LITTLEROCK — Breathing life into a place that was all but forgotten decades ago, volunteers on Thursday spent their time cleaning a cemetery that holds the remains of some of the area’s first settlers.
Located off Mima Road and surrounded on all sides by Weyerhaeuser property, the Mima Prairie Pioneer Cemetery’s earliest known interment was in 1864.
The burial was of a child, Lucelia E. Marcy.
The second child to be buried on the land was in 1866, three years before John and Mary Laws deeded the area, formerly an orchard, to Thurston County for the purpose of housing a cemetery.
John Laws and his wife, Mary Goen, came to the Mima Prairie in the 1850s. Among the more than 40 known interments at the cemetery are the Laws, the very people responsible for turning the land into a burial site.
“The history behind it is fascinating,” Barb Lally, with the cleanup group, said.
On Thursday, as volunteers with the Thurston County Realtors Association cleaned the graveyard, four generations of family came to visit the burial plot of the Laws.
Although the graveyard was also utilized by neighbors in the area, Aaron Kooley, of Rainier, said many of the people buried there were connected to the Laws by marriage.
John Laws is the great-great-great-grandfather to Kooley.
His grandmother, Bette Leek, 90, of Lakewood, also made the trip to place fresh flowers on the grave of her great-grandfather, a place she just recently re-discovered.
Leek never met Laws, who died in 1871, but she remembers her parents making the trip to lay flowers on his grave.
“I was a teenager when Mom and Dad were coming out here and bringing flowers,” she said, adding she was 15 years old. “Of course, teenagers don’t pay much attention so I didn’t come with them, but I remember them gathering flowers, every flower that they had, to bring out here.”
It was Leek’s second time at the cemetery, with her first trip taking place just two weeks prior.
“It’s very heartening,” she said.
Her daughter, Kathi Johnson, of Tacoma, said it was just by coincidence the family learned about the annual cleanup conducted by the Realtors Association. When they made their initial trip out to the Mima Prairie Pioneer Cemetery, she was concerned because a headstone had been tipped over. She called the Thurston County Parks Department, and was told about the cleanup event.
“It’s almost like a spiritual intervention or something because it all came together,” she said. “We have never been down here, and they didn’t know anybody had family here.”
Kooley, who brought his two young children on Thursday, said it was important for them to see just how far their family history spans.
“I just want them to know the history about it. We’ve been here all our lives in the Sound area,” he said, adding there are seven generations within a 45-minute driving radius.
According to information printed and published by the Thurston County Historic Commission, Laws and his wife, Mary Goen, formerly known as Polly, came to the Mima Prairie area in the 1850s and took out a land claim.
Laws was born in North Carolina, and later resided in Lawrence County, Illinois, where he married his wife in July 1822.
In 1869, the couple deeded the piece of land to Thurston County. It is presumed that one or two of the Laws children may have been buried in the area, but their grave sites are unknown.
There were no obituaries available for John and Mary Goen Laws, and the little that is known comes from their headstone. Laws was 71 years old when he died, and his wife was 93 years old.
“This is where her longevity comes from,” said Johnson of her mother, Leek, while reading the gravestone.
Stories about the family have been passed down through generations, but are now convoluted. Johnson recalls a story her grandmother told her about relatives coming from Maine on the Oregon Trail and homesteading in Littlerock, but Johnson couldn’t remember the names.
“When they’ve already passed before you’re born, it’s kind of hard,” she said.
Johnson did, however, come prepared to the cemetery with old photos of family members, including the Laws and Keel’s grandfather, George.
Since John Laws died before Keel was born, she has no memories with her great-grandfather, but she does remember her grandpa fondly.
“I took my naps with him every day,” she said. “He was a very strong man and always loving and took care of me.”
George is not buried at Mima Prairie Pioneer Cemetery, but instead was laid to rest at Odd Fellows Memorial Park in Tumwater along with later generations of the family.
There are 47 known gravesites dating from 1864 to 1979, with others presumed to be on the property.
Tom Stevens, a nursery technologist for Weyerhaeuser, lived next to the cemetery in a company house for 30 years.
He witnessed the transformation of the abandoned cemetery.
“When I moved there in the summer of ’84, it was completely overgrown with blackberries. You couldn’t even get into there,” he said. “It was difficult to even find the stones.”
Once the thickets were cleared, the stones became visible, but Stevens said more graves remain unmarked.
“There’s got to be a lot more graves there because if you look closely they are actually in lines, and in some of those lines, there are depressions,” he said. “When I first moved, there was a wood piece set in concrete and that wood piece rotted away.”
After the Thurston County Historic Commission became involved with the restoration of the cemetery, along with Weyerhaeuser, it was rededicated in May 1990. Stevens said several citizen groups got involved to clean the area. Since then, the cemetery has looked better than it has in decades.
Diane Weaver, the organizer of the Realtors Association cleanup, said she first discovered the place over 20 years ago when she went on a bike ride with her mom. They found a small section of the cemetery they could access, but the rest of the area was overgrown and inaccessible.
“It was this amazing find,” she said. “There was nothing to see except for that little tiny area. ... It was kind of this abandoned place that shouldn’t have been abandoned.”
She helped organize the cleanup, and was excited to hear the group would meet descendants of those laid to rest. Prior to the new information, the group said they knew of no descendants.
Jerry Wilkins, president of the Thurston County Realtors Association, said it was exciting news for the workers there on Thursday.
“It’s good community participation and takes care of a very valuable asset that’s in the community,” he said. “Some of the earliest pioneers of Thurston County are here.”
Johnson said she would never be able to thank the group enough for their work in keeping her family history accessible. She plans to begin researching other relatives buried at the cemetery.
“We are going to start coming down here, donating our time, get a family reunion together and do some work,” Johnson said. “It’s so wonderful. This is why we came down is to thank these people. They don’t need to do this and they are doing it out of the kindness of their hearts and that’s just amazing.”