A park grows in Ballard where a religious sect once flourished

Seattle Post Intelligencer/September 9, 2010

For decades, rumors circulated about the quiet people who lived behind the tall, prickly holly bushes on Ninth Avenue Northwest in Ballard.

Children dared each other to squeeze through fences to explore the mysterious acre. Adults heard of a towering, charismatic prophet who required that his followers maintain a celibate and vegetarian lifestyle.

Reporters chronicled whatever leaked out - in particular, the salacious details about a teenage "queen" who dressed in white, served the prophet and shared his bed.

The property, which once housed the Seventh Elect Church in Israel, is being converted into a city park. In 2008, Seattle Parks and Recreation bought the property for $3 million of parks levy money and is spending $500,000 more for its conversion.

"There's a magic to it," said Clayton Beaudoin, a landscape designer with SiteWorkshop, which is overseeing the project. "There's uncertainty about what had gone on."

The church, a parsonage and dormitory were torn down in May. The property has been christened "Kirke" - Norwegian for church.

Barbara Paquette, who grew up nearby in the 1930s and 40s, recalled that men from the church would knock on doors, asking for odd jobs. Her parents were Norwegian immigrants who spoke little English.

"My mother was suspicious and afraid when they came to the door," she said.

The men, bearded and dressed in navy blue, lived in a dormitory at the Seventh Elect Church, a sect that came out of a 19th-century religious movement that produced the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

As they aged, and as Ballard gentrified into more of a hipster hub than sailor pub crawl, the rumors that once swirled about their enclosure sailed off with the fishermen of yore. In the late 1980s, the property housed only three or four elderly members.

In 1989, church members learned from a news article that the parks department wanted to transform their home into a park. Alta Lee Dauel, the church president, refused.

Two decades later, in the winter of 2008, Dauel hired a real estate agent to sell the property on Ninth near Northwest 70th Street. No for-sale sign was posted, but neighbors noticed a developer sniffing around.

One neighbor called the parks department, urging speed. They worried the property could be turned into a row of cheaply built skinny houses.

"Basically, we waited them out until they eventually died," said Lise Ward, the property agent for Seattle Parks and Recreation. "We were tickled pink to get it. In a neighborhood as dense as Ballard, it's unheard of to get a property that size."

Dauel, too, was pleased the park became public.

"It preserves the property in perpetuity," she said. "A church is open to everyone, and so is the park."

Dauel was the daughter of William and Maude Wold, who joined the church when their two daughters were teenagers. Though the family didn't live on site at the time, they visited every day. The girls played catch with crab apples in the orchard and swung in an old cherry tree.

"It was back in the '50s when we were children, and we were really awed," Dauel said.

Now living in Lynnwood, Dauel would rather speak about the charity she founded with money from the sale. 7028 Life Enhancement Charitable Trust -- named, in part, for the address of the Seventh Elect Church, 7028 Ninth Ave. N.W. -- helps low-income people pay for basic health services. She dissolved the church last August.

"When people choose a religion or a lifestyle, it isn't as though they should have to explain it to everybody," Dauel said. But Barbara Hainley, a neighbor on 70th Street, believed that ferreting out the park's history was crucial.

"It's part of who we are as Ballard," Hainley said. "If we hadn't chased this story down, it would be gone."

For a year, Hainley and another neighbor, Joan Weaver, researched the church, combing through the Seattle Room at the Seattle Public Library and perusing online Census and Social Security records. They fact checked hundreds of newspaper stories and started communicating with Dauel by e-mail.

(A short version of their report can be found on the Groundswell NW blog.)

Despite Dauel's hesitance, Hainely persisted. As a New Englander who can trace her family roots to the 1600's, she wanted to write the park's narrative.

The Seventh Elect Church in Israel was incorporated in 1922 by Daniel Salwt, who, for the 1900 Census, listed his profession as "evangelist." His is a story of grit, religious eccentricity and Wild West machismo.

Salwt, according to church lore, bicycled from the Midwest to the West Coast when he was in his 60s. Arriving in Seattle, he founded a church that attracted mostly men -- day laborers, shingle weavers and mechanics. He started a sprinkler business to subsidize the church.

With their long beards and whiskers, church members stuck out in Ballard, which was known for its salty nighttime party scene. An article from 1928 in The New Republic m, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C., described church members as "shoeless, unshaven and unshorn," and noted their arguments with members of the Salvation Army in downtown Seattle.

Salwt died in 1929 at the age of 84. His members believed he would resurrect himself because he had told them that he was immortal, so refused to allow in health department officials to remove his body.

A three-day standoff ensued.

The Seattle Daily Times gave this headline to the standoff on June 13, 1929:

"City gives dead 'prophet' until tonight to rise."

And the first paragraph described the ordeal this way:

"Not yet has Daniel Salwt, self-annointed 'messenger of God' to the Seventh Elect Church of Israel, burst the chains of mortality that have held him fast since Tuesday night, when, to the dismay of his bearded followers, he passed into a sleep which men of lesser faith call death."

Today, the crab apple trees remain, as do the Italian plum and cherry trees. A rusty water pipe sticks out of the grass. Hearts and initials are etched into the concrete walls that were supposed to have been the foundation of Salwt's temple. Spiders are everywhere.

Within the concrete walls will be a secret garden with a birdbath. The birdbath will stand on claw feet from a bathtub from the old house.

On the north end of the park will be a P-Patch, like the one that once fed church members. At the heart of the park will be the orchard, with a play area for children and spot for skateboarders. There, on the grass, SALWT is still spelled in 6-foot tall slabs of concrete.

Keeping the private spaces within the park would appeal to teenagers, Beaudoin, the landscaper, said. Seattle parks are so polished and visible, he said, with few nooks for teens. Kirke Park will also be a place for Dauel to visit and reflect with her family and friends.

"I am just so totally delighted," she said. "I would think the prior members would be pleased with what happened to it, too."

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