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I interviewed May Carter twice in the summer of 2003. Even though I had never met her before, she welcomed me into her home and we sat and talked for hours; it was as if we had known each other for years.

May was a small woman with a hearty laugh that encouraged conversation and it was very easy to see why people spoke so highly of this Wasilla pioneer. At the age of 88, she was still quick-witted, perceptive, intelligent, resourceful and unpretentious; it was a true honor to meet her.   coleen_mielke@hotmail.com


 

A 1940's Look at the Frontier Town of Wasilla, Alaska
As Seen Through The Eyes of
Clara May (Martin) Carter
First Woman U.S. Commissioner of Wasilla 1944-1959
and Wasilla Postmaster 1944-1973

By Coleen Mielke
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 May Carter, born in 1915, was raised in Broadwater County, Montana, the youngest of six children born to Frank and Clara (Little) Martin. When she was 18, May told her parents she was going to marry a man named Sidney Rae, the only son of Don and Delia (Cole) Rae. In spite of her parents strong objections (Sidney was a 33 year old divorcee) the couple married in the summer of 1933.

May's new husband had big plans to move to Alaska, so in the spring of 1940, the young couple and their two children drove from Helena, Montana to Seattle where they boarded a ship headed to Seward, Alaska. "You couldn't drive to Alaska, in those days", May told me, "instead, it was a six day ship voyage from Seattle to Seward. My husband assured me that he knew were to find gold in Alaska because his father mined for it at Hatcher Pass years ago, we were young and foolish I guess."

In Alaska, their final destination was the whistle-stop town of Wasilla, a 160 mile train ride from Seward. During the trip, the conductor warned May that Wasilla had no accommodations for women and children and suggested that she should get off the train at Matanuska Junction (9 miles before Wasilla) because there were hotel accommodations there. That sounded pretty good to May since the families truck and household goods were still stuck in Seward and would not catch up to them for another two weeks.


May  told me, "I immediately knew I was in big trouble when we got off the train at Matanuska Junction. The 'town' consisted of a railroad depot that had no agent and a hotel that was closed. The wind was blowing a gale, and it was obvious that we were in the middle of nowhere without shelter for my daughter and newborn son. Fortunately, there was an elderly Presbyterian minister from Palmer who met every train and asked if he could be of any assistance to us. We told him what had happened and he said 'Well, I can take you to Palmer, but there is nothing but a mens dormitory there and nothing for women or children'. We decided the dormitory would be better than standing on that open field at Matanuska Junction. He dropped me and the kids off at the mens bunk house while they went into Palmer and found a two room shack that was available for us to rent. I'll never forget that first night. I would have gone back to Montana the very next day if I could have, but I didn't have any money".   Once her family was in bed for the night, May remembers, "I headed for the outdoor ‘biffy’ and had a good cry".  A week or so later, the family moved to Wasilla.

"In Wasilla, the people were very friendly, they just opened their hearts and were good to us", May said, "they helped us find a house to live in on Main Street, which was about all there was in 1940; the road didn't go any farther than a block off of Main Street to the school and the main road went back up to the mines. There was no plumbing in the houses but there was a public well right in the middle of the main street, right about where the fire station is today. They had dug a well and it had a rope and a bucket and pulley. You'd put the bucket down the well and fill your bucket, even in the winter time. Electricity didn't come to Wasilla until about 1942."

May’s husband tried gold mining for a few years but had little luck.  He was discouraged and wanted to leave Alaska, but May had fallen in love with the Valley and didn't want to leave. In spite of her objections, her husband sold the family truck and the household goods and left for Seattle. She was now an unemployed single parent, in the wilds of Alaska, with two young children, no income, no furniture and no transportation.

May didn't give in to self pity. Instead, she landed a secretarial job for the FAA in Anchorage and rented a little one room apartment "just big enough for a single bed and a bath". Later, she found an even better secretarial job with the railroad and faced all of those early adversities with the grace and courage she is still well known for.

