Happy New Year to Anna from Charles—January 2, 1907

Even if it had been a novel I was holding in my hands, I couldn’t think of a more intriguing opening: Happy New Year to Anna from Charles, Jan. 2, 1907. The images that inscription inspired—the questions! Chief among them: Who was Charles? Who was Anna? Despite the photo album’s obvious age and musty odor, there was no way I could stop myself from turning the pages. They were, of course, filled with the sort of images you might expect from turn-of-the-century Washington State: families posed on porches for special occasions, high-buttoned boots and starchy collars, grey-scale ghosts from times gone by.  But there was one additional feature that made the album irresistible to me. In gracefully scrolling Palmer penmanship, someone (Anna presumably) had playfully captioned several of the album’s photos. She’d written, “Snooks and Unky Fred,” beneath a photo of a small child (dressed as if to pose in a Morton Salt ad) standing beside a wooden-faced young man. “Our ‘Lodge’ in the Wilderness,” labeled a decidedly unglamorous, snow-bound cabin. Most useful of all, “Grandpa Wahlgren” appeared beneath a whiskered gentleman who had probably been at his prime during the last days of the Civil War.

Snooks and Unky Fred.

Snooks and Unky Fred.

Bless your heart, Anna, I thought to myself. You gave me all the clues I need.

For less than $10, I bought the album from the bored teenager manning the Antique Arcade that Saturday and brought it home.

Family photos of this vintage are precious to me—and not just photos of my own ancestors. One of the greatest joys I’ve ever experienced is being contacted by descendants of families I’ve written about on the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery website. I used to dread finding messages from these people in my inbox, scared that they would be offended that I had written about their ancestors in such a public forum.  But the reality of these communications has been just the opposite. Instead, the descendants are often thrilled that their loved ones have been remembered, and they share memories and details that flavor the stories in a way that the dried crumbs of vital statistics never could.  And, sometimes, they contribute scans of their own family photos to illustrate the website. I treasure these photos. For me, they bring the stories to life, often elevating them from plain-Jane obituary to textured biography.

Looking through Anna’s precious photos in that antique store, I felt the same urge to rescue that many people feel when confronted with a lost puppy marking time at an animal shelter. I had a visceral need to take that album home and care for it—to bring those faded images into the world where they could be admired, and maybe even reunited with the family who had carelessly lost track of them. If I didn’t do it, who would?

Over the next few weeks, using the handful of clues Anna had left behind, I slowly pieced together the story of her and Charles’ lives.

Grandpa Wahlgren

Grandpa Wahlgren

Anna Christina Naslund had been born in Sweden, but came to America with her family while still a young girl. Several of her younger siblings were born in Kansas where the family first settled. By the early days of the 20th Century, however, the Naslunds had relocated in Washington State. Here, in 1904, on a warm July Wednesday, both Anna and her younger sister Ida married their sweethearts in a double wedding ceremony.

Ida’s beau was named John Bravo, but I know very little about him. Anna, however, married Charles Abraham Wahlgren and moved with him to the small, logging community of Sedro Wooley, Washington. By New Year’s Day of 1907, Anna and Charles had been married for almost three years and had a baby boy named Nelson. Later that same year, Anna would give birth to their second child, a daughter named Vernet. Eventually four children would be born to the couple.

During their Sedro Wooley years, Anna corresponded regularly with her friend Freda Naylor. A large portion of her photo album is devoted to snapshots and clippings that Freda sent to Anna to keep her up-to-date on her own family’s doings. Anna seemed to have also maintained a close bond with her baby brother Fred Naslund. He appeared in several of her photos and is undoubtedly the “Unky Fred” posed alongside the indomitable “Snooks.”

Charles and Anna lived typical lives for their time. He worked as a moulder in a foundry, and she, of course, was a wife and mother.

