By Clark Fair
The holiday season on the Kenai was a far different affair in the 1940s than it is today. This is — mainly in their own words through letters they wrote to relatives in Ohio — a first-Alaska-Christmas recollection by Rusty and Larry Lancashire, who, along with their three young daughters, were among the early homesteaders on the central peninsula. In the late spring of 1948, they settled on a piece of land atop Pickle Hill in what came to be known as Ridgeway, between Kenai and Soldotna.
Kenai at the time was a village of a few hundred residents, and Soldotna was more or less a sparsely populated junction on the recently completed Sterling Highway. Christmas in 1948 occurred on a Saturday.
Jan. 2, 1949
RUSTY: “The hungry cry of the coyote, the huge bull moose darting across our moonlit path, and the snow! Since November our earth has been white. Any soiled spots are soon covered over with a fresh layer. Snowshoes are a must! The few moonlit nights are beyond belief! The snow lays heavy upon the tall spruce — crystallized into an unbelievable fairy land. We only wish you could all share in the more beautiful parts of this life … .
“We’ll back up a few days and try to let you know what’s been going on. Our well is now working. Not too good, but we get five gallons every hour, and it’s as clean as Soldotna Creek anyway!
“We gave Christmas a huge build-up — only to have to change our tune the last week. The first barge to leave Seattle sank — hit some reef or something. They tried for days to save the cargo but couldn’t. Then our hopes soared when the ‘Baranof’ docked almost a week before in Seward. The ‘Aleutian’ came in the same week. They were so loaded from the back shipping that all was lost in confusion. They got Anchorage and Seward mail but not ours.
“We started telling the children, ‘Santa might have to start around the other side of the world — that’s how it is when you live on top of the world, you know.’ I decided we would blow what we could on groceries and make the day family.
“I caught Mel Cole going to Seward Wednesday and gave him a big order. They always get groceries off the ships … . Man, Larry dives in to see if his things arrived — Martha and Lorrie dance and Rusty checks groceries. We all love packages — mail or otherwise. Anyway — here we sit — really on top of the world — a turkey, eggs in the shell, cabbage, and a squash! Our mouths watered.
“Thursday night, Santa (appeared) in person at Kenai Joe’s roadhouse and cocktail bar. The bar (was) closed! All the drunks, having no other place to retire, came into the large room to watch the school children perform. Abbie (the youngest) stayed home with (a friend named) Marian. We were the last to arrive, so I held Lorrie on my shoulders while Larry held Martha. Two dogs started a big fight outside, so the men rushed out to stop it — that calmed down and the program continued.
“When Santa came on the stage, Lorrie and Martha got so excited they cried. Martha got a little
kitchen set, Lorrie a stuffed horse, and Abbie a lovely silver cup.
“Friday I rushed into town hoping for mail. But alas at 11 a.m. the snow even made driving difficult so no planes could get in. Mrs. James (from Seward) had sent a box of toys and … had tucked in a brand new doll and a lovely Mother Goose book — oranges and apples. The fruit was heavenly. Never do you realize how good an orange is till you’ve been without for six months.
“Friday night the Lees came up — we had a real old-fashion Christmas. We popped our first corn, sang carols, decorated the tree, and made candy. Around ten o’clock Martha and Lorrie were really getting tired — so off to bed. Larry drove the Lees home.
“When Larry came back we spread our presents around the tree. Mother Lancashire’s wonderful package (had) arrived in part. Lorrie had a new doll and Abbie her fine play toys — so it did look like Santa hadn’t forgotten them. They were so thrilled on Christmas morning. They called for us to look here and there — they didn’t notice most of them had been played with before.
“Christmas night, Marian and our little family joined the rest of the road at Irons’ for a party. Some of the boys walked five miles on snowshoes to get there. There was sandwiches and home brew. We sang carols. (Soldotna homesteader) Smith dressed up like Santa and came in and asked the children questions and wished them a merry Christmas.
“The Lancashires had one glass of home brew and carried our family home at 10 o’clock. The party didn’t break up till 3 a.m., and the boys on snowshoes had rough going — looped on snowshoes.
“Days are packed full. I scraped our inside logs. Mel Cole said, ‘Why do you do it — people live here 30 years and never bother.’ They just don’t know us. One man in town said, ‘Most of those homesteaders won’t last — only one would I bet on and that’s the Lancashires — look how they work and look at what Larry has done.’
“Thursday (Dec. 30) mail brought Christmas — Mother L’s beautiful doll for Martha — Larry stayed up till one o’clock putting (a doll) house up — and how they love that. I never realized what fun they would have with doll furniture. Abbie’s (toy) dog caused laughter from all of us.
“We call him little Tuto. Abbie pulls him along and makes him squeak — she loves him! … What a joy the phonograph is! I played the records and before I knew it even Abbie was humming. We all love it. It’s so good to have music. Our radio has run one week since I arrived, and we don’t even try anymore. So you know how we love having the phonograph around. … We loved the fruit cake, jam, puddings, raisins, and all. The apples froze several times and made us sorry.
“The blue jeans you thought Martha might wear — I wear. I lost a lot of weight this summer — but may put a little back on if winter keeps on much longer.
“I sent to Seward on the Christmas list a big call for cheese. You can do so much up here with cheese. Well, a few days ago after moaning — no cheese — your package arrived. We were so glad to get it. Cheese can make so many dishes up here, and it seems we never get enough of it.”
Jan. 14, 1949
LARRY: “Dear Family, been a long time since last we wrote — it seems there just isn’t enough time around here.
“We received all of the packages, but due to the strike hold-up, the first bunch arrived about Dec. 30 and then a few at a time ever since. They were all wonderful and greatly appreciated by the girls — and Mother and Father, our shirts were (in) it — can’t beat a Pendleton.
“We had told the girls that Santa would leave only a few things on Christmas, being as he lives so close he might run out of toys if he left a lot here at first so he’d mail the rest later. It satisfied them — and really I believe they enjoyed it more by having packages to open on so many different days.
“The weather has been mild for the past week — in the 20s, and the old timers claim winter cold is over, that it will generally remain mild like this until break-up. The coldest our thermometer has registered was -23° but we live on a hill and our neighbors down on the flat had -32° … .
“I’m sort of looking for a silent partner, maybe. Can’t quite make up my mind whether I should try to own a bulldozer now myself and really clear a lot of land or sort of string along and over a period of years hire a little dozer work when I can afford it.
“There is very good money in farming in this area — there being few farms and a large demand — almost all being shipped in from the states at very high prices. The one farmer that works at it (10 miles south of here) grows a half-acre of potatoes which grossed $1,200 this season — and his crop was about 15 percent below normal — net about $1,000, for he uses his own seed potatoes and fertilizes with salmon he picks up along the beach (they die and are washed ashore by the thousands).
“Were planning on getting 500 chickens this spring and have already been assured that all the eggs will be taken at least $1 per dozen (no one raises chickens commercially yet, we’ll have the field to ourselves for awhile). Have contacted the Albers Mill and are buying feed at dealer’s price as a dealer — will sell some — but at any rate it’ll cost less than what I paid in Maumee after freight has been paid…. Thanks again for the wonderful Xmas.”