Mathison Park in Burien offers a snapshot of Burien's past, preserved by the Mathison family for future generations to enjoy. The park is located on a hill in an area originally known as Sunnydale, just northeast of the junction of state highways 509 and 518. Its five acres contain one of the last remnants of undeveloped forest that covered the majority of the land between Puget Sound and the Duwamish River valley. The Mathison family moved to Burien in 1944, having bought a five-acre lot amidst scattered homes and small farms. As semi-rural Burien became a suburb in the 1940s and 1950s, filling with Boeing, Seattle-Tacoma Airport, and downtown Seattle workers, more and more residential and commercial developments filled in the farmland and replaced the forest. Theodore (Ted) and Bernadine Mathison decided, despite numerous offers from developers, to preserve their tract of land for future generations. Bernadine passed away in 1989 and Ted donated the land to the City of Burien for a park in 1999. Mathison Park opened to the public in 2006.
A Hill in Burien
Burien is in the area known as Highline today, which encompasses the area between Puget Sound and the Duwamish River valley, and between the Seahurst area and Des Moines. It was part of the Duwamish tribe's homeland, though it was not used for permanent settlements, since it was on top of a hill, away from waterways.Likewise, early white settlers in the Elliott Bay area established their farms in the valleys near the water. Waterways offered more convenient transportation routes, as they did for the Duwamish, when there were just trails through the forested uplands.
In 1874, Michael (1852-1916) and Elizabeth Jane (1853-1931) Kelly located a homestead in a valley over the ridge to the west of the Duwamish River, approximately where SW 146th Street meets 16th Avenue SW. Over the next decade, a handful of other farmers also claimed or purchased land in the relatively open area between where Highway 509 and Military Road S run today. This area became known as Sunnydale.
Sunnydale: Early Days
In the 1850s, the federal government built Military Road between Fort Steilacoom and Seattle, along the higher ground on the west side of the river valley. Farmers in Sunnydale built their own spur roads to connect their farms with Military Road. The improved access attracted more settlers to the area. After the 1870s, a sawmill at one of the valley and a hop farm on the Kellys' land began the development of commercial activities in Sunnydale.
Charles R. Brown purchased the northwest quarter of a township section uphill from Kelly's claim from the federal government in 1889. It is not clear how he used the land, but the next year, in 1890, William T. Cormode platted the land into Cormode's Five Acre Garden Tracts, which he sold individually. On April 15, 1891, Sarah Coiner bought tract 14, at the top of the hill, from Cormode, for $500 "in gold coin" (Warrenty Deed 78259). Crosby Road (now SW 146th Street), built by farmer Charles Crosby to connect Sunnydale with Lake Burien on the west side of the hill, ran along the north side of the tract.Over the next decade, Sunnydale developed a small business district along where Des Moines Memorial Way runs today, between SW 148th Street and SW 152nd Street. At the same time, farms grew up to the west, towards Lake Burien, along Crosby Road and north of the lake, with many of the farmers raising chickens and produce for sale in Seattle. This area became known as Burien because of nearby Lake Burien, which was named for Gottlieb (1836-1903) and Emma (1840-1905) Burian ("Burian" was an Americanization of their name, Van Boorian, and was then misspelled in the naming of the lake), who had owned land on the lake in the early 1890s. In the early 1900s, some landowners began to subdivide their land and sell lots to people who wanted to live in the area, and also to Seattleites who built summer cabins around Lake Burien and in the Seahurst area.
A commercial district developed in the area where 9th Avenue SW intersects SW 152nd Street, and a general store opened to serve the local farming and residential community. It was joined by the Burien branch of the Consumer's Cooperative Society store, which was built in 1919 when 60 local members pooled their resources. Other businesses followed, including Swift Lumber Yard, Wheeler Grocery Store, Sheehan's Dry Goods, a garage, a feed store, a blacksmith shop, a barber, and a pool hall.
