By Jenny Neyman
“It’s nice to see some old friends I served in the Legislature with — Bert Sharp and Mike Szymanski. We used to call each other names at times, but never ‘pioneer.’ That was not one of the ones we used,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre in his welcoming address to the statewide annual Grand Igloo convention of the Pioneers of Alaska fraternal organization, meeting Thursday through Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Yes, there was business to attend to — officer elections, voting on resolutions, advocating for the preservation of buildings and relics significant to Alaska’s history, to name just a few items on the agenda. To that end, the jokes, swapping of life stories, trips to a local brewery and cultural center, and just general breeze-shooting going on, sometimes hushed in deference to the business happening at the microphone, sometimes spoken louder to be heard despite the speakers — might seem a bit off topic.
But in the case of the Pioneers of Alaska, socializing is every bit as much of the purpose of the meeting as anything more official-sounding on the agenda.
“I went to every convention and met people from all over the state and I loved doing that,” said Marilyn Wheeless, of Kenai, who served as secretary of the Grand Igloo Foundation — the organization’s nonprofit fundraising arm — for 10 years and has been attending the annual statewide Grand Igloo convention since 1992. “Because there’s such a tiny population for such a huge state, so it’s like everybody is family and you just look forward every year to going somewhere and seeing them all and visiting, and catching up and finding out what’s been going on.”
Pioneers of Alaska was founded in 1916, with the purposes of preserving history, advocating for the
protection of historic sites and relics, and to promote social interaction between members. In the younger days of Pioneers members, and the state, when it was a wee (in population) territory, life in Alaska was much more spread out and isolated. Without the modern conveniences of today, working together was a must, and people made special efforts to stay in contact.
In that tradition, the Pioneers of Alaska organization was founded with its first chapter, called an Igloo, in Nome in February 1907, followed by Igloos in Candle and St. Michael shortly thereafter. In 1908 the local Igloos convened in Nome to establish an overarching organization, called the Grand Igloo of the Pioneers of Alaska. Today, there are Igloos sprinkled throughout the state, from large communities, like Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai and Juneau, to small ones, including Cordova, Haines, Homer, Nenana, Seward and Wrangell. Any 30-year resident of Alaska is eligible to join.
As with many fraternal organizations, the local Igloos have a men’s branch and a women’s auxiliary. They meet together once a month for a potluck and short business meeting. The Grand Igloo convenes once a year, hosted by a different Igloo community, and draws members from all its Igloos across the state. The gathering has the feel of a very large family reunion, albeit one without kids running around underfoot.
“I just know, for many people, this is the one time of year they get to see people they’ve known for many years. Particularly this age group. There were so many fewer of us here 50 years ago, so those who are still around often know each other,” said Dave Carey of the Kenai Igloo, chair of the 2012 convention organizing committee.
There is business to attend to at the annual convention, such as election of new officers and voting on resolutions. The big news this year is that the Grand Igloo attendees passed a resolution Saturday that any Pioneer could hold any office in the organization — meaning women can now be president and vice president, which previously had not been allowed. At the local chapters, the men’s and women’s Igloos still will maintain separate officers.
The genders did still split up for some separate activites, at the 2012 gathering, though, with a huge show of hands from men interested in a lunch trip to Kassik’s Kenai Brewery on Thursday. Carey, as emcee, noted the response with a laugh.
“Thank you, good job, good Alaskans. The women are going to the visitors and cultural center tomorrow, we go to the brewery today. It seems very reasonable,” he joked.
“It would be very nice if they brought back samples,” called a woman from the crowd.
Other than a few serious events — singing the national anthem and “Alaska Flag” song, and a ceremony reading the more than 100 names of Pioneers members who had died since the previous convention — good-natured ribbing was the tenor of the convention. Cracks about age were too good to pass up in a crowd in which, at 60, Carey said he’s one of the younger members.
Outgoing Grand Igloo president John “Ozzie” Osborne, of Kenai, assured the audience in his welcoming address that he was still with them, despite a year of medical troubles.
“Speaking of all these heart attacks and strokes, is anybody in here a doctor?” he said. “No EMTs or anything like that?”
Father Richard Tero, of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Seward, had a quick response.
“I’m here for last rites,” he called out.
Carey is concerned about the future of the organization. Pioneers are a hardy bunch, but not immune to the passage of time. Preserving their history — and, with it, Alaska’s — will take new members to remember and continue that heritage.
“We need to bring in more people. Like many other groups, and I’m in a lot of them, there’s just a small core that’s left kind of doing stuff. So this is a group by far that needs to renew. The next generation, they very well may have their own sense and perspective,” Carey said. “… We’re going to have kind of a transformation.”
That transformation already has begun, from the first Pioneers moving to the state, to the next generation being the ones to grow up in the Alaska their parents were creating.
“I had the absolute best job in the whole wild world in my adult life, and that was running a center that was just full of homesteaders and people who came here before everyone else. I got to dip into their memories and see what it was all about making Alaska what it is,” said Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, in her welcoming address Thursday. Her roots in the state stretch back to her grandmother moving to Cleary Creek in 1903.
Navarre recalled growing up in the then-small town of Kenai, with a dirt road running through it,
when everyone knew everyone else. He spoke of the early lessons learned selling Kool-Aid and cookies obtained from his father’s grocery store, and of the more important lessons learned later in his life.
“My thoughts about economics were ‘Zero costs of goods sold, people give you money, it’s easy to make money in Alaska.’ In fact that’s not the case. As we all know it takes a lot of work, and thanks to the Pioneers of Alaska for remembering our history, remembering the Pioneers and, also, thank you individually and collectively for all of your contributions to Alaska to building our communities,” Navarre said.
“It takes a lot of effort when we need to do something in our communities and our villages and our state. People get together and figure things out and they work together. It takes that collective spirit and effort in order to accomplish great things. We have accomplished great things in Alaska. A lot of that is due to your efforts and to those Pioneers who came before you, so I want to say thank you,” he said.
The Kenai Igloo of Pioneers of Alaska meets the second Monday of the month at the Kenai Elks.