Travel back in time 120 years at historic Meeker Mansion

Docent and pianist Karen Robbins of Puyallup, right, talks about the large parlor of the Meeker Mansion to Beth Daniel of South Hill, docent Doris McIntyre of South Hill, and Becky McCord of Puyallup, from left.
Docent and pianist Karen Robbins of Puyallup, right, talks about the large parlor of the Meeker Mansion to Beth Daniel of South Hill, docent Doris McIntyre of South Hill, and Becky McCord of Puyallup, from left. The Olympian

PUYALLUP - Sue Fass counts 20 decorated trees standing in the public rooms of Puyallup's historic Meeker Mansion, and she calculates that she spends at least a half-hour every morning and the same in the evening turning the tree lights on, then off.

In the main-floor family parlor stands one tree as tall as the ceiling.

Seated at the 1869 Steinway, volunteer pianist Karen Robbins plays carols.

So goes the celebration of Christmas at the mansion, an annual event showcasing the holiday as it was celebrated in simpler times.

The downtown Puyallup Meeker Mansion was built for $26,000 over four years, beginning in 1886. The Meeker family – one of the wealthiest in the Puyallup Valley, with an original fortune earned from the growing of hops – moved in exactly 120 years ago.

At least, Ezra and wife Eliza moved in. Their five grown children had married and moved on.

Ezra was a pioneer, a bank owner and an entrepreneur who sold, among other things, hops to Europe and vegetables and dehydrated eggs to the people of Alaska.

“They lived in the house until 1909,” said Bob Minnich, a member of the board at the Meeker Historical Society.

Minnich and mansion administrator Fass were conducting a tour Saturday morning.

Minnich said Ezra’s fortune vaporized in the Panic of 1893 – the worst depression in U.S. history at the time – but the pioneer had placed the four-story, 10,000-square-foot home in his wife’s name.

It was always more her house than his.

Eliza Jane Sumner Meeker, a shade over 4 feet tall, was a suffragette, Minnich said. She had lived the log cabin life and then, following a trip to Europe, persuaded Ezra to build a home suitable to the requirements of wealth.

The house was originally heated by a coal-fired boiler, and the lights combined gas and the newfangled marvel of electricity. Carved wooden scenes surrounded the seven fireplaces, and the tile was imported from Europe.

Following Eliza’s death in 1909, Ezra – who would live nearly to see his 98th birthday – continued his career as a traveling crusader dedicated to the preservation of the Oregon Trail, which he had traversed in 1852.

Neither he nor a daughter, Eliza’s heir, chose to live in the mansion, and it was soon sold.

And used as the valley’s first hospital.

And sold again, and used as a retirement home for widows of Union soldiers.

And sold again, and used as a nursing home.

And sold again, in 1970, to a horticultural supply company.

That’s when local preservationists decided to act, forming the Ezra Meeker Historical Society and working to ensure that the mansion would one day be reborn as the place it once had been.

Today, the Ezra Meeker Historical Society counts 135 dues-paying members, said Minnich on Saturday.

Today, 120 years after Eliza, Ezra and their family celebrated their first Christmas in the house, it’s Christmas once again.

“It’s our history. It’s our roots,” said Fass.

“It was built during the best financial times in the valley,” said Minnich.

It was built to include indoor plumbing and hot and cold water that flowed as high as the third floor.

“It’s the finest thing in town,” said Minnich.

“All the fourth-graders in Puyallup take a tour,” said Fass. “It connects them to their history. It’s an example of the American Dream.”

It’s a dream where fortunes are made, lost, made, lost and forgotten.

“And the house remains. It’s still here,” said Fass.

“People come from all over the country,” said Minnich.

On Saturday, Hildegard Burgess came from Bellevue.

“It’s beautiful, the decorations. This feels so Christmas-y,” she said. “It’s just gorgeous. It’s in the taste of the period. I get glittery with my decorations. I like the simplicity here.”

In the billiard room upstairs, dozens of Santas stand on shelves. A hundred more look out from greeting cards so old that Ezra might have sent them.

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535 c.r.roberts@thenewstribune.com