Editor’s Note: It is still a special occasion these days when residents of the central Kenai Peninsula make a big splash in a regional or national publication, but several decades ago the event was a bona fide rarity. Forty years ago this fall, what is arguably the peninsula’s most famous bear mauling occurred on the Kenai National Moose Range, and while it received strong newspaper coverage at the time and magazine coverage a year later, it really sparked interest in 1983 when it was included as the first full story in Larry Kaniut’s “Alaska Bear Tales.” Almost 30 years earlier, however, the rigors and joys of peninsula homesteading life received national attention when a Ridgeway couple was highlighted in a multipage, 13-photograph spread in Better Homes and Gardens. Last week’s Almanac recapped the story of the bear attack, and this week’s edition discusses the homesteading tale.
By Clark Fair
After traveling eight miles of rough gravel road from the airport in Kenai, Lorraine “Rusty” Lancashire was dropped off on the top of Pickle Hill. There, in late spring 1948, she got her first look at her new homestead abode and felt dismayed.
“My heart sank,” she later wrote in a letter back to family in the states, “for I had looked in catalogs at the beautiful tents with windows and wooden floors, and they didn’t look too bad. Ours was two Australian army tents laced together, and to make them taller, they were up on three feet of logs. No door. You had to jump in and out. I looked up to the ridgepole and saw something. I asked Larry, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s a salmon Sergay Pete brought for my woman!’ It was covered with big flies. It was thoughtful of Sergay Pete to do it.”
In February 1955, seven years after this inauspicious introduction to homestead living, Rusty,
her husband, Larry, and their three daughters were featured in a William L. Worden article called “Where the Land Is New” in Better Homes and Gardens. Along with the many pages of type were 13 black-and-white images by fraternal-twin professional photographers, Bob and Ira Spring.
The images included an aerial view of the Lancashire spread along the graveled Kenai Spur, Rusty making bread in the kitchen of
the cabin that eventually replaced the tent, the girls (Lori, Abby and Martha) enjoying a bubble bath in a new tub, Larry fishing for rainbow trout, and Rusty backing up the family tractor so Larry could hitch up the disc to work the fields.
In the introduction to the article, the magazine posed these questions: “How well could an ex-bomber pilot and a city girl from the States expect to make out homesteading in Alaskan wilderness? Could they stand the privation, the backbreaking work, the cold, the isolation?”
The answer, said the magazine: “They believed they could and that working side by side they could whip anything — even 160 rough, rock-strewn acres. Today … they’ve done it and can say: ‘We built this; we cut it out of nothing; it’s all ours.’”
The article itself followed the progress of the Lancashires from their earliest, most spartan days in the Territory of Alaska to the summer months of 1954, when they were beginning to carve a true home and a farm out of the woods atop Pickle Hill.
Worden showed the Lancashires fishing together, eating together, working together and
playing together. He described the effort it took them to clear 40 acres for planting, to pick it clean of rocks and boulders, and to do the planting. And he depicted the slow accumulation of tools — a tractor, for instance, and a secondhand generator — and modern conveniences, such as electricity and running water.
The Lancashire home grew from an Army tent to a real cabin, and then added a small barn with a hayloft, smokehouse, chicken house, greenhouse and storage shed. Around the home were 30 chickens, a black dog named Mickey, a tabby cat named Snow White and a Guernsey cow with two calves. Out in the fields were a half-dozen acres planted in potatoes presold to the Army and representing the Lancashire’s primary opportunity to raise some cash.
The family supplemented its food supply of garden vegetables and fresh milk with wild game
— moose meat, ducks and geese, all stored in a freezer in Soldotna, and smoked salmon. The Kenai Commercial store provided them with many of their staples.
As a city girl, Rusty had no experience initially cooking and preparing wild game, so she had to learn how to cook moose meat, smoke fish and make dishes from animal parts she might, in a past life, have casually discarded.
Worden pointed out that, additionally, Rusty’s life contained markedly different moments than those of the typical reader of Better Homes and Gardens. She had, for instance, once dispatched a bear from her kitchen window when she caught it harassing her chickens and calves.
In a land where the cost of living was high, many residents eked out an almost subsistencelike
living, and they did so by choice.
Near the end of the article, Worden asked both Larry and Rusty why they chose the life they were living. “What do you get out of it?” he asked. Larry responded philosophically:
“Sometimes it seems like an awful waste. The government spent a lot of money training me to be a pilot, but I almost never think about jockeying an airplane up here. I spent some money myself on an education, and I guess I don’t use much of that. But you can’t spend your whole life just being proud of making a little more money than somebody else. Up here, there’s something — call it satisfaction.”
Rusty, on the other hand, reached a similar conclusion while hearkening back to the one and only time she’d been back home to Ohio since starting to homestead: “After I was there awhile, I knew that life wasn’t for me anymore. Those people all thought I was insane even to think about coming back here. All of them were worried. We work hard up here, but we don’t worry. There’s no tension.” She pointed to the buildings and fields around here. “You see that? Six years ago, that wasn’t anything. Just scrub timber. Larry and I built that. Call it satisfaction.”