Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about two of Soldotna’s earliest settlers — Howard and Maxine Lee. Next week, Part Two will reveal how the Lees integrated into fledgling Soldotna society, and how their time in Alaska abruptly ended. The documents used for the Lees’ quotes in this story were provided by the Soldotna Historical Society.
By Clark Fair
In 1945, Irvin Howard Lee and Thelma Maxine McLaughlin pledged their undying love to each other in holy matrimony. Six years later, despite those vows and the romance of an Alaska adventure together, their love had expired.
Early in 1951, Maxine quit her job, packed up her two children and left Howard alone on their Soldotna homestead. She bolted from Alaska, returned to college, earned a teaching certificate, filed for divorce, split the Soldotna property with Howard and eventually entered into a second, happier and much longer-lasting marriage.
Howard, meanwhile, tried to tough it out in Soldotna, but his interest soon shifted elsewhere. By November, he had left Alaska and began working construction in various parts of the country. In March 1952, the lure of further adventure inspired him to re-enlist in the military and accept deployment in Korea.
Originally from San Francisco, Howard died at age 75 in 1999. Maxine, who hailed from Pocatello, Idaho, died last month, just one week shy of her 95th birthday.
Although their physical presence in Soldotna was fleeting, both Howard and Maxine helped shape the community, and their legacy lives on in the land and the home they left behind.
Decades after their departure from Soldotna, Howard and Maxine wrote brief but colorful memoirs of their time together in Alaska. Howard’s undated writing — in which he never mentions Maxine by name, referring to her only as “my wife” — is titled “Reminiscent Ramblings of Early Soldatna.” Maxine’s untitled writing is dated Sept. 7, 2003. Perhaps like Howard and Maxine themselves, those reminiscences do not always agree.
Both Maxine and Howard served with the U.S. Navy in World War II. An aviator and later an experimental night fighter pilot instructor, Howard was stationed at Vero Beach, Florida, when he wed Maxine, a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), which was at that time the women’s branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve.
After their daughter, Karen, was born, the Lees were becoming “increasingly disenchanted with the regimental life in the Navy” and were seeking some form of escape, according to Maxine. Howard also recalled “very trying circumstances,” but he recounted them with greater clarity.
“In the fall of 1947,” Howard said, “I had been uprooted from the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, where I thought I had an assignment of some permanence and was sent to naval duty at a base near Chicago. Selling a recently purchased home, we arrived in [the] Chicago area shocked by the lack of and the expense of housing. Living from hand to mouth in a deplorable, one-room converted garage, plus the fact I was working under a real bastard who’s [sic] greatest joy seemed to be my misery, I was really susceptible to a Saturday Evening Post article expounding the glories of the (Alaska) territory.”
The article focused primarily on the homesteading opportunities for military veterans willing to move to the Matanuska Valley. It sounded simple enough, go to the Anchorage Land Office, file on a suitable parcel, build a habitable abode, live on the land at least six months and a day out of the year, and clear one-tenth of the total acreage.
“Before long,” Howard said, “I had promoted enthusiasm in my wife to go north and requested release from active duty with the Navy.”
Howard headed to Alaska first to secure some land and set up shelter for Maxine and Karen. Leaving his wife and child in Seattle in March 1948, he boarded the Alaska Steamship Company vessel Baranof, bound for Seward. According to Maxine, he arrived and headed straight for Kenai. According to Howard, the journey wasn’t so simple.
First, he wasn’t alone on his travels north. He was accompanied by Maxine’s “brother-in-law-to-be,” Gail Ison. Second, he found the Inside Passage so beautiful that he was tempted in “every port” to jump ship and set down his stakes. Third, when he and Ison arrived in Seward, they failed to realize that they could ride a train north, so they contacted a local Bush pilot to fly them to the Matanuska Valley. Fourth, the Bush pilot changed their minds.
“The pilot sized us up quickly and wasn’t about to haul these two cheechakos without counseling,” Howard said. “He went on to explain that Matanuska was not what we wanted, but that the Kenai Peninsula, where the west side had recently been opened for veterans’ homesteading, was our answer.”
By noon the next day, they were standing in Kenai and wobbling beneath 80-pound backpacks full of “cheechako crap,” such as heavy sleeping bags, iron frying pans and “the firepower of an infantry platoon.”
Howard and Ison began walking east, following a newly cut road (now the Kenai Spur Highway) that roughly paralleled the meandering Kenai River. The road, which Howard compared to a “quagmire” after a recent thaw, led toward what is now Soldotna and, over the course of two days of walking, introduced them to a handful of the locals.
Howard first met Larry Lancashire, followed by Jack and Margaret Irons, and over coffee he learned that, although all the available land abutting the new highway had already been claimed, an intriguing homesteading possibility still existed.
A couple named Peterson, he was told, had a homestead (where Soldotna Elementary School now stands), and they wanted out. According to Howard, Mr. Peterson wanted to go commercial fishing but “felt strapped to his home and much pregnant wife.” Things weren’t working out as they had planned. During the previous winter, the husband had trucked a military Quonset hut over the frozen roadway from Seward and had erected it on his property. Since then, he had done nothing to continue proving up on his land.
Howard located Peterson, who offered to sell him the 60-by-30-foot Quonset for $1,000, a price that included relinquishing his land in full to the Lees. Howard made the deal and filed on the land.
Ison later learned of another nearby parcel that had been abandoned and proceeded to file for a homestead of his own. Before the year was out, however, he relinquished his homesteading claim so he could live in Anchorage and work on the railroad. Ison’s land was then filed on by Dick Gerhardt, who would later name the road along his property Marydale Avenue after his wife.
Meanwhile, Howard took stock of his situation and made this brief and sardonic assessment: “A bride of two and a half years with child in tow must have been thrilled with the accommodations. Our bed was the floor of the hut, softened by pine boughs under a sleeping bag.”
Maxine, once she laid eyes on the place in June, called the site of the Quonset “a shock” and was decidedly more critical about the details:
“The Quonset had two small windows and a door on each end, 60 feet apart. There was a black iron wood range for cooking in front on the right. In the middle was a heating stove made of a cast-off oil barrel left by the road commission. It was sitting on a bed of rocks and had a pile of dirt on the inside so that the heat from a fire wouldn’t burn a hole in the barrel stove or in the floor. Behind it was a wall made of gunny sacks and flattened large cardboard boxes which divided the Quonset in two to minimize the area needed to be heated. In the front there were cupboards made of stacked empty apple crates. The table was also made of apple crates. The chairs were tree stumps.”
She was no more excited about the homemaker’s area — “a big round washtub, a washboard, some chipped cups and plates, a coffee pot, a worn-out broom and mop, and some pans made out of the five-gallon Blazo cans.”
Howard referred to most homestead furniture in those days as “Blazo modern.”
Since they had no well on their property, once a day — twice on Saturdays when he could hitch a ride on Larry Lancashire’s Jeep — Howard would hike about a mile to Soldotna Creek to bring in water, five gallons at a time, carried in a Blazo can strapped to a packboard.
“First we’d bathe,” said Maxine. “Then I’d wash clothes in the water. Then I would scrub the floor. Then I carried the wet clothes the mile to Soldotna Creek to rinse them in the icy, glacier-fed water [of the Kenai River] and then carried them back home to hang on bushes to dry.”
Their homesteading life was just beginning.