Roads and More Roads
Over the next 20 years, increasing numbers of landowners platted their farms and logged over lands. In 1911, some of the developers came together to form a rail line, the Highland Park and Lake Burien Railroad, which brought visitors out to the area for vacation and day trips and helped sell the land. It also allowed easier access to downtown Seattle because it connected with the Seattle streetcar line in White Center.
In 1912, King County contracted with Jacob Ambaum (ca. 1866-1935) to build a road connecting the south end of Elliott Bay and White Center, with plans to extend it to Lake Burien. Ambaum Boulevard, named for its builder, allowed direct access to Seattle on a paved road. Bus service soon followed when the Neal brothers of Des Moines started the Des Moines-Seattle Stage Company in 1913.
The improved transportation infrastructure and increased land availability drew more people to the Lake Burien and Sunnyside areas. A semi-rural community developed with business districts, residential areas, small farms, and vacation cottages near the lake and Puget Sound.
In 1920, Martha Vernice Williams purchased tract 14 from Oscar Christian Coiner, Sarah Coiner's widower. Vernice's husband, Owen Lloyd Williams (1881-1947), worked as a city gardener and later as a landscape architect, and according to the 1920 federal census, Vernice was a farmer. It is likely that she ran family's dairy, the Sunnydale Goat Dairy, which, according to advertisements in The Seattle Times, offered "Goat's milk for infants, invalids, dyspeptics" (Sunnydale Goat Dairy).
Running a goat farm did not require clearing the forest or grading the land. The goats would have been content to forage on the understory up and down the slope on the southern part of the tract. There is no record of a house at the site. Census and property records indicate that the Williams family owned a portion of tract 13 to the east, which had a house, but they also place the family in Des Moines, to the south of Sunnydale, in the 1930s and 1940s. Advertisements and Owen's obituary indicate that they operated the goat dairy into the 1940s.
Ted and Bernadine Mathison
In 1942, Theodore (Ted) (1908-2003) and Bernadine (1911-1989) Mathison purchased tract 14 from the Williams family. The Mathisons were living in West Seattle, but wanted to live somewhere with more space and with trees. Trees were particularly important to Bernadine.
Ted and Bernadine had met at Washington State College (now Washington State University) in Pullman in about 1929. Orphaned in Illinois at a young age and sent to live with an aunt in Washington, Bernadine had graduated from Ridgefield High School in the southwest part of the state. Ted's family lived on a dairy farm in Snohomish.
At Washington State College, Bernadine majored in social work while Ted studied electrical engineering. He graduated in 1930 and moved to New Jersey to work for Bell Laboratories, which had recruited a handful of engineers from Pullman's graduating class. Bernadine followed Ted to New Jersey and they married in 1932.Ted's career at Bell Laboratories was cut short by the Great Depression when he was laid off shortly after they were married. He and Bernadine returned to Pullman, he for graduate school and she to finish her bachelor's degree. After they both completed their programs, they moved to Snohomish County, where Ted worked in a radio repair shop. Bernadine worked for a time for the Washington State College Extension Service and for the Department of Public Assistance in Snohomish County.
The Mathisons moved in the late 1930s to West Seattle. There Ted continued to work in radio repair. In 1934, Bernadine gave birth to Don, the first of their five children. Philip followed in 1938.
With the uptick in production at Boeing for World War II, Ted was able to get a job at Boeing in 1941. He and Bernadine owned a house on Graham Street in West Seattle, but wanted more space and trees so they looked to the Highline area, which was less developed than West Seattle and still close to Boeing. They purchased the Williams' tract in 1942, but did not move in until 1944. At first they lived in temporary quarters, a 440-square-foot house, with an attic space built by Ted for the boys to sleep in.
Ted designed and built the family house at the top of the hill, where the land was more level and the trees spaced farther apart. The trees were largely second-growth; at some point either fire or logging had cleared the land. There were (and are) Doug firs, western red cedars, big-leaf maples, western hemlocks, and madronas, among others.
