How beer gave the City of Kent its name
When Kent, Washington, was first settled by Europeans, it was called Titusville. So why the name change? Because of beer.
Or, to be more precise, because of hops.
Or, to be even more precise, because of western Washington's great 19th-century hops craze.
Hops were traditionally grown in Europe, most famously in Kent, England. But in the 1860s, Europe's hops fields were destroyed by aphids, and beer makers of the world suddenly had a big problem.
The flowers of the hops vine are a crucial ingredient in beer, lending antibacterial qualities in the brewing process and bitterness and a pleasant aroma to the finished product.
The market looked to another source for hops. Washington Territory had similar growing conditions to England, abundant available land, and a fertile valley close to a major port.
The region's farmers were eager for a cash crop. While many frontier families grew food for subsistence or for trade, hops could put money in the bank. Hop flowers that were grown, picked, and dried in the White River Valley, as it was then known, could be sold at high prices and shipped around the globe.
The resulting rush to plant hops changed the shape of the valley, said Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.
From modern-day Renton south to Puyallup, it was hops, hops, hops. Harvest time brought many hands to the valley.
"Hundreds of workers would go through the fields — men, women, kids, Native Americans, Chinese, European-Americans," Garfield said. "It was quite an undertaking, and it became a kind of cultural ritual."
Though hops pickers garlanded with flowers may seem bucolic, Garfield stresses that the hops craze was the beginning of industrial agriculture in our region.
"We often romanticize farming as being a small patch of land where we grew crops for ourselves or maybe for a local market," he said. "But hops was really a large scale agricultural undertaking. We took it to scale and we shipped it to markets around the world. So we really were industrializing the agricultural frontier."
The infrastructure needed to grow hops and bring them to market fundamentally shaped the valley economy. Fertile riverbeds were flattened for crop planting. Seasonal workers traveled to the region to pick at harvest time. The demand to get crops to market drew in the railroad, building tracks which still cross the landscape today.
So how, in the midst of this boom, did Titusville become Kent? It probably had something to do with the railroads, Garfield said.
Railroads had economic incentive to create buzz around their destinations, and liberty to name the stations in newly settled areas. When it came time to name the new railroad stop near Titusville, the railroad engineers decided that naming it after the great hops growing region of Kent, England, would be appropriate, Garfield said.
"It's a romantic allusion to what Kent dreamed of being, which was the great hops capital of the world," he said.
The name stuck. But Kent, the hops capital of the world, never came to pass.
"The craze came to an end just the way it started," Garfield said. Just as aphids destroyed Europe's crops, they eventually came to Washington.
"Suddenly in the early 1890s the hops fields were devastated. The profits were all lost. People really lost everything in the failure of the hops industry."
Once the hops craze was over, the valley remained industrialized. The landowners of the valley transitioned to dairy and produce farming in order to feed Seattle, the growing city to the north.
The existing railroad lines and the supply of farmhands at harvest time helped those industries scale up, as well.
The legacy of hops continues today, even though the Kent Valley is no longer farmland. When produce and dairy farming went away, existing railroad networks and flat farmland helped Kent scale up as a center of manufacturing and warehousing.
"We really built an infrastructure that even after hops left has become fertile ground for industry, for manufacturing, for warehousing," Garfield said.
And, of course, the hops legacy lives on in the name.