Over time, the headstone tilted sideways, until one day it finally fell. When it happened, more than a century after Mrs. Clark's death, there were...

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Over time, the headstone tilted sideways, until one day it finally fell. When it happened, more than a century after Mrs. Clark’s death, there were no descendants around to notice.

But Karen Lee Bouton spotted it right away. She was on one of her tours through the Saar Pioneer Cemetery in Kent, clearing brambles and bushes and overbearing locust trees. And right there, off to the left, poor Mrs. Clark was in a state. Something had to be done.

“She just toppled over,” said Bouton, gazing at the headstone recently. “We straightened her up.”

For the past few years, Bouton has made it her calling to preserve this 135-year-old pocket of land in northeast Kent, home to five Civil War veterans and several of the area’s earliest pioneers. She has cut, weeded, hauled, chipped, scrubbed, planted — and in the process, opened up a historic burial ground for public view.

Next month, King County’s Historic Preservation Program is giving Bouton, 51, its highest honor, the John D. Spellman award for Excellence in Historic Preservation.

Other people have shown interest in pioneer cemeteries, said Julie Koler, King County’s historic preservation officer. But nothing like this.

“She was the one who, as a citizen, really busted butt to get out there and do something,” Koler said.

Inspired by her work, county officials are launching a historic-cemetery initiative this spring, documenting burial grounds older than 40 years and creating a fund for preservation. The county has already given Bouton, an amateur genealogist, a three-year, $15,000 grant for landscaping and other needs.

“You should have seen me hit the floor when I heard that, I was so excited,” she said.

Bouton is trying now to get the cemetery named a King County landmark. She has also asked the Greater Kent Historical Society to consider taking ownership of the cemetery from Kent United Methodist Church. The church, which supports the proposal, has restored the cemetery through the years but has not made maintenance a priority.

When Bouton first saw the land, it was just plain depressing. Overtaken by blackberry bushes. Ignored on a hill by Highway 167. The bustle of a WinCo Foods parking lot below.

There was history in that parcel. It was once the homestead of Peter Saar, a King County councilman who buried his wife, Margaret, there in 1873, after a swollen river kept him from the closest cemetery. Over time, that property became a resting place for merchants, farmers, dressmakers and sawyers.

But nature had buried it in a thicket of bushes. Bouton, a homemaker, read about it in a local newspaper. She convinced fellow members of the South King County Genealogy Society to help, and eventually took the cemetery on as her mission.

Over time, she cleared all the brush away, and slowly they emerged: 107 graves lying neglected underneath. She restored some of the headstones. She replaced others. She wrote to the federal government, and got new markers for two Civil War veterans.

The South King County Genealogical Society is researching the people buried there now, preparing to write a book. But Ray Owens, a software engineer, and a member of the society, already knows the history of one: his great-great-grandmother, Mary Anderson, a midwife who gave birth to at least 10 children.

Far as he can tell, she started out in this state as a homesteader in Forks in 1889 and lived with her daughters near Swan Lake, east of Kent, when she died. Now she lies alone on a hilltop in the Saar cemetery.

For the past few years, Owens has done what he can to honor her presence.

“There is sort of a connection, especially working out there, thinking about how things were when she was alive,” he said.

Occasionally, service groups have donated money and hours of their time, from the Cub Scouts to the Advanced Ghost Hunters of Seattle-Tacoma. But mostly Bouton has done the work, wandering around with her boxer, wondering what life back then might have been like.

Imagining Johnnie Hall, the young miner who died in an explosion at the Franklin Mine in Black Diamond.

Kittie A. Nelson, a dressmaker whose wedding was described in local papers as one of the prettiest social events. James Iddings, who switched sides, from Confederate to Union, during the course of the Civil War.

That cemetery has a way of pulling people in, said Stephen Hunt, a cement-truck driver who has volunteered there for years. Sometimes, after his work shift is done, he’ll mow the lawn, haul a truck full of firewood, weed-whack here and there.

What a strange, peaceful place, Hunt said — like an old Western ghost town, surrounded on all sides by modern times. He knows not a soul in that cemetery, but helping there feels right.

The work reminds him of that story his mother told about honoring the dead in her tiny coal-mining town in Missouri: How she and her mother would walk to the cemetery with their bladed sickles every Fourth of July, and every Memorial Day, to cut the plants away from the graves.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com