(Walker) Mielke 2014
I recently re-read an interview I did with my father in 1985. It reminded me that time is marching on (for all of us) and it is now MY turn to write about my own childhood in Chugiak during the 1950's and 1960's.
The people, I mention
below, were all early Chugiak homesteaders as well as family
friends. The businesses I mention, thrived during my childhood but
no longer exist. Keep in mind that this account is written through the eyes
of my youth and may not be totally accurate, but it is how I remember it.
My father, Ollie Walker,
was the son of Jacob and Rosina Walker who were 1st generation German-Russian
immigrant farmers in North Dakota. My mother, Kathleen (Furness) Walker,
was the daughter of Thomas and Kate Furness of Cambridge, England.
Dad was drafted into the
Army in March of 1942. After boot camp, he was stationed at Bassingbourn,
England (11 miles from mom's home town) where he worked as a telephone
switchboard operator for the duration of World War II.
My parents met at a dance
and dated each other until the Army sent dad back to America in October
of 1945. When he got back to North Dakota, he moved onto his cousins vacated
farm and bought some livestock. He gave farming an honest effort for about
14 months, then decided he wanted to go back to England and marry mom.
In December of 1946, dad sold his farming investment and bought airline tickets to go back to England. After a 4 week courtship, they married on 1/2/1947 and flew back to the United States two weeks later.
Tragedies Spur a New Start in Alaska
When my parents got back
to Ashley, North Dakota, they bought a small house and dad went to work at
the hardware store. Eight months later, tragedy struck when dad accidentally
hit a little girl with his car. Newspaper articles reported that she and
her grandfather were walking a team of horses from one farm to another when
my dad approached them with his car. He later told authorities that he thought
he could get around the team by driving down in the ditch on the opposite
side of the road. Unfortunately, just as he was about to pass them, the
little girl panicked and ran across the road, directly into the path of
dad's car. Her name was Geraldine Harter and she was only 10; she died later
Four months after the accident,
tragedy touched my parents again. Mom gave birth to a baby boy on Christmas
Eve of 1947; they named him David Oliver. As family legend goes....the
rural farm doctor, that attended the birth, was drunk and failed to properly
clear the fluid from the babies lungs; David died two days later; the death
certificate listed aspiration pneumonia as the cause of death. My parents
were beyond devastated and blamed themselves for choosing to have
the baby at home rather than in a hospital. In anguish, dad built the babies
coffin and hand dug the grave at the Ashley City Cemetery, himself.
My mother was overwhelmed
with grief and felt that she had no one to confide in. She said that the
town of Ashley was strictly an old world German community and the people
did not embrace outsiders (like herself). So, that next spring mom went back
to England. She lived with her parents, in Cambridge and spent a lot
of time with her siblings, although she never once told them about the
death of her baby. After six months away, mom wrote to my dad and told
him that she would consider coming back to America if he moved away from
Ashley; there were just too many bad memories for her there. Dad sold their
small house and used the money to buy mom a return ticket aboard the S.S.
While mom was in route, dad moved to Wahpeton, North Dakota and enrolled in a trade school for auto body repair. In March of 1950, he was finished with vocational school and my parents decided to move to Anchorage, Alaska; I was born there two months later.
Alaska, A New Start
Mom and Dad came to Alaska to take advantage of rumored free homestead land and plentiful work. Their first home was a tiny rental "house" behind the Stop & Shop Grocery in Mt. View; it was actually a large wooden packing crate (from the military base) which someone converted into an “apartment”. Dad found a temporary job as a laborer on Elmendorf Air Force Base and he had a second job as a pin setter at a bowling alley. They had four children between 1950 and 1957: I was born in 1950; my sister Debbie was born in 1952; my brother Terry was born in 1955 and my sister Sherrie was born in 1957. We were all born in the old Providence Hospital at Ninth & L Street in Anchorage.
Moving to Chugiak
In the late spring of 1950,
my parents bought half an acre of land at mile 18½
of the Old Glenn Highway (from Gib & Eileen Reid)
and built a tiny one room log cabin. Mom used to say that it was
so small that she burned her backside once (on the wood stove) when she
bent over to get me out of the bassinet.
Life in the new community of Chugiak was primitive but my parents liked the area and it was open to homesteading. That summer, dad got a full time Civil Service Job (auto body repair) on Fort Richardson Army Base; a job he would keep for the next 25 years.
