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.
By Clark Fair
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: