Almanac: Building happier holidays — Communities rally around Megargels left homeless after holiday season fire

By Clark Fair

Photo courtesy of Ann and Dave Letzring. In the winter of 1972, a heavily bearded Joe Megargel headed up into the foothills of the Kenai Mountains on this old snowmachine.

Redoubt Reporter

When Joe and Ruby Megargel came home on Christmas night, 1959, after celebrating with their friend, Carl Spetz, at the home of John and Inga Berg, they had no idea that their small Cohoe cabin would not survive until the next holiday, only a few days away.

On New Year’s Eve, the Megargels, who had homesteaded off Cohoe Loop only one year earlier, traveled north to ring in the new year at the home of “Whitey” Yurman at Boulder Point in Nikiski. In the meantime, back in Cohoe, one of the Megargels’ neighbors spotted trouble.

Jess Nicholas, who had homesteaded nearby in 1956 and had just been named state deputy magistrate at Kenai, discovered at about 7 p.m. that the Megargel home was on fire.

Details from that evening are sketchy, as most of the people living in the immediate area at the time have either moved or passed away, and the front-page Cheechako News story on Jan. 15, 1960, was only a few lines long and not especially informative.

But the bad news was evident enough to the Megargels when they returned to their property: Their vertical-log cabin had burned to the ground, and they were about to begin the coldest month of the year.

Fortunately, good news came with the bad, as the Cohoe community rallied around their stricken neighbors: Wayne and Trudy Webb took the Megargels into their home for a week or two until Vern and Verna St. Louis loaned the couple a house trailer. Wayne Webb also chipped in some leftover house logs, and a small local crew gathered to help build the Megargels a new home.

Copy of portrait provided by Ann and Dave Letzring. This is a portion of the memorial portrait of Joe Megargel painted by Colorado artist Carole Bourdo following his death in 1995. The image depicts Magargel in his later years, along with the cabin in which he lived for about 35 years.

Stephen Webb, who was 9 years old at the time, remembers when the Megargels came to stay. He was particularly impressed by their appearance: “He looked like a mountain man. He looked like Jedediah Smith. He almost always had this big bushy beard. And his wife was about as big as he was. I barely remember her, but she seemed like she was close to 6-feet tall.”

Stephen’s mother, Trudy Webb, said that her son’s impressions of their appearance were correct. She described Ruby as “tall and well built … all muscle, but a nice-looking lady.”

And Joe did, in fact, have a full, dark beard, in addition to dark, bushy eyebrows and a shaggy mane of dark hair. His personification as a mountain man also relates to his career choices — commercial fishing in the summers, and trapping along upper Tustumena Lake in the winters.

Joe was born in Dickson City, Penn., in 1920, while Ruby was born in Framingham, Mass., two years later. According to his sister, Jessie Winter of Cohoe, Joe served in the military in World War II, and then he and a buddy, John Springer, traveled to Alaska in 1948. He worked mainly at Elmendorf Air Force Base until moving onto his homestead in 1958, the same year he married Ruby in a ceremony in Homer.

Ruby, according to her obituary in July 2008, had also worked with the military prior to hooking up with Joe. She was a member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, worked in occupied Germany after the war, and took great pride in the fact that she had once been allowed to ride the horse of Gen. George S. Patton.

Shortly after the fire, construction began on the new Megargel cabin, using the same design as the original and making it about the same size, roughly 20 by 30 feet.

“All the neighborhood came in, and they cut down trees and built him a cabin in the middle of the winter,” said Winter. “They had a cabin built in no time.”

Among the Megargels’ friends and neighbors at that time were the Webbs, the Nicholases, Ann and Archie Ramsell, John Swanson, Ray and Florence Burton, Charlie and Freda Lewis, Eugene and Mary Smith, George and Lois Calvin, Chuck and Helen Raymond, and Pete Jensen.

On Jan. 16, as construction continued, a benefit for the Megargels was held at the Clam Gulch Community Hall. The St. Louises showed their Alaska movies, and afterward those gathered shared refreshments and did some dancing. A small society notice in the Cheechako did not mention the amount of money raised at the benefit.

Photo courtesy of Ann and Dave Letzring. Joe Megargel (far right) is pictured at the Cliff House on Tustumena Lake with two of his best friends, John Swanson (left) and George Calvin. Megargel frequently used the Cliff House as a base for his winter trapping operations.

By mid-February, work on the cabin was evidently complete, for on Feb. 12 in the “Letters to the Editor” section of the Cheechako ran a small note entitled “A Card of Thanks.” It said: “We wish to thank everyone for their generosity and kindness in the time of our need. Unfortunately we do not know every person who helped us, but we would like to thank them personally. Come see us. Good luck and good health to all.”

It was signed “Ruby and Joe Megargel, Box C, Cohoe, Alaska.”

Joe’s sister, who still lives on a portion of the original homestead, said that, while the cabin may have been constructed quickly, it was made stout. Although it has undergone some remodeling in more recent years, it is still standing and continues to be occupied.

Unfortunately for the Megargels, their marriage was not so enduring. Joe and Ruby divorced in 1963, and she moved to Anchorage, where she became an ardent supporter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and worked until 1994 as a room aide and a crossing guard for the Anchorage School District.

Joe stayed on in the small cabin, working various jobs in addition to his fishing and trapping, until he died in November 1995.

On a painting of Joe made for his memorial by Colorado artist Carole Bourdo (the mother-in-law of Joe’s sister’s son), his cabin, with its fading moose rack over the front door, is featured prominently just off his left shoulder.

Joe and his cabin remained together until the end, thanks in part to a group of neighbors who made sure that Joe had many happier holidays to come.

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2 Comments

Filed under Almanac, history, homesteaders

2 responses to “Almanac: Building happier holidays — Communities rally around Megargels left homeless after holiday season fire

  1. Jessie Winter (Megargel)

    Thanks for the article. It is very nice something has been published about the neighbors who helped each other in old Alaska.

  2. Amazing that I should find this story. We knew Ruby and became best friends while we were with the Army at Ft. Richardson, Alaska 1963-66. She worked for part of that time with my wife at the Elmendorf AFB library. She became almost family. Who could not love a lady who always spread so much cheer. We went with her to visit the homestead once but never heard the story about the fire. Most of the rest of your story goes along with what she had told us. She loved Alaska and her dogs. Although her being from Framingham, Mass. she had no desire ever to leave Alaska even for a vacation. I was happy to hear in more recent years that she had her own home and a kennel to board dogs. That was her happiness. Love you Ruby Megargel. RIP

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