My folks filed an application
with the Land Office for a 160 acre homestead patent in
May of 1950. They were told that applicants had to live on, and
farm, the land for five years before the patent would be approved,
so they sold their little cabin at mile 18½....moved onto
the homestead at mile 17½.....planted potatoes, raised chickens
and bought a bulldozer to clear the homestead.
Mom and dad moved a small
surplus building onto the homestead in 1950. Over the years, they connected
other old buildings to it and eventually built a second story over the
whole thing. It was a small house by todays standards, but we were comfortable.
They hauled drinking water and heated with oil, which dad bought near
Ship Creek and trucked out to the homestead in 55 gallon drums.
In the early 1950's, people
bought the bulk of their groceries from Anchorage or the military
base. However, there were a few stores in Chugiak that offered
canned and frozen food in a pinch: Swanee Slopes, Moose Horn Trading
Post and Allen's Grocery in Peters Creek. They were all very small,
privately owned stores and the food was very expensive.
1952-1958, my parents were
members of the First Baptist Church in Anchorage, pastored by Felton
Griffin. In 1960, they joined the First Baptist Church of Eagle River,
pastored by E.C. Chron. In about 1963, they were charter members the
First Baptist Church of Birchwood, pastored by Bill Kesterman and
later Bob Chadwick.
The original First Baptist
Church of Birchwood was on the Old Glenn Highway, just past the
North Birchwood Loop intersection (by today's landmarks, it would
be on Lace Street). Services were held in an old WWII military
surplus building (Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening)
and about 45 people attended on a good day. When the church moved to its
present day location, near the North Birchwood Loop overpass, the old
church building was sold to Ted Sadler who used it as his first (new and
used) furniture store in Alaska.
The Birchwood church families
(from the earliest days) were the Sawyers, Landreths, Heagles,
Jones, Carawan's, , Christine'sMoore's, Johnson's, Hughes, Fretwell's
Off To School
I started first grade, in
1956, at Chugiak Elementary on the Old Glenn Highway.
The first day of school, we were all lined up and given DPT
shots. Several of us had serious reactions and Mrs. Emmert
(the principals wife) deduced it was because the nurse had
used the same syringe for everyone.....times have certainly
Starting in the third grade,
kids were allowed to work in the lunch room kitchen
(one day a month) in trade for a free hot lunch. The main
cook was Paul Swanson's sister, "Penn" Lee
(her real name was Henrietta). She was a legendary baker and people STILL (nearly 60 years later) talk about the delicious bread rolls that she served in the Chugiak Elementary lunch room.
Paul Swanson (who came to Alaska in 1940) ran the Post Office across the street from the school. Every day, his Collie dog came over to the playground during noon recess, and every day, Mr. Swanson would come over to the playground and chase the old dog home. I don't know which upset him more, the disobedient dog, or the jeering kids on the playground (we all wanted the dog to stay and play). Mr. Swanson would scold the dog and threaten him with a board. Some kids were convinced that there was a nail in Mr. Swanson's "weapon", but I never saw it.
Chugiak Elementary opened in 1951 and was over-crowded soon after. Overflow classes were held in surplus Army buildings and Quonset huts. My first grade teacher (1956) was Miss Rowland (married name: Mrs. Waterman); my second grade teacher was Miss Saupe(?) and class was held in the Methodist Church across the street from the school; my third grade teacher was Mrs. May; my fourth grade teacher was Miss Eggleston (married name: Mrs. Aske); my fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Golden Pettit and my sixth grade teacher was Mr. Kerr.
In 1962, they changed the
school boundaries and I (reluctantly) attended 7th
and 8th grade in Eagle River. My teachers were Mr. Rouse,
Mrs. Carole Connell, Mrs. Golden Pettit (again) and Natalie Brooks
was our music teacher. I was a cheerleader for the Eagle River
Rams (in the 8th grade) and our colors were green and gold. I was
also on a girls softball team that year and our coach was Karen Missle
who lived on Lower Fire Lake.