Building a House
Ted built the house each evening after work. He laid 10 to 12 pumice stone blocks for the walls each evening because that was the number he could do with the one bag of mortar he mixed each night. The house is 1,000 square feet, with a carport and storage shed. His son Eric describes its style as "about what you'd expect from an engineer," with simple lines and a functional design (Eric Mathison interview).
Ted designed and built birch cabinetry for the kitchen and covered the walls with birch paneling. Bernadine used the living room fireplace regularly. The large picture windows in the living room could have opened onto views of Mount Rainier and Seattle-Tacoma Airport (now Seattle-Tacoma International Airport), but the Mathisons chose to leave the trees that obscured the view because, according to Bernadine, "the trees are the view" (Eric Mathison interview).
In 1944 and 1947, two more sons, Stephen and Eric joined the family. Bernadine and Ted did not rely on credit, so they built the house as time and money allowed. They moved into the completed house in August 1951, seven years after moving to Burien. Their youngest child, Susie, arrived that month and the house was ready for her when she came home from the hospital.
The Mathison family used and enjoyed their five acres in Burien. Ted grew a garden and fruit trees. The kids played in the forest and the open meadow area, where the park's play equipment is now located.Bernadine's Trees
Phil remembers riding his bike all over Burien in the 1940s and sledding down 146th Street's two hills, to the east and west of the crest of the hill where their house lay. The boys also remember following trails through the woods to friends' houses, Boy Scout meetings, and school. They had forts in the trees and constructed tunnels to play in.
Bernadine treasured the trees. Much to her children's chagrin, she would go out of the house in her robe and holler at utility crews for over-trimming tree limbs near the power lines. The only trees taken out of the lot were ones that needed to be removed because of disease or damage, which Don remembers being caused by a fire some time before they moved to Burien. Ted operated a small sawmill to cut the trees into cordwood for the fireplace.
In the 1950s, the Mathison's five-acre tract became one of the last large parcels of land in the Sunnydale area. Subdivisions of area farms had become more common in the 1940s as wartime production at Boeing and in Seattle shipyards, and the development of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport brought more workers into the area.
Saving the Trees for Burien
After 1955, however, construction in the Burien area grew exponentially. Developers subdivided nearly all of the land around the Mathisons and built single family homes or apartment buildings. The population of the Highline area grew from 8,203 in 1920 to 57,531 in 1950. Statistics about the area no longer included farmers after 1954 and income in the area grew from $3,900 in 1950 to $5,227 in 1954. For several years during the 1950s, schools filled with about 2,000 additional students per year.
Several times over the years developers visited the Mathisons hoping to purchase their land for another subdivision. Each time they refused. According to Phil, "Early on -- their intention was to preserve this hill of trees for the future" ("Mathison Park Dedication").
Giving up the profit they could have gained from selling the land fit with the Mathison's values and lifestyle. They lived frugally in order to afford to buy and keep the land, send their children to college, and devote many hours of service to their community.
Serving the Community
After 31 years at Boeing, ending as the chief of the flight test instrumentation division, Ted retired in 1972. He promptly went to work on the buildings and grounds of Lake Burien Presbyterian Church and the church's Buck Creek Camp. Bernadine volunteered on the church's Christian Action Committee and served as deacon.
Bernadine, having had children in three different decades, served an astonishing 40 years in the PTA. She also helped organize the Burien Arts Association (now known as Burien Arts) in 1965, which featured an art gallery and museum, offered art classes, and operated a little theater.
Drawing on her background in social work, Bernadine helped establish the Crisis Clinic in Seattle in 1964 and a public mental health clinic in Burien in 1969. At its 20th anniversary, in 1989, a new clinic was dedicated and renamed in honor of her.
In the late 1960s, two freeways increased Burien's connections with the surrounding area. Highway 509 ran north and south between Seattle and the Highline area and Highway 518 ran east and west between 509 and Interstate 5 and Interstate 405. Their junction lay just southwest of the Mathison's land, covering several of the original Cormode's Five-Acre Garden Tracts.The Mathisons did not object to the freeways or the multiple expansions of the airport over the years. While preserving their five-acre tract, they seemed to accept that development was inevitable.
