OLALLA — Infant Martin Edwin Brooks died in 1942, and since 2012, the baby’s headstone sat unclaimed in the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office property management department.
On July 25, Martin’s short life and unexplained death were commemorated by a small crowd of people — some who’d never met before — at the Fraola Cemetery in Olalla, reported the Kitsap Sun.
The group included sheriff’s office staff, a couple of crack genealogists, a former police chaplain and a sympathetic cemetery official, all united by the thought, “What if it were my child?”
The headstone was found Feb. 22, 2012, along the west shoulder of the 400 block of Jackson Highway South in Lewis County and turned over to the sheriff’s office.
The child’s name was professionally engraved along with the inscription “1942 — 1942.”
It wasn’t much to go on, but the sheriff’s office cast a wide net, contacting mortuaries, cemeteries and monument companies from Centralia to Vancouver. The office put it out on Facebook and in the local media. No luck.
Isabelle Williams, the sheriff’s office director of property management, would pass the headstone in the property room on her rounds before turning out the lights and locking the doors.
The agency has an online tool for helping people reclaim lost or stolen property. Although no one stepped forward to claim the headstone, Williams never gave up.
“It is our goal to get property back to its rightful owner,” Williams said on the sheriff’s office website.
“We get a great deal of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment returning property to its owner — especially those treasured items that are irreplaceable and that they thought were lost forever.”
In June, there was a breakthrough in the case.
KOMO that month ran a news release about the headstone from the Lewis County Sheriff that caught the attention of Alice Nelson of Long Beach. Nelson has been obsessed with graves and cemeteries since she was a child.
In the south, where Nelson was raised, families commonly visited cemeteries, even bringing picnics, to remember their ancestors and retell their stories.
Nelson remembers walking around graveyards reading headstones with her mother. Each one had a story, even people they didn’t know.
“That’s kind of fallen by the way, as people kind of have more of a dread of death,” Nelson said. “In fact people feel it’s morbid and creepy to go to cemeteries.”
Not Nelson. As an adult she undertook cataloging gravesites for the website findagrave.com. Her specialty is veterans.
Her goal, as a former journalist, is to document in photos and words what’s known of individuals and their resting places before time and weather erode their monuments.
Nelson teamed up online with another genealogical sleuth, Andrea Hunting of Tacoma, to untangle the history of Baby Brooks.
They, like the sheriff’s office, hit a number of dead ends.
They were thrown off by the misspelling of his mother’s maiden name in one document, a common issue with misinterpreted handwritten records.
They also were surprised to find the baby’s parents, Clarence and Violet Brooks, interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Seattle, not Lewis County.
The cemetery had no record of the baby’s burial, although online records confirmed little Martin was their only child.
“Basically it was cross-referencing every which way and coming to a conclusion that Clarence and Violet Brooks were Martin’s parents,” Hunting said.
During the search, Hunting identified Violet’s correct maiden name as Fagerstrom, which led through findagrave.com to the Fraola Cemetery and the final resting place of Emil and Edla Fagerstrom, Martin’s maternal grandparents.
When Forest Lawn told Nelson of regulations that prohibited placing the baby’s headstone in the Seattle cemetery, she approached Joanne Clark, secretary-treasurer of the all-volunteer Fraola Cemetery Association.
“We were very glad to help,” Clark said.
Not only would they make room for the baby’s headstone, but Clark, also a genealogist, researched the family’s history and found Emil hailed from Jacobstad, Finland, not far from where Clark’s own ancestors originally lived.