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.