Idaho History

Ezra Meeker enchanted me as a child, and still does

Few people living in Idaho today ever heard of Ezra Meeker, but I grew up in Tacoma, Wash., knowing about him and his efforts to make Americans remember and honor the pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

He spent the last years of his long, productive life working to get monuments set up along the route he had first traveled in a covered wagon in 1852.

A favorite Saturday or summer outing for the kids in our neighborhood was to walk the two miles to the Washington State Historical Museum and spend happy hours looking at exhibits of curious things from all over the world.

In those days, Washington's museum, like Idaho's, which was then located in the basement of the Capitol, had no clear collection policy.

If somebody wanted to donate almost anything that seemed interesting, it was accepted, whether historical, biological, or just a curiosity. The Washington museum we knew was interesting and educational in many ways, but had not yet focused on the history of the state.

We were fascinated by things like an Egyptian mummy, a rusty nail "picked up a few miles from Andrew Jackson's house in Virginia," sea shells, birds' nests, thousands of Indian arrowheads from all over North America, very few identified as to origin, but framed and arranged artistically.

Our first encounter with Ezra Meeker and his remarkable accomplishments was in the museum basement. There we saw the covered wagon and the team of oxen he had driven across the country in 1906 and again in 1910, retracing the route of the Oregon Trail from his home in Puyallup, Wash. The oxen, "Dandy" and "Dave," were stilled yoked to the wagon they had pulled thousands of miles, and thanks to the skill of a taxidermist, they looked quite lifelike.

Ezra Meeker was born in Ohio in 1830, grew up on a farm in Indiana and got married in 1851. The next year, the young couple and their baby boy headed west in a covered wagon bound for Oregon.

Meeker eventually made his home and his fortune in Washington's Puyallup Valley. He raised hops so successfully that he was widely known in the 1880s as "the Hop King of the World."

This may have been an exaggerated claim, but Meeker certainly became a very wealthy man. The mansion he built for his wife in about 1888 is on the National Register of Historic Places and open to the public.

My family moved from Tacoma to Puyallup in 1937, and we were soon taking part in "Ezra Meeker Days" a local event enjoyed by large crowds every summer. There was square dancing, horseshoe pitching, hot dogs and hamburgers, and a beard-growing contest. (My teenage attempt at growing a beard was pathetic).

In Pioneer Park, you can still see the bronze statue of Meeker dedicated in 1928 on the old man's 98th birthday. He was Puyallup's richest man, its first mayor, and easily its most famous citizen.

Although he will be remembered longest for retracing the Oregon Trail, twice in a covered wagon, once in an automobile and a final time in an airplane, he also was a prolific writer, promoter and public speaker.

There were no towns at all in Idaho when Meeker made his first trip in 1852, and there was nothing in Boise Valley but sagebrush and a small band of Shoshoni Indians.

His efforts to see that monuments were erected along the trail will be celebrated in Boise today. A time capsule placed in our monument in 1906 will be opened for all to see. You are invited to join Mayor David Bieter and other notables to commemorate the accomplishments of Meeker, a remarkable pioneer who visited Boise on all four of his return trips across the country on the Oregon Trail.