Category Archives: Almanac

Almanac: Stamp of approval — 1st postmaster fondly recalls Soldotna life

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about two of Soldotna’s earliest settlers — Howard and Maxine Lee. Last week, Part One followed the Lees from their World War II naval involvement to their earliest homesteading efforts in the first half of 1948. Part Two begins later in 1948 and reveals how the Lees integrated into fledgling Soldotna society, and how their adventure in Alaska abruptly ended. The documents used for the Lees’ quotes in this story were provided by the Soldotna Historical Society.

Photo courtesy of the KPC Historical Photo Archive. Howard and Maxine Lee pose with their children, Karen and Michael, next to their Soldotna homestead cabin in 1950.

Photo courtesy of the KPC Historical Photo Archive. Howard and Maxine Lee pose with their children, Karen and Michael, next to their Soldotna homestead cabin in 1950.

By Clark Fair

Redoubt Reporter

Although much of early homesteading life required more sweat equity than capital, most residents near the highway junction that would later be called Soldotna sought ways to bring in extra income. The Lancashire family raised chickens and began clearing land for farming. The Mullen family also raised chickens and created a large garden so they could sell vegetables. Many locals tried their hand at commercial fishing.

In 1948, Howard and Maxine Lee opened a general store in the back of their 60-by-30-foot Quonset hut on their Soldotna homestead.

“My childhood was involved to a large extent in my family’s grocery business,” Howard said. “I wrote a wholesaler in Seattle and put in an order.”

He erected shelves in the back half of the Quonset and found a trucker in Seward who would haul his first load of merchandise to Soldotna.

“We marked prices very low since we had no overhead and we were ignorant,” said Maxine, who was pregnant at the time with their son, Michael. “We sold out in no time, so we reordered. This time there was a huge storm and the barge sank.”

The merchandise had been insured, but they had to pay new shipping costs when they reordered. Later, the wholesaler informed the Lees that they needed a business license, which could not be acquired locally. Almost as quickly as they had begun, the Lees were out of the grocery business.

They stayed plenty busy, however.

Most days, Howard walked two miles to the Lancashire homestead to work with Larry on his portable sawmill, trimming local timber for house logs, first to replace the Lancashires’ wall tent and then the Lees’ Quonset hut.

In 1949, as Howard and Maxine’s new home neared completion, the Lees dug their own well. As usual, their memoirs vary on the details.

Maxine remembered the effort this way:

“Howard dug a well. It was either 18 or 20 feet deep — I forget. After it was about six feet deep, he rigged up a pulley system. He filled a bucket with dirt and gravel, yelled at me, then raised it up. I got it and dumped it around new cabin to serve as ground insulation. We were finally emancipated (from hauling water) when the well pump arrived from Seward and we pumped up real water from our own well.”

Howard recalled it differently:

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Almanac: Lees leave a postmark — Homesteaders have big impact in short time in Soldotna

Photo courtesy of Michael Lee. Newlyweds Howard and Maxine Lee pose, in uniform, after their 1945 marriage in a chapel in Vero Beach, Florida.

Photo courtesy of Michael Lee. Newlyweds Howard and Maxine Lee pose, in uniform, after their 1945 marriage in a chapel in Vero Beach, Florida.

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

Redoubt Reporter

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.

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Almanac: Short-timer, long legacy — Howard Binkley has joking title of area’s 1st realtor

Photo by Ray Sandstrom, courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Photo Repository. Howard J. Binkley poses in 1952 in front of a log house on his homestead property in Soldotna. The two-story structure had a propane cookstove complemented by a good woodpile. Early in the 21st century, this structure was moved to a location off East Redoubt Avenue and was nicely restored. Binkley spent only a handful of years in this home before returning to his native Pennsylvania.

Photo by Ray Sandstrom, courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Photo Repository. Howard J. Binkley poses in 1952 in front of a log house on his homestead property in Soldotna. The two-story structure had a propane cookstove complemented by a good woodpile. Early in the 21st century, this structure was moved to a location off East Redoubt Avenue and was nicely restored. Binkley spent only a handful of years in this home before returning to his native Pennsylvania.

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.”

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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.

