Category Archives: history

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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On wings of change — Historic birding accounts note avian population trends

Photo courtesy of Jim Taylor. Huge flocks of snow geese used be a regular yearly sight on the Kenai River Flats before Bridge Access Road was constructed. That is no longer the case.

Photo courtesy of Jim Taylor. Huge flocks of snow geese used be a regular yearly sight on the Kenai River Flats before Bridge Access Road was constructed. That is no longer the case.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Though it had no airline flights, highways or cruise ships 100 years ago, the Kenai Peninsula still drew visitors, both of the human and feathered varieties.

It was from records of human visitors at the turn of the 20th century that Todd Eskelin, fish and wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, began to piece together a history of bird populations on the Kenai Peninsula.

Documentation from three exploratory expeditions to Alaska, including Cook Inlet, in 1899, 1900 and 1901 give a glimpse of some changes that have taken place, and individual birders over the years have added observations to the knowledge base.

“None of the information that we have from the Kenai and Kasilof flats is state- or government-sponsored surveys. It really is individual birders and not scientists that are paid to go and generate the information that tells us how important these spots are,” Eskelin said.

The Harriman expedition in June-July 1899, the Osgood expedition in August-September 1900 and a few references from the Andrew Stone expedition of 1901 give some basis for comparing bird populations from a century ago to now. Back then, common eiders were indeed common around Kachemak Bay. Today, only a few are found during winter and early spring.

A frequent sight today, the northwest crow 100 years ago was a frequent sight only as far northwest as Valdez.

These days, among woodpeckers, the three-toed variety is the most ubiquitous on the peninsula, but only one specimen was recorded by the expeditions, and Native residents at the time were reportedly unfamiliar with the bird.

The records also don’t note seeing black-capped chickadees, American robins or a couple of now-common waterfowl, including northern pintails and American wigeons.

The absence of observations could mean a variety of things, Eskelin said. It’s possible the expeditions visited the peninsula during the chickadees’ nesting time, for example, so just missed them. The lack of robins might say more about an inflated population today, owing to the growth of apple orchards in their winter grounds in Washington. And waterfowl in general seemed to be suffering from depressed populations nationally around 1900, he said.

Other bird population changes have been tracked with more certainty over the years, particularly with advances in technology. One early indication of bird populations wasn’t even to count the birds themselves, but to count feathers seen adorning hats in the late 1880s. American Museum of Natural History ornithologist Frank Chapman published such a survey, conducted in Manhattan in 1886. On two walks along the street, he noted 21 common tern feathers, 23 cedar waxwing, five blue jay, one greater yellowlegs, 15 snow buntings, one green-backed heron and one greater prairie chicken feathers, among many others.

Bird surveys are much easier and more accurate today. At first it was just eyes and ears doing the work. Then biologists could go out with VHF radios and antenna and triangulate the location of birds.

“But with satellite you don’t even have to go find that bird, because the satellites find them,” Eskelin said.

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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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Gold rush mushing — Ouiji board a fun ride to commune with Iditaord history

Photo courtesy of Robert Kasuboski. Joseph Robertia and Rod Perry, dressed in period attire, drive a historic dogsled out of Anchorage in the ceremonial start of the 2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday.

Photo courtesy of Robert Kasuboski. Joseph Robertia and Rod Perry, dressed in period attire, drive a historic dogsled out of Anchorage in the ceremonial start of the 2015 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Water flowed like a small stream in the asphalt gutter in which my sled dogs were standing. It was the result of warm, falling rain combined with melting snow — trucked in the night before and spread down the center of Fourth Avenue in Anchorage — that was quickly disappearing in the unseasonable, 40-degree air temperature. Still, I pulled on my beaver fur hat and slid my hands into beaver fur mittens, both usually reserved for temperatures 80 degrees colder, at the warmest.

