To hear so many Soldotna residents talk about friends and loved ones that have been “in Kasilof” for years to even decades might give the impression that Soldotna isn’t a prized place to call home, what with so many choosing to relocate to the neighboring community 30 miles down the road.
It wasn’t by choice.
Soldotna may be welcoming to those wanting to live there, particularly with its unique roots as an outgrowth of the U.S. Homestead Act, but throughout its history the community has only accommodated the living. Lacking a cemetery, once Soldotna residents died they no longer had a place in the city.
With the dedication and opening of the 17-acre Soldotna Community Memorial Park on East Redoubt Avenue on Sunday, that is no longer the case.
“We can say that it is generally dedicated to the history of the people of Soldotna — a respectful and very beautiful final resting place. What I think is most important is that we think of the individuals that will be interred here. Some passed long ago, and many of us that will rest here may not pass for many years to come,” said Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche in the afternoon dedication ceremony.
The park will serve as an internment site for current and future Soldotna residents, for former residents who have died and been laid to rest elsewhere whose families want to bring them home, and a place to honor others not physically resting there through memorials.
For Katherine Parker, the memorial park represents the completion of the decision she and her husband made to move to Soldotna in 1961. She and Charlie chose to homestead, to raise their family and make their life in Soldotna when it was still a tiny frontier town straddling a bend in the Kenai River. Both contributed substantially to the formation of the community — Charlie as a surveyor and Katherine as a reporter for the Cheechako News and member of the Soldotna Historical Society, among many other involvements.
Yet, as with others integral to the history of Soldotna, when Charlie died in 2001, he couldn’t be laid to rest in his chosen home.
“It’s not right that people are being buried out there (in Kasilof),” said Pattey
Parker, Charlie and Katherine’s daughter. “We buried Dad out there and I thought, ‘He wouldn’t like this.’ They’re Soldotna pioneers. They shouldn’t be out in Kasilof. I travel all around the United States with the jobs I’ve had and every single community has a cemetery, and that’s where the history is. To not have that here and to think that that’s OK, it’s just not. I’ve just never heard of a community that never had their own cemetery, and now you finally do.”
Katherine Parker was one of an army of Soldotna residents who have been pushing the city in earnest since the early 1990s to establish a cemetery. Kenai has one 15 miles away, though with town rivalries over the years no one — as the old joke goes — from Soldotna would be caught dead being buried in Kenai. Instead, they used Kasilof’s Spruce Grove Memorial Park.
“Kasilof is twice as far (than Kenai), but Soldotna people would rather be buried in Anchorage than Kenai. Dad would roll over in his grave if we buried him in Kenai,” Pattey said.
On Sunday, Katherine participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the park’s burnished aluminum gate depicting a tree-lined stretch of Kenai River with Mount Redoubt in the middle, designed by Erin Micciche and Nancy Casey, and created by Scott Hamann of Metal Magic. Parker, Mayor Micciche, Jay Rohloff, Barbara Jewell and Eugene Fowler — other members of cemetery task forces and committees over the years — helped cut the ribbon.
“I think it is lovely and it will be a nice place,” Parker said. “People who have loved ones who died can go to their grave now in that lovely place and don’t have to go out of town. And, of course, Charlie is buried in Kasilof, and I hope to re-bury him because he seems to be remembered by so many people in Soldotna. I’m sure people really will appreciate the cemetery, if they lived here before when there was none. I think it will be a lovely place for anyone to go who has lost a loved one. It really adds something to the community that’s been lacking for so many years.”
The park will be a place to reunite the Parker family. Nancy — Katherine and Charlie’s daughter — died in a drowning accident as a child in 1965. They buried her on their homestead, under a spruce tree on a wooded hillside down from their house. Now 87 and recovering from a broken hip, Parker isn’t able to make the walk down the hill through the woods to visit her daughter. She plans to have Nancy moved to the memorial park with Charlie.
“You know, I can’t get to her grave anymore. I used to always go down there,” Katherine said.
“That will be nice to move Nancy,” Pattey said. “Dad would be awful happy to know that.”
The Parkers aren’t the only ones to know the tragedy of losing a child. The memorial park includes flat sections of grassy lawn for graves, both with flat monuments and another section for upright monuments, a columbarium for cremated remains, and a tree-lined, circular section for children to be buried, with no cost of city services to families who have lost a child from birth to age 7. Though the care shown to the design and landscaping of the area can in no way erase the pain felt at having to use it, having somewhere beautiful and close to inter children will help families hold their beautiful memories close, as well.
