A historic home rescued by a pear tree, the oldest historic group of buildings west of the Cascades and the hospital where actress Frances Farmer was confined are on what was once called The Prairie, southwest of Tacoma.
Grasslands and shorelines supported tribes’ hunting and fishing, but that ended with the arrival of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Co., white settlers and the U.S. Army.
Settlers transformed the prairie with farms, fences and cattle, taking away tribal resources. The U.S. Army arrived in 1849 as much to ensure national claims to the area as to protect settlers.
An 1855-56 war with the tribes ended the dispute, with the newcomers on top.
The rival towns of Port Steilacoom and Steilacoom City were merged into Steilacoom in 1854.
The small waterfront community claims several firsts, including the first incorporated community in Washington Territory (1854), first brick building north of the Columbia River, and the first public library, brewery and jail in the territory.
Steilacoom was a Puget Sound beach resort in the 1890s, but that ended when railroad tracks were built along the shoreline.
Residents were left with history: 32 buildings on the National Registry of Historic Places and the town as an official historic district (1974). A map from the museum guides visitors to buildings and monuments.
A tour of the Steilacoom Historical Society’s wagon shop and the 1853 Nathaniel Orr home is the highlight, although the latter almost slid into oblivion.
“They jacked up the house 12 years ago to build a basement. It fell off its supports. The tree that saved the house was a pear tree that it rested against,” curator Lenore Rogers said.
“We raised money to repair and restore it and enough to build a new museum.”
Orr was a carpenter who built and repaired farm wagons, coffins, spinning wheels and other wood-related challenges, including his home’s banister.
“Everything’s original to the Orrs with minor exceptions. He made tables, bookshelves, the stairs; planted the orchard. He was a pillar of the community,” Rogers said.
The museum next door showcases the town’s history starting in the 1850s; history in action can be found at the nearby wagon house.
Call the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association, 253-584-4133, for guided and self-guided walks.
Docents, cannons, a diorama of the fort in 1858, video, historic re-enactments in period clothing and the oldest historic group of buildings west of the Cascades are found on the grounds of Western State Hospital.
The last four historic buildings from about 30 originals at Fort Steilacoom have been preserved. When plans were made to demolish the barracks, history-minded residents stepped forward to save and restore four buildings.
The buildings’ furnishings have been kept to the mid-19th-century styles. The home used by married officers is clearly different from rooms for enlisted men.
The only original furniture is in one room and includes a pool table made in 1860.
In 1871 the property was deeded to Washington Territory for use as an insane asylum (now Western State Hospital) in what is now Lakewood. Barracks were converted into a permanent institution.
For information, call 253-582-5838.
Western State Hospital
Perhaps the most famous resident of Western State Hospital was Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer, who was institutionalized from 1945 to 1950 with about 2,700 other patients.
The hospital has a small museum with artifacts and photographs covering more than 130 years.
“It has wicker furniture made by the men and samples of sewing made by the women. There was a big sewing factory where women created garments for every hospital patient and some other institutions,” library associate Kathleen Benoun said.
Since the museum is midcampus in an abandoned ward, ask for a docent-guided appointment by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 253-756-2593. You’ll also see some rooms, including one dedicated to Farmer.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.