Sick daze — Kenai Peninsula teaching posts influenced by Alaska health epidemics

By Brent Johnson

For the Redoubt Reporter

In 1912, Bertha Stryker visited Alyce Anderson, who had begun teaching at Ninilchik in 1911. Bertha and Alyce toured the Cook Inlet area during that summer. The women were obviously friends and probably had met when they lived in Washington. The 1900 census shows them with their respective families living about 25 miles apart, near Seattle. Alyce and Bertha were the same age and both were schoolteachers.

Bertha’s husband, James Stryker, had participated in the Klondike Gold Rush. So the Stryker family knew about Alaska, and in 1915 their 20-year-old daughter, Jetret (“Jettie”) went to Seldovia to live with Alyce Anderson’s 25-year-old daughter, Juanita, who was teaching school. About a year later, Juanita married Ralph Anderson, who, by chance, had the same last name as herself. When Juanita became pregnant she had to quit teaching for a while. By that time Jettie had her teaching certificate, and was hired in about 1918 to replace Juanita.

Another teacher at Seldovia in the 1916-17 school year was 22-year-old Donna Petersen. Her dad, Chris Petersen, went to Kasilof in 1883 to help finish construction of Cook Inlet’s first cannery. That job was seasonal, and Chris was back in Alaska and Canada for the Klondike Gold Rush. Sometime after 1910 he opened a hotel with a pool hall in Seldovia. Most likely, the presence of her father was a factor in Donna’s decision to apply for a job there.

Peggy Arness, of Nikiski, remembers both of her grandfathers, James Stryker and Chris Petersen, fondly.

“Both of my grandpas, Jim and Chris, were wonderful, venturesome guys whom I loved. They both did the gold rush — not together, however. They were full of humor and laughter!” Arness said.

The following school year, 1917-18, Donna taught in Kenai, and by then her fate was likely sealed. She had become infected with tuberculosis. Donna returned to her mother, Rose Petersen, in California, and died in July 1919. She was 25, the only daughter among four sons. Donna might have become infected in Alaska, where the disease was rampant. In that era the death rate from TB in Alaska was in the neighborhood of 15 times that of the Lower 48. It was particularly acute among Natives, but even whites died from the disease at twice the rate of their counterparts living in the Lower 48.

Take, for example, Ephriam Kalmakoff, a student at the Jesse Lee Home in Seward. He was just 16 in 1928 when he won the Mount Marathon Race. Doing so, his record as the youngest person to win the race still holds. His time set a record that took 30 years to beat. Kalmakoff won the race three years in a row, but tuberculosis ran him down at a young age. He died when he was just 24.

Another example of the prevalence of TB comes from Lottie Stevenson, who taught at Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka for many years. She reported that 25 percent of her students died of the disease.

While Donna was ill, her older brother, Allan, was being discharged from duty after serving in World War I. He went to visit his father in Seldovia and found out that the town needed a teacher to help Jettie Stryker. Allan applied for the job and was hired. The 1920 census shows the support Jettie was receiving. Her dad was the janitor at the school, and her mom was in town, too.

Peggy Arness describes what followed that 1919-20 school year:

“That spring Mother (Jettie) went back for graduate work to Bellingham (Wash.), brought her sister (Enid) back with her in August 1920 — the ship came in to Cordova, my Dad (Marshal Petersen), had caught a ship from Seldovia to Cordova. They quickly planned a wedding, with Capt. Glascock performing, dining hall decorated with fireweed, passengers loving the excitement — one a famous singer providing music — and the wedding happened at 4 a.m. Aug. 7, 1920. All then continued on to Seldovia, where very disappointed parents were waiting.”

Enid, then 24, got a job teaching in Ninilchik in the fall of 1920. Bertha then taught in Ninilchik and later taught for several years at Portlock, on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. In 1922, Enid married Archie McLane and moved to Kasilof. Jettie, Enid and their descendants figure heavily into later Kenai Peninsula education history, as well.

It should be apparent at this time that even the schools run by local school boards hired almost no local teachers. The teachers were usually imported from the Lower 48.

In 1919, Homer got its first school, becoming the sixth Kenai Peninsula community to do so. That school was at Miller’s Landing.

Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.

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Filed under Almanac, education, schools

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