By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
Author’s note: Sometimes tracking down local history is akin to prospecting with a gold pan — many attempts may yield only a few flakes. Occasionally, though, a small nugget appears. Tracking down the nuggets in this story would have been impossible without the generosity of many individuals, particularly Al Hershberger, Barbara Jewell and Brent Johnson.
In May 1947, when 40-year-old Howard Binkley first arrived in what would someday be called Soldotna, one of his primary concerns was safety. “I built a cache first and slept on it. Was afraid of bears,” he recalled in a 1964 letter. “It’s a wonder I never fell off.”
Fortunately, Binkley kept his balance, even as he slumbered, and was able to stake the very first 160-acre Soldotna parcel — a move that would benefit settlers and commercial enterprises for decades to come.
Intent on homesteading, Binkley had traveled from Anchorage. After a railroad ride to Moose Pass he likely came on foot, over a muddy, earth-scraped path destined to become the Sterling Highway. He discovered that two men had beaten him to the area, brothers Marcus and Alexander Bodnar, by a matter of a few weeks. Alex was staking a tract of land at Big Eddy on the Kenai River, while Marcus had selected a riverside property adjacent to the spot where the Alaska Road Commission would erect a bridge the following summer.
The land Binkley selected straddled the new highway. South of the highway today, Binkley’s homestead encompasses everything from the western edge of Soldotna Creek Park to the David Douthit Memorial Bridge, including the present-day sites of Arby’s, Dairy Queen, Blazy Mall, Riverside House, Johnson Tire, Hooligans, Odie’s Deli and First National Bank of Alaska.
North of the highway, the homestead’s roughly L-shaped perimeter includes the current sites of Soldotna United Methodist Church, Safeway, McDonald’s, the Peninsula Center Mall, Kaladi Brothers, the police and fire departments, Wells Fargo and the Maverick Bar.
One of the first homesteaders to receive patent to his land, Binkley also became the first to subdivide. He was particularly generous to nonhomesteading families, and he simplified the real estate process for them.
“Since there were no surveyors in the area, Binkley told prospective buyers to just go select a piece and mark it with tape on the trees,” wrote longtime Soldotna resident Marge Mullen for the Kenai Peninsula Historical Photo Repository.
When Binkley left Alaska in the mid- to late 1950s, he sold off all his remaining lots. The original homestead he left behind now consists of more than 150 individual parcels, including several (with improvements) valued at more than a million dollars. Small wonder that he is sometimes referred to jokingly as “Soldotna’s first realtor.”
The third of four children, Howard Jacob Binkley was born on the Fourth of July in 1907, probably in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, to railroad brakeman Albert Binkley and his wife, Ida. Howard had two older siblings, Earnest and Catharine. His younger sister, Mary, was born when Howard was 16.
At the time of the 1930 U.S. Census, 22-year-old Howard was living with his 26-year-old wife, Mary, and infant daughter, Delores, in Harrisburg City, Pennsylvania. Although Mary and Howard, who was a lineman for a light company, had been married less than a year, they had a 6-month-old daughter, indicating that Mary had been pregnant before the marriage.
By the 1940 Census, Howard’s fortunes had changed, but the record is unclear why. Binkley, whose Social Security Number had been issued in Ohio (meaning he may have been employed there at some point), was divorced and living near Oakland, California. Two years later, across the bay in San Francisco, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
According to his enlistment record, he had completed three years of high school, was married — no spouse’s name is mentioned — and was a “semi-skilled” lineman and serviceman for telegraph, telephone and electrical power.
Binkley served in the Signal Corps, and probably came to Alaska with the Army. According to Soldotna resident Al Hershberger, who befriended Binkley and in 1950 bought a piece of his homestead, Binkley worked as a lineman for the District Engineers at Fort Richardson. “He had a small cabin in Mountain View,” Hershberger recalled. “I spent a night there one time I was stuck in Anchorage overnight.”
In his 1964 letter, Binkley referred to his Mountain View abode as a “shack” and said he was working for the city of Anchorage when he first heard about land available on the Kenai Peninsula. “Two friends I was working with were down to Soldatna on a hunting and fishing trip,” he wrote. “They said it was a nice place to homestead, but they were busy building a place in Mountain View.”
