Almanac: Writing history — Books immortalize early stories of Kenai Peninsula life

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part series of articles about some of the histories that have been written concerning the people and places of the Kenai Peninsula. Part one appeared last week. Part three, which will focus on rarities and oddities in peninsula historical writings, will appear next week.

By Clark Fair

Redoubt Reporter

When Andrew Berg died of heart failure in an Anchorage hospital in early 1939, his 69 years of life were memorialized in an obituary in the Anchorage Daily Times:

“Of Finnish extraction, Mr. Berg was known in his heyday as the most powerful man of the Kenai country. He was six feet two inches tall and weighed 235 pounds. He out-traveled all others in speed and distance. As a trapper, he built 14 cabins…. Mr. Berg served as guide for many parties and hunted for museums…. The veteran Tustumena resident was the first game warden of that district and also served as fish warden for some time…. Mr. Berg’s name appears often in the Remington tabulations of record trophies, both as hunter and guide.”

Dubbed the “dean of guides in Alaska,” Berg lived a remarkable life, the last 49 years of which he spent in and around Tustumena Lake. A detailed, photograph-filled history of his life can be found in the pages of “Alaska’s No. 1 Guide: The History and Journals of Andrew Berg, 1869-1939.” Thoroughly written and painstakingly researched by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus, this book is an open window to a more rugged and wild Kenai Peninsula that existed in the first half of the 20th century.

Other books that open up the sweep of peninsula history to interested readers include:

