Quietly nestled along one of Sequim’s busiest streets lies what is for many – and in more ways than one – a serene resting place.
Maintained with marked dedication by the Sequim Prairie Garden Club and boasting a cross-section of North Olympic Peninsula cultural artifacts as diverse as its flowering foliage, Pioneer Memorial Park has become as much a regional heritage site as a roadside park. With enough flowers, plants and heritage trees to rival that of a Seattle arboretum, including the native Garry oak tree, the park at 387 E. Washington St. bears little resemblance to the blackberry sticker-strewn field it was some 65 years ago.
By the late 1940s, the land had been long-abandoned as Sequim’s first cemetery and cows freely grazed among the battered and broken headstones that remained. The evolution of the park from forgotten cemetery to flourishing community grounds is a tale of dedication, foresight and respect for history that continues today among club members.
“I feel that the park is an undiscovered jewel on the peninsula,” park historian and Sequim Prairie Garden Club past president Priscilla Hudson said. “So many locals haven’t even driven through and visitors don’t know it exists.”
By 1951, just a few years after 18 local women formed the Sequim Prairie Garden Club, club members had taken up the cause of improving the ramshackle state of the former cemetery grounds. Making it their collective mission to rehabilitate the abandoned acreage, the group and a host of community volunteers raised funds, cleared the brambles, added an array of plantings and set in motion a deep commitment to continually improve the land and preserve its history that still guides the club.
“The serenity that occurs naturally as you enter under the tall trees with the expansive lawn surrounded by flowers is priceless,” Hudson said. “The flowering trees were donated in honor of early club presidents and require tending by certified arborists. Now, each Arbor Day, another flowering shrub is planted.”
Sequim’s First Cemetery
In the southwest corner of the park, a chain-link fence surrounds a small grouping of headstones inscribed with the names of pioneer families and those long forgotten. Some largely intact and others semi-reconstructed bits and pieces, the headstones serve as visual reminders for park visitors that they are walking on hallowed ground.
Records show that in the 1888, homesteader John Bell sold a portion of his Sequim Prairie land to Clallam County in order to create Sequim’s first cemetery just on the outskirts of town. Within about 20 years, however, burials had ceased as the cemetery was continually plagued by flooding problems from nearby Bell Creek.
In the years that followed, family members of those buried in the cemetery were tasked with finding new final resting places for the deceased, including the new Sequim View Cemetery. According to Sequim Prairie Garden Club documentation, Clallam County deeded the cemetery to the Sequim Cemetery Association in 1919 and family members of the deceased were given until the following year to finalize any more burial transfers.
While some bodies were moved, others – be it to financial constraints, inability to locate relatives, or other circumstances – remain buried within the park.
“In Washington, once a cemetery, always a cemetery and that is certainly the case with Pioneer Park” said Museum & Arts Center in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley Executive Director DJ Bassett, who toured the park earlier this year as a Clallam County Heritage Advisory Board member. “The majority of the interments were moved in 1913 and 1914 to different area cemeteries but many remain, plus some of those graves were never marked.”
A couple of years ago, to reignite interest in the cemetery, Hudson initiated a club project to research those named on the headstones. With information compiled by several club members and volunteers in the community, the club now has more thorough documentation of those whose headstones remain within park grounds.
Much of that genealogy research, as well as the history of the cemetery itself, will be recounted on Friday, Oct. 18, during a Cemetery Tour at the park. The tour, presented by the Museum & Arts Center in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley (MAC), is an official Sequim Centennial event. Details are available on the MAC website at www.macsequim.org.
“I was surprised to learn that there was a cemetery in such an unusual place, and some of the genealogy information we’ve uncovered is just so interesting,” said genealogy enthusiast Kathy Bare, who helped with the headstone research project. “For instance, there is a man who came to Sequim and died at age 19 and we haven’t been able to determine where he came from or why was he here. Was he a sailor, lumberman, or just passing through? We may never know.”
Cultural Objects Displayed
Over the years, the park has become home to several large-scale historical artifacts. A pioneer log cabin from Chicken Coop Road in Blyn, a Pysht River canoe, and a totem pole by late Jamestown S’Klallam tribal elder Harris “Brick” Johnson are among the donated pieces that represent varied facets of North Olympic Peninsula history and culture.
“As I learned about the history of a family who once lived in the log cabin and the meaning of the symbols on the totem pole, I knew the history of the park and its contents needed to be documented and shared,” Hudson said.
The clubhouse that sits at the center of the park is also a vestige of area history. Originally a 20-by-24-foot building from the Carlsborg Mill when donated in 1960, it was significantly remodeled and expanded after being moved to the park. The public can rent the facility for any number of functions, such as reunions, estate sales, and meetings, with rental fees going to support the club’s ongoing efforts to maintain and preserve the park.
Seeking Historical Designation
Highlighting the park’s history as a cemetery, Hudson is seeking to have it designated a historically significant site by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, thereby placing it on the Washington Heritage Register. She said she also plans to seek National Register of Historic Places status.
“It is my hope that the park remains quiet and peaceful and to impart the history within its borders,” Hudson said. “With official historical designation, I think more community members would hold onto this treasure and help ensure it doesn’t get razed for something like a big box store or noisy playfield.”
Membership in the Sequim Prairie Garden Club, which is a member of the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs, is open to women and men of all ages. For more information on how to become a club member or about Pioneer Memorial Park, including clubhouse rentals, call 360-808-3434.
“It’s a labor of love to pick up sticks, pull weeds and plant new items, but it is also very rewarding,” Hudson said about being a club member. “Park upkeep takes many hands throughout the months and we greatly welcome new members to help us maintain and improve this invaluable community asset.”
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