By Jenny Neyman
A half century ago, when Alaska’s history was still current events, there was no award for being a good homesteader. There was no plaque honoring achievements in building communities, establishing schools or preserving Native culture. There was no prize to act as incentive for advancing civil rights, being good stewards of the land or addressing the needs of those often overlooked by the powers that be.
Receiving accolades or redirecting attention from the men who often filled the spotlight of the state’s history is not what motivated Alaska’s pioneering women. They made their contributions to the development and betterment of Alaska, its communities, its people and its culture in the same way they would knead a loaf of bread to feed their families or haul water to wash their clothes — it was simply something that needed to be done. And so they did it, no matter the effort, sacrifices or lack of praise and overt appreciation involved.
With the establishment of the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008, there is an avenue for recognizing those contributions. But as this year’s ceremony showed, receiving recognition is as foreign a concept to the 16 inductees of 2010 as shirking their work would have been.
“They were able to accomplish a lot, and I think that’s an inspiration to everyone,” said Nan Elliot, who nominated Soldotna homesteader Marge Mullen for the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame and attended the induction ceremony March 5 in Anchorage.
Elliot said she recommended to one of the organizers of the ceremony that, next year, they set some new modesty-limiting ground rules for the inductees when they are asked to say a few words.
“They couldn’t get up there and thank everybody else and say how they didn’t deserve to be in this august company, because every one of them was such a sterling example,” he said. “So many were the forces behind the scenes. They were just out there living good lives and seeing what needed be done in the realms of their strengths. They just thought of themselves as common folks and were really able to make a difference.”
Mullen, 90 this year, is a case in point. She said the ceremony was lovely and she was pleased to see so many deserving women be honored for the many great things they have done, especially the Native women, who often haven’t gotten the recognition they’ve deserved, Mullen said.
“I was really thrilled, but I don’t think my story held up against those others,” Mullen said. “I felt I wasn’t very worthy next to those really great names there.”
She has just lived her life, Mullen said. Maybe so, countered Elliot, but the way she’s lived it has helped shape a community and create a legacy of activism, environmental stewardship and a spirit of doing what you can, when you can, where you can that continues to inspire future generations.
“She certainly doesn’t blow her own horn. She has to have other people out there blow it for her,” Elliot said. “You don’t get a gold medal for being a really great homesteader, for having an adventurous spirit, for being a mover and shaker and being a community activist. She was the community because there wasn’t anybody else around,” Elliot said. “I think it was that strength of spirit and her humbleness that have really inspired so many people to do a lot of things that I don’t think people could dream of doing today. She’s such an inspiration for the way in which she’s lived her life, with a love of nature and real appreciation for what’s around here.”
Marge and Frank Mullen were city kids, raised in Chicago where designated parks and the prospects of lifelong apartment rentals didn’t do enough to fulfill their love of nature and desire to build and farm and do for themselves. Before they were married and Frank went off to World War II, they saw a blurb in the Chicago Tribune announcing that homesteading would open in Alaska in 1947. They were hooked.
“I think the main reason was Chicago is a beautiful city with beautiful parks, but that’s not enough getaway. My parents lived in an apartment building, and his parents lived in an apartment building. Neither one of them ever owned any land, so here was a lot of land to be had. It was the lure of land, I think. It looked good to us in that little article in the paper that we saw,” Mullen said.
Frank was a pilot, and they flew to Alaska in a little two-seater plane in 1945, settling in Anchorage for two years until homesteading opened on the Kenai Peninsula in 1947. They flew over the central Kenai Peninsula, scouting for a homestead site to stake their claim. They chose a 100-acre parcel on the bank of the Kenai River in what would become Soldotna, with Soldotna Creek running diagonally through it. The area today encompasses the land around the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways, as well as the confluence of Soldotna Creek and the Kenai River.
The written requirements for proving up a stake were brief.
“Under the homestead law that the World War II men were operating, we didn’t have to plant a potato or petunia at all,” Mullen said. “You had to be a U.S. citizen over 19 years of age. You had to build a cabin, but there were no details on size or anything. One guy did it in a packing box down at Whisper Lake. And the cabin had to be occupied for seven months of one year by the family.”
Still, when forging out into the wilderness — in Alaska, no less — those few requirements could be extremely challenging to fulfill. When the Mullens came down from Anchorage to build their cabin, there was no road to the area yet. They took a train and hitched a ride along a jeep trail as far as they could and walked the rest of the way — three days and 65 miles through country that was brand-new to them.
Once the 12-by-14-foot cabin was built, Mullen and her two oldest children, Peggy and Eileen, who were just babies at the time, lived there alone from April to November while Frank continued to work in Anchorage and flew back and forth.
“I experienced a lot. It was certainly a lot of personal growth because I had to find out how to do a lot of things. I had to find out you can’t live without water,” Mullen said. “I had to go down to the creek for water with two little toddlers, and they couldn’t walk like I could and I had to be sure that they were OK. Water weighs 7 pounds a gallon, and I had two 5-gallon buckets. It was a haul. Later I dug a couple wells myself closer to the house.
“I was only 27 so I was up for it. I knew that that’s what I came for.”
The Mullens had planned to farm and raise chickens to sell produce and eggs, but that never worked out like they hoped. With few residents in the area there wasn’t much market for their yield, and it was difficult to keep the operation going.
“We had 800 layers and almost five acres of produce. We wanted a new plow and it only cost $500, but the bank wouldn’t even look at you,” Mullen said.
Frank was struck by polio in 1952, while Marge was pregnant with her fourth and last child, Mary. He never walked again, placing even more responsibility on Marge.