A beautiful and resourceful young woman, May was not single for very long.  She fell in love with a man named Thomas L. “Pat” Carter. "In 1942, before he went into the Army, Pat had a job freighting the materials, food and supplies to the crews building the Glenn Highway. The first camp he was at was about two miles out of Palmer, where you go down a hill. You should have seen it. He had a big 8 wheel Ford truck that he hauled all the stuff for the camp with. When he joined the Army, he
was stationed at Valdez which was about as far away as China in those days. His job was to transport prisoners to and from Valdez for the Army, but there was no direct road to Valdez. Occasionally, the route was from Seward directly to Valdez by boat, but more often Pat had to go from Valdez, up the Richardson Highway to Fairbanks and then back to Anchorage by train, then reverse the route. It wasn't easy to find time (between transport routes) to get married in those days because the law required a three day waiting period between the time you applied for the license and the ceremony itself. Since Pat's circuit with the prisoners took two days, it was hard to find that 3rd (waiting) day. We finally found the time to get married in 1943”.

In 1944, while May was in the hospital having a baby, Eva (Fleckenstein) Herning went to visit her and suggested that she apply for the job of Wasilla Postmaster-Commissioner. "I don't know a thing about being Postmaster or Commissioner" May told Eva; "Well, May, you can learn! Eva had all kinds of faith in me I guess". May was hired to replace the recently deceased Howard Wilmoth, as Postmaster-Commissioner (magistrate) of Wasilla.

"My husband got out of the service in 1945 and we bought the larger house on the hill across from the Community Hall on Main Street. It was originally built by Eva's husband, Stan Herning, but they had moved into Anchorage where they bought a bar." 

"Privacy was an issue when we bought that house because it had all those front windows and people could see into the house when they came to the Post Office. Well, one day, two old Indians, named Blind Nick and Theodore, came in and Blind Nick said, 'You Judge?', I told him yes and Nick said 'Theodore wants to talk to you'. I asked him what the problem was. Well, Theodore would only talk to Nick and Nick would then talk to me. The upshot was that Theodore wanted me to stop his young wife, Katie, from running off on the weekends. I told Nick to tell Theodore that he might be better off raising his two little boys on his own. I don't know if he listened, but I do know that old Theodore ended up raising the little boys by himself and he did a pretty good job for an old man."

"My first job as Commissioner was a double wedding. I can't remember their names, but one couple was a couple from Palmer and the other couple was from over on the Richardson Highway.  I didn’t know how to perform the ceremony; I didn’t know if you asked both brides, or you asked both grooms or whether you asked one couple then the other.  I didn’t have a book and I didn’t get any training at all, absolutely nothing, so I learned as I went.. At first it was hard when I was called away from home to do my job, so  after my husband got out of the Army, I went to the Judge and explained that I had small children AND the Post Office to contend with, so I couldn't go out of town when the job required it. The Judge appointed Pat as a special U.S. Commissioner and from then on he was able to legally handle those out of town things". 

I asked May to describe early Wasilla: "Well, as far as businesses in Wasilla (in 1940), there was a general store, a hotel that had an eating place, a tavern, the Post Office and a one room school. There was no church of any kind and not much of a cemetery...well, there was a little cemetery on this hill back here, the first little hill you go up on Knik Road, just right out of town; there are 4 graves there but I don't know who is buried there; most were buried in Anchorage or Palmer. The main cemetery that we have now was the result of Martin and Edith Olson; they had an old homestead where Fred Meyer is now. Edith organized a bunch of women to raise money to buy land for a cemetery. I think the first person to be buried out there was Gus Swanson."

“We bought most of our groceries from Herning’s store.  You couldn’t get fresh milk or fresh meat and during WWII stuff like sugar and butter was rationed; you got one pound at a time and it didn’t last long enough, so we bought fresh meat and milk from Palmer farmers.  An Eskimo lady, married to a white man that lived out on Wasilla Lake had cows; their name was Peck and he was the railroad depot agent in Wasilla."

