King of hops: The legacy of Herman Klaber

King of hops: The legacy of Herman Klaber

News Tribune

CURTIS, Lewis County – Come spring in the Boistfort Valley, hops pop up, green and fragrant, in the hay fields.

Boistfort Elementary School sits next to a big hay field where hops sprout, searching the sky for support. The only clue to this pretty valley's pedigree is a wooden sign that this was the world's biggest hops field. It was 200 acres of pungent green plants supported on poles, like beanstalks to heaven.

The town was called Klaber. There was a post office, store, blacksmith, barber shop and a company town that zoomed to some 2,000 people when harvest arrived in September. Klaber was devoted to one man for shelter, clothing, food, and a demanding seasonal occupation. He lived in Tacoma. He had a large house on a North End bluff above Commencement Bay. He had offices and houses in Portland and San Francisco. He was returning home to his young wife and toddler daughter 89 Aprils ago after selling Klaber's Chehalis Hops to European brewers.

Herman Klaber never made it home. He paid 26 pounds, 11 shillings – about $150 then, equivalent to $1,720 in today's currency – for a first-class berth on the White Star Line's great new ship RMS Titanic.

He was 41. He never again saw his beloved family, his lofty homes, his hard-earned empire and the town bearing his name. Klaber was one of 1,523 who went down with the Titanic, the legend featured in a Pacific Science Center exhibit.

The museum will hold a memorial today at 10:30 a.m. for 17 Washington-bound passengers who died on the Titanic. The ceremony will be attended by local Titanic descendants, plus sixth-graders from Sunrise Elementary School in Puyallup.

Herman Klaber was Washington's hops king in the early 20th century. Born in San Francisco, he came to Puyallup in 1893 and worked as a hops buyer and warehouse manager. He moved to Tacoma in 1897, lived downtown, and was a hops broker, woolen merchant, cigar store owner and insurance agent. His parents, German natives Bertha and George Klaber, also lived in Tacoma.

In 1906, Klaber's empire expanded to Lewis County. He bought 360 acres in the lush valley that locals called Baw Faw, for they thought that was how the French pronounced Boistfort. The name is French for "small valley surrounded by green hills."

That describes the valley where Washington Territory's first public school was built in 1854. It is a mellow hollow where hops grew strong on 12-foot poles that made Herman Klaber's fields look like a vineyard gone balmy.

The biggest single hops field in the world spanned 200 acres. Pickers, many of them Indians from Lewis and Cowlitz Counties, lived in tents and shacks along the Chehalis River's South Fork. They were paid $3 a day for nasty tedium, picking hops and filling boxes 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, bound for breweries in England and Germany.

Colossal kilns, with chimneys to vent wood fires, dried the hops in a blazing heat. The six biggest chimneys spelled K L A B E R
The heart of the operation was a two-story frame house with a wraparound porch where Klaber lived during hops season with Gertrude, who he married in 1907 when she was 19. Their daughter Bernice Janet Klaber was born in 1910.

Michelle and Tom Hulbert are the house's latest owners. Up on a hill, the Hulberts found an outhouse and a bathhouse used by hops pickers. Michelle, who likes history, saved bottles found on the property, plus keys that surface in the dark soil. One big brass key, etched "KLABER NPRR," opened Herman Klaber's private railroad car.

"The house has been remodeled," Michelle Hulbert said, "but it had funky old wood floors, high ceilings, leaded glass in the living room, and throughout the master bedroom and closet. Some renters rode motorcycles up the staircase and that kind of wrecked things.

"There aren't any ghosts, but weird electrical things are always going on.

Stray voltage. There's surges and voltage happening where they shouldn't be."

Gertrude and Bernice Klaber were living in their Portland house in the spring of 1912. In January, Herman Klaber took the Titanic's sister ship, RMS Olympic, from New York to London to sell and promote his hops.

Hazel M. Duncan, who has lived in this corner of Lewis County nearly all of her 91 years, owns a treasure. It is a picture postcard of the Olympic, posted in London and sent to hops yard manager Gust Anderson.