“I ended up with four kids and for a while I didn’t see how I could do it. But I never wanted to go back to Chicago. I loved going back to Chicago for the cultural things, but I’m glad I raised my kids here,” she said.
With the Swanson River oil field strike in 1957, the area began to change and grow rapidly.
“Five trailer courts sprung up immediately, because you could drag in a trailer and have an immediate house and have your family with you. I daresay there’re many more remnants of those families in our telephone books than the homesteaders. The homesteaders were few and they were many,” Mullen said.
Development was chaotic and willy-nilly — “It was a long time before we could use the word ‘planning’ at all,” Mullen said. But she was happy to have more neighbors.
“I felt it would grow up, in fact there was a time around here where I was lonesome for women’s company,” she said. “We had more single homesteaders than couples, because it was easy for the men to move on (a homestead), but some women would take a look and say, ‘Where’s the hospital? Where do you make a telephone call?’ You had to go to Kenai on the radio phone, and the hospital was Seward or Anchorage. Everybody was like in their middle 20s and didn’t have any ties. And as soon as you got your patent you could just move off and sell your land.”
Everyone seemed to have an idea for a business to start, Mullen said, and the ventures began to change the face of Soldotna. The original homesteads, buildings and owners started giving way to a series of new constructions, new owners and new purposes. Mullen started a laundry to serve the burgeoning oil-boom crowd. Later, she helped her daughter, Peggy, build and operate The Four Seasons gourmet restaurant, where Buckets Sports Grill is now. She also worked for Soldotna dentist Dr. Calvin Fair, and later was a volunteer at Soldotna Elementary School.
“Not reading to children, but listening to children read to me, is what you do,” she said.
In the early 1970s Mullen founded the Kenai Peninsula Conservation Society. The society would organize hikes and start letter-writing campaigns and promote environmental issues, “before anyone was calling anything very environmental,” Mullen said.
The first issue the group tackled was the practice of flaring natural gas on the platforms in Cook Inlet.
“You can’t do that anymore, but in those days you could just count the number from any little spot on the Kenai beach there. It was such a waste. It was a nonrenewable resource, but it wasn’t getting very much exposure or loud headlines in those days,” she said.
She also advocated for establishing a wilderness area in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The development of the Swanson River oil field within the refuge was concerning to Mullen. She thought there was enough room for development, and that the peninsula’s wilderness should be preserved.
“There was all that public land available on the peninsula. There was enough townships open to homesteading, where not only residential but retail businesses could come about. I think (the wilderness) is the most treasured part of the peninsula, myself.”
Mullen still takes a 45-minute walk outside most days, often on the trails behind the refuge headquarters on Ski Hill Road. In the winter, she walks in shoes with screw heads affixed to the bottom for added traction.
“I don’t think you can beat walking over at the wildlife refuge. There are so many ways to do it. You feel far away from town when you get out there,” she said.
Mullen’s founding of the Kenai Peninsula Conservation Society and her overall attitude of lending a hand whenever and to whoever needed it are some of the many qualities prompting Elliot to nominate her for the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.
“Marge was a community organizer long before there were words for it. As one longtime Alaskan says, ‘Marge shows others what it looks like give a rip about where you live.’ She is the embodiment of a person living in harmony with the land and community,” Elliot wrote in her nomination application. “… Marge embodies the old frontier spirit — her door is always open with a helping hand and a welcoming heart.”
Elliot met Mullen in the summer of 1973. She came to teach a cold-water swimming program for Camp Fire USA. Mullen’s kids were past the age of needing swimming lessons, yet she still volunteered to house instructors and spent time combing the lakeshore to pick out shards of glass so the kids wouldn’t cut their feet.
“So much over those two weeks epitomized who she is,” Elliot said. “She had a warm, really caring heart and interested love for people. She truly wants to help people.”
That help can take any form, Elliot said, whether inviting hitchhikers home for a warm meal, housing people on any square inch or free floor space available — often under the kitchen table — organizing trash pickups, volunteering for community programs, championing environmental causes and countless others.
“There were a number of people who were sleeping under her kitchen table. I was one of them many, many times,” Elliot said. “She just gathered everybody up in a very loving way. She just wants life to be as good as it can be and tries to make it better for everyone around her. She laughs and has a kind of lightheartedness and love for life and she’s just so interested in people and making things better and making the world a better place.
“I don’t think that any job is too menial for her. Every time I visited there was usually some sort of community project that she was starting, along with her daughters and son, and somehow getting everybody involved.”
After 60-plus years of life in Soldotna, being involved in just about everything there is to be involved in and watching the community be born, grow and mature, Mullen is in a unique position to look back on it all. She remembers Soldotna in all its previous incarnations — when there was a movie theater where Beemun’s is now, when Johnson’s Tire used to be Wilson’s grocery store, when metal palm trees stood outside what is now Bishop’s Attic thrift store — and the names and faces that changed it from that to this.
She’s become the de facto town historian, and is invaluable in that role. She’s identified stacks of historical photos and slides for anthropology professor Alan Boraas at the Kenai Peninsula College anthropology lab archive. People bring her scraps of information or call with historical riddles, needing a name, date, place or context to solve them.
“I came home from Anchorage one day and on my doorstep were boxes full of belongings and pictures a friend left there, and beautiful slides and other pieces of mementos. And I got with Alan Boraas, and went through over 1,000 pictures. And pictures keep coming to me, one way or another, just from the time I’ve been here,” Mullen said.
“I’m happy to say I have good health and I want something to do that’s a benefit. That’s my bent, anyway,” she said. “It was a special pleasure to see it all unfold, I think, to see how it all came about.”