Almanac: Mining local minds for history’s riches — Pioneers provide wealth of information

By Clark Fair

Redoubt Reporter

For the fifth time on that January day, I clicked on the “New” link for my Hotmail account and typed “Al Hershberger” into the recipient box. Another question for Al. Another piece of a history puzzle to obtain and snap into place. Another “Almanac” article to assemble with the help of some knowledgeable friends.

As a freelance journalist bent on dredging up the past, I occasionally had to be a pain in the ass — pestering people, peppering them with queries, positing possibilities, pumping them for information. Al was one of my frequent victims — I preferred to call them “contributors” — and easily one of my most compliant. Despite my many requests, he never complained, never told me to go away, never claimed he was too busy to help.

Al is amazing at finding information — in his many books on Alaska history, from God knows where on the Internet, from his peninsula experiences dating back to the late 1940s and from that wonderfully sharp brain of his that he often refers to as his “mental hard drive.” Without Al, I’d have encountered many more dead ends, stumbled over many more obstacles and been forced to strip away my “History Detective” badge.

And Al wasn’t the only font of knowledge that I tapped repeatedly to get the job done. I was literally awash in octogenarians, plus a handful of nonagenarians and septuagenarians, and two centenarians. Besides the added bonus of being frequently called “young man,” I was the recipient of cumulative centuries of experiences and observations and pack-rat collecting frenzies. In the five years I contributed local-history stories to the Redoubt Reporter, I was given and lent photographs and books and maps and trinkets to illuminate and illustrate the past. More than that, I was given collective wisdom.

And even more than that, I was given time — in generous dollops.

For all those heaping helpings, I have plenty of people to thank. I can’t thank them all because there were hundreds of them, from agency officials to politicians, from senior-housing residents to old homesteaders still on the property, from scientists to writers, from storeowners and clerks and receptionists to members of various historical societies. And on and on.

But I most want to show some appreciation for the individuals like Al, to whom I returned for help time and time again. That list, in no particular order, includes:

