History of the Hill: Exploring South Hill’s historic landmarks

South Hill was once home to Naches Trail Pass, a portion of the northern Oregon Trail, and other historic landmarks.

Chase Charaba, Co-Editor-in-Chief

In a community where main avenues are lined with strip malls and shopping centers and congested back roads are bordered by housing subdivisions, it would seem that South Hill, Wash. has no history predating the 1970s.

South Hill’s nearly 60,000 residents are mostly newcomers to the area, helping to double the population of the Census-designated place every 10 years. Areas with acreage turned into middle-class housing. Forests and farmland became schools and shops, and older buildingsare being replaced with new ones. South Hill’s history was forgotten with bulldozers and construction crews, but some historic places remain.

“Often when I mention to people that I’m a member to the South Hill Historical Society, they respond with the question ‘History? What history?” Jerry Bates, newsletter editor and webmaster of the South Hill Historical Society, said. “The hill today is mainly populated with those who only know strip malls, traffic congestion and endless housing developments, franchise food establishments and big box stores.”

The South Hill Historical Society was founded in 2001 by Paul Hackett, Carl Vest and Ben Peters to gather and preserve the history of South Hill dating back to the 1800s.

The society gathers historical documents, artifacts, photographs and interviews of residents to try and piece together the area’s history, Bates said.

Through their research, the historical society has written accounts and articles of specific events in South Hill’s history, such as the creation of the Pierce County Airport and the history behind Ball-Wood Road, which later became Meridian Avenue.

“As I say on the website, no famous battles were fought on the hill, no early resident appears in high school history books, no famous landmark exists—but before today’s current suburban growth, generations of families lived on the hill, various small enterprises came and went, significant events took place worthy of historical preservation and research,” Bates said. “For example, not many realize the north fork of the Oregon Trail passed through our community, or during World War II a Japanese balloon bomb landed on South Hill.”

A few historic places still exist on South Hill, such as the South Hill Historic Corridor and part of Firgrove Elementary, Bates said.

According to an article by Vest on the historical society’s website, southhillhistory.com, Firgrove was originally built in 1895 as Firgrove

School, although it wasn’t built on its current site near the corner of Meridian Avenue East and 136th Street East until 1935.

This 1935 original brick building still stands today next to the current Firgrove Elementary, but the Puyallup School District has plans

to build a new Firgrove Elementary. This could result in the demolition of the 1935 building, although current plans show the building remaining.

According to an article published on the Puyallup School District’s website, a $292.5 million bond passed in November 2015 will replace Firgrove and other district schools with new 30-classroom structures.

“Currently we’re supporting an effort to save the school from demolition,” Bates said. “It’s the oldest public building on South Hill.”

The South Hill Historic Corridor is another area that predates modern suburbanization. Markers around South Hill indicate the path of the Naches Trail Pass, a trail created by the Klickitat tribe of Native Americans.

“This corridor was also used by the first white settlers to Puget Sound country, the Longmire wagon train of 1853, forming the north fork of the Oregon Trail,” Bates said. “Later this same route developed into the military road connecting Fort Steilacoom with Fort Walla Walla and

played a significant role during the Indian wars.”

The historic markers can be found along 128th Street East near Military Road on South Hill, and near Rogers High School along 128th. This is all that remains of the trail on South Hill, which is now mostly covered by houses and stores.

Along with the trail, most of South Hill’s historic places have been destroyed. Old hop barns, settler homes, log buildings and mills have been torn down in favor of new housing. The once plentiful farmlands, rhubarb gardens and old growth forests made way for state highways and urban growth that shows no sign of stopping.

“The hill forever changed from a quiet area of various small farms and family businesses,” Bates said. “For example, as a kid in the 1950s and ‘60s, I remember family members referring to South Hill as the ‘rabbit farms’ and it was labeled as such on local maps. Don’t hear that reference much anymore.”

As more of South Hill’s history disappears, the South Hill Historical Society is hoping that it can continue to collect information and to preserve the history that’s left. Part of that is trying to get the local community involved, especially younger people.

“We are in a great need of young people joining the society to carry on our work,” Bates said.

The historical society holds monthly meetings that are open to the public at the Highlands Community Center near Pierce College Puyallup, where guest speakers and members continue to uphold their task: to maintain a link to South Hill’s past for future generations.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

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History of the Hill: Exploring South Hill’s historic landmarks

by Chase Charaba time to read: 3 min