By 1930, Charles and Anna were living apart. He had relocated to Seattle with their son Nelson who was, at that time, a department store salesman. Charles continued his work as a foundryman in Seattle. It’s impossible to say if this separation was the result of a marital rift or simply a relocation to facilitate a career opportunity. Either way, Anna rejoined Charles sometime before the 1940 Census. They remained in Seattle the rest of their lives; Charles passed away in 1955 and Anna followed in 1968. They are buried together in Seattle’s Evergreen Washelli Cemetery.

Tragically unlabeled! Is this Anna and her two sisters? Charles' three sisters? Will we ever know?

Tragically unlabeled! Is this Anna and her two sisters? Charles’ three sisters? Will we ever know?

The point of all this genealogical research was to identify families who might be interested in the photo album’s contents. There were three: The Wahlgrens, the Naslunds, and the Naylors. I created basic family trees for each and uploaded them to one of the online genealogy sites. I then attached scans of every photo that I could identify to individuals within those family trees. Anyone researching those families should run across the trees and discover the attached photos. These can be copied onto their own trees and be made available to additional researchers. I’m pleased to see that this copying & spreading process has already begun. The more people who have access to these family photos, the more likely they are to survive into the future.

My fondest hope is that I someday hear from a descendant of Charles and Anna—some grandchild or great-grandchild who has developed an interest in family history—someone who will be pleased to take custody of Anna’s album with its original photos and will give them the care and preservation they deserve.

Until then, the images are out there, released into the public domain, where I hope they will continue to delight others the way they have delighted me.

The Sad Death of Henry Englund


There are no photos of Henry Englund, but this photo of a young boy was taken in 1897, the year Henry died. Who is this boy in the photo? Answer at the end of this post!

I wrote this essay several years ago, inspired by a tombstone in the Soos Creek Cemetery. It was my first attempt to parlay a simple tombstone inscription (and a bit of associated research) into a biographical essay. Although the essay veers strongly into the realm of autobiography, it was successful enough that I decided I wanted to create a collection of similar essays based on the lives of several people in a single cemetery. The Auburn Pioneer Cemetery website was the resulting project. For me, the biographies are the heartwood at the core of the site.

Henry Englund

Little Henry Englund spent his last happy day playing along the banks of Soos Creek. Like any six-year-old boy, he was lost in a world of his own imaginary adventures. Clearly, he wasn’t paying any attention to his surroundings, but I’m still mystified that he could have actually managed to fall into the creek. Then as now, it was surrounded by a wild net of brambles and branches; in places, you would need a machete to hack through the growth to get to the water. Perhaps Henry had kneeled down at one of the few open verges of bank to pursue a bright green, nickel-sized frog. Maybe in reaching for that tiny prize, he slipped on a rock greased with mud and tumbled head-first into the creek. He must have bumped his head—there’s just no other way I can imagine him being hurt in the slow, shallow water of Soos Creek.

But he was hurt. Someone, a playmate or a parent, must have seen him fall because they pulled him out of the creek before he could drown. He did, however, aspirate enough water into his small lungs to develop pneumonia. Henry died, leaving his family with their memories of him as they had last seen him: a bright and playful six-year-old boy living out his dreams of summer adventure.

Henry Englund died in 1897 and is buried in the Soos Creek Cemetery. His parents evidently saw no irony in burying him in ground named for the very creek that had taken his life. In their time, the fact that even thriving, energetic children like Henry could die without warning (and all too frequently did), was simply a tragic fact of life to be endured as God’s will.

Fifty years later, parents had formed different expectations regarding their children’s long-term survival. The death of a child, never an easy event to shrug off, by then became the central and defining tragedy in the lives of the surviving family. My parents, in the 1960’s, bought a house from such a family. The grieving parents felt they couldn’t stay after their small son had wandered from the front yard and was later found face down in Pringle Creek—only a block away from their front door. After burying their child, they decided their hearts would only heal (if they could heal) somewhere that wasn’t poisoned with the aftertaste of that horrible tragedy.