  • Marge Mullen. One of the first residents of Soldotna, Marge worked for my dad many decades ago, and she has always been extraordinarily kind and giving of her time to me. She keenly remembers an astonishingly rich tapestry of historical names and places and dates, and she is one of the most active seniors I’ve ever known. When I was painting this summer for the Soldotna Historical Society’s homestead museum, I looked up to see 93-year-old Marge bending over the long gravel walkway, pulling up dandelions. She did that for more than an hour.
  • Stan and Donnis Thompson of Nikiski. Stan, a former borough mayor, and Donnis, a Kenai/Nikiski advocate and a historian/author in her own right, like to tell me that they really don’t remember things as well as they used to — and then they inevitably proceed to fill me in on all sorts of intricacies. They know the politics BEHIND the politics, and they enjoy sharing what they know.
  • Dan and Mary France, my Sterling-area neighbors for more than 50 years. Mary was a schoolteacher. Dan was a game warden. Whenever I needed information or backstory color, they worked as a team to recall the delinquents and the scalawags as well as the old homesteaders and the pioneers, the aviators and the hunters and the guides, and a host of other characters who once populated the central peninsula.
  • Shirley Henley, my high school chemistry teacher at Kenai High School. The funniest and most irreverent senior I know, Shirley is terrific for her candor and the acuity of her recollections. Even when I’ve been expecting it, I’ve been startled by her honesty and her willingness to share personal information and opinions. Pushing 90, she still swims several mornings a week and she remains just as sassy (and hilarious) as ever.
  • George Pollard, longtime Tustumena-area hunting guide and one of the finest true gentlemen I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. George is another individual with a long and keen memory, and the eloquence of tongue to paint his remembrances with a vibrancy that breathes new life into them. In the home in which he has lived since the 1930s, he has an appreciation for the natural world and all its splendors and dangers. He has hiked more of the backcountry than most people even dream of doing.
  • The staff of the Soldotna Public Library. Over the past five years I must have walked into that library more than 50 times and asked for one of the heavy bound volumes of the Cheechako News locked away in a crowded storage room. Soon, whichever staff member happened to be closest to the front counter that day was returning with a set of jingling keys and another hefty tome. They teased me a time or two about my persistence, but they never complained. They even bent the rules for me a time or two. (And I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention KPC librarian Jane Fuerstenau, who, with the patience of a saint, has helped me find countless bits of historical data in places I hadn’t even thought to look.)
  • Gary Titus, historian extraordinaire of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Gary often liked to act exasperated whenever I would tromp into the refuge headquarters or call him again at home for more information, but I believe he has always been secretly thrilled to talk history with someone almost as fanatical about it as he is. I owe Gary a lot. There may be no one alive who knows more about the lives and times of the hardscrabble individuals who eked out their existence in cabins and shacks on the Kenai Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. The time he has spent on his investigations is truly astonishing.
  • Jean and Clayton Brockel. At Soldotna Elementary School, Jean was my first-grade teacher. I never get tired of telling people that, and I treasure the fact that I have stayed in touch with her for nearly half a century. I came to know Clayton much, much later, but I also counted him as a friend. If I needed information on the early history of the college, Clayton was the man to see. If I wanted to know about the Kenai Performers or anything else related to the arts on the central peninsula, I usually began with Jean. The unflagging generosity of their spirit has been well documented.
  • Peggy Arness. Peggy has rows of file cabinets packed with old documents and photographs, but the best source of history in her Nikiski home is Peggy herself. Most of the history she remembers best relates to her family — it’s packed with pioneers in education, law enforcement and politics — but her wealth of knowledge extends beyond that. She tracks the names of old-timers who have passed away and shares those names at the annual old-timers’ luncheon in Kenai, and she has rescued from obscurity (and keeps in her head) a remarkable collection of facts and stories about life in the old fishing village at the mouth of the river.
  • Willard and Beverly Dunham of Seward. My net of history stretched to Seward only occasionally, but when it did, Willard and Beverly, whose time in the Gateway City goes back into the 1940s, were invaluable assets in my search. Beverly began the Seward Phoenix-Log, and Willard, a former Seward mayor, was also a longtime employee for the Department of Labor. Their community and political involvement, and their willingness to work hard, have given them an insider’s perspective, and their keen wit has made them a joy to speak with.
  • Dolly Farnsworth, former mayor of Soldotna and a prodigious accumulator of history. Dolly called me at home one time to ask me if I’d be interested in her collection of old phone books. She was fairly certain that she had all of them for Soldotna and Kenai, dating back to the first one, which was more or less a sheet of newsprint. What Dolly doesn’t have squirreled away somewhere in her home she has flowing through the synapses of a brain that is adroitly capable of recalling decades of the political machinations and land dealings of her community. Always willing to share, Dolly has welcomed me many times to enlightening conversations at her dining room table.
  • Alan Boraas, instructor at KPC for 40 years. Where would I be without Alan’s assistance? I’d have fewer stories, for one thing. And many of the stories I do have would be shorter. But well beyond Alan’s ability to recall and retrieve data, I am most grateful for his insights and for his ability to place historical events into a broader perspective. No one has helped me see more acutely how so many little pieces of the past fit into a large whole.
  • Barbara Jewell. Her parents moved north when Soldotna was a speck on the map, and Barb worked for many years as a secretary for the borough school district. With unceasing patience and politeness, she has answered my many historical queries and directed me to other sources when she didn’t know the answers herself. As a fellow member of the Soldotna Historical Society, she has been supportive of my efforts and has directed me many times toward fertile new ground.
  • Katherine Parker. I first met Katherine in 1980. Katherine was a reporter for the Cheechako News, and as journalism-school undergraduate more than a year away from my diploma, I sat near her at meetings for the Soldotna City Council, marveling at her shorthand skills and envious of her understanding of local politics. Decades later we worked together on the Soldotna Historical Society, and when I started mowing her lawn a few years ago, she nearly always came out on the porch as I was packing up my equipment to say hello and offer me another pile of documents she’d found while digging through her old reporter’s files. She made me smile when I turned 50 by telling me that it was nice to see “young people” becoming interested in history.

And so it went. There were so many who gave so much — like Jenny Neyman herself, who gave me the opportunity to write again and fed me terrific story ideas and information sources innumerable times — but those I’ve listed here gave the most.

If I ever sit down to pen a thank you to all those who’ve helped me through life beyond reporting local history, I’ll need to write a book.

I’m so grateful that I haven’t had to do all this on my own.

1 Comment

Filed under Almanac, history, homesteaders

One response to “Almanac: Mining local minds for history’s riches — Pioneers provide wealth of information

  1. Shana Loshbaugh

    Thank you Clark — for your good work and for honoring the wonderful, helpful elders of the community.

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