It is hard for us to imagine the leap of faith made by people who immigrated to America a century ago. In the 1800s, without the aids of television or radio, immigrants could not get a very clear idea of what America was like or what they would find in that distant land. Immigrants set out into the unknown, with hopes that in the new country they would find a new and better life.
In the Meadowbrook neighborhood (north of Wedgwood, near to present-day Lake City) some of the earliest settlers were families from Germany. In Meadowbrook they found opportunity to own land, have a farm, have freedom from restrictions of social class and have a higher standard of living than they would have had in Germany. Though they were not rich, they did fulfill their immigrant hopes and dreams, and they saw their children grow up as American citizens.
Earliest farm families of Meadowbrook
One of the first families to live in Meadowbrook was the Beckers from Saxony, Germany. They came to Seattle around 1874, and Charles Becker had a butcher shop near Second & Yesler streets downtown. Then with his savings and the help of Homestead Laws, Becker was able to purchase land in the remote, unnamed wilderness on a hill north of Seattle – today’s Meadowbrook. Becker’s land claim was from NE 100th to 110th Streets, 25th to 35th Avenues NE and included the valley which is the present site of Nathan Hale High School, watered by a branch of Thornton Creek.
The Beckers are not well-known in Meadowbrook neighborhood history because they died young. Mrs. Becker died first, and Mr. Becker died in 1899 at the age of 54. By the 1890s Becker had already sold a large portion of his property to another immigrant, August Fischer.
The Fischers, who were also from Saxony, came to Seattle in 1888 after first living in Texas. They moved to Meadowbrook in the early 1890s and lived there until their deaths in 1940 and 1941. August and Wilhelmine Fischer were newlyweds when they immigrated to Austin, Texas, in 1880. One can only speculate why a couple from the cool, forested mountains of Germany would choose to migrate to the flat, hot, dry plains of Texas. However, in the 1880s the Austin-New Braunfels area was the site of one of the largest German settlements in the United States. Perhaps the Fischers knew someone else who had gone there, or they hoped to find refuge in the German-speaking community while they looked around to see what opportunities were available in America.
We do not know why, in February 1888, the Fischers left Texas for Seattle. Perhaps they heard of Seattle’s heavily-treed hills and moderate climate, reminiscent of Germany. By 1885 there were enough Germans in Seattle to have organized a Lutheran church, a social club, and a German-language newspaper called Die Tribune, so perhaps a copy of this paper made its way to the Fischers in Texas and enticed them to come to Seattle.
In 1888 it was possible to travel across the United States and all the way up to Tacoma by train; the last part of the journey to Seattle would have been by boat. In the 1880s American cities, aided by railroad advertising, promoted themselves and welcomed growth, so perhaps the Fischers heard the advertised charms of Seattle and decided to give it a try.
The Fischers arrived in Seattle at a very opportune time. Business was booming in the growing city, and August Fischer, a carpenter, found plenty of construction work. A year after Fischer’s arrival, the Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889 resulted in an even greater reconstruction boom, and before long Fischer had saved up enough money to buy land.
There were plenty of fellow-German immigrants in Seattle, and it is possible that August Fischer and Charles Becker had met at the German Lutheran Church, at the German social club, were introduced by acquaintances they had in common, or met at Becker’s butcher shop downtown. Only three years after their arrival in Seattle, the Fischers bought most of Becker’s land, gave up the carpentry business and started their own farm. They lived on the hillside above NE 105th Street and farmed the valley where Nathan Hale High School is now located.
Years of hard work in clearing the land, planting crops and raising livestock yielded a prosperous working farm and dairy operation. Over time the Fischers built and stocked a cow barn, milk cooling shed, horse barn, and chicken house. Animal fodder and cash crops were planted. Corn grew in a field where Nathan Hale’s tennis courts are now. Peas, raspberries, asparagus and rhubarb were produced and packaged, then taken to be sold at markets around northeast Seattle. The centerpiece of the Fischer property was the big farmhouse, completed around 1910, which still stands at 3017 NE 105th Street (but now no longer owned by the Fischer family.)
