the original Fair Board of Directors. Hence there have been several generations of Corlisses and Hogans and Elvinses on the board.

Now, some of you who grew up around here know that there’s even historical roots on the South Hill. Ma’s Place and Firgrove Elementary and the Fruitland Grange are some of the old landmarks. I’m a member of a group called the South Hill Historical Society, where I think I am the youngest member by about 60 years. And being a Zeiger means that I’m a newcomer at the meetings. You see, the Zeigers showed up on the South Hill in—1952. By then the Glasers and the Patzners and the Barths and the Mosolfs and the Thuns—had already been stuck in Meridian traffic for several decades.

But I was talking with my aunt Sally the other day about how it’s so important to welcome newcomers. We should always remember that there is a place for newcomers in P-town. I remember talking with a retired carpenter named Manford Hogman and he told me about growing up in poverty in Illinois during the Great Depression and then coming out here with his family in a jalopy around 1939. And he said there were a couple guys who really made him feel welcome at Puyallup High School—and he named those guys: Ray Glaser and Eddie Myers. Both of those guys by the way gave their lives in World War II. Eddie Myers had been the quarterback of the Puyallup Vikings and the class president of the class of 1940. The lesson of our history is that there is goodness in helping outsiders and newcomers to feel welcome.

The third reason to know local history is that it repeats itself. If you think that things are divisive on the city council now, you should go back 120 years ago when Ezra Meeker and J.P. Stewart were at war for the future of the new city. Ezra was our first mayor, but as with most things he undertook, he had strong opposition. Now you’ll recall that Ezra built this town on hops, as well as his own fortune. There’s an interesting little contradiction in that because Ezra was a teetotaler and a temperance activist. So when he ran for reelection, his opponent put a keg of whiskey out on the sidewalk along Meridian with a label, “Courtesy of E Meeker.” The temperance voters weren’t too pleased, and Ezra Meeker lost his reelection.

The fourth reason to know local history is that it’s pretty funny. Ezra Meeker actually had a real sense of humor. To those of you who’ve ever taken flack for living in a place that has a name that’s hard to pronounce, you might appreciate this passage from a book that Ezra Meeker wrote about settling Puyallup. This is Ezra’s apology to us:

But such a name! I consider it no honor to the man who named the town (now city) of Puyallup. I accept the odium attached to inflicting that name on suffering succeeding generations by first platting a few blocks of land into village lots and recording them under the name Puyallup. I have been ashamed of the act ever since. The first time I went East after the town was named and said to a friend in New York that our town was named Puyallup he seemed startled.
“Named WHAT?”
“Puyallup,” I said, emphasizing the word.
“That’s a jaw breaker,” came the response. “How do you spell it?”
“P-u-y-a-l-l-u-p,” I said.
“Let me see—how did you say you pronounced it?”
Pouting out my lips …. and emphasizing every letter and syllable so as to bring out the Peww for Puy, and the strong emphasis on the al, and cracking my lips together to cut off the lup, I finally drilled my friend so he could pronounce the word, yet fell short of the elegance of the scientific pronunciation.
Then when I crossed the Atlantic and across the old London bridge to the borough, and there encountered the factors of the hop trade on that historic ground, the haunts of Dickens in his day; and when we were bid to be seated to partake of the viands of an elegant dinner; and when I saw the troubled look of my friend, whose lot it was to introduce me to the assembled hop merchants, and knew what was weighing on his mind, my sympathy went out to him but remained helpless to aid him.
“I say—I say—let me introduce to you my American friend from—my American friend from—from—from—“
And when, with an imploring look he visibly appealed to me for help, and finally blurted out:
“I say, Meeker, I cawn’t remember that blarsted name—what is it?”
And when the explosion of mirth came with:
“All the same, he’s a jolly good fellow—a jolly good fellow.”
I say, when all this had happened, and much more besides, I could yet feel resigned to my fate…
Then when, at night at the theaters, the jesters would say:
“Whar was it, stranger, you said you was from?”
“Oh you did?” followed by roars of laughter all over the house. All this I could hear with seeming equanimity.
But when letters began to come addressed “Pewlupe,” “Polly-pup,” “Pull-all-up,” “Pewl-a-loop,” and finally “Pay-all-up,” then my cup of sorrow was full and I was ready to put on sackcloth and ashes.

The fifth reason to know local history is that you and I need heroes who we can be like. It’s well and good to look up to the Washingtons and Lincolns and the pro-athletes and Hollywood stars, but most of us have to figure out a way to live heroically in the setting we’ve been blessed to enjoy. Some would say that you’re not succeeding if you’re not a celebrity, but it’s important that we recognize our hometown heroes as well. As I began to look into the World War II generation in this community, I found some heroes of my own. There’s a lot who I could describe, but I guess I’ll briefly mention three who were neighbors when they were growing up.