Chugiak High School, in 1964, the first year it opened,
and graduated from there in 1968; our class was the first
graduating class to attend all 12 grades without having to leave
Chugiak/Eagle River (before 1964, kids had to go to high school in Anchorage).
not recall what year telephones were installed in
Chugiak, but I know it must have been in the late 1950’s;
our first phone number started with "HO" followed by 4 numbers (the HO
stood for homestead). Before "real phones" arrived, my parents and
three other neighbors had a “do-it-yourself” homestead phone
system. They strung surplus Army wire between homesteads
and hooked up World War II, EE-8 Army field phones. The field
phone had a standard receiver, which hung from the side of a ten
pound canvas covered battery pack base, and it had a hand crank
that powered a 100 volt ringing generator. One full revolution of the
hand crank (which took some strength) meant everyone on the system
would hear the same ring from their field phone. Supposedly, each
family had its own designated number of rings, but realistically,
any time the phone rang, everyone on the system answered and listened
in. The other families connected to OUR field phone network were the
Robert Schoonmaker's, the Robert Aubrey's and the Hank Aust's.
British War Brides In
My mother was always homesick for England and nurtured friendships with other war brides in the area such as Jo Cates, Daphne Monroe, Daisey Shetzle, Eileen Reid, Violet Hall, Edna Seabolt, Dorothy Liska, Myra Leman and other names lost in time. Many afternoons were spent with these English friends, laughing, chatting (in their best English accents) and reminiscing about England. In the 1960's, Mom and British pal Violet Hall spearheaded a door to door fund raising drive for a new building to house the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department on the Old Glenn Highway.
In the spring of 1954, thinking they were well on their way to completing their homestead requirements, mom and dad had their land surveyed and submitted their final application papers. Shortly after, they were told they had made a critical error that was going to cost them over half of their homestead acreage. The Homestead Act allowed people to file on a single piece of property. The land my parents staked was technically two pieces of property since the Old Glenn Highway ran through one end the homestead. The Government made them choose which side of the highway they wanted to apply for. After much thought, they decided to file for the smaller parcel (that lay up against the mountains) because their house was already on it and because it included Fire Creek. They released their claim to the 100 acres that lay on the west side of the highway and were granted a U. S. Patent No. 1152305 to the remaining 58.62 acres at mile 17½ of the Old Glenn Highway in 1955.
In 1958, my parents inadvertently
went into pig farming when JoAnn Vanover gave mom
a baby pig that was destined to be destroyed because of
a crippled back leg. It wasn't long before mom went back to Vanover’s
and got another baby pig; two summers later, our pigs had 11
piglets of their own.
The little piglets were so much fun to watch. Dad built a small shed for them to live in and put up a spruce pole fence to keep them corralled. They grew quickly and that fall dad decided they needed to go into the freezer (huge shock for us kids). He hired a fellow dog musher named Joe Traversie to slaughter and dress the pigs. Joe was a Sioux Indian and his wife Gladys was an Inupiat Eskimo from Egavik on the coast of Norton Sound. She was an excellent skin sewer and made beautiful mukluks with moose hide soles and intricate seal and caribou fur trim. Joe and Gladys were janitors at Chugiak High School when it opened in 1964; they were great people and tough as nails. Gladys' son (Eddie Sarren) was in my high school graduation class.
Our homestead fronted the Old Glenn Highway, from the northern tip of Upper Fire Lake, to (todays) Del’s Lane. The homestead consisted of our home, a 20' x 20' plot of potatoes, a Jamesway hut storage shed, a large pole barn, a small travel trailer, chicken coops, rabbit pens, goat shed and the obligatory outhouse. The Jamesway hut was a 16’x32’ surplus military structure with a canvas skin over wood ribs and a pallet floor. It housed a big chest freezer, bales of hay and 50 lb. bags of oats for dads dog team (not to mention a billion spiders). The travel trailer was used to store dog harnesses, rigging, extra dog chains and doubled as the birthing place for our outdoor cats. The pole barn was made of spruce poles, covered with corrugated aluminum sheeting and was about 15’x30’; it was primarily for dry storage, but occasionally locals who were down on their luck lived in our barn. One of my third grade classmates, Gale Gibson and her family, lived in our barn for a while after their house burned down.
Besides the pigs, we had
goats, dozens of guinea hens (for the eggs), lots of rabbits, forty sled
dogs and we even had a cow one year.
The Sled Dogs
The dogs were dads passion
and he made his own race and freight sleds, harnesses
and rigging. In the early days, we always had five gallon buckets of
rawhide soaking in the house somewhere; dad used it when he made dog
sleds. The soft/soaked rawhide was threaded through eyelets drilled into
the wood pieces of the sled, then wrapped around wooden joints and cinched
tight. When the rawhide dried, it shrunk and tightened even more, yet
it remained strong and flexible.
