Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part story about Don Culver, the first settler on Longmere Lake. Part one examined the route taken by Culver to establish a presence on the lake. This week, part two focuses on an important friendship begun at the lake and on Culver’s attempt to create a new home. Part three will look at his first years on Longmere with his growing family.
By Clark Fair
With the massive 1947 Kenai Burn reduced by August to smoky patches of isolated ground across the lowlands of the central Kenai Peninsula, homesteader Don Culver returned to his cabin-construction project on the western shoreline of Longmere Lake.
The sole property owner on the lake, Culver quickly settled back into a work routine that had been interrupted by the threat of fire. He began laying new horizontal courses of aspen logs, while preparing to set the shorter vertical logs that would form the stockade-style upper half of each wall. By hand, he felled each tree, cut it into lengths and then stripped it of its bark; he fitted logs together, notching where necessary, planning carefully.
The back wall, which faced east toward the lake, would feature two framed windows that he had ordered from Anchorage. He planned to install a third window next to the door in the front of the cabin, and a fourth in the south wall, facing down the lake.
As Culver worked, he was blithely unaware that he was about to have company for the very first time.
Two hardy individuals, both natives of Chicago, were trudging westward out of the mountains and across the flats — as unaware of Culver’s existence as he was of theirs. They were on their way toward Soldotna Creek, where they planned to stake a homestead of their own.
Frank and Marge Mullen had flown in 1945 from Chicago to Anchorage in Frank’s three-place, single-engine Stinson 105. In Anchorage, they
had worked and lived until homestead land became available on the peninsula, at which point they had flown over the available areas and picked out the spot they liked.
In August 1947, the two city slickers rode the train out of Anchorage to Moose Pass, hitched a ride along a jeep trail to a point just west of Tern Lake, and then donned their heavy, uncomfortable backpacks and began to walk the Cat trail that one day would become the Sterling Highway.
After leaving behind Henton’s Lodge in Cooper Landing, they saw no one until they reached the Alaska Road Commission camp at Hidden Lake. In camp, ARC boss Ralph Soberg was a congenial host and asked them what their intentions were.
“We told him we were going down there to be farmers,” Marge Mullen recalled. “‘Oh, no,’ he says. ‘Go down there and build a roadhouse — have a bar. That’s the way you make money.’ I didn’t show any reaction to him, I hope. I had two little babies at that time. I wasn’t going to be a barmaid.”
Marge shrugged back into her Trapper Nelson, and the couple moved on. After spending the night in their mosquito tent at Skilak Lake, where “it rained like Billy Be Damned,” they wrung out their sopping sleeping bags and continued on down the road. They traveled through a smoldering landscape and had no human encounter until just before the wooden bridge across Moose River, where they visited the new homesteads of Aletha and John McFarland and Lucy and Edgar Law.
The Mullens crossed the bridge and camped along the west bank of the river. Then the next day, five miles farther west, they approached Longmere Lake.
“Somehow Frank saw this really small notice on a tree — not any more than a piece of paper, a paper that gave a physical description of the
land, and it was signed ‘Don Culver’ and said, ‘Come in and see me,’” Mullen said. “So then we found his little foot trail and went down there. It was a really sunny, beautiful night, and we just stayed the one night with him and talked a lot about what he was doing and what we planned to do.”
Culver treated his new acquaintances to a meal — “probably beans,” he said, although Mullen suspected it may have been Army rations — and he offered them what little accommodations he had.
The Mullens spent the night in Culver’s tent, and in the morning trundled back out to the Cat trail to walk the remaining five miles to Soldotna Creek and the junction of the main highway corridor with its spur road to Kenai. Despite the brevity of their first time together, Culver and the Mullens became close friends and remained as such.
When Culver later came into Soldotna for supplies or just human companionship — sometimes as often as once a week — he stayed with the Mullens. And when he married Dolores “Dee” Mulqueen in Anchorage in 1950, the Mullens were in attendance.
While Marge has continued to live in the same spot for more than 60 years, Culver’s later career with Alaska Airlines — seven years as a mechanic, then 30 more as a pilot — would move him frequently away from the lake and then finally away from the state entirely. Still, Culver and Mullen have never lost touch; in fact, Culver, now 84, flew up last summer for Mullen’s 90th birthday party.
After the Mullens departed on that August day in 1947, Culver returned to work. As autumn approached, he completed the walls of his cabin — laboring solo except on the rare occasions that his father and stepmother flew in for a visit. Atop the vertical aspen logs, he switched to peeled spruce, which he used to create the ridgepole, rafters and purlins that framed the roof. He also fashioned the ends of each gable from spruce that he laid in horizontally.
With winter approaching, Culver needed to bring in the flooring and roofing materials (mainly 8-inch shiplap and sheets of aluminum) that he
had ordered from Kenai. Unfortunately, due the primitive road conditions, the Kenai building supply company could bring the materials no farther than the highway junction in Soldotna, so Culver borrowed a tractor, skidded the items out to his foot trail, and then hand-carried them the rest of the way to his cabin site.
At some point that fall, his construction project was interrupted by the sound of a small airplane circling briefly and then landing with floats on the lake. Inside the plane were four men: a pilot named Bill Cuffel and three friends planning to homestead on the lake — Lyle Edgington, Bob Murray and Carl Weber.
According to Edgington, each of the friends staked out a section of land, visited briefly with Culver and helped him install his roof, and then flew back to Anchorage to file their claims. They said they planned to return the following spring to build cabins on the lake.
Culver was about to have neighbors.
By the time the snow began to fly, he had completely enclosed his cabin but had not done any of the chinking necessary to keep the place warm; consequently, he moved his canvas tent indoors and set up camp there, out of the weather, while he did some finish work.
On Nov. 1, Edgington, Murray and Weber showed up at the lake again. They announced that they had changed their plans, deciding to build
right away so that they would be free to work throughout the summer. They pitched a canvas tent in the snow over on Edgington’s homestead, built rough beds out of spruce logs and boughs, installed a small wood-burning cook stove inside, and then began cutting and processing logs for a cabin of their own.
Just before Thanksgiving, Culver — needing a paying job in order to keep himself in groceries and finance the continuation of his homesteading project — returned to Anchorage on a plane sent by his father.
He left the trio of friends to their own devices.