Intrigued, Binkley went to the Land Office to determine what was available.
In his first months in Soldotna, Binkley added a cabin next to the cache on the southwest corner of his homestead. It was so small, wrote Mullen, that he couldn’t fully stretch out at night when he went to bed. Later, he hired someone build him a larger, two-story house in which he lived until he departed Alaska.
“About once a week I would go to Kenai for supplies,” Binkley wrote. “Mostly walked. Sometimes got a ride with the road commission. Got a job with them when they built the bridge across the Kenai River.” (Sometime later, he bought a green Model CJ Jeep from Hal Thornton’s dealership in Kenai.)
In addition to the ARC job, Binkley worked for a time at the Civil Aeronautics Administration post in Kenai, but he generated much of his income through land sales.
“One reason for selling his land — it supplied him with money for booze and grub,” Hershberger said. “And he really didn’t have any need for the land.”
Like many early homesteaders — as Soldotna’s Dolly Farnsworth wrote in her recent autobiography, “Immigrant’s Daughter” — Binkley made and drank homebrewed beer. Farnsworth called homebrewing, homebrew consumption and discussions about homebrewing in those days a “communal activity.” According to some early residents, Binkley may have sampled his wares more frequently than most.
Marge Mullen claimed that Binkley’s fondness for drink was his biggest motivation for land sales. “His greatest need was for sugar and malt, for if his homebrew barrel was not full, his life was a disaster,” she wrote.
In a 1948 letter to relatives, Rusty Lancashire, another of the earliest area residents, recalled the drinking habits of Binkley and his friend Alfred Trettevick: “Alfred’s buddy Binkley lives down … by the bridge. Now these old boys stay pretty well hung all winter, and walking the eight miles to their houses and eight miles back just to drink is tough on them.”
Lancashire also recalled what she’d been told by homesteader Lawrence McGuire, who had stopped by to visit Rusty and her daughters: “McGuire … was sitting by the window when Lorrie told him to look at a bug. … It looks like a wasp — comes out of unpeeled logs or rotten logs. … Mac laughed and said, ‘This is the bug that bothers Binkley so.’ It seems after Bink has been on a bat for a week or so these bugs drive him almost mad. Bink never peeled his logs, and he no doubt has a lot.”
“He did drink, but not as much as Marge remembers,” Hershberger said. “He was rather shy and never went to visit anyone before having a bit to drink. I visited him several times and he was always sober, but when he came to visit me he had always been drinking.
“One time he stopped by to visit me on the way home from work, and had been drinking and was quite upset. He had been working (for the CAA) for a while … but that day he had read, for the first time, the sign they had at their Kenai location. It said Civil Aeronautics Administration. He said he was going to quit because he didn’t want to work for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, but working for the CAA was okay. He did quit not long after that — or may have been fired, I don’t know. He was never very logical when drinking.”
Despite his tendency to imbibe, he is remembered largely for his generosity in helping so many to settle in Soldotna and for contributing to Soldotna’s first true business district.
When he was asked to donate land for the first Soldotna airstrip (behind where Trustworthy Hardware now stands), Binkley complied, as he did when asked to give land for the Soldotna Community Hall, near the southern end of the street that would later bear his name. And when Kenai’s Hank Knackstedt was mauled by a brown bear in 1952, Binkley was one of the individuals who donated money to help pay the medical tab.
Binkley left Alaska and moved back to Pennsylvania to be near his daughter. The return address of his 1964 letter is from Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. By this time, he was 57 and seemed to be enduring some physical ailments. “Get around with a cane and hand holds,” he wrote. “I bought a double house here. My niece and nephew live next door and help me (with) what I cannot do myself.”
When he died at age 71 on March 16, 1979, he had been living at the Hollidaysburg (Pennsylvania) Veterans Home.
Meanwhile, as with many pieces of the original Binkley property, Howard’s homesite has changed hands frequently. Binkley sold the homesite to his friend Art Frisbie, who sold it a few years later to Ray Bilodeau, a Soldotna City Council member who created a Laundromat and the River Terrace Trailer Court on the site. Owned today by Gary and Judith Hinkle, it is — a sign of the changes that Binkley himself helped to foster — the site of River Terrace RV Park.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.