The Fischers’ encounter with a desperado
The peaceful isolation of the Fischer farm, remote and with few neighbors, was threatened in July 1902 by an encounter with a notorious bandit, Harry Tracy. On June 9, 1902, Tracy and his partner in crime, David Merrill, escaped from the Oregon Penitentiary in Salem. After three weeks of robberies and running, Tracy apparently decided Merrill was a hindrance, shot him, told someone where the body could be found, and then continued on alone.
Merrill and Tracy had zigzagged around and didn’t seem to have an escape destination in mind. They were known to approach isolated farmhouses and rob farmers of food, money, clothing, and a fresh horse. After getting rid of Merrill, on July 2nd Tracy hijacked a Puget Sound launch out of Olympia, holding the four-man crew at gunpoint until they arrived in Seattle. Later that day Tracy was recognized by two policemen in Woodland Park. A gunfight ensued but Tracy escaped.
According to Clifford Nessel, a neighbor to whom August Fischer told the story, Mr. Fischer picked up Tracy at Green Lake on July 3, 1902, without recognizing him as the escaped desperado whose picture had been in the newspapers. Mr. Fischer regularly delivered vegetables to markets around northeast Seattle and would sometimes bring home day laborers to help with extra work on his farm, such as at harvest time. Tracy rode home with Mr. Fischer and stayed in the bunkhouse along with other men at the Fischer farmhouse, 3017 NE 105th Street.
The next day, July 4th, 1902, Tracy was assigned to do some work near the Fischer house. The Fischer’s daughter Edith, who was three and 1/2 years old at the time, remembered that day all her life. According to Edith, Tracy barged into the kitchen, drew a pistol, and ordered Mrs. Fischer to pack him a lunch. Showing great pride in his reputation as a gentlemanly bandit, Tracy identified himself and told the terrified children that no harm would come to them if they kept quiet and did as they were told. Edith’s nine-year-old brother Max was ordered to get Mr. Fischer’s shaving kit and give Tracy a shave, with Tracy keeping his .45 at the ready in case the boy “tried anything.”
After what seemed like hours, Tracy demanded a pair of shoes and a change of clothing, took the packed lunch and departed with a warning not to report him to the authorities. From the Fischer farm Harry Tracy traveled to Bothell, where he killed a deputy on July 5. Tracy went on to eastern Washington, where, surrounded by a posse, he died in a shoot-out in Creston, Lincoln County, on August 5. In his criminal career Tracy had killed nine people, all of them law enforcement officers or prison guards; he had robbed and terrorized civilians but never killed any but fellow prison escapee David Merrill.
Fischer family tradition has it that the shoes Tracy was wearing when killed were brought to Seattle and put on display downtown at the Olde Curiosity Shop, and that Grandfather Fischer went to see the shoes, recognized them and claimed them as his.
Fortunately for the Fischer family, after the Harry Tracy episode there were no more high dramas, just the daily routines of growing crops, milking cows, and raising a family.
Dairy business in Meadowbrook
In 1919 Anna, one of the Fischer’s eight children, married a Norwegian immigrant named Ole Blindheim. To get started in dairy farming, Ole leased a tract of land to use as a cow pasture in what is now Hawthorne Hills along 40th Avenue NE at about 51st Street, near what is now the Metropolitan Market, the Ronald McDonald House and the Burke-Gilman Trail.
The Burke-Gilman Trail follows the roadbed of the old Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad line, and it proved to be a dangerous place for the grazing of cows. Several of Ole Blindheim’s cows were struck by trains there: four in one year.
Despite the difficulties, there was a demand for milk, and Ole’s business prospered — until 1920, when the federal government began inspecting local herds for tuberculosis. Six of Ole’s cows had to be destroyed, and it made him sick to think of the milk from the afflicted animals that he had sold to customers.