"We had one telephone in town and it was at the depot. When I was working, you always had some lawyer calling for information or a description of a piece of property that somebody wanted to buy. Well, they would call for me, and the depot agent would have to tell the caller ‘I’ll go get her’  and he would come and get me and I’d walk the two blocks down to the depot telephone and call the guy back and find out what he wanted, then I would walk back up to my office, and get the information, then walk back down and call him back and give him the information. We lived on Main Street, across from the community center. In 1944, our house was one of only three buildings in Wasilla that had running water and a flush toilet; my bathroom was very popular with friends. It was only a block up from where I had my office, right across from the fire hall. The Community Hall, which is now the museum, was the place where we had everything, wing-dings, dances, basketball games, etc., and people would ask to go across the street to use my bathroom. Yes, there were only three houses in town with plumbing, mine, Dorothy Nelson who was a school teacher here, and the Herning's. The Herning's lived in the back of the store when we moved to Wasilla, but Mr. Herning had this nice house built with modern appliances and running water but his wife wouldn't live in it". 

May was the U.S. Commissioner of Wasilla from 1944 until 1959 and the Postmaster of Wasilla from 1944 until 1973. If you had business in the Valley during those years, chances are you met May Carter. She performed weddings, investigated deaths, issued death certificates, helped people file homestead papers, set fines and jail sentences for fish and game violations, she did title searches, recorded leases and transfers, issued license plates and drivers licenses; “all you had to do to get a drivers license, in the early days, was to fill out the application”, May said.  She recorded gold mine claims and was the probate judge and notary. She was “on duty” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. May recalled one time "late at night, a young couple wanted to get married. They had already submitted the application, so I just had to make out the license, round up a couple of witnesses and perform the ceremony. Half way through the ceremony, the bride said 'I've changed my mind, I don't want to get married'. I told her if she didn't want to get married by all means she shouldn't. Five minutes later, she changed her mind the other way; this went back and forth for half an hour and finally, I told her it was late and she had to make up her mind. They finally decided to get married. The next morning when I opened the office, the groom showed up and said, 'May, will you  tear up those papers, I never even got her home'."  

Working as Commissioner didn't pay much, “You didn't get an hourly wage but you were allowed to keep your fees. They had a fee system and people paid so-many dollars for a drivers license and that was my pay; I was allowed to keep up to $1,600 a year.  As Postmaster, my wages were based on stamp sales and registration fees. Independence Gold Mine melted their gold down into disks about the size of a small cast iron frying pan. Then they put the disk in a canvas bag and fastened it with a lead seal and mailed  it to Seattle; it took $100 worth of stamps, so that was always a special payday for me. Nobody knew it, at the time, but those gold disks were put right on the mail cart with the rest of the mail.  Of course, there wasn't a lot of crime in Wasilla in those days", May said.

May had a wealth of early Wasilla stories to tell, like the one about Jay Lavan. "He moved to the Valley as a GI homesteader, with a wife and a couple kids. To meet the homestead requirements, GI's had to fill out a set of forms and then get a witness to fill out a second form and it all had to be notarized. Lavan was a great big, tall, lanky guy who carried two of those great big black lunch boxes to work because he had such a big appetite. He was a happy go lucky guy and everybody liked him.  Well, his witnesses came in signed the papers and Jay paid the $10.00.  Oh, he was so happy and he went on his way.  Well, there was a family that had moved into Knik and they were called 'the goat people' because they had goats that lived in their house and climbed all over everything and when they went anyplace in the car, they took the goats with them. So, on his way home, who does Jay Lavan run into but the goat people. In those early days, if somebody was broken down or stalled on the road, you always stopped to help them.  So, Lavan got out of his truck and helped the family get their rig started. After they drove off, he realized he left the door to his truck open and the goats had gotten in and eaten his homestead papers! He came into the office next day and he was so forlorn…..$10.00 was a lot of money in those days.  I thought it was so funny and I burst out laughing and I told him, Oh Van, don’t feel bad, just get yourself some more forms and bring those people back in and I won’t charge you $10.00 this time” (big laugh from May).

Another well known Wasilla character was a “Native man named Blind Nick who was once, according to May, a school teacher at the Eklutna Vocational School. He was a very intelligent man, and he spoke English well.  He was completely blind and walked everywhere by feeling the edge of the road with sticks which was fantastic and people watched out for him; he had a cabin about a mile out Wasilla Fishhook. One time, he was drunk and laid down in the middle of the road and someone ran over his legs. There were no broken bones, but he couldn't walk for a while and my husband Pat used to go and take care of him by building a fire and making something for Nick to eat every day, Pat was good to people like that."