My mom and dad, despite having three children under the age of five at that time, found the house’s quick-sale price far too hard to resist. How they thought they could keep their own children safe from a fate that had already claimed one young life is something that they never explained. I believe they must have thought of that earlier child’s drowning as a fluke, the tragic outcome of extenuating circumstances that would probably never converge again. Looking down from the nearby bridge into Pringle Creek, I can understand that conclusion. From that vantage point I saw that even the spawning salmon had too deep a draft to navigate Pringle Creek comfortably. I remember playing with my sisters for hours on end in that creek and seldom getting more than our feet and ankles wet. Except for the rare winters when we had actual flooding, the creek just didn’t seem like much of a threat. That little boy’s death, just like Henry Englund’s, must have involved some sort of incapacitating fall. There’s no other way I can imagine him being hurt in the slow, shallow water of Pringle Creek.

I never even knew the name of the little boy who drowned up the street, but I spent my childhood looking over my shoulder for him when I climbed the narrow stairway at bedtime, and expecting to see his grainy image appear behind me as I glanced into my mother’s mirror. Maybe it’s only because I grew up obsessed with the possibility of this little ghost that Henry Englund’s story strikes such a chord in me. I’m not the kind of person who goes to church, so I don’t light candles in the memory of departed souls. However, whenever I walk the Soos Creek Trail, I gather all the pennies in my car (for some reason my car has pennies like a dog has fleas) and take them with me. There’s a hollow stump that sits near the trailhead, and I always pause to drop those pennies there in the memory of Henry Englund. I imagine some little boy finding them there as he plays along Soos Creek, and wondering if the booty came from pirates, bank robbers, or maybe misguided tooth fairies. All little boys should get to live out their dreams of summer adventure.

(The photo above is of Harry Truman in 1897.)

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.

Who Gets to be a Pioneer?

Black Pioneers in Roslyn, WA. Pioneer Cemeteries.

Black pioneers at Roslyn, Washington, c. 1895

Pioneer cemeteries. Just about every U.S. town has one lying at its outskirts, hinting at history and promising importance. Park your car and investigate, and, sure enough, you’re bound to find weathered tombstones of a suitably impressive age. That’s part of the formula.

But not everyone buried in a pioneer cemetery is an actual pioneer—right? There are always burials of a more recent vintage too. Are those newer arrivals pioneers-by-association? And does everyone who lived a century or more ago qualify as a pioneer simply because they came from Long Ago?

What exactly are communities trying to tell us when they put the “Pioneer Cemetery” label on their local burial grounds?

Our little cemetery in downtown Auburn had been in use for almost a century before the local citizenry decided to append the Pioneer Cemetery label to its name. In the early days it had been known variously as the Faucett Cemetery (after the family first known to bury its dead there) or the Slaughter Cemetery or Christopher Cemetery (both of which were early names for the Auburn area). After other near-by cemeteries opened, the original cemetery was often listed in newspapers simply as “the old cemetery.” We don’t know if any of these names were ever official enough to inspire signage; it’s more likely that the locals just knew which cemetery was being referred to, regardless of the name in use during their time.

Of course, as the local Japanese community grew, so too did their use of this cemetery. With the ever-increasing number of kanji tombstones, the cemetery eventually became known primarily as the Japanese cemetery.

It wasn’t until well after World War II that developers and city planners began to view the cemetery’s real estate with a hungry eye. Most of the white folks had been moved out to the cemetery up the hill. The local Japanese community had been decimated by their imprisonment in internment camps during the war; few had the means to return to Auburn after their release. With these facts in mind, it was assumed that no one would really mind if a wedge of land was shaved off the cemetery so that Auburn Way could be widened and straightened. Plans went into motion.

It was at this point that a local civic group with the best name ever—The Pioneer Daughters of Slaughter—got involved. After a careful survey of the remaining graves, they noted that not all of the city’s founders had been moved out. Several early families were still represented among the remaining graves that dotted the cemetery’s west side.

