Originally printed in the Aug. 20, 2003 edition of the Illinois Valley News
Last week’s Tidbit article discussed Spotted Knapweed, Star Thistle, and Russian Knapweed. The BLM has a booklet that explains noxious weeds of Oregon. Copies are available at the IV Visitor’s Center and at the Kerbyville Museum. The U.S. Forest Service will also have herbarium specimens of these weeds which can be studied at the Kerbyville Museum.
Speaking of the museum, I have recently become reacquainted with the amazing numbers of nifty objects that are on display there. One in particular that caught my eye was a buckskin suit that probably belonged to Ezra Meeker. For students of the Oregon Trail, the name Ezra Meeker has special significance. But let me tell a bit about the suit first.
In 1943 there was a Hill Ranch out on Holland Loop, east of where the Holland Store is located. The ranch area is now called Three Creeks Winery. Bob Hill, who owned the ranch in 1943, was later killed in a car accident. The Hill Ranch had a large old house that was not being used at the time. Jack Heald, a high school senior, had some spare time and with a friend, explored around inside the vacant house. In an upstairs closet they found the buckskin suit. Inside a pocket of the suit was a picture postcard of Ezra Meeker wearing the suit, or one very similar to it. The suit was used at least once in a local parade and was later donated to the museum.
Ezra Meeker probably did not live in the Illinois Valley. But he may have visited the area, or at least his suit was brought to Holland Loop where it stayed until 1943. Meeker, and his suit, had become well known along the Oregon Trail and as far east as Washington, D.C. and New York City from 1906 until his death in 1928. He was born in 1830 in Ohio and moved with his family to Indiana in 1837. His father was a miller and a part time farmer and Ezra, spending little time in school, worked on his father’s farm. He married Eliza Sumner in 1851 and that same year the young couple headed west to Council Bluffs, Iowa. The next spring the Meekers, with a newborn child were on their way to Oregon with an ox team and covered wagon.
Instead of Oregon, Ezra and his family, along with his brother, went north and settled at the south end of Puget Sound. He helped to start the town of Puyallup, WA and became the first mayor. This is near today’s Tacoma and there is a nearby town named Sumner, possibly named for his wife’s relatives. Ezra Meeker eventually became a hop farmer and by 1885 he was known as “Hop King of the World.” The Meekers also became very wealthy until 1891 when the “Hop Louse” destroyed their crops.
He then tried other crops, gold mining in Alaska and perhaps Illinois Valley, and wrote some books. In 1906, at age 76, he decided to publicize the Oregon Trail. He obtained a wagon and two oxen, Dandy and Dave, and headed east along the path he had followed in 1852. Along the way he wrote articles for newspapers, made speeches to local groups and encouraged local citizens and towns to set up monuments and markers to commemorate the trail. In the east, he met with President Teddy Roosevelt and called on Congress to mark the trail across the country. He repeated this trek in 1910 by ox team but with more publicity. Later by automobile and by airplane he traveled the Oregon Trail to repeat his efforts.
His time and troubles eventually were successful and in 1930 a nation wide celebration concerning the Oregon Trail took place. However, Ezra Meeker made his last trip in 1928 and became ill. He spent time in a Detroit hospital and then was returned to Seattle where he died Dec. 3, 1928 at age 98. His efforts to bring recognition to the importance of the Oregon Trail throughout the USA were a great contribution to an understanding of our history.