By Jenny Neyman
When the old Kenai Wards Cove cannery warehouse at the mouth of the Kenai River was torn down in the summer of 2012, fishermen like Pat Dixon bid it a sad farewell, figuring it was like something lost overboard — never to be seen again and only existing in memories.
And he has a lot of them, as the building figured prominently in his, and many others’, fishing history. Kenai Wards Cove was the last of the early 20th-century salmon canneries on the Southcentral road system, starting operation in 1912 as a Libby, McNeil and Libby cannery. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1921, became Columbia Wards in the 1950s and Wards Cove Packing in 1988, continuing operations canning, and later freezing, salmon until 1998.
For all of Dixon’s 20-year career commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, the cannery was his summertime home base. As he writes in his blog, Gillnet Dreams, “Far more so than Indiana, where I spent my childhood, (the cannery) was really where I grew up, and it had always been a second home to me.”
The 40,000-square-foot wood warehouse, in particular, was a regular haunt.
“Where my locker was, where I stored supplies, used the crane to haul shackles of web up and down from the loft, where I’d driven my truck to grab gear, driven forklifts to haul it, where fishermen for decades hung their nets, where I’d walked hundreds of times with my camera,” he wrote.
Dixon is a photographer, having taught the subject at Kenai Central High School in the winters while fishing in the summers, and the cannery often was the focus of his lens in those years. He captured the bustle of activity when the fish were in, and the quieter scenes of the buildings themselves, including the thick wood rafters in the warehouse where cannery workers of all nationalities scrawled their names and the years they’d worked, dating as far back as the 1920s.
When it was taken apart in 2012, he figured those pictures were all he’d ever see of it again.
The site was purchased by Jon Faulkner, of Homer, and Steve Agni, partners in Land’s End in Homer, the Van Gilder in Seward and other properties, to be turned into a visitors attraction with lodging, a restaurant, performance space and merchant shops. Kenai Landing opened in 2004 but closed for good in 2010. In June 2012, the 40,000-square-foot wood warehouse was dismantled and sold for materials, including its nearly century-old, old-grown Douglas fir in the form of dimensional lumber, structural beams and planking.
Some of the wood remained locally, with planks going to the new wellness center being built by the Kenaitze Tribe, and the new residence hall at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. But much of it, Dixon assumed, was lost to history or whatever other ventures of commerce had snapped it up. That is, until he got a call from a representative of Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Anchorage, asking about his photography of the Kenai Wards Cove cannery.
Kaladi Brothers is constructing a new restaurant in Anchorage and purchased some of the lumber from the old Kenai Wards Cove cannery warehouse. The representative told Dixon that the developers want to display some of his photography in the new space to pay homage to the old wood’s history.
“I’m looking for pictures of the cannery, so if anybody has any, I’d love them,” said Tim Gravel, president of Kaladi Brothers. “As much as I can get I would love, because I think it would be really cool to put that stuff out on display.”
The new restaurant, the Rustic Goat, at Northern Lights and Turnagain Street, is nearing the end of construction with a tentative opening scheduled by Thanksgiving. It’s a three-story building with a 1,500-square-foot footprint. The basement is for food prep — both for this restaurant and the other Kaladi coffee shops in Anchorage — and the full first floor and second-floor loft space will hold seating for about 80. It’ll operate as a coffee shop from 6 a.m. and serve “comfort-style food, but a little bit more creative,” until about 10 p.m., Gravel said.
Construction began in the fall last year, and in the meantime, Gravel said that Agni contacted him about a possible business venture. That didn’t fly, but Agni also mentioned the cannery lumber, Gravel said. Gravel mentioned it to his contractor.
“We said, ‘Wow, that’d be really cool if we could get some of that.’ So we started looking into it, talking with our architect and trying to make this thing work,” Gravel said.
Originally, construction was expected to wrap up this summer, but inclusion of the cannery lumber extended the project.
“It slowed us down significantly because it wasn’t just ordering wood. We had to go down there, check out the wood, pick out the wood, ship it up here, and then when we got all this wood the moisture content was too high to start construction with it. We had to send it to Palmer to a kiln to have it dried out. So here when we started construction in October-November last year we were thinking, ‘We’re going to get this construction done through the winter and we’ll be open for summer.’ But then when we made this change to this wood it slowed us way down. But we’re really happy because it’s going to look really, really cool,” Gravel said.
The building uses some of the warehouse’s wood timbers as structural supports, some of the exterior is sheathed in its siding, and the ceiling of the first level and floor of the second is done in planking from the old Kenai cannery.
“And we’re not sanding it down or anything, we’re keeping it the natural look. So there’s still divots and writing on some of them. It’s pretty neat,” Gravel said.
There’s even a name of a former cannery worker still visible on the wood, he said.
As with all the Kaladi locations, Gravel said that he expects this one will have space for rotating art displays, though not large shows. Much of the building consists of windows, so there isn’t a lot of drywall on which to hang art. But he does specifically want to make room for photos and art referencing the Kenai cannery from which the wood came.
Dixon is happy at the prospect of having his images of the cannery reunited with the materials pictured in them.
“That’s where I started and that’s where I spent all the years I fished. I spent a lot of time in that warehouse and around that cannery, and it was a heartbreaker when they sold the warehouse for its wood. But it feels good to know some of that is being honored,” he said.
Perhaps other Kenai-area fishermen will visit the restaurant once it opens, and once again have a cup of coffee underneath the massive rafters that once supported so much of their history. They’ll have to wait a bit longer, though, as developers want the new facility to be completely ready before it opens, preferring it to swim, rather than sink.
“We’re going out on a limb a little bit with this one. It’s exciting, it’s a little scary, there’s a lot of buzz, the food has to be good. It’s totally different than anything Kaladis has ever done,” Gravel said “We’re pretty happy with how it’s turning out, it’s just taken a lot of time. We want it to look right, it just needs to be right before we open this thing up. It’s going to be really cool.”