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Almanac: McKinley: Bad name evoking bad decisions

Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov. William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States.

Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov. William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States.

By Brent Johnson, for the Redoubt Reporter

The name “McKinley” is out in Alaska. That’s appropriate for two reasons. First, the mountain’s Koyukon Athabascan name was always better because it meant “the high one.” Second, President McKinley’s reputation in Alaska is low. Here’s why:

There once was a crook named Alexander Mackenzie, who was a Republican national committeeman from North Dakota. In 1883, McKenzie succeeded in getting the capitol of Dakota Territory moved from Yankton to Bismark, where he owned property.

McKenzie had an ear for money and learned of the gold strike in Nome. And he heard that foreigners (often called “the three lucky Swedes”) had filed first and got the best claims. McKenzie thought he could use an irritant against immigrants to steal their good fortune.

Turns out that two of the foreigners were already naturalized citizens, and also that the mining laws allowed for foreigners to participate. So McKenzie tried to change the laws to gain an opportunity to seize the mother lode based on race. When that effort failed, he simply took the law into his own hands.

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Lot lines to discern — Before Kenai could grow, Uncle Sam needed to be in the know

Image courtesy of Shana Loshbaugh. The original townsite map of what is now known as Old Town Kenai was created by surveyor Elliott Pearson, starting in 1951 and revised in 1954. The village of Kenai developed before modern-day subdivision standards came to Alaska. Note that the spit of land seen bottom left has now largely eroded with the crumbling bluff above the mouth of the Kenai River.

Image courtesy of Shana Loshbaugh. The original townsite map of what is now known as Old Town Kenai was created by surveyor Elliott Pearson, starting in 1951 and revised in 1954. The village of Kenai developed before modern-day subdivision standards came to Alaska. Note that the spit of land seen bottom left has now largely eroded with the crumbling bluff above the mouth of the Kenai River.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Joanna Hollier moved to Kenai long before it gained its “Village with a Past, City with a Future” motto. Before it was even a city, when the village’s past was the present. When Old Town Kenai was just Kenai.

“I came here in August of ’46, and there was no roads. I mean, no getting around with cars and what not. So we were more or less out there in old town, or Kenai — it was just called Kenai at that time — was downtown at that time,” she said.

Hollier came to town to work with the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration, and has lived here through the town’s most dramatic period of change, as described by historian Shana Loshbaugh at a meeting of the Kenai Historical Society on Sunday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

“Back in the early part of the 20th century, Kenai was basically an offroad Native village, like so many in Alaska still are,” Loshbaugh said. “It had a lot of Russian influence, the big industry in the area was the canneries. But really very different from what we have today. There were a lot of changes that started about 1940 to 1960, which is really when Kenai morphed from the village to city. As of the time of the beginning of World War II, you can see Kenai was pretty isolated, didn’t have a good port, no roads. The 20th century, however, was slowly coming to Kenai.”

Hollier worked for one of the biggest agents of change in Kenai — aviation. In 1926, the first plane came to Kenai, and the first “airstrip” was established in 1937.

“And basically little planes could land on the road just over here on Overland Drive,” Loshbaugh said.

The village got airmail service in 1930, though by the end of the ’30s mail service stopped because the community was seen as too small, and residents had to go to Kasilof for their mail.

But World War II was brewing, and the federal government saw Alaska as an integral part.

“Now, the war is when the changes really started happening in this area,” Loshbaugh said. “When the United States was not part of the war effort there were a lot of national leaders who really had a premonition that the U.S. was going to get dragged into it and there were also people who recognized the strategic importance of Alaska so they started sending federal resources to Alaska and ramping up for a potential war effort in this area.”

In March 1941, the military reserved a huge chunk of land — two to three square miles — just outside the Kenai village site, from the bluff adjacent to where the Kenai Senior Citizens Center is now, out into the wetlands north of town. In December, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the U.S. officially joined the fight. In 1942, the CAA built a 5,000-foot airstrip in Kenai, which has turned into the airport we have today. It didn’t end up having much role in the war effort, but had a huge role in transforming Kenai.

