Seabeck Conference Center marks 100 years

Vern Christopher and Fred Just stand in front of a restored Model-T pickup. - Leslie Kelly
Vern Christopher and Fred Just stand in front of a restored Model-T pickup.
— image credit: Leslie Kelly

The first guest to ever stay at what is now the Seabeck Conference Center checked in on June 11, 1915.

That means that beginning in June, Seabeck Conference Center will be celebrating its centennial year. And, according to conference center executive director Chuck Kraining, special events are in the making.

“This year starts our hundredth year of service to the community and we plan on celebrating for the entire year, up until we check in our first guest of the next hundred years,” Kraining said.

To mark the beginning of the 100th year, a public open house and barbecue will be from 3 to 6 p.m. on June 14 at the conference center. The event will be an old-fashioned ice cream social, with hot dogs and hamburgers, Pepsi and popcorn. There will be some historic cars and even a 1915 Model-T pickup that was used to take travelers to and fro, and haul goods to Seabeck. It is owned by Dick Joseph and was recently restored by Vern Christopher.

The Navy’s Northwest jazz band will play, as will a local recording artist, Tom Rawson, and bagpiper Tyron Heade.

For the kids, there will be a bounce house. For the adults, board members, staff and volunteers will escort visitors on tours of the buildings and grounds, telling them about the history of the center.

It’s a chance for those who don’t know about the Seabeck Conference Center to come and share in its history, Kraining said.

“We’ve just opened our new building, the Juniper,” he said. “It was updated through a capital campaign that has just finished its first phase.”

The Juniper is next door to the main building, which when it was built in 1857, was called the “Meeting House.”

What is now the conference center, was once an old mill town and logging community, according to a written history of Seabeck. In 1856 Marshall Blinn sailed into the bay and decided it would be a great spot for a lumber mill. Blinn and his partners formed the Washington Mill Company. Legend says it was named Seabeck after Blinn’s hometown of Sebec, Maine.

Soon, a town sprouted up around the mill and then a second mill started. Seabeck lumber was shipped around the world and the company built its own shipyard to build vessels large enough to accommodate their mill output. By 1877, Seabeck was larger than Seattle and had 400 residents, along with four saloons, two hotels, two stores, a church and a little red school house. And, of course, a cemetery.

After a fire claimed the mills and the dock in August of 1886, it sat empty for almost 30 years. With no work, people moved away. Historical records say it was “almost a ghost town.”

In the early 1900s, Laurence Coleman went looking for a place to purchase and create a Chautauqua.

“He’d been to the East Coast and learned about Chautauquas,” said Kraining. “It was a movement to create camps where families would spend time together and eat together, but during the day they would do their own thing.”

He created Camp Coleman in Seattle and then he “got in his boat and went looking for another place,” Kraining said. “He found this abandoned mill camp and he purchased it and started the Seabeck Center.”

It hosted guests through the YMCA and the YWCA, and in 1936, Laurence Coleman’s son, Ken, incorporated the conference center grounds as a private, nonprofit corporation. He deeded it the Seabeck Christian Conference Center.

Today, any nonprofit group can rent the center for activities that range from summer family camps, to quilting bees. Even local government groups such as the Port of Bremerton use its meeting rooms. Each year the camp sees an average of 10,000 guests.

“We have about 200 events a year and we can hold up to 250 people at a time,” Kraining said.

There are eight full-time staff and in the busy summer months, there can be up to 55 part-time employees helping staff the kitchen and dining room and cleaning rooms where guests stay.

In order to keep the place as tax-exempt, any group that stays must be a nonprofit, and he said, strict rules apply.

“If a group has a guest speaker, that person can’t sell his books here,” Kraining said. “And if a quilting group is here, they can’t sell fabric.”

If the center lost its nonprofit, tax-exempt status, the impact would be something it couldn’t handle.

“Can you imagine what the taxes would be on 90 acres of waterfront view property,” he said.

Because the land was paid for long ago, and because the rent from guests pays the operating costs year-to-year, the conference center is on a solid financial setting. Capital campaigns are done when buildings need major renovation, or when there is a need to add a new building.

The character of the camp, however, has remained much the same as it was when it was founded, Kraining said.

And its mission — “dedicated to the moral, social, and spiritual well-being of its guests and staff by providing a setting conducive to education, renewal, and character enhancement” holds true today.

“Lives are changed here every day,” Kraining said. “People get closer to their faith. Some people work through issues with self-help groups that meet here, like AA. When you cross that bridge, you leave the world on the other side and you focus on what really matters. People make life-long friends here.”

What the rest of the year has in store:

The mid-year event will be something special to go along with the center’s Mill Town Christmas which happens each December.

To round out the year, each group that stays at the center from June 2014 to June 2015 will be asked to write a diary page about their group and activities. Those pages will be used as a timeline on the wall to show “A Year in the Life” of the conference center. A similar time of the center’s first hundred years will also be displayed.

And on June 12 to 14, 2015, there will be the Centennial Homecoming.

“We’re still planning it,” said Kraining. “But we want to ask anyone who has ever stayed out here to come back and be together with us for that weekend.”

If you’re planning on coming to this year’s barbecue June 14, there will be plenty of parking at the center and at the former Seabeck School which is a short walk from the center.


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