I felt a little silly, but nothing about last weekend seemed logical. It began a few weeks earlier when I got a call from Rod Perry, one of 22 finishers of the first Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in 1973. He no longer has a kennel of his own, but has never drifted far from the race or the route’s nonsporting beginning.

In 2009, Perry released the first of two volumes on the history of the Iditarod, “Trailbreakers: Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod,” which chronicles the gold-rush era, when tons of gold worth millions of dollars was run, via dog team, out of remote areas of Alaska. In 2011, for the centennial commemoration of the Iditarod Trail, Perry was asked to lead the mushers during the race’s ceremonial start.

It occurred to him in that experience that while fans were rabid for race action, not many seemed to have a good understanding of the history of the route. Wanting to change that, Perry worked with the Iditarod and sponsor Wells Fargo to get the go-ahead to lead the 2015 ceremonial start while wearing vintage clothing and riding a replica of the Wells Fargo “Gold Train” freight sled that hauled gold from Nome to Anchorage from 1910-18.

The caveat, other than Perry needing to find a dog team to pull the 21-foot-long oaken freight sled — built in Kasilof by Perry, his brother, Alan, and friend, Cliff Sisson — was that this behemoth needed two people to steer it. One musher, Perry, would be on the back working the brakes and managing the speed, and one would be in front to steer by using a rudderlike device called a gee pole.

Having a trained-up team of huskies not committed to racing the trail, being athletic (and not scared to take a few falls) and generally standing too far from a shaving razor, I was an obvious choice for the part in the historical re-enactment. But from what I knew about gee-pole sleds, the front man was on skis.

“And I don’t ski, Rod,” I told him when he called.

“No problem,” he assured me. “You won’t be on skis. You’ll be riding a Ouija board.”

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Stake a claim — Soldotna holds title at end of U.S. homesteading era

Map courtesy of Bureau of Land Management. This map shows in red all homesteads in Alaska from 1898-1988, from a 2012 brochure, “History of Alaska Homesteading,” released by the Bureau of Land Management to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862.

Map courtesy of Bureau of Land Management. This map shows in red all homesteads in Alaska from 1898-1988, from a 2012 brochure, “History of Alaska Homesteading,” released by the Bureau of Land Management to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Shana Loshbaugh came to the Kenai Peninsula under circumstances familiar to many who settled here before her. She moved up from the Lower 48 to live with her husband, Doug, in 1981, looking for opportunity and adventure, being immediately awed by the natural landscape, and taking a little longer to discover the greater nature of the place.

“I think it’s just full of surprises. When I first came here I was like a lot of people, ‘Oh, beautiful wilderness and animals and pristine nature,’ sort of the pretty face of the Kenai Peninsula. And then I started finding things that maybe didn’t quite make sense and started asking more questions,” she said. “I just gradually over time became obsessed with Kenai Peninsula history when I realized it was so interesting and so little of it had been actually pulled together and made public and published in accessible ways, and so I started digging around and the more I learn about it, the more interesting it gets.”

Loshbaugh, who holds a doctorate degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in environmental history and now lives in Anchor Point, wanted a piece of the peninsula to call her own. In that regard she was a lot like the settlers about which she was speaking at the Kenai Historical Society meeting on Sunday at the Nikiski Senior Center. Her presentation was on homesteading on the Kenai Peninsula, and she had some experts in the room.

“Let me ask a question, though, with this group of people, how many people in this room were homesteaders?”

About 10 people in the packed conference room raised their hands.

“So I don’t know if I can tell you anything you don’t already know about this, but for the other folks in the room … ,” she began.

Owning a piece of the Kenai Peninsula hasn’t always been as straightforward as a real estate purchase is today. Back when the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, the matter was complicated.

“Who owned the Kenai? Well, technically the federal government owned it. Why? Because they bought it from the Tsarist government, which claimed that they owned it. This of course was a big surprise to lot of the people that actually lived in Alaska, who didn’t have anything to do with either of these governments,” Loshbaugh said.

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