Almanac: Learning through doing

By Clark Fair

Photos courtesy of the Soldotna Historical Society. This is the Slikok Valley School as it appears today. It stands near Damon Hall on the grounds of the Soldotna Historical Society’s homesteading museum near Centennial Park.

Redoubt Reporter

Tommye Jo Corr was accustomed to seeing moose tracks in the snow when she walked to and from work, but one day when she came across the tracks of a pack of dogs, she decided she needed protection.

Corr used to walk regularly between her home, on what was then called Kalifonsky Beach Road, and the Slikok Valley School, where she was the lone teacher during the school’s two-year tenure, from 1958 to 1960. After she saw the dog tracks, she said, “I started packing a pistol. The Department of Education didn’t mind, just as long as the gun was unloaded during school hours.”

Corr’s quote is part of Slikok Valley School history recorded in a scrapbook and kept available for viewing in the main building at the Soldotna Historical Museum, which opens for summer business May 15 every year.

What is now called Kalifornsky Beach Road was opened as little more than a Cat trail in 1956, but by 1958 several families were living along the roadway and were finding it difficult to get their children to the nearest available school — all the way over in Kenai.

Plans were being discussed to build a school in Soldotna, but Soldotna Elementary would not be completed and ready for students until the fall of 1960. Going to Kenai via Soldotna was the only option in the winter, since the Warren Ames bridge would not be completed until the mid-1970s, and the ice over the river was too treacherous to cross safely.

Consequently, depending on where their homes were located, parents were forced to have their children walk — typically three to eight miles — to the Sterling Highway near the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna, where they could be picked up by a school bus and driven the remaining 14 miles to Kenai. They would, of course, have to reverse that journey once school was over.

In addition to the distance, the conditions for the children’s walks were often difficult, at best, and hazardous, at worst. During the winter months, temperatures were usually below freezing and sometimes below zero. In the warmer periods of spring and autumn, thick mud, washed-out trails or melting snow prevailed, and the route also included a calving ground for moose, which drew in bears, wolves and stray dogs.

So the residents of the Slikok Creek valley wanted to take matters into their own hands. They decided to

Men work on the early stages of the Slikok Valley School in mid-August 1958. Note the concrete block foundation and the cumbersome, heavy chainsaw. The truck in the background belonged to Slikok resident Don Zuroff.

build their own school and staff it with one of their own. Corr’s husband, Tommy, put it this way in “Once upon the Kenai:” “Few teachers help build their school house; but Tommye Jo did. She peeled logs, laid insulation between the logs and cleaned second-hand windows. Almost every Slikok Valley homesteader helped in some way to build the schoolhouse. Five men laid the log walls: Charles Brumlow, Lonnie Brumlow, Red Miller, Don Zuroff and myself.”

According to a scrapbook narrative written by Tommy and Tommye Jo’s son, Tommy Reed Corr, the Slikok Valley homesteaders responded to the need, but it wasn’t easy.

“Few Slikok homesteaders had their own houses ready for winter. No one could afford the time to help build a schoolhouse. Money was scarce, but the settlers began volunteering labor and money, providing (that) the Department of Education would approve the project.

“A community letter to the department brought an immediate investigation. A certified teacher lived in the community, and the (minimum) 10 students required for a new school were met. The Territorial Department of Education ruled that if the community could have a building ready for the fall opening, Slikok Valley would have its school.”

Slikok residents received this news Aug. 11, three weeks before the scheduled beginning of the school year. A community meeting was held that night, and a plan was established. The schoolhouse would be constructed of unpeeled logs from local spruce trees. Volunteers would work eight hours a day, five days a week until the school was complete.

Area bachelor Lonnie Brumlow donated 1 acre of his homestead to the cause. This location put every area student within two and a half miles of the proposed school.

Led by Brumlow’s brother, Charles, five adults and two grade-school boys cleared the schoolyard and

Children frolic under adult supervision during a recess at the Slikok Valley School, which operated from 1958 to 1960.

felled and limbed 60 spruce trees in only a day and a half — putting them ahead of schedule early in the process. They used the extra time to mark off the building site and lay in the concrete block foundation posts.

As the project continued, many Kenai and Soldotna businesses dispensed credit, discounts and good advice. In addition to Brumlow’s donation of land, the school builders received a $100 donation for windows and doors from area resident Ed Ciechanski. Other individuals furnished vehicles, fuel, chainsaws and manual labor. Kids were put to work digging pits for the school outhouses, fetching tools for older workers, and supplying stove wood for the women who were cooking for the building crew.

The school was completed on time, opening Sept. 5, 1958, with 11 students — more than half of whom came from Red Miller’s passel of children.

According to an Anchorage newspaper at the time, the school’s name (and thus the community’s) had come from “the days of the Russian trappers who traveled down the shallow valley along Slikok Creek on their trapping trips to the Kenai River.” This explanation was, however, only part of the story. The name Slikok is the Russian equivalent of a Dena’ina word, Shlakaq’, meaning “little mouth,” a reference to its small confluence with the Kenai.

It should also be noted that the 16-by-24-foot Slikok Valley School was the last log schoolhouse built in the territorial days of Alaska.

Tommye Jo Corr remembered that, during the especially snowy parts of winter, the usual winter gear she wore through the darkness as she walked to school was a warm jacket, her pistol and a pair of hip boots.

She also recalled the time that two of her students, a boy and a girl, failed to return from recess. Suddenly the boy hurried in from outside, took his seat, and began to study, but the girl did not return. Corr took the bell that had been sent to her by the Department of Education and went outdoors to ring it a second time. Just as she did so, the door to the girls’ outhouse burst open and the girl raced out.

“It was obvious she had been standing there waiting,” Corr said. “When I questioned her, she insisted that the boy told her I wanted her to stay in the privy until called. I could hardly believe my ears. Why would he say such a thing? As it turned out, the boy tricked the girl simply because he needed to use the boys’ privy and didn’t want to be the last one back to class. What children won’t do to each other!”

In the second year of the school’s existence, enrollment jumped to 14 students — six members of the Miller family, plus one Brumlow, two Corrs, two Henrys, one Jackson, one Jones, and one Vetters — ranging from first to seventh grade.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the life of the school ended. The main road had been improved and graveled, and a school bus could finally reach the once-isolated community. In September 1960, Soldotna Elementary opened its doors for the first time, and the Slikok students transferred there — to modern classrooms with electricity, running water and indoor restrooms.

The log schoolhouse, which had also served as a centerpiece for Slikok community events, became the Slikok Community Club until the building was sold to the state of Alaska in 1964 to be used as a local museum. In 1967, a building commemorating the centennial of Alaska’s purchase adjoined the old school structure and was named Damon Hall in memory of Frances Damon, a board member of the community club, and her son, Larry, who had been killed in Whittier by a tidal wave following the Good Friday Earthquake.

In March 1987, the city of Soldotna provided a $1-per-year lease agreement with the Soldotna Historical Society to operate a historical museum on a 6-acre plot of ground adjacent to the city’s Centennial Park property. The old school and the Damon Building were moved onto the property, as were the Dick Gerhart and Ed Ciechanski homestead cabins, the log Tourism Center, and an old log food cache built by Johnny Parks.

In trade, the city received the land formerly occupied by the school and Damon Hall.

Tommye Jo Corr said she believed that the Slikok Valley School, in its brief history, truly helped to hold together the valley’s little community.

“I know we had the best PTA in existence,” she said. “The children learned how to enjoy being good, working together and getting along.”

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