Another character was Anderson, an older Swedish man who lived in Wasilla but homesteaded out at Big Lake. There was no road to Big Lake back then, so Anderson drove his tractor on the railroad easement as far as Pittman, then he would lay blocks of wood over the rails so he could drive the tractor over the tracks and continue down the trail to Big Lake; he came into town to see his wife on the weekends.

“Shorty Gustafson had the first airplane in the valley and he used it to fly back and forth to the mines. There was a flat, wide, strip beside the road up there, about one or two miles below the mines and he landed there; there was another long landing strip over at Lucky Shot.  Shorty had kind of a log building, near where the store was, and he lived upstairs and never married.  He played the guitar and banjo and he loved to entertain when he got a little drunk. He was quite a character.  He was a jack-of-all-trades and ran kind of a taxi from Wasilla to Palmer”.

A woman that May thought highly of, was Rose Johnson “…she was a nurse and she was always doing something for everybody.  When a baby died, we would make a little coffin and she and I would take some satin and padding and fix it up and she was a jewel at it, just out of the goodness of her heart, no charge.  She used to make pressed flowers and made pictures with them.  She lived over a couple three houses back from my house off of Main Street, the building is still there”.

Jack Fabyan was another character, "he worked for the mines as a mechanic and a welder. He won a bunch of money on the Nenana ice pool one year and his friends helped him drink most of that money away. Many years later, two IRS agents came to my office and asked where Jack Fabyan lived (he lived in a tiny shack, with absolutely nothing to his name). The agents told Fabyan about his tax debt on the ice pool winnings and he told them, 'Well, this is it, you can have it if you want it'. The agents would leave but every couple of years new agents would show up and he would tell them the same thing...he was fool-proofed."

"I wish the old timers were still here to tell you stories" May told me, "like Ila and Bill Senske, who homesteaded 4 miles out Knik road in about 1927; they befriended every person who ever came to this country. When the GI's poured into this area after World War II, Bill and Ila took care of them. You wouldn't believe the darndest rigs that those young families drove over the Al-Can Highway with. Bill would help the men find their corner stakes so they could file for a homestead and Ila would teach the women to bake bread and slice up moose meat to survive. If it weren't for people like Bill and Ila Senske, those young families would have starved to death. Other early families were the Herning's, the Peck's, the Dodson's, the Thorpe's and the Fleckenstein's. The Thorpe's had a homestead 4 miles out on Knik road on the left hand side."

"The roads were different back then. There was a road to Palmer, it went out of Wasilla and crossed the railroad tracks and turned and went up the hill where there is a gravel place now. Well, you went up that hill and down and followed it, well, the road basically went by Green Acres. It's all changed some because they took some of the bad curves out of it. You know where Wilderness Nursery is? Well, that was the place where it was always blocked with snow, every winter."

“People didn’t go to Anchorage for very much in those days because a trip to Anchorage and back was an all day event. The road went from Palmer to Anchorage on what they call the Old Glenn Highway now. The road across the flats, by Eklutna, was so wash-boardy it was hard to stay inside of your car. We went to Anchorage maybe two or three times a year."

I asked May what early Wasilla residents thought about the Palmer colonists, "Well, there has always been animosity between Wasilla and Palmer because the people in early Wasilla, came here on their own and paid their own way and fought the battle by themselves. The colonists…well, the government brought them in and built them houses and cleared their land. The government built them stores and a hospital and roads and the Colonists didn’t always work on their own places, they worked for somebody else and got paid for that too. The Colonists were always a little more on the grabby side, for instance, services that we had here in Wasilla, like the US Commissioners office and the Road Commissioners office and auto licensing all used to be done here in Wasilla, but after Statehood, it was all moved over to Palmer. To make matters worse, When the colonists came, the government closed all the rest of the land around here to homesteading.  There was no land available  until after WWII when the government opened it all back up. To qualify for a homestead, regular people had to stake the land, live on it for 3 years and cultivate part of it, but the GI's got special treatment. They only had to live on the land for 7 months, did not have to cultivate any of the land and the house they built didn't have to be finished, it just had to have 4 walls, a roof and no floor.

