Bette Leek, 90, arrived at Mima Prairie Pioneer Cemetery with four generations of her family. They paid respects to her ancestors buried there. It was something that Bette’s parents had done every Sunday after church when she was growing up.
But that had all changed just before Bette and her family arrived.
Early that same morning, volunteers from the Thurston County REALTORS®Association had gathered for their Community Service Day, an effort that for the last 5 years has included clearing the small cemetery. Transporting their own tractors, weed trimmers, chain saws and more, Realtors took time away from a busy housing market to give back.
“It is a cemetery rich with history that is surrounded by Weyerhaeuser land,” says Jerry Wilkins, association president, who helped battle the weeds around century-old gravestones. “There are pioneers buried here who are a big part of our community heritage.”
Local businesses partnered with Realtors to sponsor the event and allow them to pull off the day of service—Home Street Bank, Thurston County Title Company, Ronelle Funk Allstate Insurance, Olympia Federal Savings and Rob Rice Homes.
“Our work in this cemetery has been rewarding,” says Alec Johnston, broker and co-owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, Sound Realtors and chair of the committee that organized the Realtor Community Service Day. “We have helped families with homeownership for generations and improving an historic location in our community is an extension of that.”
Local Descendants Visit
Bette Leek is the great-granddaughter of John and Polly Laws, the original owners of the property where the cemetery is located. The Laws, like so many buried in the small orchard cemetery, were pioneers who settled in Thurston County decades before Washington became a state.
According to Linda Howerton, graduate of The Evergreen State College in history and cemetery folklore, the Laws settled in the Mima Prairie area in the 1850s. In a book she wrote for the re-dedication of the cemetery in 1990, Howerton writes that the Laws “took out a donation Land Claim on the property that is now the cemetery.”
Howerton, formerly a member of the Thurston County Historic Commission, describes what is thought to be the original purpose of the land there. “It is surmised that this was the original fruit orchard of the Laws. Two ancient pear trees and several equally aged apple trees still dot the cemetery.”
Howerton also explains that the Laws might have had children buried in the orchard and then later decided to set aside their parcel for a cemetery. In 1869, they deeded the property to Thurston County for that expressed purpose.
Rich with stories about community roots, the cemetery is the site of the grave of “Uncle Billie” Packwood, considered a local legend whose name is on many local locations and landmarks, including the Lewis County town of Packwood, Packwood Lake, Packwood Pass and Packwood Creek.
The Packwoods headed from Missouri to Oregon in 1844, later settling on a donation land claim in the Nisqually Flats in 1847. Packwood was a “Forty-Niner” who left the area for the California gold fields for a while and returned in 1852. According to family legend, he brought home a cigar box full of gold.
Packwood successfully petitioned Thurston County Commissioners at the time for a right to operate a ferry across the Nisqually River and established a store nearby. He also petitioned for a school district between Olympia and Steilacoom, and the first school in Thurston County was started in a bedroom of the Packwood’s home.
Much more rich history and a record of many of the interments at the cemetery can be found in Howerton’s book online at the Thurston County Historic Commission’s website.
Realtors Service Beautifies Cemetery
Diane Weaver was serving on the Thurston County Realtors Association board when they were looking for a project to give back to the community.
Diane and her mother had stumbled on the old cemetery while on a bike ride and saw that it was covered with blackberry bushes and was untrimmed and un-mowed. Diane suggested a clearing project to the local trade association board. The Realtors have been on the project ever since.
Preparing for this year’s clean-up, Diane discovered that staff at Thurston County Parks and Recreation, who had offered to transport a tank of water out to the cemetery to help clean headstones, had gotten a call from a family requesting to pay their respects to their relatives buried in the cemetery on the day the Realtors were there.
On May 26, about two dozen Realtors brought their own equipment, enthusiasm, and something they highly value, their time, to clear out the cemetery overgrown with blackberry thickets, fallen trees and tall grass.
They had only been there an hour or two when Bette and her family arrived. She had visited on Mother’s Day just a few weeks before for the first time since she was 15, but had a hard time negotiating the tall grass.
It was easier this time for John and Polly Laws’ great-granddaughter to move slowly across the freshly-mowed lawn of the old orchard and cemetery with her walker. Her own great-grandchildren happily chased a mole through the grounds.
“You are all are amazing. This place just looks wonderful,” Bette told Realtors and reveled as she and her daughter, grandson and two great-grandchildren laid their flowers at the Laws’ headstone. “My parents brought flowers here every Sunday after church and on Memorial Day.”
The entire family was elated at the respect and appreciation the Realtors had for the grounds that are so meaningful to their family legacy. They stayed for a while admiring the Realtors’ work that had transformed the historic place to its former tranquility and beauty.
Before they left, Bette’s family posed with the group of volunteers as if they were all one big family. On that cool May morning, they stood together honoring and paying their respects to the generations and pioneers that preceded all of them in Thurston County.
Directions from I-5 to Mima Prairie Pioneer Cemetery:
Take I-5 South to Exit 95. Travel west on Maytown Rd to Littlerock. Drive straight through town. The road turns into 128th Ave. Go up the hill to the “T”. Take a left on Mima Rd. In about. 4 miles (you’ll see Weyerhaeuser land on the right), take a right onto the gravel road across from Glacial Heritage preserve sign. The cemetery is down the gravel road on the left side.