Almanac: Hello again, Dolly —  Book recalls life, voice of pioneering homesteader

dolly Immigrant's Daughter coverBy Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

Dolly Farnsworth was, in her own words, “in a blind fury.” Grabbing a rifle, she headed for the door.

It was the summer of 1954 in Soldotna. While husband, Jack, worked nearby at the site of their Y Service Station, Dolly was inside their home, tending to their infant twin daughters when she heard a vehicle crunching along the graveled and seldom-traveled Sterling Highway. Wondering if it might be someone she knew, she turned away from the girls and toward the window.

About 200 feet away, a car she did not recognize pulled up next to the station, where Jack had been piling tools and equipment he hoped to salvage after a recent fire. Dolly was perplexed to see four men emerge from the car, open their trunk, and begin filling it with Jack’s salvage items.

The next thing she noticed was Jack approaching the men suddenly, a large bung wrench dangling from one hand.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” Jack yelled.

The men continued filling their trunk. One of them took a step toward Jack.

And inside Dolly, a switch flipped.

She was already angry about the fire, an act of arson that had burned to the ground Soldotna’s first gas station and destroyed a $6,000 Farnsworth investment. That someone would then steal from the ruins and threaten her husband brought her simmering anger rapidly to a boil.

Leaving the babies on the bed, her hands suddenly wielding a Remington 30.06, she raced outside.

Photo courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula. Historical Photo Repository. Jack Farnsworth stands outside the family’s cabin in the early days of Soldotna.

Photo courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula. Historical Photo Repository.
Jack Farnsworth stands outside the family’s cabin in the early days of Soldotna.

“By that time,” she said, “Jack had already hit one of the guys with his wrench. I don’t know what would have happened if I had not grabbed the gun and gone running out of the house. But when they saw me with that rifle, they froze in their tracks. Jack came over to me and took the rifle out of my arms and leveled it at them and had them remove the items they had put in their trunk. They quickly shoved themselves back into their vehicle and sped off. That was a heart-thumper to be sure.”

Although this scene is more action-packed than most in Dolly Farnsworth’s recently published, posthumous autobiography, the rest of the 529-page history is no less entertaining, informative and enlightening.

Arriving in 1948, Dolly and her husband were among Soldotna’s earliest and most active residents. Dolly’s story, as related in “Immigrant’s Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Alaskan Pioneer Dolly Farnsworth” (as told to Marcelle Langan), is, at its essence, the story of homesteading and of the birth and early life of Soldotna itself.

It is also, as the title indicates, much more.

“Immigrant’s Daughter” begins as the tale of Dolly’s beloved mother, Frances (Hudec) Mynarcik, a dirt-poor Czechoslovakian immigrant who — despite the adversity of poverty, language barriers, two bad marriages and a murdered sister — became the solid-rock foundation upon which her daughter built her life.

Dolly respected and revered Frances, and throughout the book she reminds readers that her own strength, resilience and temperament are underpinned by her mother’s example. When an opportunity arises to rescue Frances from Dolly’s father in Michigan, Dolly welcomes the chance to give her mother the most secure home she will ever know. Frances contentedly lives out the remaining two decades of her life beneath a Farnsworth roof.

Photo provided. Dolly Farnsworth was one of the founding citizens of Soldotna.

Photo provided. Dolly Farnsworth was one of the founding citizens of Soldotna.

For many Alaska readers, however, the most interesting part of the book is likely to concern the creation and expansion of Soldotna (and, by extension, Kenai and the rest of the central peninsula).

Dolly Farnsworth, who died last December at the age of 92, was a keystone in the history of Soldotna. She was Soldotna’s first full-time bookkeeper, the city mayor, the first woman to serve on the borough assembly, and was a member of the Soldotna City Council, the first hospital board, the Toastmistress and Homemakers clubs and the Kenai Peninsula School Board. In addition, she and Jack created Soldotna’s first planned subdivision and provided a location for Soldotna’s first primitive phone system. Later, she also donated land for a kiddie park in town.

Dolly’s Alaska adventure began when she followed Jack to Anchorage after he had traveled north with a brother and a friend and then decided to stay. They married in a chapel at Fort Richardson, worked as civilians on the Army base, and then, with a baby and winter on the way, found themselves in a rough-hewn cabin on 160 acres, trisected neatly by the junction of what would later be named the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways.

The strategic location of their property put them at what is still a transportation hub of the central peninsula and provided them with desirable economic opportunities — their service station and subdivisions being only two examples. Although Dolly also sold parcels of her homestead property over the years to commercial enterprises, such as Hutchings Chevrolet, Midas, Alaska USA Federal Credit Union and Fred Meyer, she remained on the homestead until her death in the “dream house” she and Jack built in 1951.

Despite the book’s length, it is not all-inclusive concerning Dolly’s life. Its main story ends with Jack’s death in 1967. The last handful of short chapters largely serve up a summary of her half-century of widowhood, including earning a bachelor’s degree, traveling around the world, investing in more property and dedicating herself even more to family — in addition to her tremendous political and career accomplishments.

For those who knew Dolly personally, “Immigrant’s Daughter” may seem like a visitation from the author herself. Dolly’s voice resonates on every page, almost as if she were speaking to guests across her small kitchen table. Her tales are punctuated with more than an occasional, “I’ll tell you,” and, “Well,” plus a few mild epithets and her boisterous spirit and determination. Readers who knew her well may almost be able to hear her chuckle when she relates something humorous.

Anyone familiar with Soldotna’s history is likely to recognize numerous old-time Soldotna surnames while learning more about how the city came to be. Those who are new to central peninsula history may be delighted to discover some of the colorful characters who brought it all to life.

Still, it must be said that the book is not without flaws. It would have benefited from a heavier editorial hand to eliminate redundancies, offer stronger fact checking — correcting the date that Anchorage was founded, for instance, or the meaning of the D.E.W. Line — and to shore up the spelling of names. The book’s problems, however, barely diminish the achievement of this illuminating, important addition to the history of the Kenai Peninsula.

“Immigrant’s Daughter” was self-published earlier this year by co-author Langan via WordBroker Communications of Burlington, Vermont. The first printing was 150 hardbound copies, followed by 100 softcover versions. Copies are available at River City Books in Soldotna.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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Filed under Almanac, books, homesteaders, Soldotna

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