Seabeck Conference Center celebrates first 100 years

Mike O
Mike O'Brien grills hamburgers and hotdogs at the kickoff of the Seabeck Conference Center Centennial year.
— image credit: Leslie Kelly

There were hotdogs and popcorn, ice cream and cake. And music by the Navy Band Northwest.

Supporters and neighbors of the Seabeck Conference Center flocked to the conference center grounds Saturday afternoon as a way to say thank you to the camp that has meant so much to them for the past 99 years.

And, although all of them were younger than the camp itself, they couldn't have been happier to celebrate the beginning of its centennial year.

Among them was Arnie Marcus, who as a board member at the camp, helped direct visitors across the new foot bridge recently installed.

"I was the registrar for the Center for Spiritual Living (in Seattle) for 17 years," she said. "We brought folks here every summer. We consider it our home away from home."

Marcus said the conference center has meant so much to her through the years that she recently joined its board of directors.

"The whole purpose of this place is to provide a quality experience for those who come here," she said. "And that always happens. The staff here is just so great."

Judi McGavin and Nancy Pamitch, came all the way from Portland especially for the celebration. The two have camped at the Seabeck Conference Center since the 1970s, with the Eliott Institute, which is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church.

"This is my spiritual home," Pamitch said. "I stopped coming for awhile, and when I returned I knew I was home. And when I walked up the front steps, everybody in the group said 'Where have you been?'"

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 Chuck Kraining, the current director of the conference center. "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.

Among the special guest at the celebration Saturday, was Charles Wallace, director emeritus. Wallace, who now lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, served as an interim director for two years prior to Kraining.

"This is just a very special place," he said. "I had to be here for this."

Current board president Ben Sherman said that it is because of the dedication of all its boards and of its supporters that the conference center has survived for almost a hundred years.

"It's here because of the love that we all have for it," Sherman said. "Anyone who has spent time here shares the same memories of wonderful times spent in its peacefulness and quiet. Once you cross over that bridge, there's just a feeling you get."

Sherman has been coming to family camp at Seabeck since 1991. He's served on the board for nine years.

"Our whole purpose is to be good stewards of the land," he said. "We are working hard two make sure this place is here for another 100 years."

About 300 people attended the celebration Saturday, Kraining said. Kids played on the swings and in a bouncy house. Some visitors viewed the restored 1915 Model T that had been used years ago at the camp.

Special events are planned throughout the year culminating in a homecoming next June 12-14, 2015 where anyone who ever camped at Seabeck will be invited back.



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