By Clark Fair
The small headline befit the small item on Page 1 of the Cheechako News on Feb. 26, 1960: “Kipp and Craig Autos Collide.”
Beneath the headline was a single paragraph: “An icy corner at Cook and Main in Kenai was the cause of an accident last week. Clarence Craig of Soldotna was unable to execute a complete right turn because of the ice and his left fender hit the left fender of the oncoming car driven by Clarice Kipp of Kenai. Both autos needed to have fenders bent out before they were able to drive away.”
Fifty-one years later, Kipp still remembers the incident.
“There was a filling station on that corner. And I think I must have been driving the pickup,” she said.
Kipp and her husband, Glenn, came to Alaska in 1954, residing in Anchorage until they moved to Kenai the following year. Both of them were prominent in the Civil Air Patrol, and Clarice was active in the area Homemakers Club.
A week after the incident at Cook and Main, Glenn was out driving the pickup around when an eerily similar set of circumstances presented itself. Loren Stewart, owner of the Cheechako and known for his quick wit, wasted no time in drawing the parallels for his readers.
On Page 1 of the next issue of the paper (March 11, 1960), this headline and brief story appeared: “Kipp and Eagle Cars Collide.”
“An icy parkway in front of Peninsula Builders (across from present-day Kenai Electric) in Kenai was the reported cause of an accident last week that again involved Glenn Kipp’s battered auto. Rex Eagle’s auto was the other car. Glenn, who had considerable comment about the accident that occurred last week when wife Clarice was driving, has been unavailable for comment (this time). It is reported that in case of questioning he intends to take the Fifth Amendment.”
Clarice laughed heartily when presented recently with this second news item, even though she said that Glenn’s accident resided less clearly in her memory than her own.
How times have changed
Soldotna is a small town with big dreams. However, in December 1962, when Anchorage Daily News reporter Willard Lawson came to town to write about the burgeoning little burg, Soldotna had about 10 times fewer residents but dreams, perhaps, no less vast.
Lawson’s full-page article, which appeared under the banner headline, “Soldotna: A Do-It-Yourself Town from Word ‘Go,’” began with these observations and suppositions:
“A visitor driving over the Sterling Highway into this growing Peninsula town sees a neatly lettered welcome sign and then gives it a quick second-look. The last ‘o’ in the town name is a smudgy overpaint, the hasty night work of an irate citizen. A visitor flying in here sees a modern airport that has just undergone $154,000 worth of improvements, including a 5,000-foot runway that can handle Constellations with ease — the work of many citizens.
“Quite likely, the same person who changed that welcome sign to his own liking also helped build the airport. He is the kind person Soldotnans like to brag about when they recount the rapid surging growth of their town. He is a hard-headed individual who does not accept change just for the sake of changing.”
To emphasize his points, Lawson used the examples of three of Soldotna’s early go-getters: Clarence Goodrich, an uncompromising entrepreneur for whom a building at Kenai Peninsula College is now named; M.L. “Red” Grange, a city businessman, an airport proponent, and a former HEA superintendent; and Burton Carver, who operated the first area bowling alley and area school bus system and was the city mayor more than once.
All of them saw opportunity when they arrived.
Goodrich, a retiree who moved here with his wife, Anna, in 1957, bought a piece of local homestead land and then pushed for “progress” — a community college, more and better roads, and increased agriculture. One of the many ways he supported his ideas with action was as a board member of Farmers’ Feed Milling & Processing Co-operative.
Grange, who moved to the area with his wife, Beulah, in 1958, built the basement of his home during their first winter and then lived in it as he completed the upstairs. The Granges paid $450 then for a 1.1-acre subdivision lot, and Red commented on what a good deal they’d made: “Now, the lots beside it would bring $2,500 to $3,000 — if you could find one for sale.”
Carver, who arrived on the peninsula with his wife, Joyce, in 1949, was one of Soldotna’s most ambitious businessmen. Besides his investments in the buses, the bowling and the gas station, he built the city’s first fine-dining restaurant, the Riverside House, which also featured hotel services. Still, he envisioned more:
“I’m really optimistic that it’s going to be steady growth from here on out, if the right things happen,” he said. “We have our differences, but when a decision is made to go after something, everyone gets behind it.”
The best example so far of this cooperative spirit of progress, asserted Lawson, was the 2-year-old Soldotna airport. Once city residents decided that they needed a better facility, they acted rapidly. In only three and a half months, they had what they wanted.
First, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce pushed for a Federal Airport Act grant and managed to get the paperwork through in only six weeks. Then, Soldotna residents provided physical labor and the city’s earth-moving equipment during the eight-week construction phase to make up their required 37.5 percent of the total cost. And finally, they quickly closed out the additional paperwork that allowed the city to take ownership of the facility.
Soldotna had become a fourth-class city in May 1960, only a few weeks before Kenai became a first-class city and only slightly more than a year after Alaska achieved statehood. But Soldotnans could see that more progress was in the cards, and they were about to leave behind the time when Soldotna was little more than a Sterling Highway junction between Anchorage to the north, Homer to the south and Kenai to the west.
Carver talked about the need for “long-term money” to foster investments. Grange talked about the “unlimited” possibilities for tourism in the area. Goodrich talked about opportunities to harness the power of recently discovered oil and natural gas reserves.
As signs of growth and possibility already realized, Lawson pointed to the city’s new shopping center, the Village Inn, to the bursting-at-the-seams Soldotna Elementary School, and to a new branch bank, a new medical-dental center, and a new post office.
And proponents for progress, he said, were pushing for even more: paved sidewalks, a hospital, and, someday, a high school.
Ironically, however, not mentioned once in all the talk about progress and potential was the Kenai River. Fishing was cited obliquely as an attraction for which the Kenai Peninsula as a whole was noted, but nowhere is there a word about the meandering glacial stream, which cradles Soldotna along its banks.
Times were changing, to be sure, and there would be time, later, for the river to become the drawing card it is today.