Bernadine Mathison died on February 4, 1989. The famous Joyce Kilmer poem about trees graced the front of the program for her funeral service:
I think I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who ultimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree
Speaking at his mother's funeral, Eric Mathison remarked, "By word and action, Mom taught me so much. Root for the underdog. Help the helpless. Family is important. Believe in education. Don't waste. Women are equal. Money isn't everything. Love the land. Be yourself" (Mathison, Eulogy).
Ted and Bernadine's influence and values can be seen in the career paths their children have chosen. Phil studied chemical engineering and Stephen studied architectural engineering. Public service is a component of each of the siblings' careers -- Don was a computer programmer for the state. Phil was a high school chemistry and physics teacher and tennis coach. Stephen has worked for the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation as the state's Historical Architect, working to preserve historic and architecturally distinguished buildings. Eric is a reporter and editor for the Highline Times, Burien's community newspaper. Susie has worked as a special education teacher and as a school administrator in Eastern Washington.
A Park for the Community
Ted continued to live in the family home after Bernadine's death. He remarried in 1997, to Nina Mae Miller, a longtime family friend. Nina Mae knew Bernadine's strong desire to preserve the land and the trees and she was also aware of the high property taxes due on the property. She encouraged Ted to donate the land and house to the City of Burien for a park.
He did so on December 16, 1999. Ted and Nina Mae continued to live in the house and served as caretakers of the park until 2002. Ted Mathison passed away on February 23, 2003.
In April 2003, Eleanor Carver Nelson and Dorothy C. Carver donated an adjacent two-thirds-acre parcel to the City of Burien. The donated parcel, on South 148th Street, allows the park to extend from South 146th to South 148th streets. Ms. Nelson and Ms. Carver donated the parcel in honor of their grandfather Herman Nickolas Peters (1868-1949).
Peters settled in Sunnydale in 1889 and operated a chicken ranch and grew fruit trees on his 15 acres that lay south and east of the Mathison tract. Additionally, he played an active role in developing the Sunnydale area. He served as justice of the peace and as a notary, established the Sunnydale Telephone Company in 1904, and played a crucial role in getting the Puget Sound Electric Company to run electric lines to Sunnydale. The parcel donated for the park is all that remained of Peters' original farm that had not been covered by Highway 518 or subdivided into residential neighborhoods.
Dedicating and Developing the Park
The city of Burien completed the first phase of developing the park in 2006. They built playground equipment and landscaped a portion of the park. At the park dedication, the Mathison siblings cut a ribbon to open the playground equipment and spoke about their parents and their memories of growing up in Burien. Phil remarked, "When you’re a kid you never realize and appreciate what you have. Can you imagine growing up here? We had a basketball hoop on that tree and a baseball diamond in this field. We climbed trees, dug holes to China, and made cities, played with little cars with rivers and lakes using the hose. And we rode bikes all over but of course coming home it was always uphill. We walked to Sunnydale School and Highline High through the back woods" ("Mathison Park Dedication").
To prepare for developing the southern, sloped portion of the park, the Burien Parks Department brought in a herd of goats to eat decades-worth of underbrush growth, much of it blackberry bushes. The parks department then constructed trails through the woods to the park's lower entrance. One trail, which is paved and loops gently down the hill, leads to viewpoints with benches and picnic tables. A second trail, unpaved, traverses a more rugged route through the woods and features signage describing native vegetation. The parks department also added playground equipment for younger children near the older kids' equipment. The second phase of development opened in April 2010.
For now, the Mathison's house is occupied by a parks department employee, but its future is uncertain. It may be modified to be used as a park facility, or it may need to be removed.
But the Mathison family's connection with the land atop the hill continues. This year, 2011, there will be a picnic held at the park that will bring together several generations of the Mathison family to enjoy the trees and the legacy Ted and Bernadine left to the residents of Burien.