In the winter, the sled dogs were fed a cooked mixture of meat and tallow scraps and oats. Dad got the meat trimmings and tallow (for free) from a (dog friendly) butcher at the Piggly Wiggly store in Mt. View. The ingredients were then cooked together in a huge pot, over an outdoor propane burner, to form an easily digestible winter meal for the dogs; in the summers they ate commercial dog food.
Mom and dad were charter
members of the Chugiak Dog Mushing Association and many of those first meetings
were held in our living room. Dad raced dogs in the Anchorage Fur
Rendezvous and at the Tozier Track on Tudor Road as well as a few races in
Fairbanks. He also raced dogs, many weekends, on Pippel’s Field
in downtown Eagle River. I raced, a few times, in the 3 dog class but
I never placed. There was also the 1 dog class, reserved for the 4-6 year
old kids. Their course was basically just a 50' circle (in the parking
lot) and the little kids stood on the sled runners and hung on for dear
life, while their dog (usually a veteran lead dog) pulled them around the
circle at breakneck speeds. The one with the fastest time, without off of
the sled, won a small trophy. It was always a lot of fun to watch.
In the late 1950's, dad had
an evening ritual of harnessing 9-11 dogs to the sled
and taking them on a run from our house down to Beach Lake
and back. I enjoyed going with him, and sat in the sled basket
under a ton of blankets, with only my red cheeks and frozen nose
exposed. On one of those trips, I remember asking him what made the snow
sparkle in the moonlight, he told me the sparkles were "diamonds in the
snow", I've never forgotten that moment.
To this day, it is easy to
recall the sound of the sled runners breaking through the snow crust.....I
can hear dad's piercing whistle commands to his dogs.....his insistent
"gee" and "haw" commands and the occasional loud crack of his 16'
braided leather whip (used for sound effects only). Those sled rides
are one of my favorite childhood memories.
Although dad did not win
any dog races, he did very well in the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous
weight pull competition. In 1958 he placed first in the single dog
class when his lead dog, Yukon, pulled 1,198 pounds (from a dead stop)and
his wheel dog Skipper placed 2nd place, pulling 1,188 pounds. He also won
1st place in the three dog pull (with Yukon, Skipper and Ghost), pulling
2,350 pounds; he was so proud of those trophies.
Towards the end of dads dog
mushing days, he starting breeding sled dogs to sell. He
had big plans to cross breed the standard sled dog with a greyhound,
hoping to produce a long legged dog that would be super fast. One
summer, one of these "experimental" dogs, a young male named Pluto,
was badly injured when he jumped out of a moving truck. When the
dog recovered enough to move around a little, dad made a harness
contraption and suspended the dog from the ceiling of my bedroom.
Once in the "contraption", Pluto could exercise for several hours
a day without putting weight on his hips. He was a funny looking
dog.....long legs, with a skinny body and droopy ears. Why dad hung
the injured dog in MY bedroom, I'm not sure, but I didn't mind.
Dad's experimental husky/greyhound dogs were very fast; he clocked them at 16 miles per hour, but they didn't have much endurance, so he didn't pursue the new breed for long. Myron and Shirley Gavin were good friends of my parents and they bought a lot of puppies from dad when Shirley first got into dog racing; they lived in a subdivision behind Steven's gas station in Peters Creek. Shirley was a very successful racer and won first place in the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Women's Race in 1966, 1969 and 1970; Myron was a race marshal for many years.
The Homestead Finally Gets Running Water
I don't remember
anyone, in our neighborhood, that had running water in the
early days. My parents hauled water (1950-1958) from from a creek
that ran near the Parksville Coffee Shop. In the summer it was
easier to fill our five gallon "Jerry cans" (as dad called them) from
a pipe that someone had put into the upper reaches of Parks Creek. On
the downhill end, they propped up the pipe so you could get your water
can under the pipe.
Filling those cans in the winter, was a little trickier. There was usually a spot in the creek that didn't freeze over and dad would lay on the ice and hold the water cans down in the hole to fill them up. As for bathrooms on the homestead; outhouses were used when possible and "honey buckets" were used when it was too dark (or cold).
Having never lived with regulation
plumbing when I was young, I was in seventh heaven when I entered 1st grade
and discovered that there was running water!! I never passed up the
opportunity to drink from the water fountain (even if I wasn't thirsty);
it was just such a novelty for me.
