Ten Quirks of History that Crafted the South Sound


By Steve Dunkelberger

clearviewcarpetblock2Anyone who knows anything about history is well aware that happenstances make for larger changes in the path of things to come. The South Sound is not immune to this, a fact found by looking at the history of the suburban city of Lakewood and its surroundings.

Arts and Leisure

  • Few people, for example, know that the first recorded game of golf on the West Coast occurred in the South Sound thanks to Alexander Baillie. He left Scotland in 1888 and found his way to the growing community of Tacoma. He brought his golf clubs. In 1894, Baillie created the first golf course west of the Mississippi River, a nine-hole course on 280 acres in what is now South Tacoma. It was only the fourth in the United States at that time. It was a young sport that grew rapidly in the region, which now has a nationally ranked course at Chambers Bay, future home to the U.S. Open next year.
  • tacoma history
    “Jelly Roll” Morton played in the parlor of a Lakeood house of ill repute.

    Jazz great Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton learned his craft in a brothel in what is now Lakewood.  He played in the parlor of a house of ill repute that catered to the soldiers from nearby Camp Lewis, during the years following World War I. Had he not been tasked with playing music on a piano for hours, often improvising a bridge from one song to the next, jazz might not have benefited from his genius.

  • The area’s ties to the creation of modern music didn’t end with Morton, however. The birth of rock and roll has local roots, particularly with the formation of the Fabulous Wailers and the Sonics. The Fabulous Wailers played the rock classic “Louie Louie” in Lakewood before it reached national radio charts. Its founding members attended Stadium High School, but the band booked one of its first gigs at Lakewood’s St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in 1960. The band’s “Tall Cool One” was riding high after it earned the No. 36 spot on the national charts in 1959. While Richard Berry had first recorded “Louie Louie” in 1957, it was the Wailers’ single that first became a radio hit. The Sonics, which drew its name from the jets from McChord that flew overhead during band practice, are credited as being one of the first bands to give rise to what is now known as punk rock.
  • Pulled from the “extra quirky” file is this little fact: JZ Knight moved with her two boys to Lakewood in the late 1970s. She would later form the School of Enlightenment after having visions of the 35,000-year-old warrior, Ramtha, from the ancient continent of Lemuria. One of the first times Knight channeled Ramtha was in the produce section of a Lakewood grocery store. She was apparently close to the lettuce and carrots. Her spiritual center now hosts a reported 10,000 people at events each year.


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    Chief Leschi was a Nisqually tribal leader.

    The Indian War of 1854–1856 created the framework of the tribal reservation system on the West Coast, but it also showed the complexities of history. At the center is the story of Chief Leschi, a Nisqually tribal leader put on trial for murder for being involved in the war. He was tried twice. The first was a hung jury, and the second proved to be a stacked deck against him and lead to a guilty verdict. He was hanged outside of Fort Steilacoom, despite the protests of its commander and prominent residents. A Historical Court of Inquiry held another trial in 2004 and exonerated him.

  • The installation that is now Joint Base Lewis McChord has a global presence in military and humanitarian efforts as well as an economic engine of the state. But it might never have been if a group of civic leaders hadn’t promoted the development of a military base in 1916. The gaggle championed a bond measure that faced voters in 1917 to tax themselves in order to buy 70,000 acres of land in South Pierce County for $2 million and hand the acreage over to the federal government. The vote passed. Camp Lewis was born in the build up to World War I and has served the nation’s interests ever since.
  • The name Dwight Eisenhower is well known as the man behind the victory in Europe during World War II, but less known is that he was “little Ike” to his older brother Edgar, who was a local attorney and avid conservative critic of his younger brother. Ponder an alternative history for a minute.  Dwight had his first command in 1940 at Fort Lewis, where he tested out his thoughts on mobilized warfare. He actually considered leaving the military at the time, only to find success and a meteoric rise up the ranks with the outbreak of war. That success lead him to the White House, where his older brother blasted his policies at every term. Thanksgivings must have been awkward.

What could have been

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    The Washington State Fairgrounds could have been located in Lakewood.

    The Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup draws roughly a million visitors a year during its run. It is a local icon that could well have been located in Lakewood had other plans come to pass. Tacoma developer Walter Thompson had envisioned the fairgrounds in what was then prairie land outside of Tacoma. But it was not to be. He lost his fortune and financial backing with the Great Panic of 1893. His plans for a grand fair were scrapped. The Puyallup fairgrounds won out seven years later.

  • Strip malls are just another part of modern life, but they were revolutionary when the first one was build in Lakewood in 1937. Norton Clapp’s Colonial Center holds the distinction of being the first suburban shopping center in the nation. Before that time, individual shops were built by investors or shop owners. He crafted the concept of building a destination hub of individual businesses under one landowner.
  • One of the darkest days of regional history leaves a shadow to this day. On Nov. 3, 1885, a group of Tacoma business owners, workers and politicians mobbed the homes of Chinese workers and forced them out of the city. The mob force marched the Chinese families to a rail station in what is now Lakewood. They were forced onto the Portland-bound train in the morning. News of the mob action became known as the “Tacoma solution” and was blasted in newspapers around the world. It was because of the actions of that night that Tacoma remains the only major city on the West Coast without a Chinatown, a fact rival port cities use when courting shipping business from Asia.


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