Terri and Jerry Pate, who live down the street from the memorial park, rested for
a moment Sunday in the children’s area, where they will move Terri’s son, Ezekial Thomas Miller, who died at age 2 in 1999 and has been buried in Kasilof. Soldotna was his home, just as it has been for Terri since 1987, and for Jerry since 1981. Having to bury Zeke in Kasilof is what led the Millers to get involved in efforts to build a cemetery in Soldotna.
“It’s for our families. Until you’re facing an actual death you don’t realize, ‘Wow, we don’t have anywhere to go for people,” Terri said.
Now they will be able to visit Zeke close to home.
“And we’re going to be over there,” said Jerry, indicating the lawn designated for gravesites.
The Millers said the park turned out beautifully and thanked the mayor, council, cemetery committee and task force members, city employees, volunteers and everyone else involved in making it happen.
“Once the decision was made (to build the cemetery), we figured we’d just let them hash it out,” Jerry said.
“And they came up with something gorgeous,” Terri said.
Brandi and James Clark, who also live in the East Redoubt area, said that even without a loved one there to visit, the park will still be a
beautiful place to go for walks. Jim, with the Boys and Girls Club, drove a van shuttling ceremony attendees into the park and back to their vehicles. He and Brandi brought along their two kids, Aanson, almost 3, and Brie, almost 2, for a tour of the park.
“It’s very peaceful. We go for a lot of walks around here,” Brandi said.
On Sunday it was difficult to tell which element of the park the kids were more enthralled with — the nearly head-sized cookies they got from the refreshment table, or the path into the woods leading to an overlook of the Kenai River. An observation deck and benches are planned for the area, where visitors can scatter ashes of loved ones, or simply enjoy the view, as Aanson certainly did.
“Duckies!” he shouted, so excited at a glimpse of movement in a catchments pond below that he momentarily lost interest in his snack.
As a veteran himself, Jim said that he was particularly pleased with the veterans’ memorial in the park, designed in collaboration with local veterans groups. The area includes insignias of all five branches of the military in front of three flagpoles. On Sunday, that’s where a flag ceremony and gun salute were performed, with TAPS played behind a screen of trees.
Honoring veterans is one of many reasons why the park is vital to the character of Soldotna, Micciche said. Soldotna had a bridge to name after one of its soldiers, David Douthit, who died in the first Gulf war, but didn’t have a place for his body.
“Soldotna named the new Kenai River bridge in David’s honor, but had nowhere for his body to rest — an issue that the families of Soldotna veterans will never face again,” Micciche said.
The park also includes a memorial rock wall, braided to represent the braids of the Kenai River, with metal railings where plaques honoring the lives of those interred elsewhere may be affixed.
With design touches like that, all set against a backdrop of trees, the park is to be a serene place to remember loved ones. But it wasn’t long ago that the cemetery sparked much less peaceful feelings. Debate over where a cemetery would be located divided many in Soldotna, with the prevailing group wanting it on the 7-acre East Redoubt parcel of city land, to which the Kenai Peninsula Borough added 10 more acres, and others suggesting different locations — by the airport, near ARC Lake, along Knight Drive. After years of wrangling and debate, the park finally is complete.
“The primary lesson I learned was that the best product possible for the Soldotna Community Memorial Park was the fruit of commonground discovered amongst those that were previously divided,” Micciche said. “… There are sides no longer. Soldotna is united through the product of this wonderful monument designed around the very theme of our community and a testament to the quality of our community.”
On Sunday, enjoying the providence of a sunny fall day, Micciche was as pleased to have the controversy laid to rest, and even more so for having a place for Soldotna residents to rest.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of the outcome and I couldn’t be any prouder of our community for coming together and making this park the final result,” he said.
“I think it really is beautiful,” Katherine Parker said. “I didn’t think it would be greeted by everybody the way it was. There was opposition, but the opposition really has evaporated all right.”
With her daughter and husband to be moved to their new resting place, she plans to join them there one day.
“It really is beautiful. Whoever designed it did a nice job. I didn’t expect it to be this lovely. And now I can be buried beside them,” she said,
“That’s going to be a long time from now, Mom,” Pattey said.