In 1959, my parents decided
dig a well. Our homestead was on a layer of topsoil over bedrock,
so hand digging a well was not an option. The best bet was to dig a
well next to Fire Creek which was 100' down an embankment behind the
house. After several days of digging near the creek bed (and getting
no water), dad decided to blast the hole with dynamite.
On "blasting day", mom wrapped
us kids in a big blanket and put us under the kitchen table,
just in case something went awry with the dynamite. Of course,
the table we were under was right next to a huge window, but I guess
they didn't think that far ahead.
Our neighbor, Bob Aubrey
and my father drilled holes into the bedrock and filled them with sticks
of dynamite, then lit the fuses and ran like crazy. The blast shot rock dust
over 100' into the air; Mom recorded the whole thing with her Kodak movie
The well produced lots of
water, but it had to be piped back up the 100' embankment, to
the house, so dad built an above ground wooden box, complete
with insulation and heat tapes, to keep them from freezing in the winter.
Every other winter, or so, the heat tapes would either fail, and
freeze the pipes, or overheat and catch the wooden box on fire,
but it was great tasting water and there was plenty of it.
Our Chugiak Neighbors
My birthday party guest list
(written in my baby book 1950-1955), reads like an early
Chugiak telephone directory (except there were no telephones
in early Chugiak):
Roger and Millie Ball and children Timmy and Ronnie
Jim and Marie McDowell (they owned Moose Horn Trading Post)
Paul and Margaret Swanson and children Martha and Steven (they owned Swanee Slopes)
Les and Dottie Fetrow and children Sandy, Larry, Karla Rae and Mary
The Sehm (or Simm?) Family
The Hatcher's and children Bobby and Shirley
Simon and Bobbie Media and children Simon, David and Paul
Pat and Mickey Earles and children
The Curry's and children Corky and Stevie
Gib and Eileen Reid and children Mike, Doug and Brian
The Gibson's and daughters Michael and Gale
Burrell and Louise Frary and daughters Maureen and Star
Allen and Rose Pearce and son Larry
Aden and Jo Cates and children Kenneth, Pat and Denise
Bob and Susie Aubrey and children Robyn, Audie and Rhonda
Velda, Vesta and Bobby Land
Jess and Doris Straight and children Linda, Stubby and Candy
The Gunnell's and son Gregory
The Cafree Family
The neighbors that lived closest to our homestead were Robert & Lillian Schoonmaker, who lived on the hill at mile 18 (their house was later purchased by William & Phyllis Watkins). Across the Old Glenn Highway from our house, lived Barry and Creatus Darby, the Welkers, Jerry & Leona Setters, the Darrell and Marie Gardner's, Denzel & Daisey Schetzel, Burrell & Louise Frary, Connie & Mary Brinson and Charlie & Jeanie Crane . They all lived on (or just off of) Darby Road. Burrell Frary and Charlie Crane grew up together in Montana and were close friends. The Frary's son ("Sonny") married Jerry and Leona Setters daughter (Wilma).
Just north of Darby Road
(and across from our homestead) was the beautiful log home of Capt. James
Lamay and his wife Janelle. James, the son of Clarence
Lamay of Eagle River, was accidentally shot to death in
1962 (in his front yard) while loading a rifle into his truck.
The next people to live in that house were John and Dorothy Liska.
Mr. Liska was a taxidermist and raised honey bees; he later
went into politics, Dorothy was one of my mothers English friends.
North of the Lamay/Liska
house is Athanasius Street where the St. John Orthodox Church is. When
I was growing up, that road had no name and there was a big gravel pit on
it. Only three families lived on that road in the late 50's and early 60's:
the Cremin’s, the Radiskie’s and the Despain’s (the road dead ended just
past the Despain house).
Just north of Athanasius Street (on the same side of the road) was a tiny green house where Grant and Yadie Hutchinson lived; Yadie was my mothers best friend. The Hutchinson's made home brew one summer and proudly displayed the finished product on a shelf in their kitchen. One day, while we were visiting, the heat from Yadie's oven (which was right under the display shelf) heated the beer bottles to the point of "explosion".....one by one, they popped their caps as if they were on a sequential timer......fountains of beer foam cascaded all over Yadie's kitchen. The Hutchinson's had a son named Archie who was an Anchorage City Police officer for many years.
