The quiet roads and lush prairie lands of South Prairie bear evidence of a different way of life. Life in the valley was hazardous in 1854 when Paul Emery filed a Donation Land Claim on prairie land south of Connell and Porter prairies. (Hence the name South Prairie.) Indian raids were prevalent during the Indian War of 1855.
In 1859, John Flett, an important Indian interpreter for the Government, came to South Prairie to farm. He later moved his dairy farm to Sumner and then to Steilacoom, where the farm still exists today. His sons David, William and John have gone down in history as the discoverers of rich coal veins in the Wilkeson and Burnett area. In the wilderness they found a way to draw attention to the small South Prairie settlement.
With the discovery of coal in 1875 came the need for transporting it. The Cascade Division of the railroad was the solution. South Prairie made an ideal site for a thriving city with its accessibility to vast resources of coal, timber and stone. It was also a natural starting point for tourists heading to resorts on the north side of Mt. Rainier.
In 1888, Frank Bisson settled in South Prairie on Paul Emery’s old donation claim. He built the first store in town in 1884, and business was thriving. Customers came from as far away as Cle Elum and Durham, because South Prairie was the closest town. People often sent their grocery list via the train engineer, who would give it to Bisson to fill before the train went on to the Tacoma terminus. On the return trip the engineer would pick up the goods and deliver them to the customers.
Turn of the Century
Accounts tell of a band of Indians called the Dothliuk who lived here in the late 19th and early 20th century. Imagine the lifestyle from this early newspaper account: “Mrs. Roberts recalls in 1887 that the Hudson Bay Company had a trading post at South Prairie and all the Indian Tribes of what is now King and Pierce Counties brought their furs there to exchange for trinkets and camp supplies.”
The town was incorporated in 1909, with telegraph operator Allen Tubbs as the first mayor. There were several hotels, (Hodder, Rosser and Hunter), a sawmill, general merchandise stores, a hardware store, a meat market, a soft drink parlor, several beer parlors-saloons-pool halls, a confectionery-tourist shop, a barber shop, two churches, a livery stable, and farming of dairy, raspberries and hops. The K.P. Lodge, the Masonic Temple, and the A.O.U.W. Lodge provided for the community’s social activities.
The last school was built in 1906 and closed in 1955. School District #18 then consolidated with White River School District in Buckley.
Today, South Prairie is still beautiful and, in many spots, unchanged from the wild and wonderful place it was a hundred years ago. The South Prairie Creek and tall trees in the meadows make it a peaceful spot where the outside world’s hectic pace seems but a bad dream. The town developed into what it is today at a slow, steady pace, which is why town life today is nothing short of good.
Paul Strand, the outstanding baseball player from the early 1900’s, hailed from South Prairie. He played with the Boston Braves as pitcher when they won the world pennant in 1912-1913, and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with a 1922 record of 315 hits.
Notes of Interest
South Prairie’s Post Office was established as “Melrose,” on January 7, 1894, with William E. Owen being the first Post Master. On October 2, 1889, the name was changed to South Prairie to coincide with the town’s name, to save on much confusion. Census of South Prairie in 1860 was twelve people. There were nine people in the John Flett family and three people in the Gale family.