Almanac: Early Kenai principal caught up in controversy

Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part story about the early days of the Kenai School, and the upheaval under the quick-tempered Principal Cleve Magill. The first part of this story, published Jan. 8, can be read at

By Brent Johnson

For the Redoubt Reporter

The Kenai School was weathering some turbulent times after the turn of the century. Funding was being held up in territorial government. As a result, hiring and retaining teachers was becoming a difficult task.

There was controversy brewing, as well, with Kenai School Principal Cleve Magill firing off missives attempting to foment a coup.

Distress over the school board seems to have been a fixation for Magill. On Dec. 27, 1916, he wrote to territorial Gov. John Franklin Alexander Strong.

“My dear Governor: Owing to the immoral condition and the unresponsibility of the people in general living in Kenai; we wish to elect, at the next school election, a board of directors that will be permanent until our school is substantially organized, or until our new school building is erected.

“The law … requires that a new board of school directors be elected every year. This, as you well know, causes a great deal of trouble and friction in such places as Kenai, as there is always an unworthy and irresponsible set aspiring and trying to gain control of not only the school, but the people in general.

“We have here in Kenai five ex-convicts who, with a number of others, are continuously plotting and fermenting trouble. We want reliable and responsible citizens connected with our school. Experience last year has taught us that the majority of the white men living here are not to be trusted in any way. … It is our intentions to put in a permanent school board for three years or in accordance with the 1915 Sessions laws. This is for the good and the progress of the community in general.”

“The school is the only moral uplift and social center that the community has and to have it shifted from good to bad hinders the progress of the school as well as the good influence it is attaining. As it stands, I’m pretty much alone in this matter. Being the only representative of the law within one hundred miles everything falls upon my shoulders. It is quite a strain but all I care to know is that I will be sustained by your office, of course providing that I am right, in my efforts to better and build up this community.”

The letters from Magill are all typed, but his grammar is hardly commensurate with his office. Magill’s frequent references to convicts might be part of his own background, because he also had a record. In 1911 in Washington he had a one-way love affair and sought solace by waving a gun and threatening some people. He was arrested. In spite of that event, in November 1915 he became the U.S. commissioner for Kenai.

Immorality in Kenai seems to have been another preoccupation for Magill. On Jan. 11, 1917, he again wrote to the governor:

“There is no other village in Alaska that is so much in need of school accommodations as Kenai. We now have 105 pupils enrolled with over 30 more loitering about the village that should and would be going to school had we a place to put them.

“Taking the present and rapid increase and the immoral influence derived both from the canneries and from a few people residing here; it seem to me that the government should take extra-ordinary steps to give these children proper education and discipline by means of a good Industrial School and rigidly policing the town.

“If this is not done, in my opinion with the present existing condition, it will be only a matter of a few years that Kenai will produce a generation that will be the grief of Alaska, both morally and criminally. In the words of the District Attorney, Mr. Spence, ‘Kenai has been a thorn in the side of justice for the past 30 years.’

“… Every child of the village is criminally inclined. Conditions and the extent of immorality cannot be realized until one has first lived a year or two among these people. The only solution of this problem that I can see is to build a good Industrial School and police the town with a marshall that will see that the laws are enforced.”

In a Feb. 13, 1917, letter from Gov. Strong, it seems Magill had found a receptive ear for some of his designs for Kenai.

Gov. Strong noted that provisions would be made to reimburse Magill for the $15 per month he’d been spending on renting additional school space, and to pick up the tab for the rest of the year.

“I have also noted with interest your remarks as to the moral and other conditions obtaining in Kenai, and, although you paint a dark picture, evidently the work you are doing is productive of good, and I hope your efforts in this respect will not be diminished because of the lack of immediate apparent results. I have some knowledge of Kenai and its people and have no doubt that Mr. Spence was right when he said that it has been, ‘A thorn in the side of Justice for the past 30 years,’” Gov. Strong writes.

He agrees that a deputy marshall would, “No doubt be an able assistant to you in the campaign that you are making for moral improvement.” However, the governor continues, funding for such as position isn’t likely, “inasmuch as constant complaint comes from Washington that the expenses of administering law in Alaska are so excessive that the strictest economy must be exercised.”

As for the issue of the school board, which Magill wanted to install and keep in place for three years, rather than having to hold elections every year in accordance with the Nelson law by which the school was governed, the governor was less helpful. He states that he cannot recommend ignoring the law, and that annual elections should be held. The only way around that would be if fitting candidates could not be found for elections, in which case the serving member could continue.

“The board would remain in power and exercise all the duties of their offices until such time as their successors have been elected and qualified. As stated, however, I cannot recommend this procedure, and you will, therefore, have to be governed by conditions as they arise,” Gov. Strong writes.

Of course Magill, being the paragon arbiter of morality as he apparently fancied himself, would be the one to determine the suitability of candidates. His subsequent machinations came to a head at the April 8, 1918, school board elections, where ballots didn’t end in a draw, but Magill found provocation to draw his gun.

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


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Filed under Almanac, Kenai, schools

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