In 1952, my parents sold five
acres on the south end of the homestead to Bob & Susie Aubrey
who came to Alaska in 1951. Bob was in the military and had a shop
called Artic Optical Services in his basement where he sold eyeglasses.
I got my first pair of glasses from Mr. Aubrey and they were "beauties"
(metalic blue with "jewels" in the pointy eyebrow corners). Before coming
to Alaska, the Aubries were stationed in Okinawa for a while, so Bob's eye
glass shop was decorated with Japanese souvenirs, including a dried
and inflated puffer fish that hung on strings from the ceiling.
The Aubrey's had three children,
Robyn, Audrey and Rhonda and we used to play endlessly together while our
parents visited and played board games. One "traumatic" summer, my mother
helped Mrs. Aubrey butcher "a million" chickens. Robyn's job was to cut
the chickens heads off with an ax; that was the first time I saw a (technically)
dead animal run all over the yard; it totally grossed me out. Once the
headless chickens finally stopped flopping, they were dunked into a 55 gallon
drum of boiling water before mom and Susie pulled their feathers out, gutted
them and hung the "corpses" on a close line. Needless to say, I didn't
eat chicken for a long time after that.
In 1962, the Aubrey family
moved to mile 22½ of the Old Glenn Highway. Thier new home used to
be the Candle Light Inn. After that, they moved to King Mountain and we
lost contact with them. Their son Robyn died from smoke inhalation
during a fire at University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1968.
In the mid 1950’s, my parents
sold five acres, on the north end of the homestead,
to Hank and Pat Aust. By todays landmarks, the Aust driveway
is a street called Del's Lane and the old Aust home site is now
owned by the Koehler's.
In 1960, Jerry Setters,
who first lived on Darby Road (in an old military quonset
hut) bought 2½ acres of our homestead, just south of our
house. When dad had the survey done, he dedicated a road easement
between our homestead and the land he sold to the Setters. Dad
named the road (which was only about half a block long) New Market
Road, after the street (in Cambridge, England) where my mother
was born. In 1965, my folks sold a small corner of the homestead, just
south of the Aubrey's, to Dr. Green, Eagle Rivers only doctor at the
In the summer of 1960, two
Native girls moved into the neighborhood; their last
name was Mosquito. Their mother was an excellent skin
sewer and made beautifully beaded miniature mukluks and Eskimo
yo-yo's that she turned into zipper pulls; her daughters
sold them at my school for 50¢. They lived deep in the
woods across the street from our house (off of today's Darby Road).
Their “house” was like nothing I had ever seen before or since.
It was just a dirt "cave", deep in the side of a hill. The "cave"
was obviously hand dug because the moss, plants and trees that grew
on top of the "cave" were totally undisturbed. The entrance to their
“house” was framed with unpeeled spruce poles about 5’ tall and
their door was an old tarp. The interior walls were covered with
old gray boards and their floor was smooth brown dirt. I don't recall
a stove of any kind although there must have been one because the
girls’ clothes faintly smelled like a wood fire; Their home was very
dark, although I do remember a lantern on a table. Mrs. Mosquito was
a short, sturdy woman who was all business and said very little. I
have no idea where they came from or where they went when they left....one
day they were just gone.
Heading North from Our Homestead
Just north of our driveway was Del’s Drive Inn, or I should say, the empty shell of Del’s Drive Inn. Originally owned by Sareefa Wright; it was a 6’ x 8’(walk up) sandwich stand on the right side of the highway at mile 17¾. In 1958, the “building” was abandoned but still in good shape and neighborhood kids (me included) used it as a playhouse. I met Sareefa Wright, 35+ years later; she was a secretary at Iditarod Elementary and her husband, Jake Wright, was the Wasilla Fire Chief.......small world.
At mile 18 of the Old Glenn
Highway and the South Birchwood Loop intersection, was Ralph
Anderson's gas station. Ralph received patent to his land in 1957.
He was quite an industrious man. He built the gas station, a
small trailer court and a small restaurant (the Wheel-R-In) on his
property. He sold gravel, pumped septic tanks and even ran for
Governor against Bill Egan in 1970. Ralph and his wife Bernie had
9 children (all born at home): Danny, Ralph Jr.(nicknamed
Andy), Polly, Patty, Peggy, Wendy, Paul, David & Russell (who
died as a baby). (click
here for more information on Ralph Anderson)
Heading north, and just before Moose Horn Lodge, was a small green house. In the 1950’s it was owned by former Matanuska Colonists, Einar and Inez Huseby, good friends of my parents. They were wonderful people who had exotic birds and ran a laundry/bath house at that location.