The Daughters of Slaughter rallied local support to preserve these important burials. It was at this time that a large bolder was placed in the cemetery—directly in the path of any earth-moving equipment that might be sent in to expand the adjacent road. Evidently the cemetery was patrolled at night to prevent any incursions that under-handed developers might attempt as concerned neighbors slept. And, to underline the point that the cemetery had historically significant graves, its name was officially designated as The Auburn Pioneer Cemetery.

In other words (according to the tenor of the times), the name was chosen to emphasize the fact that, despite initial impression, it wasn’t just insignificant Japanese burials that populated the cemetery. There were actually Christian burials too. Of important people. Upstanding, white people. Pioneers.

Sadly, during those days the term “pioneer” was anything but inclusive. It never would have been used in application to the Muckleshoot people who had settled the area long before any white people showed up. It never would have been applied to the black people who came to the area and helped establish the coal mines that once flourished here (some of whom are pictured in the photo above). And it would never have been used to describe the Japanese people who came here to make Washington their home.

It seems appropriate today, as the country celebrates its independence and more than two hundred years of freedom, that we pause to remember the literal meaning of the term “pioneer”: A person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others.*

It’s a broad definition, and makes no distinction based on race or religion. Let’s make it our business to respect the memories of all of our pioneers–even those who never had the chance to claim the title in their lifetimes. Our cemeteries are full of them.

* as defined by Dictionary.com.

Where Did All The Content Go?

haunted house

Websites are like haunted houses…

I’ve often thought of a website as a haunted house. It might have dark passages that lead to abandoned rooms, cobwebs in the corners, furniture moldering in disrepair. Sometimes it’s hard to find your way back where you came from. It’s disorienting. If you could only find the right room, you’re certain you would find exactly what you’re looking for.

Or would you?

Our website has definitely taken on a haunted appearance lately. Where we once had bright and cheery rooms full of useful items in the expected places, we now have locked doors carrying a sort-of No Tresspassing sign: “This content temporarily unavailable.” You can almost see the skulls and crossbones. What’s up with that?

Well, our website is in the middle of a pretty extensive re-model this summer. And, if you’ve ever remodeled a house, haunted or otherwise, you know how chaotic the process can be. But the first fruits of the chaos have already arrived in the form of this blog. It will give us the opportunity to opine about all sorts of cemetery-related matters, those directly related to the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery and those of a more general tenor. I can’t think of a more fitting addition to build onto our haunted digs, can you?

Just as a way of reminding myself of all the content we have in storage, I composed a laundry list this week of all the features that we have developed for the site—features that will all be returning as time permits. It’s not a bad little list. Many cemetery sites offer little more than a transcript of their tombstones. We have always endeavored to make this site more engaging, both to descendants and other interested visitors. I hope the list is evidence that we are slowly succeeding.

So, please—feel free to look around. There’s no need to be scared. All of the ghosts are friendly here.

Materials Developed for Auburn Pioneer Cemetery website:

  • Complete transcript of all extant tombstones, including a kanji transcript of the Japanese language stones.
  • Row listings indicating the location of individual Japanese-language markers relative to nearby English-language markers
  • Translations of names and dates for each of the 100+ Japanese language stones.
  • High-def, high-contrast digital photo catalog of each of the original kanji tombstones (those produced between 1928-1942 including Jizo statues)
  • Miscellaneous site photography
  • Compellation of unmarked burials, both Japanese and “pioneer”
  • Plot map including locations of marked and unmarked graves; locations of statuary and cenotaphs; location of vacant plots
  • Comprehensive cemetery history from 1866 through present, both in text form and interactive timeline form
  • Glossary of specialized terminology applying to the cemetery, especially of terminology of Japanese and/or Buddhist burial practices
  • Slide deck illustrating the evolution of Japanese markers at the cemetery from 1900 through present day
  • Genealogy/Family trees of all families represented in the cemetery (except in the few cases where a family returned to Japan after a burial, at which point they disappeared from U.S. records)
  • Narrative biographies representing approximately 25 individuals (and/or their families) buried in the cemetery. A number that will grow in the future.