Retired veteran uncovers graves, history as volunteer caretaker of Lakewood cemetery

Staff writerMay 26, 2013 

It is called the Old Settlers Cemetery, and it appears the first burial there took place in the 1860s.

The Pierce County Parks Department owns it and mows the grass about once a month. Kent Baskett, the Parks superintendent who’s been with the department 30 years, said no one remembers how it came to the county or when.

Rick Felty walks the cemetery grounds, on Washington Boulevard near Gravelly Lake Drive in Lakewood, more than anyone. He lives a few blocks away, and though he has no kin in the cemetery, a few years ago he found a kinship with those who lie there.

“There are old wagon tracks from the caisson that carried the caskets,” Felty said. “A lot of Union soldiers are here. A lot of children.

“There might not be a Washington without some of these people. They set down the footprints.”

After 24½ years in the Navy and another 24½ years with the U.S. Postal Service, Felty retired from his mail carrier job Friday.

His plan now? “Hunting, fishing, nature photography, all the things I didn’t have time for,” said Felty, 67. “If I see Bigfoot, I’m going to bring him in.”

There also will be more time to spend taking care of the Old Settlers Cemetery.

Everything Felty has done for the cemetery has been as an unpaid volunteer. He tries to keep the headstones clean, weed around them, keep the brush cut back. When he was given bulbs, he said he put tulips and daffodils around as many headstones as he could. They didn’t go far but added color.

The folks at the Parks Department know about Felty.

“If he sees something major, downed trees or branches, he’ll call us,” Baskett said.

It’s a formidable job at a largely forgotten graveyard.

Burials there often were unrecorded. In 2002, a private count found 168 grave sites. Three years ago, as part of his Eagle Scout project, Leavitt Castro raised nearly $20,000 and put a black-coated, chain-link fence around the cemetery.

For the past two years, Old Settlers has relied upon Felty.

“The place didn’t have a flag pole, so I built one,” he said. “I put up flags — including one I had from Vietnam — and they were stolen within a day or two. How low is that, stealing a flag from a cemetery?”

Felty survived two tours in Vietnam and a pair of missions into North Vietnam. When he began walking the cemetery grounds, his wife was unnerved.

“She thought it was morbid,” Felty said. “I told her no, it was about respect. There are veterans there, people from Scotland, Germany, South Wales."

There have been no funerals at the Old Settlers Cemetery since the 1980s, Baskett said, and it appears only people with ancestors already buried there were eligible. Felty has found a few graves for World War II vets.

“I was walking through here one day and found four more graves I didn’t know about, covered by ivy,” he said.

He has an admission.

“Sometimes I talk to the people whose graves I tended to first,” Felty said.

“I made a sign that read ‘Old Settlers Cemetery’ and put it up so it could be seen from the street.”

Most of the time he spends there, Felty is alone. But not always.

“People do come to visit occasionally,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re looking for a particular grave site or just interested in the history here.

“Some people walk their dogs through here — but they’re respectful about it.”

The land at 8105 Washington Blvd. SW was apparently donated in the mid-1800s by an attorney in the Washington territory, expressly to serve pioneers who died in the area.

Felty treats those who lie there as friends, comrades, fellow veterans. Though he’s not looking for it to become his new full-time occupation, he expects the cemetery will continue calling to him in his retirement.

“I wouldn’t mind someone to help out, but I’ll spend time there,” he said. “If I don’t go over for a while, some of the headstones almost disappear.

“It’s really a very pretty place.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638

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