If you head down Pioneer to where it intersects with Fruitland, you’ll find the neighborhood where Eddie Myers, Bobby Bigelow, and Al Tresch grew up. If you went back to the 1930s, Eddie’s dad and Bobby’s dad worked at the experimental station, and Al’s dad Robert Tresch was a Swiss immigrant dairyman who owned a farm from 17th to the experimental station all the way back to the railroad tracks. Eddie was a popular leader, Bobby was a quiet boy who loved the outdoors, and Al was the town bully. I mentioned Eddie Myers already—he was a little guy but a heck of a quarterback when Jigs Dahlberg was coaching and the stands were packed on Fridays at Viking Field. Bobby was introverted but he loved wandering around in the woods and wanted to be a forest ranger. Al dropped out of the fifth grade at Maplewood and was over 300 pounds by the time he should have been in high school. Everyone knew him as “Fat Tresch.” He ran off to join the Army in 1939 and by 1941 found himself in the losing fight for Coreggidor in the Philippines. In the course of that fight, Tresch and another man snuck around at high risk to their lives to take out a Japanese machine gun nest, and they earned the Silver Star. But his fight wasn’t over. He was taken prisoner by Japanese in Bataan Death March and spent the next four years in captivity.

Meanwhile, Eddie became an officer in the 417th Infantry and was beloved by his men. One of his former officers described him on a Bill Moyers special as someone who was like a father to his men. He led his men through the winter of 1944-45, the Battle of the Bulge. But he was killed by a mortar shell on February 17, 1945 in a town called Welshbillag just across the Zauer River.

Bobby joined the Army Cavalry as a Medic. Not long after his friend Eddie’s death, he was crossing the Jones Bridge over the Pasig River to liberate Manila and vindicate the sacrifices of men like his neighbor Al Tresch. And as he bent down to help a wounded comrade, he was hit by a bullet in the head. That final posture of this quiet hero is significant if you look at the statue of a soldier in Pioneer Park. Bobby died, Eddie died, but Fat Tresch survived and returned home as the hero of Bataan.

A sixth reason to know local history is to avoid repeating the bad parts. It was ten years ago this year that Puyallup High School was embroiled in racial tensions that revealed some ugly realities about how we deal with diversity. There was a time in this town when real estate agents wouldn’t show homes to black families. Very early in our history, there is a record of one lone black man who was in Puyallup doing menial work, and people referred to him with a derogatory nickname on the basis of his race. And you know, one of the things I’ve become very aware of in the last couple of years is the impact of the internment of Japanese Americans on this area. It changed the community. Fife the most. As I see it, it wasn’t so much the imprisonment of American citizens that was the greatest injustice as it was the removal of them from soil that they loved and that they farmed productively. I remember going to visit Bob Mizukami, the former mayor of Fife and a former internee, and he told me that there’s one person whose name I should bring up to make sure that he’s discredited in history. He was the editor of the Sumner Newspaper and a local politician named Nifty Garrett. Garrett was the local leader of the Remember Pearl Harbor Society. They displayed anti-Japanese signs in store windows. In the paper they printed the names of those businesses under a banner that opposed the return of Japanese-Americans to the area.

But amid the sins and scars of history, you have to also locate the better angels of our nature. I was touched when Frank Hanawalt told me a story about his father, the longtime schools superintendent Paul Hanawalt. Hanawalt went to the relocation authorities and requested a brief leave for several Japanese-American students of Puyallup High School who were to graduate with the Class of 1942. His request was approved. On graduation day in June, the superintendent drove to the gates of the Fairgrounds, where he picked up Rosie Takemura and Yukio Takeuchi and took them to the high school auditorium to walk with their class.

When the exercises had finished, Rosie and Yukio made their way back out to Mr. Hanawalt’s car, which he would drive back to the Fairgrounds. But first, he made a detour up Pioneer and stopped at Martin’s Confectionary. There, he treated the new Viking alums to Mr. Martin’s homemade ice cream. We should not forget such moments in the history of our community.

And finally, I would say that the seventh reason to know your local history is that human beings need a sense of place. You need to have someplace that you can call home. I’ve heard somebody say that the more things change, the more we have to depend on things that never change. And we live in a time when things are changing all around us. I figure change can be a good thing as long as we have some memory of where we’ve come from to put everything in perspective and to give us a sense that not only does this place belong to us, but we kind of belong here.

There’s this tension between change and tradition that is best embodied in Ezra Meeker. He was somebody who was always ahead of his time, always exploring the next business opportunity, always looking for a new adventure. But in his older years, he wanted the younger generation to remember the pioneers. When I’ve given tours of the Meeker Mansion to fourth grade classes, I ask them to remember what Puyallup would have been like when it was a dense forest planted into the rich volcanic soil. And then to imagine how it turned into a town within a couple generations. Then I try to impress on them that our town isn’t really all that old, and that our history is still being made. You and I are a part of it.

Part of my love for history runs in my blood. About 25 or 30 years ago, Bob Minnich and my great grandpa Ernest lobbied the city council to save a giant Black Walnut tree from being torn out along 7th Street NW. And sure enough, that great old tree still stands there today as a testimony to the dedication of those men. There’s a curved sidewalk that winds around the tree, and I often think of that as the kind of legacy that’s worth leaving. You know, it’s nice to think that we could change the world, but I think we should consider ourselves blessed if we have the chance to make an impact on just a few lives. Rotary does that every day, and I can’t think of a better example of this community’s generosity and goodness than what you’re doing. So thanks for letting me speak with you today.

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