The Ginseng Farm in Wedgwood

On the census of the year 1900 in Seattle Mr. Charles E. Thorpe was listed as a lodger in a private home on Denny Way near present-day Seattle Center.   By 1905 Mr. Thorpe had become one of the earliest residents of the future Wedgwood neighborhood, where he lived on forty acres of land from NE 80th to 85th Streets, 30th to 35th Avenues NE.

Ginseng is also called “manroot” because its shape is like that of the human body.   Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mr. Thorpe was about 40 years old when he came to Seattle around the year 1900, and it appears that he had decided to settle on dry land after years of working aboard ships.   Stories he told to Wedgwood neighborhood residents of the 1920’s indicated that as a young man he had sailed back and forth to China, and he had learned that ginseng was an herb valued in Chinese medicine.   Perhaps Mr. Thorpe chose to live in Seattle because Seattle had the right climate for growing ginseng, and Seattle had a growing Chinese population who would want to have this traditional herb in their medicine shops.

Mr. Thorpe’s signature (top line) in the property tax assessment rolls of 1925, showing that he paid the taxes himself that year.   These original records are kept at the Puget Sound Regional Archives in Bellevue.

In the early years of the 1900’s the property tax assessment records showed the names of various people who owned land in Wedgwood, but no taxable structures were noted, which meant that no one lived on-site.   It was common for people to buy land as an investment rather than putting their money in banks, in hopes that the land would grow in value.   In the year 1900, part of what would become Mr. Thorpe’s ginseng farm land in Wedgwood was owned by a woman named Mrs. Kelsey.   On the census of 1900 she is shown living as a lodger in a house next door to Mr. Thorpe’s residence on Denny Way.   We can speculate that it may have been this contact with Mrs. Kelsey which led Mr. Thorpe to buy her land in the remote northeast, outside of the Seattle city limits in those years.

Another connection between Mr. Thorpe and his land purchase might have been the attorney and real estate dealer R.J. Huston.   Huston is shown on tax records as the representative who paid the property taxes for Mrs. Kelsey in 1900, and again in 1905 after Mr. Thorpe became owner.   Since property taxes were paid in-person in those days, it was common for a representative to go and pay on behalf of the property owner.   Banks, attorneys or other investors did this as a service when they had loaned money and wanted to protect their investment in land by making sure that the taxes were paid.

Mr. Thorpe’s cabin as it looked in the 1930’s after the Jesuits began holding Mass there (note the cross over the front door.)   The small room on the left was added as a place for the priest to rest after travelling out to Wedgwood from Seattle University.   Photo courtesy of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church historical records.

In 1905 after Mr. Thorpe became owner, the value of his forty acres in Wedgwood was $1500 and the property tax was $49.50, as shown in the columns of the Tax Assessment Rolls for that year.   By 1910 there was a big jump in the value of Mr. Thorpe’s land as the taxes that year were $293.60 and included a “taxable structure” worth $360.   This was the log cabin which Mr. Thorpe had built to live in, and the increase in the assessed value of the land showed that he had begun his ginseng farm.   Mr. Thorpe also removed the registration of his land from the plat records of the Mary J. Chandler’s Addition to Seattle.   Mr. Thorpe’s land, which had comprised the eastern half of the Mary J. Chandler plat, as of 1905 became listed as unplatted land, showing that it was intended for farm use and not for residential lots.

Mr. Thorpe’s log cabin was located west of 35th Avenue NE at approximately NE 81st Street.   There were no streets put through on his property and the only place-marker was a driveway off of 35th Avenue NE, which in those days was a narrow dirt track.    Mr. Thorpe cleared part of his land and planted ginseng under latticework called “sheds” to protect the plants from direct sunlight.  Mr. Thorpe lived there for the next 25 years and seemed able to support himself with his ginseng crop.   He was known for his pioneer lifestyle, including building the log cabin, living without electricity or running water, and teaching children of the neighborhood to make archery bows out of yew branches.

The 1930 Kroll map has the notation “Seattle College” on the upper right square, which was formerly Mr. Thorpe’s forty-acre ginseng farm land.

In 1929 Mr. Thorpe sold his property to the Jesuits of Seattle University, who planned to move the university to the site.  That plan was never realized, and one can only imagine how differently the neighborhood would have developed if Seattle University had moved to Wedgwood.    From 1929 until the Jesuits sold the land in 1940, each Sunday a priest would travel out to Wedgwood from Seattle University to hold mass in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, as they had renamed Mr. Thorpe’s log cabin.

By 1940 the Jesuits had decided not to move the university, so they sold the former ginseng farm land to Albert Balch, a developer.   Balch became the “father” of the Wedgwood neighborhood when he chose that name and built the original group of Wedgwood houses on Mr. Thorpe’s forty acres.   Balch continued to use the Wedgwood name for more sections of houses built in the busy post-World-War-Two period, until it became the name of the neighborhood by a natural process of “catching on.”

Marjorie Mock Whitworth, whose grandparents came to live in the Wedgwood area in 1909, has written of her early memories (1920’s) of Mr. Thorpe:

Mr. Thorpe, the ginseng farmer, as depicted in a cartoon by Bob Cram for the Wedgwood Community Council newsletter of May 1995.

Mr. Thorpe, the ginseng farmer, as depicted in a cartoon by Bob Cram for the Wedgwood Community Council newsletter of May 1995.

As a very young child I visited Mr. Thorpe many times with my parents and grandparents at his log cabin.   There was a fireplace all along one side which accommodated full-size logs – half the length or more of the cabin.   It was truly an amazing sight to see two men carry in a big log and set it in the fireplace.   I think he did his cooking in the fireplace too, as I cannot remember a stove or even running water or a sink in the cabin.

Mr. Thorpe had most of the land covered with sheds or roofs where he raised ginseng.   (At that time with his tales of China, I became fascinated with the Orient and finally in 1981 I was privileged to tour China!)

Mr. Thorpe always had very interesting stories to tell and when he told them he kept his eyes closed and lived them as he related them.   He was a strange but fascinating man, talking of ships to far-away places.   We all felt very sad when he sold his property.   The sheds’ roofs caved in with no repairs and Mr. Thorpe was gone away, maybe to the Orient.   We never found out.   I can still see him leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed and relating the interesting tales of China, firelight dancing across the cabin.

Sources:

On-line census and genealogy records using Ancestry.com via the Seattle Public Library’s website.

Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church, 8900 35th Ave NE, historical records.

Recollections of early Wedgwood residents including Marjorie Mock Whitworth, Johnny Hoetmer, Alice Goodwin Hoffmann, Ruth Shauer Jameson and Dora Verhamme Nicklas.

Tax assessors rolls of 1900 through 1925, Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA.

The Thorpe Reunion (1897-1972) By Leota Gentry Held, 1972.  Seattle Public Library 9th floor history collection (downtown), R929.2 T398H

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer history writer for northeast neighborhoods in Seattle, Washington.
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