By Clark Fair
From the window of her post office along the bluff in Kenai, postmaster Joyce Rheingans noticed a small crowd gathering to peer over the edge toward the beach below. Leaning out her window, Rheingans called to her daughter, Arlene, who was playing with her friend Evelyn in the Rheingans’ backyard. She told Arlene to go find out what was happening.
The girls raced over to join the crowd. Looking down, they saw that on the beach below lay Marian Mather, known to most only by her reputation as a peculiar recluse and by an odd moniker: the old “Goat Woman.”
Mather was dead.
An investigation of the death was under way, according to Arlene, who (as Lisa Augustine, her modeling name) wrote years later about the incident in her memoir, “The Dragline Kid.”
Allan Petersen, the local territorial marshal, had parked his Jeep on the beach and was interrogating the mail carrier from the Libby, McNeil & Libby cannery while his deputy took notes. The mail carrier was supposedly the last person to see her alive.
After a short time, the marshal and deputy brought out a gray blanket with a wide black stripe, wrapped Mather in it, placed the body in the Jeep and drove away.
For many of those standing on the bluff that afternoon in June 1950, it was likely their most prolonged exposure to this unusual woman whom almost no one knew. And that was unfortunate, because Mather, who certainly was odd and did keep to herself, and who lived only briefly in this area, had done something quite extraordinary with her life.
One woman, who had not been on the bluff that day, knew Mather’s story — or at least more of the story than anyone else. She wrote down some of that story and passed it on to her family. Otherwise, Mather, like many who come and go in the frenetic lives of communities, might have slipped completely and quietly into the obscurity of the past.
That one woman was Florence Lorraine “Rusty” Lancashire, who moved to Alaska in March 1948 to live in Ridgeway with her husband, Larry, and their three daughters, Martha, Lorrie and Abby. The Lancashire home sat atop the rise that would come to be called Pickle Hill at approximately Mile 2.5 of the new road being built by the Alaska Road Commission. That road would become the Kenai Spur Highway.
North of the Lancashires, about a mile and a half up the road, just past the culvert that allows Mink Creek to pass beneath the roadway, was the home of Marian Mather — a sparse, one-room log cabin built by Mather herself about where Highlands Trailer Court now exists.
According to Rusty Lancashire, the two women met in the fall of 1948, when the Lancashires were living in a canvas tent while trying to finish their own log cabin before winter set in.
“Larry had told me never to stop at her cabin as she would shoot — sorta liked to be alone,” Rusty wrote. “One day I heard an animal-like voice ask Martha where her mother was. I pulled back the tent flap and asked her what she wanted. She said she heard there was a grocery store down this way and wanted to know where. I told her and laughed — said I thought she was just snooping around to see how we lived. Anyway, she came in for some tea and we became friends.”
Rusty, who was 29 at the time, estimated the age of Mather — who had already earned the “Goat Woman” appellation because she came here with a small group of goats — to be at least 55. And although Mather was close-lipped about some aspects of her life, Rusty soon learned considerably more than just her age.
She learned, for instance, that Mather had come to Alaska “to get away from things.”
Abby (Lancashire) Ala, who now lives on 40 acres of Mather’s original property, remembers her mother telling her about the woman’s past. She believes Mather may have come originally from California, where she had been married and had raised daughters before deciding to move north alone to escape a possibly abusive relationship.
Al Hershberger, who worked for the ARC at the time, remembers a similar story: “Seemed she was wronged somehow by a man at some point in her life, I think through a bad marriage or something.”
Rusty wrote: “She’s really a funny duck. I asked her if she raised a family and tears came to her eyes as she said yes — but she wouldn’t talk about her troubles — so I never tried to pry again.”
According to information from Rusty and Abby, Mather traveled by ship to Seward, perhaps as early as 1945. On the way to Seward she rode in steerage with her tools, at least one horse, some goats and possibly some other animals. She worked in Seward until beginning her overland move to Kenai, where she had purchased a homestead for herself.
Versions of the story of her trip to Kenai vary widely. There are differences even within Rusty’s own letters. In some versions, Mather has two horses and three goats. In others, she has three horses and four goats. In some she is walking, while in others she is driving a horse-drawn wagon.
Nearly all of the stories have her attempting to follow, in the early summer of 1947, the old winter mail trail from Seward to Kenai. According to historian Gary Titus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, traveling the mail trail in summer would have been difficult enough on foot — because of all of the lakes and swamps that would have been frozen only in winter — and impossible for a wagon.
Regardless, she made the attempt, trying to follow the blazes hatcheted into trees along the route. But high grass and leafed-out trees made staying on track difficult. Rusty said that Mather got lost three times, probably holed up temporarily at the Middle Cabin (near Mystery Creek Road), and finally ended up at the Moose River. Fortunately for her, the ARC had a camp on her side of the river and was in the process of building a new bridge.
Hershberger, who remembers Mather as an older woman of slender build, said he was told that while she waited for the bridge to be finished, she had trouble with bears attempting to get at her horses. Finally, she was allowed to cross and traveled on to Kenai.