"We had a Deputy Marshall in Palmer, but there wasn't much crime back then. We had more Game Wardens because they had this silly law that you couldn't shoot a moose within a mile of the road. Well, I defy anyone to be be out hunting and try to figure out whether they are a mile from a road, unless a car goes by and they can hear it. Well, we tried to look the other way a lot, but I remember one guy at Knik. He killed a moose about 2 or 3 miles from his house and then dragged it, bleeding, right up to his house. Well, that's putting the evidence right in front of the Wardens nose."

A man named Ed Baker told me a wonderful story about May Carter. He said that when he was a young man, a moose got its legs seriously tangled in some tree branches in his back yard. As hard as the moose fought to release himself, the tangle became worse. Since it was not moose hunting season, Baker went into town and asked May what his legal options were. She told him to kill the moose, dress it and divide all of the meat between Wasilla's old timers, so that's what he did. He said he took a big moose roast over to Clyde and Alice Thorpe. They were so happy to get the meat that Clyde gave Baker a gallon jar of pickled beaver tail in return. Baker told me "I saw salmonella written all over that jar and you could still see hair on the beaver tail". But that was May, common sense and charity personified.

May's husband Pat, passed away in 1991; "he was a kind and generous man with a great sense of humor and worked hard to help people in need.  Over the years, he was employed by M.E.A., the Alcantra Youth Camp and Civil Defense among other things. He and Frank Smith were responsible for obtaining Wasilla’s first fire truck." May paused for a minute and looked sadly out at the lake. After a minute or so, she smiled and told me, "He used to get a moose in the fall and he would bring the whole thing in because he had a small Caterpillar. Once he took this moose head and propped it up on a barrel in the middle of Main Street", she laughed. He was such a comic. "If a young couple came to the office to get married, especially if we knew them, Pat would tell them, 'I have two services, a long one and a short one', which do you want? They would always ask, 'what's the short one?' and Pat would tell them, 'Do you have her?'  and 'Do you have him?'. He passed away on Christmas Eve of 1991, I miss him terribly."

The
Carter’s were very community minded and served on countless boards, committees, fundraisers and work parties. May was on the school board, the Sacred Heart Parish Council, the Wasilla Cemetery Association and she was the treasurer of the “Bishop’s Attic” for 25 years. They donated land to the V.F.W., as well as land for a children's park on the edge of Lake Lucille. Asked if she approved of the city that Wasilla has become, May, ever the diplomat, assured me that Wasilla was still a great town, "except for the traffic".

When I told Mrs. Carter that I admired her dedication to public service, she said, “Well, you know, when I was a little girl, maybe six years old or so, our school lesson was about school boards. They told us that people got paid for their mileage to go to school board meetings, so I asked my dad if he got paid when he went to school board meetings and he told me he did not, then he told me something I have never forgotten… he said ‘it’s just something I do for my community’, that was over 80 years ago but I’ve never forgotten that.  And when you think about it… what can you do for your community?  I’ve served on every board there ever was here.  It’s just what I did for my community".

Towards the end of our visit, I asked May if there was anything she regretted about her years of service as Commissioner. She was silent for a minute, and then said, “It would have been nice to get a note of thanks for doing a good job for 17 years, but I didn’t hear anything and that hurt my feelings”. Hearing the sadness in her voice, I was determined to find a way to publicly recognize May Carter for her years of dedication to the Valley. I sent a copy of this “story” to the Mayor of Wasilla and asked if the City could do something special for May. The Mayor asked the Alaska State Legislature to issue a special award and just before her 88th birthday, in a ceremony at City Hall, May Carter was presented an official Alaska State Proclamation Award for “Her dedication and service as a great pioneer of Alaska”.........you should have seen her eyes sparkle!!!

The Matanuska Valley is a much better place because of the unselfish hard work of May and Pat Carter.  Their tireless efforts, generosity and compassion are wonderful examples of early Alaskan pioneer spirit; they are wonderful role models for us all.
 

 


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