By Brent Johnson
For the Redoubt Reporter
Betty Crocker’s niece was in for a sweet treat herself during a visit to Kasilof on Sept. 9. Gay Crocker Pados, 57, of Australia, is the daughter of Betty Crocker’s twin brother, Bill. Though Betty and Bill were born in Kasilof in 1935, the last time one of them had been here is about 15 years ago, when Betty came back for a couple years.
Betty, it must be told, is not connected to the brand of baking mixes sharing her name. But her life was genuine, whereas the name brand was created from scratch in 1921 — the name “Betty” sounding cheery and all-American, while Crocker was the last name of a director of the Washburn Crosby Company, which originally developed the brand.
For Kasilof, the Crocker story starts in the fall of 1924. That’s when 19-year-old Ardith “Slim” Crocker arrived. He was from Everett, Washington, but his parents, George Milton Crocker and Katrina Kryger Crocker, divorced about 1917, when Slim was 12. For some reason Slim went to Tustumena Lake and appears there on snowshoes in the Andrew Berg diary entry of Jan. 17, 1925. Berg, a big-game guide whose diary has been crafted into a book, called him, “The slim biscuit shooter.” Such a refined name indicates the men had met earlier. Slim himself wrote in his memorabilia that he stayed at Kasilof the winter of 1924-25.
Slim returned in the fall of 1927 and spent the ensuing winter working for Archie and Enid McLane. Archie was a farmer who often cut poles for fish traps during the winter. In 1928, Slim began building his house beside the Kasilof River, at the site where a little cabin stood. It was the original cabin of Pete Jensen and Pete Madson, who had worked for surveyors setting section corners and quarter corners in areas between Homer and Kenai from 1917 to 1920. Jensen and Madson settled in Kasilof to fox farm. Also in 1928, Slim went to work for the Alaska Guides Association as a big-game guide.
For the foundation of his house, Slim used pipe that turn-of-the-century gold miners had left by Indian Creek on Tustumena Lake. For three winters, 1928 through 1930, Archie McLane used a horse-drawn bobsled to bring logs to Slim’s home site. Then Abe Erickson, a Kasilof fox farmer and set-netter, built the house. He had the help of a couple local men in that endeavor. The 1930 census found Slim in Kasilof and listed his occupation as “trapper.”
In activities as a guide, Slim often stayed at the Parsons Hotel in Anchorage and flew with Frank Dorbandt, a famous Alaska pioneer aviator. Fred and Jessie Parsons began their hotel in 1915. Jessie was from Australia, and in 1931 she sent for her niece, 18-year-old Alice May Duncombe. Alice rode over on the Ventura and landed at San Francisco before continuing to Anchorage. She met Slim at the hotel and married him Dec. 28, 1931.
Before long the couple moved into the Crocker house on the Kasilof River. Their first child, David, was born in Anchorage in December 1933. Betty and Billy were born at the Crocker house in June 1935. According to Betty, “On my birth certificate the midwifes were Mrs. Lilian Cole and Mrs. Enid McLane. I also met, I think it was, two of Maria Demidoff’s daughters when I was over there and they told me that Maria helped deliver us, as well.”
The 1930 census of Kenai records a 74-year-old Mary Demidoff, who was a widow and a midwife, as well as the head of her house. The 1940 census of Kenai lists the same person, but calls her 84-year-old Maria Demidoff. She would have been 79 when Billy and Betty were born. Demidoff is famous for delivering many babies, whether or not she attended the birth of the Crocker twins. Lillian Cole was the wife of Perry Cole, a Kasilof fox farmer.
The 1940 census has “guides fisherman” in the line for Slim’s occupation. Since Slim was a guide it is unknown why the word is crossed out. He and Alice were also set-netters who, for a time, marketed their own canned salmon. Slim’s older brother, Carl, followed him to Kasilof. Carl Crocker appears in the 1940 census as a “fisherman.” According to that census, Carl was still in Washington in 1934, but Slim and Alice were in Kasilof.
During the Crockers’ time in Kasilof the only road was Kasilof Road, which stretched seven miles from the cannery to Perry Cole’s house (now George Pollard’s).
A rare auto accident happened when Slim met a grader near Coal Creek and his wheel caught the soft shoulder. Betty was sitting on her mom’s lap and got cuts on her head and arm, which still bear scars, in the resulting crash. Slim was unhurt, but Alice was flown to a hospital, where she miscarried twins. Some details of this accident are in Archie McLane’s diary.
In about 1947, the Crockers moved to Washington, and some five years later, to Australia. In the late 1960s, Irv and Mildred Evenson bought the property that contained the Crocker house. The Evensons built on top of the hill overlooking the Kasilof River. The Crocker house was on a bench closer to the river.
Thirty years ago or so, Larry Meyer bought the Crocker house, took the logs apart and moved them to his lake off Yukon Road. Meyer, a drift fisherman, built a full basement and put the Crocker house logs back together on top of the basement. He also added a porch.
Gay Crocker was able to tour this house, thanks to Matt (Meyer’s son) and Kerri Meyer. Gay also visited 95-year-old Mildred Evenson, who graciously directed her to where the Crocker house had been. Gay called on George Pollard, who had been a friend of the Crockers, but didn’t catch George at home. Slim died in 1977 and his ashes were sent to George Pollard, who planted them next to Tustumena Lake.
“Dad’s ashes were spread overlooking Tustumena Lake,” Betty said. “… George, Bill, Shirley and myself hiked up to where Dad was laid to rest. What a beautiful place. We stayed overnight then hiked back down. What wonderful memories I have of that. It was a hike and a half.” (Shirley is Gay’s mother, Bill’s wife.)
Gay is blonde and steps lively. She looks a lot like her Aunt Betty. On this trip she traveled with Rhonda, a friend since their grade-school days. They toured the Kasilof Museum and historic cabins, then drove to Homer, where Betty had worked in Gail Ammerman’s bed and breakfast. Gay and Rhonda also took a flight-seeing trip to Lake Clark. They and Kasilof are richer for their visit.
Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.