"This will give you some idea of the enormous size of this boat," Herman Klaber wrote. "Kindest regards to Mrs. Anderson & the Wallaces & McGoverns & all friends."

Duncan acquired the postcard from the estate of Laura "Polly" Anderson, who was Gust Anderson's wife and worked 35 years as the Klaber company bookkeeper.

"Polly signed off June 19, 1945," Duncan said. "I have her account ledger. Her last entry reads 'Finish of 35 years of work for Klaber Hop Yard.'"

A downy mildew fungus and the Titanic combined to scuttle the local hops business. Searching for a mildew remedy in Europe, Herman Klaber grew homesick. He wrote to a business associate named Ben Moyses in Seattle.

Klaber noticed a man reading a Seattle newspaper in a London hotel lobby.

"It looked mighty good to me," Klaber wrote. "... I introduced myself and found that I was talking to a Seattle business man W.R. Owens, and we spent five hours together talking about 'God's country.' I hope to be there soon and I shall leave here as soon as I can make arrangements."

Klaber occupied Titanic first-class cabin C-142. He did not survive when the Titanic nudged an iceberg off of Newfoundland and sank.

Herman Klaber's body was never recovered. The San Francisco Bulletin placed Klaber among the wealthiest aboard, equal in big black headlines to Isador and Ida Straus, and Col. John Jacob Astor IV.

Herbert Edwin Freeman, London manager of the firm Klaber, Wolf & Netter, signed a death deposition on May 20, 1912. Since Klaber's body was not found, the document stated that Freeman saw Klaber leave London's Waterloo Station for Southampton on a special train, reserved for Titanic passengers.

Klaber's estate was $500,000 – more than $17 million today. Some $300,000 went to Gertrude Ginsburg Klaber, who never remarried, and their daughter Bernice. Klaber's brother-in-law Herman A. Kaufman of Tacoma, owner of St. Helens Hotel in Chehalis, was the will's executor.

Cash awards of $1,000 went to Congregations Beth Israel in Tacoma and San Francisco, clerks and secretaries and hops yard workers. Sums of $25,000 went to nieces Dorothy Danhauser and Elsa Kaufman of Tacoma. Danhauser was a singer in Tacoma. She married a Sherman Clay piano salesman named Sidney Johnson, son of a Tacoma Times editor. In 1914, Dorothy and Sidney Johnson got married.
The Johnsons honeymooned in San Francisco, where she was murdered by a spurned lover named Abraham Pepper.

Elsa Kaufman married Seattle lawyer Sam Levinson. She helped establish the University of Washington's Jewish Archives, and was a founder of the Jewish Historical Society of Washington State. Some material in this story was shared by Tacoma historian Debbie Freeman for her upcoming book "Dry Goods and Wet Goods," a history of 19th century Jewish merchants around Puget Sound.
Klaber the town withered and died. The hops yards limped along, closing in 1945, unable to repel the mildew or compete without a strong leader like Herman Klaber.

"The most famous person to ever come from here was Herman Klaber," Michelle Hulbert said. "He was the guy who went down with the Titanic. You can't get more famous than that."

Herman Klaber's house at 902 North I St. was a two-story Craftsman-style house built for $8,000 in 1905. Demolished in the 1950s, the site is a parking lot for Immanuel Prebyterian Church.
A few blocks south, Apostolic Faith Church benefits from Klaber's generosity.

He left $1,000 to build a stained-glass window, crafted by Belkap Glass of Seattle, in memory of his parents at the church building, originally home to Tacoma's Temple Beth Israel, now known as Temple Beth El.

The glass depicts Grecian columns topped by three blue circles. The right circle is branded with a five-point star. Freeman thinks it symbolizes White Star Line's logo.

In Klaber, a sign built by Baw Faw Grange No. 34 commemorates the world's largest hops field. It stands next to Boistfort Elementary School. Hay grows next to a playground where school kids welcome spring to this green valley, punctuated by stray hops shoots. Night falls. The field looks like a dark sea. Hops, straining skyward, rise like waves. Moonlight gleams white and looks, for a chilling moment, like an iceberg.

Related Biographies:
Herman Klaber

Acknowledgements
Bart Ripp, USA

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