The Nathaniel Orr Home and Orchard was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Built in 1857, the house is a rare example of a two-story vertical plank-box construction.
Coming from Virginia in 1852, Orr built the structure, originally using it as a wagon shop. When he and Emma Thompson were married in 1868, the house was turned into a home. The half block with the house, the wagon shop, and the outbuildings surrounded by the orchard of pear, apple, plum, and cherry trees depict the early Puget Sound pioneers’ way of life. The property was purchased for $40,000 in 1974 from Nathaniel’s surviving son Glenn when he was 93. The majority of the original furnishings dating back to 1868 and some crafted by Nathaniel were given by Glenn and his wife Bertha as a gift in memory of his parents, Nathaniel and Emma. Major restoration was accomplished in 1979 with a matching grant through the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to paint the exterior, install insulation, build a picket fence around the property, and restore the lower floor. Layers of wallpaper were removed, and the walls were painted their original color of gold. Wallpaper was reproduced by Scalamandre in New York to match the original paper in the parlor. In 1990 the mortgage on the property was burned with much celebration.
In the early 1990s, realizing that the building needed major restoration, the board moved forward to have a foundation built. The building slipped from its temporary foundation and dropped to the ground during the process. After much deliberation and time, the Board approved the Nathaniel Orr Pioneer Home Site. The plan included restoration of the house with usable space underneath and museum facilities at the corner of Main and Rainier. Monies were received from a variety of sources, with major funding coming from the Washington State Historical Society and Save America’s Treasures Historic Preservation grants. The house was completely restored, and the museum was put in full operation.
Nathaniel Orr left his home in Virginia at age twenty-one, stopping in Missouri to learn the wagon-making trade, which complimented his experience in carpentry and tailoring. In the spring of 1851, he joined a wagon train leaving St. Louis bound for Oregon. While living in Oregon City, Nathaniel learned the skills of fruit tree propagation.
Hearing of opportunities to practice his skills in the Puget Sound area, he sailed north, arriving in Steilacoom on August 24, 1852. He set up a small wagon shop near Saltar’s Point in Steilacoom. After serving in the Territorial Volunteers during the “Indian War” in 1855-56, Mr. Orr began building the present building in 1857. The first floor was a wagon shop, with bachelor quarters on the upstairs level. In addition to setting out fruit trees around the wagon shop, he and a partner (Philip Keach) established a commercial fruit tree orchard near the present site of Saltar’s Point School.
Emma Thompson met Nathaniel Orr during a visit to Steilacoom from her Victoria, British Columbia home. The two were married in 1868. At that time, the wagon shop/bachelor quarters were converted to a home for the newlyweds, and a new wagon shop was built lower on the property. That wagon shop, reconstructed by the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association in 1992, is still part of the Orr Home property.
After the death of Nathaniel in 1896, Emma continued to live in the house until her death in 1908. Thereafter Nathaniel and Emma’s son Glenn (married in 1944) and his family occupied the home. The Orr family sold the property to the SHMA in 1974, during Glenn Orr’s ninety-third year. Included in the sale was original furniture dating to 1868.
In response to a damaging structural accident, the Association began restoring the historic home in 1997. The building had remained basically unchanged for 120 years. The restoration effort was completed in 2002. Also on the property was a shed, which had been used as an automobile service station for many years. That structure could not be restored. It was demolished, and a new museum building was built on its site.
The Orr Home is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites and has been designated one of “Save America’s Treasures.”