Seabeck Cemetery: Buried in the brush

As Fred Just walks through the Seabeck Cemetery, slowly being reclaimed from the woods, he points to unmarked depressions in the soil and rattles off the names of those buried there.

As Fred Just walks through the Seabeck Cemetery, slowly being reclaimed from the woods, he points to unmarked depressions in the soil and rattles off the names of those buried there.

On a sunny afternoon last week he spied a newly damaged tombstone — weather worn, belonging to Elizabeth Lewis, 80, who died in 1913 — likely the handiwork of bored kids a day or two before.

“It kind of gets disheartening,” Just says with a sigh.

The small setbacks aren’t enough to derail Just, 66. He was born and raised in Seabeck, eight relatives are buried in the cemetery, and he has been the unofficial caretaker and historian of the cemetery for decades.

But the fight he is picking now isn’t with the slowly retreating brush, but with the Central Kitsap School District. Just claims Walter Wyckoff, who sold the district the roughly two-and-a-half-acre swath of land on the southern flank of the shuttered Seabeck Elementary, back in 1956, didn’t have the right to sell it. He believes because the sale was bogus, the property intended for the people of Seabeck should be returned to them.

He has documents, and a lawyer, and he says he won’t back down.

But over the years, the five-acre public cemetery has been whittled away, absorbed into the property surrounding it, until what remains today is the roughly one-and-a-quarter-acre site, officially owned by the Seabeck Conference Center. The first burial in the cemetery was in 1860, making it one of the state’s oldest, Just said. The last casket burial was in 1993, he said.

Just wants the district to return the property to the cemetery — he is certain the land owned by the district does not contain any graves — and he said he’s had enough talk and is willing to take his fight to the courts.

“There’s nothing in it for me,” Just said. “Nothing but hard work getting it restored, all this paperwork and having to fight everybody.”

Legal owner disputed

For the district’s part, its lawyers are convinced the property — which is filled with trees worth a considerable sum, plus with views of the Hood Canal — rightfully belongs to the district.

“We certainly wouldn’t want to inadvertently do anything that would not be legitimate,” said district Superintendent Greg Lynch in addressing the issue of rightful ownership, adding the district hasn’t put the land up for sale. Despite having a legal opinion in hand saying the district is the owner, Lynch has asked district attorneys to examine the issue again.

It’s a matter of respecting Just’s allegation, Lynch said, but added that he doesn’t expect the legal opinion to change. And even if the district wanted to help restore the cemetery to something resembling its original size, the district is restricted by the state constitution from giving away public property.

“It wouldn’t be under our authority to give that property away,” Lynch said. “You can’t just give it away.”

The fog of time

Part of the confusion over the plot could be due to time past, plus the fact the transactions were conducted before modern mapping technology and there is no requirement that property be surveyed before it is sold, said Cindy Sommerfeld, mapping supervisor for the Kitsap Assessor’s Office.

“They can be bought and sold forever without ever being surveyed,” Sommerfeld said, who noted there isn’t “necessarily always checks and balances” on property sales, which can lead to much ambiguity about property lines.

In the case of the Seabeck Cemetery, even if the district property was returned to the cemetery, it would not become the full five acres originally set aside.

Just acknowledges this, but reasons the private land surrounding the cemetery was bought and sold within recent years, in good faith.

“In all fairness, they were innocent parties on this,” Just said. “I’m not trying to be the bad guy here.”

And he doesn’t see the current district administration as being involved in what he sees as the fraudulent deal, readily conceding Lynch and the current board were not in charge when the deals took place.

However, he has felt put off, and he feels his attempts at dealing directly with the district have yielded nothing.

“They were hoping I would just go away,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Lynch and David McVicker, executive director of business and operations for the district, said the district hasn’t intentionally tried to obstruct Just, but the issue was sidelined over the past year as more immediate issues surfaced.

Birth of a graveyard

Just’s contention traces back to 1950, when the J. M. Colman Company sold the land around the conference grounds to Walter Wyckoff with the provision that the five acres set aside for the graveyard be excluded.

Six years later Wyckoff began breaking up the property and selling it, including a chunk to the district.

“Unfortunately the Central Kitsap School District accepted that Wyckoff owned it,” according to documents provided by Just.

Just claims the documents authorizing the sales were “quit claim” documents, legally invalid to transfer the ownership of property.

There were more transfers over the years, two in the 1960s, and a final transfer in 1992, according to the district.

Although district lawyers said the 1950 deed “contains an ambiguity,” the facts and case law “appear to support” the district and not Just, according to an analysis provided by the district.

Just disagrees, hoping that if he does file the lawsuit, a court would agree with him that Wyckoff had no authority to sell the property and void the sales. He says a lawyer reviewed the case, agrees with him and will work for free until it arrives in court.

Long a target for vandals

The pile of Lucky Lager cans and oblong Heidelberg beer bottles collected near a fence give a history lesson of sorts, showing the stretches of time since the cemetery had been used for late night partying.

“Nobody even knows this is here,” Just said.

The ‘60s and ‘70s saw more visits, and vandalism.

But the popularity of the site for late night parties and the target of youthful destruction has increased, and Just took the recent instances of vandalism of evidence that word is out.

The increased attention is a blessing and a curse. In contrast to the newly broken tombstone, money is being raised to help restore the cemetery in order to have it recognized as a historic site. The Seabeck Conference Center, the legal owner of the property, is handling donations. A message left at the center was not immediately returned.

The History of Seabeck

Just hasn’t only been a landscaper to the cemetery, but also its historian. He learned a technique using a steel rod to poke the earth to determine if it contained a grave. He knows where some of the graves are, but with about 200 graves in the plot he is still searching. He believes he knows the names of about 160 of those buried there.

Some are with a headstone, some without, sometimes they are kin, but Just has taken it upon himself to learn the stories. With many graves he can say how they died — more than one are suicides — and he knows the military records of some, Civil War veterans, some born into slavery. The resting places of six Chinese laborers killed at the Seabeck Mill are still in the brush, waiting for Just to clean their graves.

His favorite story is that of an unmarked depression, the final resting place of Nathaniel J. Sargent, buried in 1954. Sargent, an African-American, was born into slavery, but went on to attend the University of Illinois before leaving for Portland, Ore. Upon arriving, Just said, Sargent didn’t take to Portland, so instead walked north to Seattle, where eventually he received a homestead of 250 acres on Lewis Road.

Sargent was so beloved in Seabeck, he was elected justice of the peace in 1897, and was a fixture walking the road between Crosby and Seabeck.

Not only has Just read Sargent’s diary, he recalls vividly being bounced on Sargent’s knee.

“To me, this is the history of Seabeck,” Just said.