Hillgrove Cemetery


Hillgrove Cemetery photo by Michael Brunk, 2009
(Creative Commons license)

I transcribed the following article (originally published in 1979) for friends that have an abiding interest in Hillgrove Cemetery. Located in Des Moines, Washington, the cemetery does not enjoy the same level of professional care that the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery receives from the Auburn Parks Department. In fact, Hillgrove Cemetery is all but abandoned now, locked away from bored teenagers and other potential vandals.

An Old Cemetery [Hill Grove] is Dying of Neglect and Misuse

By Lettie Gavin

Published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sunday, June 24, 1979

In its day, Hill Grove Cemetery was a sweet and peaceful place, a cool and quiet acre carved out of the old forest of firs and madronas by early settlers of southwest King County.

The first grave went into Hill Grove in 1900. Leigh Elsey, who still lives in the area, remembers a horse and wagon bringing his mother’s coffin to the little cemetery just after the clearing was completed at 200th Street and Des Moines Way S.

The cemetery association incorporated some years later, in May 1923, and some 56 family plots were sold, each with spaces for 10 or 12 graves. The owners planned quiet walkways through the trees and planted lilacs, roses, forget-me-nots and evergreen shrubs.

Old residents recall a driveway from the country road, which led to a circular plot with a small, roofed shrine where the cemetery register was kept and where memorial services were held for many years.

In time, “progress” moved through the south county. The dusty little road was widened and paved, leaving high bare banks above the drainage ditch close to the cemetery.

Seattle-Tacoma Airport expanded to the south, taking homes and neighbors from around Hill Grove. Giant airliners roar overhead many times a day now.

Hill Grove families struggled over the years to maintain their special place. The Maywood Garden Club shored up the corners of the driveway with a retaining wall of railroad ties and plantings. Owners installed a light wire fence to discourage intruders.

But it was a losing battle. Thieves made off with most of the wood in the retaining wall. Many of the plantings are still there, but badly in need of care. Passers-by dumped garbage and household junk into one corner of the cemetery, and vandals broke down the fence and carried away many of the gravestones.

“Last fall one of the local football teams stole 11 markers and carted them over to the front lawn of a rival high school,” said Geri Van Notric, whose grandparents are buried in Hill Grove.

“Fortunately, the county police retrieved those stones, but we haven’t yet been able to get them back in the proper places. And some others, we’re afraid, will never be recovered.’

Many of the original trustees of the cemetery association are gone and those remaining are in their seventies and eighties. “We’re getting old, too old to see that it’s taken care of,” said Mrs. Rosalie Johnson, 82, when she visited Hill Grove recently. “And we don’t have any money to spend.”

She walked among the graves, naming old neighbors, old friends. Her in-laws, the Johnsons, and Peterson, Jennings, Utz,…Jakobsen, Swanson, Isaacs, and a member of the Commons family who fought with the Grand Army of the Republic.

Mrs. Johnson remembers that many of the gravemarkers were concrete in the old days, and these have weathered badly. Weeds and ferns are growing tall among the stones that are left. Tire tracks cross the lawn, and one horizontal granite marker—dated 1912—has been broken and mashed into the ground by a heavy vehicle.

“The water main was broken twice this year,” said Leigh Elsey, as he picked up beer cans that littered the memorial circle. “So we just had it turned off.”

Elsey and Mrs. Johnson wondered what is to become of Hill Grove. “There are still graves sites available to the families here, although the last burial was in 1970,” she said. “I know there are people who expect to lie here, but who will take care of them?”

Others in the area share Mrs. Johnson’s concerns. “What we need is to have it registered as a state or national historic site,” says Van Notric.

“Then we need a sturdy fence around the property, with a gate which can be locked at night. We need a rockery or retaining wall to stop erosion along the road. And we need some plan to guarantee care and maintenance in perpetuity.”

Van Notric, who is chairman of the Intergovernmental Committee of the Highline Community Council, believes the county “has an obligation to repair and stabilize the eroding banks along the road.” And she thinks that Port of Seattle might put up the fence and include Hill Grove in its security patrol of the airport area.

“Since the airport has surrounded the property but won’t acquire it, they might as well help protect it,” she said. “At least they won’t get any complaints about airplane noise from the folks at Hill Grove.

“We’re not asking for big things, major improvements. We’re not asking for anything more than what people should expect when they pass away. It’s one slice of history Highline can lay claim to.”

The Association of King County Historical Organizations is also looking at the Hill Grove problem, said Dottie Harper, secretary of the group.

“We’re trying to identify who might be responsible for the cemetery,” she said. “But the county has no landmark ordinance. There are no official tools to get anything done with. We are going to try to work with the different county departments and with the Port.

“Perhaps it could be made a part of nearby Des Moines Creek Park. Somebody has to be found who can save and maintain Hill Grove. It’s a testimony to the lives of the people who helped build this community.”

Jake Thomas, the county’s historic preservation officer, doesn’t hold out much hope for historic site designation for the little South County cemetery. “It doesn’t meet the criteria for national designation,” he said. “No famous people buried there, that sort of thing. They won’t name just another old cemetery.”

He said the state register includes cemeteries, but state designation would be “just an honorary thing. It doesn’t guarantee protection.”

Thomas said he is not “anti-cemetery,” but he explained, “cemeteries are extremely common, and it would be a mistake to divert our very limited funds to a large number of cemetery projects.”

He said he believes the best answer for Hill Grove is community action. “Get concerned citizens together to help with maintenance,” he said. “Making the public aware of the problem really turns out volunteers.”

State Rep. Dick Barnes of the 33rd District (southwest King County) also believes something will have to be done on a local basis. “I have asked state researchers to determine what the state laws are for the care of cemeteries,” he said.

“And when we have the facts, we can put some ideas before the public. Maybe get people interested in setting up a trust fund through volunteer contributions.

“I would hope there are enough volunteer effort and money out here to get the job done.”

Original article was accompanied by photos by P-I photographer Kerry Coughlin.