With friendly contact firmly established with Rusty — although apparently Larry never truly cottoned to her — Mather became a somewhat frequent fixture in Lancashire life. Occasionally she would baby-sit for Rusty and Larry, she was given moose meat and salmon to help her through the winter, and more than once she was a guest for the holidays.
Most of the time, however, she kept to her solitary life in a cabin that Abby called “not very substantial.”
“It was off of some pretty puny logs,” she recalled. “So it was not a real nice cabin, and the cabins were littler back then. And according to Mother, there were holes in the walls. I mean, it wasn’t chinked very well. So it was a pretty primitive cabin.”
When Mather’s health began to fail, her chilly home exacerbated her condition.
The problem appears to have begun when Mather decided in late October 1949 to walk all the way back to the Middle Cabin for “some things” she had left there, according to Rusty. She got lost along the way, camped for several cold nights, and eventually wandered home with frozen feet.
The tragedy of this misadventure is amplified by the fact that the Middle Cabin had been incinerated in the 1947 Kenai burn, which occurred in midsummer after Mather had traveled through. Even had her bearings been dead on, she was on an errand with no chance of success.
When Rusty heard of Mather’s plight, she took eggs, rolls, bread, moose liver, bandages and tape over to the older woman’s home. Marshal Petersen was already there, checking up on Mather, who had lost all her toenails and was “in bad shape,” according to Rusty’s account.
Rusty continued to help out, sometimes washing Mather’s dishes, doing some cooking for her, or even starting a fire, until Mather recuperated. In March 1950, things took a turn for the worse.
Rusty stopped by to drop off medicine for Mather.
“I called to Marian as I approached her cabin. I heard her cry, ‘Come in.’ There she sat — hovering over her little stove,” Rusty wrote.
“The small cabin — dirty — her dishes looked as if they hadn’t been done since I did them a month before. Old rags propped her pillow up on her bed. Boxes, rags, food everywhere. She turned to look at me, her face was dirty, a nasty open sore on her nose. In fact, several sores where her face hit the stove. But she was tough, and I knew it. I kept thinking, if only I could get her out of here.”
It was getting dark, and Mather’s breathing was short. Rusty tried to encourage her to fight and to let herself be taken to a hospital. Mather agreed to accept help. With the marshal’s assistance, Rusty got four men and Red Cross stretchers back to Marian’s place.
“I finally found two dirty old socks and put them on her. Two old felt boots, and luckily had some safety pins on me to pin on her coat,” Rusty wrote. “The CAA (Civil Aeronautics Administration) called in a plane that was going over. In a half hour, Marian was on her way to a hospital. The other day a boy from town brought out a newspaper clipping, from an Anchorage paper, ‘Plucky Woman, 67 — Homesteader waits 5 days alone in cabin — stroke — Marshal gets her to plane in half hour.’”
If the age in the headline was correct, Mather would have been 64 years old when she hiked overland from Seward to Kenai and built a cabin with her own two hands.
In any case, Mather needed the remainder of the winter to recover in Anchorage, but by June she was back at home and eager to go back to work. In a June letter, Rusty wrote that she had taken Mather into Kenai to see about a job, but Mather had not gotten work. The next day, Mather decided to walk into Kenai herself.
As she was walking, along came Hershberger, who was driving to the ARC main camp in Kenai. He had seen her before and recognized her. “Stopped and picked her up as we always did to anyone walking down the road,” he said. He remarked that she was “definitely more sickly looking” that day. “She seemed weak in getting into the pickup,” he said.
Mather told Hershberger she was going to the cannery to get a job.
“She looked very feeble and sickly, but carried on a lively conversation about various things” as they went along, Hershberger said.
“When I got to the camp I let her out and said goodbye. She proceeded on down the road. It was about a mile down to the little cannery where she would catch a boat going over to Libby’s. Later that evening I found she had died upon coming back across the river.”
Arlene Rheingans wrote that Mather had had an interview with the personnel manager, and “was turned down because of her advanced age. This made her hopping mad, and she seethed all the way back to our side of the river. Apparently her temper tantrum had triggered a fatal heart attack.”
Hershberger disputes this last notion. In her weakened state, he reasoned, Mather’s anger was likely only a “contributing factor” to her death. Rusty didn’t worry so much about the cause as she did the effect:
“On the Kenai side of the river she kicked the bucket — Heart — with her boots on as she wanted to do.”
On a following Sunday, Mather’s funeral was held. Rusty attended and noted that the coffin was a plywood box topped with three boxes of artificial flowers. After the eulogy, Rusty wrote, “They hauled her out to a truck. At the little American cemetery, they laid the box down. We all sang ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ After that they tied some ropes around the box and dropped it into the hole.”
As dirt was thrown in over the coffin, Rusty said, “I couldn’t help but pray that poor old Marian was at last happy. She had had such a hard life and such a sour one.”