Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part feature on central Kenai Peninsula businesses that put their names on the line. Each of these establishments were named for their owners, were in business roughly 50 years ago, and no longer exist under the same name or at all. The second part of this feature will appear next week.
By Clark Fair
There are many old-timers in Soldotna who don’t recognize the name Dalton W. Buchanan, but there are far fewer who don’t recognize Buchanan by his nickname, “Penrod,” especially in its shortened form and attached to the local business he ran for many years: Penn’s Hardware.
“Penrod,” according to his friend and longtime Soldotna resident Al Hershberger, was Buchanan’s childhood moniker, and in Alaska that was the name he was known by until it was truncated in the same way, for instance, that Jennifer might become “Jen.” When he started his own hardware business, he decided that familiarity would be helpful in giving his place an identity.
Hershberger sold Penn a bit of the land that he had purchased from Howard Binkley
(for whom Binkley Street is named), and for many years Penn’s Hardware stood next to Hershberger’s radio/television repair store. Later, Penn built a new store next to the old one, and sold the old building to Edwin Back, who opened Ed’s Appliance Service there.
Penn was not the first to lend his own name to a business on the central Kenai Peninsula, and certainly was not the last. The existence of some of these self-named establishments was so transitory that even avid area historians cannot recall many (or sometimes any) details about them; other such businesses, however, lasted for decades and firmly entrenched themselves in the legacies of their communities.
Here are a few of both types — the short-lived and the enduring — with a few details, when possible. All of these listed businesses are gone now, some because they were never meant to be, some because their owners passed or moved away, some because of unfortunate economics or a myriad other reasons:
- Andy’s Flying Service — Harold R. “Andy” Anderson came to Alaska from Washington in 1950 and homesteaded in 1952. After partnering with Sterling-area guides Bing Brown and Ray McNutt, Anderson began his own Kenai-based flying-and-guiding service.
- Elsie’s Laundry — Elsie E. Consiel was the wife of “Kenai Joe” Consiel, who first came to Alaska in 1915. Elsie and Joe married in 1947, and Elsie ran her laundry service near Joe’s bar and boarding house near the Kenai bluff.
- Ken’s Watch Repair — Ken Thomas ran this business in Kenai. A small notice advertising his services appeared in the pages of the Cheechako News in the early 1960s, and his business is listed in the yellow pages of the 1962 Kenai Peninsula telephone directory.
- George’s Coffee Shop — George W. Robinson, who came to Alaska from California in 1959, failed to make a go of several local businesses. One of these short-lived ventures was his coffee shop next to Kenai Pharmacy in Kenai. Robinson’s eatery gained brief notoriety in early 1962 when burglars broke in so they could use the coffee shop to gain access to the pharmacy.
- Vera’s Variety Store — Vera’s was a Soldotna store with real staying power. Vera Howarth began her store in 1958 by selling items out of the trunk of her car until she could afford a real place. In “Once upon the Kenai” she wrote: “I had accumulated my store by knocking on doors (which were sometimes miles apart) and going into Kenai. No one knows how cold those days were. I had to use a coal-oil lantern in the car to keep the frost out while I displayed my Alaska Native Products.” By the early 1980s, she finally began to consider selling her business, and it was purchased sometime later by the Johnson Brothers guiding service.
- Stan’s Cab Company — Stanley D. Wolfe, a veteran of the Aleutian Campaign and part of the invasion of one of the Japanese-held islands during World War II, established his Kenai-based taxi service sometime after Chuck Brady and Morris Porter began Red’s Cab in the 1950s.
- Plumley Mill — George Plumley, who spent nearly all his working life in sawmills and in the woods, came to Alaska from Wisconsin in 1941. When he learned that he would be able to purchase timber from Bill Roark, he set up a sawmill operation in North Kenai.
- Glady’s Donut Shoppe — Glady Weaver, wife of Jack Weaver, came to Alaska in 1951 and established her donut shop in Ridgeway in the late 1950s. Although the shop has been closed for many decades, Glady’s daughter, Sharon Isaak, still has many of the donut-making supplies and machines that once produced all those goodies.
- Archer’s Meat and Grocery — This Kenai store, which stood across the street from the Rig Bar and Café on Main Street, was run by Fay and Charles Archer, who came to the peninsula in 1948.
- Nestor Concrete Products— As many other early settlers in Soldotna had
done, Paul and Jane Nestor bought property for their place of business from Howard Binkley. Originally from New York, the Nestors moved to Alaska in 1940, and Paul began working for the Alaska Road Commission in 1945. In Soldotna, they started with a sawmill and a planing mill, but moved on to the production of concrete blocks. The Nestor block plant ran from 1948 to 1967, when the Nestors sold out to the Davis family, who gave the business a new family-based name: Davis Block.
- Marvene’s Dress Shop — An advertisement in the 1962 Kenai Peninsula telephone directory touts Marvene Sundby’s clothing store as “First in Fashion,” and ads running in newspapers in the late 1960s proclaimed that Marvene had “fashions to stop the U.S. Male.” Ensconced in the Village Inn Shopping Center in Soldotna (near the current location of Midas), Marvene’s Dress Shop opened in 1961 when the shopping center itself opened. In 1968, Sundby, who had come to Alaska from California in 1949 and worked as a cook in Seward until 1961, pulled up stakes in Soldotna and moved her wares to the old National Bank of Alaska building on the corner of Main Street and the Spur Highway in Kenai.
- Luke’s Welding Service — Now known as Morgan Steel, Luke’s Welding was
begun along the Spur Highway by Lucien “Luke” Caro, who brought his ironworking and welding skills to his new business. Caro, who came to Alaska in 1947 and started a mink farm in Kasilof in 1948, got married in 1957 to Virginia, who had come to Alaska as a young girl in 1935 when her father was working in Nome. Sometime later, Luke partnered with Robert S. Oehler to construct the asbestos-plagued Kenai Professional Building in Kenai.
- Gibbs Apparel — Virginia J. Gibbs opened her clothing store on a piece of central-Soldotna property she purchased from Jack and Dolly Farnsworth. The log-construction store sat atop a concrete-block basement foundation near the intersection of the Sterling Highway and the Kenai Spur.
- Mullin Electric — M.L. “Moon” Mullin (father of Soldotna studio photographer
Roy Mullin) came to Alaska from Texas in 1960 and created a long-lasting electric company in Kenai.
- Hartley’s Department Store — Longtime Alaskans probably remember television and radio advertisements, starting in the late 1960s, for Hartley Motors in Anchorage. The founder of that business, Jim Hartley, was born in Anchorage and moved to Kenai in 1941 to work at the Civil Aeronautical Administration station there, and later created his Kenai department store.
- Wilson’s Store — Don and Verona Wilson opened the first real grocery store in Soldotna in the early 1950s. When they moved next door into a newer concrete-block grocery, they leased their old building to Vera (Franklin) Howarth, who turned it into Vera’s Variety.
- Reger’s Garage — Harry and Maxine Reger moved from Chico, Calif., to Alaska
in 1952. After settling in Soldotna, Harry purchased a filling station and auto-repair garage from Burton Carver, and then added his surname to the sign out front. According to “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula: The Road We’ve Traveled,” the garage was originally constructed in the summer of 1951 and was one of the first two businesses created in Soldotna. John Ingram purchased the business in 1967, and the place burned to the ground in 1978.