“It was the war that brought this airfield to Kenai and it was set up to be a major airport that they could use in an emergency situation,” Loshbaugh said. “So that’s basically what Kenai got out of World War II was the airstrip. And when the Air Force and the military wound down and the war ended the airstrip stayed, and by 1945 the descriptions show that the Civil Aeronautics Administration that ran it was one of the major employers in the Village of Kenai.”

Road access was the next big change for the then-little community. In 1946, surveying for the Sterling Highway began, and the road was dedicated in 1950, with the Kenai Spur Highway completed not long after.

“At that point the population of Kenai in the official census in 1950 was 321. That’s less than 10 more than had been 10 years before, so Kenai was still a little bitty place at that point, but things were on the move. Next thing they get electricity,” Loshbaugh said.

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Grave concern — Volunteers undertake cemetery preservation

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Tracy Miller, president of the Totem Tracers genealogical society, examines the remains of the Kasilof Boat Harbor Cemetery. The group is trying to preserve the site and expound on its history.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Tracy Miller, president of the Totem Tracers genealogical society, examines the remains of the Kasilof Boat Harbor Cemetery. The group is trying to preserve the site and expound on its history.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Up until about a year ago, you wouldn’t think there was anything special about the seemingly vacant lot along the last bend of Kasilof Beach Road before reaching the north beach of the river mouth.

But there’s more than just untamed grass sprinkled with trees and wildflowers, and littered with trash, toilet paper flags and other evidence of the illicit camping and vandalism that’s plagued the area during fishing season. There are indications of habitation that have stood for a century, but without intervention, won’t be standing for much longer.

That’s where Tracy Miller and the Totem Tracers genealogical society come in. The group has taken it upon itself to preserve the old Kasilof Boat Harbor Cemetery before the little-known burial site is lost to all but history.

“It’s an abandoned cemetery, it needed some help. These people, their headstones were made well enough that somebody cared enough for it to last over time. So I think that our generation at least should pick up and make sure that maybe they’ll last another 50 years, or 100 years,” Miller said.

In the late 1970s, the Totem Tracers set out to catalog all graves on the Kenai Peninsula, from Hope to Homer, and produced a book of their findings in 1983, which was updated in 2004.

“The genealogical society, we like dead people,” Miller said. “We like the history of it. We get a lot of local people trying to find relatives, and we’re hoping to be able to at least give them a little bit of help.”

The project unearthed a lot of interesting history, and one of the most intriguing finds was the Kasilof burial site. There are four century-old graves surrounded by wood picket fences, with 5-foot-tall, rounded, cedar plank-grave markers affixed to the fences, bearing raised lettering still legible today.

The oldest says, “In memory of William Freeman, a native of Finland. Aged 65 years. Died Sept. 30, 1906.” Next is Alex Benson, of Sweden, who died at age 38 on May 6, 1907. Harry Mason, of Norway, died June 4, 1915, at age 67.

A grave marker from the cemetery made its way to storage in the anthropology lab at Kenai Peninsula College after it was apparently stolen from the site.

A grave marker from the cemetery made its way to storage in the anthropology lab at Kenai Peninsula College after it was apparently stolen from the site.

The fourth marker is no longer at the site. It’s believed to have been stolen around 1980, and was discovered in a ditch around 1990. Soldotna Police found it and it ended up with Dr. Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, who has been storing it in the school’s anthropology lab. It reads, “In memory of Fred Sandel, a native of Finland, aged 70, died Oct. 9, 1925.”

Another marker was documented in the book, as well — a long, thin board that is thought to mark a mass grave of Chinese men. And one newer grave, for Peter Bates Walker, born May 10, 1935, died Oct. 31, 1982, who lived next to the cemetery, also is at the site.

Other than Bates being noted as “Good father, husband, friend,” there is no further information about those buried beneath the markers. No epitaphs to hint at who they were, what happened to them, or why four Scandinavians and an undetermined number of Chinese men were living, much less buried, in Kasilof around the turn of the century.

The Totem Tracers don’t know much for sure, but they’d like to find out. First, though, this summer, they’d like to preserve the history, and then in the winter start working on the mystery.

“It’s history and I have a fascination for cemeteries, genealogy. I just want to know who these people were,” Miller said.

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