Ole decided to give up on doing his own herding and he began searching for a better way to provide the public with a safe milk supply. Despite his lack of formal education and having had to acquire English as a second language, Ole Blindheim was interested in modern techniques. He had a knack for foreseeing trends, and foresaw that dairy operations were going to become more mechanized and centralized. Instead of local families who sold raw milk as he and the Fischers had done, there would be dairy plants which collected the milk and pasteurized it.
Ole decided to build his own dairy plant where he could properly pasteurize milk. Grandfather Fischer gave the Blindheims some of his land, and Ole named his plant LaVilla Dairy, a reference to the LaVilla railway stop at NE 100th Street and Lake Shore Blvd on Lake Washington.
Even though Ole’s dairy plant was more than a mile west of the LaVilla railway stop, there were few other name associations in northeast Seattle at that time, which he could have referenced to use as a name for his building. In addition to the railway stop, there was a dock at LaVilla where Ole Blindheim had received milk brought by boat down Lake Washington from Bothell, to then be transported by wagon to his pasteurization plant.
Ole knew that the government planned to extend and improve the highways for car travel, and he wanted his dairy business accessible to and from the new Victory Way (present Lake City Way NE.) Using draft horses and a scoop shovel, Ole cut a road going past the dairy building and named it Fischer Place. The road connected with Ravenna Avenue at NE 105th Street and went through to Victory Way.
The LaVilla Dairy building still stands at 10228 Fischer Place NE. The dairy operated locally from 1922 until after the Great Depression began in 1929, when Ole Blindheim merged its operation with Kristofferson’s Dairy.
UPDATE: The Blindheim family who still own the LaVilla Dairy Building, had a long-time tenant, the Shutter Shop as pictured at right. In the year 2018 the Northeast Seattle Tool Library has become the new tenant of the building.
The Tool Library began in 2013 in a building at 2415 NE 80th Street, across 25th Ave NE from Dahl Field. Now the Tool Library has moved into the spacious LaVilla Dairy building, and their associated non-profit group the Bike Shack, shares space with them, too.
The Fischer-Blindheim family legacy
On October 25, 1993, the City of Seattle celebrated the purchase of four acres of land behind the dairy building, using funds from the 1989 Open Space and Trails Bond Issue. At the celebration ceremony Al Blindheim, son of Ole Blindheim, said that his father had decided not to develop the property as long as he lived — and he lived to be almost 99.
“It was a blessing that my father lived so long, because he lived until after the bond issue was passed for purchase of open space lands,” Al Blindheim said. “This gave us the opportunity to sell the property to someone other than builders and developers. This is a special moment for me, my sister, our cousins and long-time neighbors who are here today. It means a lot to our family that we were able to preserve this land until it was purchased for permanent open space preservation. This land is important because of its history and because it is a beautiful part of nature along Thornton Creek.”
After one hundred years of development in Meadowbrook, the Fischer-Blindheim family legacy has made possible the preservation of a section of Thornton Creek and its surrounding land for the sake of those who will enjoy its beauty in the next one hundred years.
All of the narrative in this article is based upon interviews with members of the Fischer-Blindheim family and other long-time residents in the Meadowbrook community, such as Nadean Reger Rognaldson and Willow Reger Dominy (granddaughters of the Beckers) and neighbor Clifford Nessel.
Edith Fischer Carlson was 94 years old in 1993 when she told me the story of what happened on the day of Fischer family’s 1902 encounter with the notorious bandit Harry Tracy.
HistoryLink has several articles about the escapades of Harry Tracy, based upon newspaper accounts of the time. You will see in Essay #5386 (about the Fischer family) that there are major discrepancies between that account and this one.
The name “Meadowbrook” was first used for the golf course which opened in 1932, after the Fischers had sold this portion of their land to the golf course company. The golf course closed in 1959 and is the present site of Nathan Hale High School. Eventually “Meadowbrook” began to be used as the neighborhood name, especially after a community council was established in the 1990s. An earlier name for the neighborhood had been Maple Leaf because of the local school, no longer extant.