Almanac: Famed names — Early peninsula residents left their marks

Editor’s note: When histories are written, some individuals are inevitably remembered more readily than others; however, it is important to never lose sight of the many accomplishments of those who may be less widely known. Here are three more brief bios of people who once lived on the central Kenai Peninsula and figured prominently in its growth.

By Clark Fair

Redoubt Reporter

Billy McCann could throw a punch as well as he could mix a drink, run a wire or lend a hand. During several decades in Alaska, he exhibited all three skills during a lifetime of athletics, bartending, electrical work and public service, mostly centered in Kenai.

In 1938, in his early 20s, McCann came to Alaska to take a break from his professional boxing career in Washington. Instead, he boxed in Juneau while also working construction. The following year, he began tending bar, and in 1940 he traveled to Sitka and won the Alaska welterweight title.

He won the Southeastern middleweight crown in 1941, but he also made an important career move when boxing referee Mac McGuern, a leader in the local electricians’ union, got McCann into the union as an apprentice.
McCann was in and out of Alaska for a while, but when he came to Ketchikan in 1944, he was a journeyman electrician and became the coach of the Coast Guard boxing team.

When he returned to Alaska again in 1949, he came to stay.
He came to Kenai in 1953 to work on the Wildwood Station project for Langlois Electric. Until he retired as an electrician in 1981, he also worked for the Kenai Native Association, ARCO on the North Slope and City Electric on the Collier’s expansion.

Over the nearly five decades he spent on the peninsula, he bought stock in Food and Spirits, Inc., and managed its property — the Rainbow Bar; became the controlling owner of the Rig Bar and worked for Rob Mika at the Lamplight Bar. He served on the Kenai City Council and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, was a longtime member of the Lion’s Club and became the first president of the Nikishka Chamber of Commerce.

After his death in 2001, the assembly honored McCann posthumously for his many civic accomplishments.

Photos courtesy of the Robinson family. Nina and Jesse Robinson pose in the 1990s.

Photos courtesy of the Robinson family. Nina and Jesse Robinson pose in the 1990s.

  • Nina Robinson: For several decades, it was almost impossible to vote in the Sterling precinct without running into election volunteer Nina Robinson. She was a fixture at the sign-in table, and she could be seen opening the registration booklet to each individual’s name before he or she fished out a voter’s card.

Robinson seemed to know everyone in the community. And why not, since she was one of the first to actually live in the Sterling area. Additionally, she didn’t exactly keep to herself while her husband, Jesse, was out building roads. Nina was a founding member of the Sterling Homemakers Club, a part-time Sterling postmaster, the record keeper for the family dairy farm business, and a strong promoter of the foundation of the Sterling Community Club.

Nina Robinson and Sterling postmaster Gloria McNutt pose in front of the old Sterling post office in 1976.

Nina Robinson and Sterling postmaster Gloria McNutt pose in front of the old Sterling post office in 1976.

She also helped to raise five children and was active in the area schools.

Nina, who was born in New Mexico in 1925, met and was wooed by Jesse Robinson in 1945, when the young Marine convinced her to join him in his dream of homesteading in Alaska. By March 1946, they were aboard the U.S.S. Columbia, steaming into the port of Seward. They lived briefly in a tent in the Palmer-Anchorage area before accepting the invitation of Pat Gwin, a man they had met on the ship, to make a home near Cooper Landing.

Gwin went on to establish an eponymous restaurant, but the following year the Robinsons checked out land in the area known initially as Naptowne, and in 1948 they made a permanent move.
By 1949, they had their own hand-dug well and a windmill pump to extract the water. Nine years later, they had electricity in their home.

Jesse worked for the Alaska Road Commission early on and later on the building of Wildwood Army Station and

Nina Robinson feeds her horses in 1987.

Nina Robinson feeds her horses in 1987.

Swanson River Road. Meanwhile, Nina kept the home fires burning and tended to their growing family.

When she died at the age of 80 in June 2005, Nina was considered a Sterling-area pioneer, noted for her frugality and her civic-mindedness.

v Ruth Pollard: It has been said that behind every successful man there stands a great woman, and that certainly seems to have been the case for George Pollard, a longtime and highly regarded Kasilof hunting guide who was married to his wife, Ruth, for 48 years.

Born in Germania, Penn., in 1923, she became a teacher in the mid-1940s and taught physical education at a private parochial school in her home state. Known as a strong disciplinarian and respected by students and staff, she moved to Alaska in 1957 and taught physical education in Anchorage, the city in which George had been born.

Bound by a love of the outdoors and each other, Ruth and George married in 1959, and not long afterward they moved onto their new 160-acre homestead in Kasilof. Together they built a rustic 16-by-20 cabin and shared numerous outdoor adventures.

With Ruth as his assistant, George began a guiding and outfitting service centered on the area surrounding Tustumena Lake.

Environmentalists at heart, the Pollards became members of the Kenai Peninsula Conservation Society, occasionally hosting functions at their home and leading group hikes into the local countryside.

When she died in November 2006 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s, her obituary noted her membership in the Kasilof Community Church, the recent death of her sister, Mary Hawkins, of Ninilchik, and her enjoyment of bird-watching and outdoor recreation.

3 Comments

Filed under Almanac, homesteaders

3 responses to “Almanac: Famed names — Early peninsula residents left their marks

  1. Deverie Robinson Hart

    Thank you for your coverage of these great people! As a Robinson grandchild, I miss my Grandma Nina and Grandpa Jesse and feel proud to read their tributes here and think about the impression they made. Thank you.

  2. Mitchel L Robinson

    Clark, although we have never met in my memory, I have long admired your writing skills and your passion for getting the story right.

    Your stories in the Redoubt Reporter are one of the first things I look for when I return to Alaska and the Kenai, because you always capture the essence of your subject like few can. That is certainly true in this case regarding this article about my mother Nina Robinson, as it probably is for the other two individuals. No stranger to growing up with the Influence of wonderful and highly regarded parents yourself, your understanding of the “glue” that holds a pioneering community together is highly appreciated. Thank you, Clark.

  3. Sue Robinson

    Clark – I can’t improve on Mitch’s comment so; “yes . . . what he said!” Your writing makes me wonder how much of history is carried down so carefully. Thanks for your dedication to our community.

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