Kent volunteer is dead serious about cemetery work

Karen Bouton led the way through Saar Pioneer Cemetery like a tour guide pointing out the stars’ homes in Hollywood.

  • Monday, June 2, 2008 4:03pm
  • News

Karen Bouton pulls the weeds of of J.H.S Johnson’s headstone with her watchdog Emma by her side. Bouton is a volunteer at Saar Pioneer Cemetery and a member of the South King County Genealogical Society

Karen Bouton recognized for her efforts

Karen Bouton led the way through Saar Pioneer Cemetery like a tour guide pointing out the stars’ homes in Hollywood.

“The Willis family’s here,” she said, pointing to one side. Then she gestured to the other side. “That’s the Iddings family.”

“Here’s our famous tree guy,” she announced at the top of the rise. Beside her a giant tree trunk had half-enveloped a small, rounded headstone. The name on the front of the stone was buried inside the tree, but a memorial stone nearby proclaimed that here lay Civil War veteran Lewis Warren.

“The question is: Who was planted first, the tree or the guy?” Bouton quipped.

After four years of volunteer labor at the cemetery, Bouton knows this place and all its inhabitants well, and can list the family connections and brief life stories of most of them right off the top of her head.

“Everyone has a story,” she said.

The cemetery itself has a

story, which started during flood season in 1873. Peter Saar’s wife, Margaret, had just died. Unable to reach the town cemetery due to the flooding in the valley, Saar buried his wife on the hillside by their homestead. A founding member of what is now the Kent United Methodist Church, Saar left the cemetery to the church when he died. It was used for burials for the next 76 years, with the final known burial in 1949.

Today the cemetery lies like a time capsule buried between WinCo Foods parking lot and State Route 167 — one acre frozen in time, quiet and peaceful, while cars zoom past unaware of its existence.

Genealogists to the rescue

Saar Cemetery first came to Bouton’s attention four years ago, after a 2004 Kent Reporter article pointed out the cemetery’s neglect: headstones missing or broken; others engulfed in an onslaught of blackberry, periwinkle and ivy vines.

A handful of locals still tended their families’ graves, but on the whole, the place had been abandoned.

When the South King County Genealogical Society saw the article, its members decided to do something about it. A SKCGS member and avid genealogist, Bouton volunteered to lead the clean-up effort. She thought it would take no more than a few weekends of work parties.

“I jumped in blind, let me tell you,” she said, chuckling at her ignorance of the enormous task before her.

Four years later, she’s still out there, leading the battle to reclaim the cemetery from the forces of nature — spreading vines, clinging lichen and eroding rain.

She and her team of volunteers have accomplished much. Tombstones, once buried under blackberries, are now visible. A few broken headstones have been fixed; others have been replaced with memorial markers. Bouton herself has cleaned lichen from several blackened stones, leaving them white and legible again.

Much remains to be done. Bouton hopes to find or replace more of the headstones, and to erect a group memorial stone for the others. She’s asking anyone with information about what may have happened to some of the missing stones to contact her. Two missing stones have already been found in old sheds.

There are other headstones needing cleaning, a delicate process requiring many gallons of water — all of which has to be hauled up in buckets to the cemetery.

The worst battle, though, is the constant fight against blackberries and other weeds. And that battle will be over for Bouton any day now, thanks to a $15,000 grant from King County.

Help from the county

The county approved the grant last November: $5,000 annually for the next three years to help with the cemetery’s maintenance. The grant came after Bouton made a presentation about the cemetery at a King County Council town hall meeting in Sammamish, a meeting that County Councilmember Julia Patterson was chairing.

“When (Patterson) heard it was in her district, she was out (at the cemetery) in a couple of weeks, and said, ‘yes, you need the money,’” said Julie Koler, preservation officer for King County.

As of May 20, Bouton said she was still checking her mailbox daily for the grant check. Once she has the money in hand, Bouton said she’ll be ready to hire a professional landscaper, first to finish off the blackberry-whacking, and then to come out once a month through 2011 to mow, weed and keep the place tidy.

“It’ll be kind of nice not to spend my whole summer out there,” said Bouton, who has dedicated most of her free time for the past three summers to work in the cemetery.

Excellence recognized

Bouton’s work gained more recognition from the county on May 13, when Patterson presented her with the John D. Spellman Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation.

Named after the King County executive who started the county’s Historic Preservation Program, the award is given to individuals or organizations that have done something remarkable in the field of historic preservation, according to Koler.

And while Bouton’s work at the Saar Cemetery is something remarkable on its own, she also earned kudos from the King County Landmarks Commission for bringing to light the plight of older cemeteries throughout the county.

“She was one of the key people who brought to the attention of the commission the real, dire strait of many of these places,” Koler said of Bouton. “She was the third person in about five months who had come to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we need help.’”

In response to Bouton’s and others’ pleas, King County is now launching a Historic Cemetery Preservation Initiative to identify and find ways to help restore and maintain the county’s historic burial sites.

“We know of 80 (cemeteries) that are documented,” said Koler. “Some of those are in really poor condition, very overgrown, headstones missing and vandalized.”

County workers will try to visit and document the respective states of all 80 known cemeteries this summer, Koler said. They’re also putting out a plea for information about forgotten burial sites — family burial grounds and other small, out-of-the-way plots that may have been missed.

Once all the needs are clear, Koler said the county will begin looking at ways to help private groups restore the cemeteries, possibly through grants and tax incentives.

As for Bouton, you’ll probably still see her off and on at the cemetery this summer.

“I’ll be out there cleaning (the headstones),” she said.

For more information about the Saar Pioneer Cemetery or the South King County Genealogical Society, contact the society at 425-235-8076 or visit the Web site www.skcgs.org.

For information about King County’s Historic Cemetery Preservation Initiative, contact Julie Koler at 206-296-8689.

Staff writer Christine Shultz can be reached at 253-872-6600, ext. 5056, or cshultz@reporternewspapers.com.

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