  • “A Larger History of the Kenai Peninsula” — by Walt and Elsa Pedersen, self-published in 1983 as an expanded version of the Pedersens’ original offering, “A Small History of the Western Kenai,” which was published in 1976. Although the Pedersens’ own views shine through clearly in the sections written by Elsa, the research and general sense of local history is undeniable. Most of the histories were written by long-time residents of the areas about which they wrote. Lance Petersen’s essay entitled, “The Fragmentation of Kenai: A History,” is particularly moving and eloquent.
  • “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula: The Road We’ve Traveled” — created by the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association in 2002. This remarkable collection of community histories is actually a paean to the first travel book ever written about the Kenai Peninsula: “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” published in 1946 by Lois Hudson Allen, a journalist and teacher who died only two years later at age 74. The individuals who put together the more current work were so taken with Allen’s slim book that they actually incorporated her work into the pages of their own. Consequently, readers of the KPHA collection will be treated to two books in one, and the comparisons between Allen’s Alaska and the KPHA Alaska nearly 60 years later are sometimes striking and provocative.
  • “Snapshots at Statehood: A Focus on Communities that Became the Kenai Peninsula Borough” — also created by the KPHA, and published in 2009 in celebration of 50 years of Alaska statehood. The emphasis of this particular collection of community-based writings is on peninsula life at the time of statehood. Despite the similar community-related structure of “The Road We’ve Traveled,” this book is rife with new stories and a vastly different selection of photographs.
  • “Any Tonnage, Any Ocean: Conversations with a Resolute Alaskan” — by Walter Jackinsky and Jacqueline Ruth Benson Pels, published in 2004. Ninilchik Native Jackinsky spent most of his long life at sea, and this book explores the many facets of that life, particularly his long tenure as a ferry captain in the Alaska Marine Highway System. Pels, who did the writing, also has Alaska roots that reach deep. The author/editor of several history-related books, she was a 1953 graduate of Kenai Territorial High School.
  • “Memories of Old Sunrise: Gold Mining on Alaska’s Turnagain Arm” — an autobiography of Albert Weldon “Jack” Morgan that was published in 1994, although Morgan finished writing his memoirs in 1959, five years before his death in his mid-90s. Among the many and sometimes astonishing tales is the story of how he got the nickname Black Jack. A drunken miner mistook Morgan’s young wife for one of the many prostitutes in Sunrise (near Hope) and put his hands on her. Morgan struck the man so hard that he broke the man’s neck.
  • “Brother Asaiah” — by Martha Ellen Anderson, published in 2007. This is the affectionate biography of Asaiah Bates, a loving, giving pacifist who made his home in Homer, which he called the “Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea.” Of Bates, former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond once said, “Toss into a blender 1 part eastern mystic, 2 parts Old Testament prophet, 3 parts wounded warrior, 4 parts aging flower child and from the mix at least the essence of the man emerges.”
  • “Family After All: Alaska’s Jesse Lee Home, Volume II: Seward, 1925-1965” — a collection of photos and reminiscences compiled by Jacqueline Pels, published in 2008. This nearly 800-page book is the weighty companion piece to Volume I, which focuses on the Jesse Lee Home when the orphanage was located in Unalaska from 1889 to 1925. Perhaps the most famous resident of the Jesse Lee Home was Benny Benson, who at age 13 entered and won a contest to design a flag for Alaska.
  • “Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor” — by Naomi Gaede Penner, published in 1993. Penner is the daughter of Dr. Elmer Gaede, who, along with Dr. Paul Isaak and Dr. Calvin Fair, helped establish the first medical-dental center on the central peninsula. The focus of this well-paced book, however, is on Dr. Gaede, who flew out into the Bush to assist patients before and during his time on the peninsula.
  • “The Homer Spit: Coal, Gold & Con Men” — by Janet R. Klein, published in 1996, the centennial of Homer. Despite the title, the real center of attention here is a man named Homer Pennock, who fits into the category of coal miner, gold miner and con man, and who is the namesake for the city at the southern terminus of the Sterling Highway. This lively narrative is a quick read at only 70 pages.
  • “The Dragline Kid” — by Lisa Augustine (nee Arlene Rheingens), published in 2002. Augustine was born in 1939 when her parents were residents of Hope, and then the family moved in 1948 to Kenai, where Joyce Rheingens became the Kenai postmaster. Although the last 40 pages of this book focus on Augustine’s move Outside and the start of her modeling career, the first 213 pages are all about her life in Hope and Kenai. Augustine’s tales of being a teen in Kenai are particularly enjoyable, as she depicts a number of that community’s denizens of that time.
  • “Fish, Oil & Follies” — by Loren Flagg, published in 2009. Flagg, a Kenai resident, was an Alaska Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist, and this memoir centers on his time in Alaska after opening with his earlier life Outside. Flagg writes with good humor about the politics, adventures and misadventures involved in being a steward to one of the state’s most important resources.
  • “‘I’d Swap My Old Skidoo for You’: A Portrait of Characters on the Last Frontier” — by Nan Elliot, published in 1989. These brief but intimate histories of Alaskans cover the gamut of state localities, but this book is noteworthy for local history buffs because it contains the stories of Marge Mullen of Soldotna and Clem and Diana Tillion of Halibut Cove.
  • “Legends & Legacies: Anchorage 1910-1935: Remembering Our Buried Past” — by John P. Bagoy, published in 2001. At first glance, this book might appear unrelated to the history of the Kenai Peninsula, but what some might not realize at first is that many of the peninsula’s early non-Native residents stopped first in Anchorage before venturing on to the Kenai to try their hand at homesteading, commercial fishing or a number of other endeavors. Among the many locally important individuals to be found in this book are the entrepreneur Heinie Berger, Dr. Howard Romig, Dr. Clayton Pollard and Tom O’Dale.
  • “Bear Wrangler: Memoirs of an Alaska Pioneer Biologist” — by Will Troyer, published in 2008. Although only a small portion of Troyer’s adventurous and occasionally hilarious book concerns his time on the Kenai Peninsula, Troyer himself lives in Cooper Landing and has spent several decades connected to peninsula life. Perhaps his most significant peninsula-related achievement was acting as manager of the Kenai National Moose Range during the 1960s.

1 Comment

Filed under Almanac, history

One response to “Almanac: Writing history — Books immortalize early stories of Kenai Peninsula life

  1. Shana Loshbaugh

    Clark, this is a great idea (& adds to my reading list!) but of course you’ve opened a can of worms. More and more titles come to mind … Here are several I recommend: For Kenai history, check out “Through Orthodox Eyes,” edited & translated by Andrei Znamenski, published in 2003 by U. of Alaska Press. It has an informative introduction, followed by translations of the journals of the area’s Russian Orthodox clergy. For Ninilchik, the classic is Wayne Leman’s “Agrafena’s Children,” self-published in 1993. Some great titles from the South Peninsula include Susan Woodward Springer’s 1997 “Seldovia, Alaska”, Ethel Kavanaugh’s 1950 “Wilderness Homesteaders”, and “In Those Days” (1991) by the local Pioneers of Alaska “igloo.” I’ll also put in a plug for “Bridging Alaska” by Ralph Soberg & Jackie Pels (1991). I’ll quit now because I don’t know which cool publications you’ve got up your sleeve for the final installment. I look forward to finding out!

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