In the early 1950’s, we got our mail and gasoline from Moose Horn Lodge at mile 18½. The lodge was owned by Jim & Marie McDowell. Marie had a (horseshoe shaped) café counter, hot showers and post office boxes; Jim ran the gas pump and a tow truck. The McDowell’s made everyone feel welcome and the lodge always had bright lights and smelled like good food and strong coffee. Long after the McDowell's were gone, Moose Horn was enlarged and turned into a bus garage for the Anchorage School District and later yet, it was turned into apartments. The building burned to the ground in 2007.
A stones throw north of Moose
Horn, and on the same side of the highway, was the home of
Cloyce and Justine Parks. They staked five acres, in 1945, that
already had a one room cabin on it (built by Harold Swank). In
1947, they staked another 5 acres and opened a coffee shop which
they built out of logs harvested from the Peters Creek area; in 1948,
they added a gas pump. They called it Parksville and it was a big
success due to Justine's pies and Cloyce's business sense. By todays
landmarks, the coffee shop would sit in the driveway of the Klondike
At mile 20, there was a small log building on the right side of the Old Glenn Highway called the Spring Creek Lodge (built in 1949); as a child, I thought it was a huge building and our family ate there only on very special occasions. It had red plaid tablecloths and the best banana cream pie in the world. I think the Haik's built it if memory serves correctly.
The Chugiak VFW Hall (at about mile 21) was a military surplus building that housed bingo games and dances; the Chugiak Senior Center and apartments occupy that location today. Just north of the VFW Hall, was where the Chugiak Benefit Association held its annual spring carnival. The whole community attended for three days of motorcycle races, games, food booths and beauty contests; Les Fetrow was Chu-Chu the Clown.
Before the North Birchwood
Loop overpass was built, the old Birchwood Loop intersected
the Old Glenn highway at mile 21. Today, that intersection
would be about where the rear parking lot of the "new" Chugiak
Elementary School is. From the old mile 21 intersection, the Loop
followed a sharp ridge back towards its present day route (except it
used to run right on the edge of the bluff).
Also on that bluff, was the
Birchwood dump, a true eyesore and health hazzard that paralleled the
road for several hundred feet. It was a crude dumping ground for everything
from household garbage to old appliances, vehicles, dead animals, moosehides
and everything in between. The dump spread from the edge of the road (sometimes
ON the road) and continued down over the bluff for several hundred feet.
It had no regulations, no fees and the only time the area was (sort of) cleaned
up was when the garbage spilled out onto the road, or the smell was so bad
that someone with a bulldozer would push the majority of it over the ridge
and set it on fire (but that didn't happen very often). This horrendous dump
was in full use until 1964!!
In 1945, Reece & Gracie Tatro filed for a homestead that included all of Mirror Lake. In the early years they farmed geese and chickens which they sold in Anchorage and they grew potatoes which they sold to Fort Richardson. Gracie was a very tiny person who smiled constantly. In the early 1950's, they opened a "drive-in" hamburger and ice cream shop at mile 22; they called it the Dari Delight and it was a popular “Sunday drive” destination for many people. Today, the Dairy Delight has morphed into Bella Vista Pizza.
To the west of the Dari Delight, Russell and Elsie Oberg staked an 80 acre homestead and built a dairy farm. They had six children and Elsie was my 4-H leader; she was a wonderful lady.
From the Dari Delight, still heading north on the Old Glenn Highway, was a store called Allen’s Grocery (owned by George Allen). It was built on a ridge, on the left side of the highway, just north of (today's) Mt. Eklutna Drive. Allen’s Grocery was tiny, but invaluable, since it was the only grocery store for miles around, and because the Allen's let people buy on credit until payday.
That is about as far north
as my memories take me. Now, I will list the people
and businesses I was familiar with, heading south of
Heading South From Our Homestead
Today, there is an old dilapidated
building sitting at the mile 17 summit of the Old
Glenn Highway, it was known as Fire Lake Lodge; Jim and
Lillian Polyefko bought it in 1950. In it's hay day, the lodge was
a thriving "hang out" that served drinks and dinner (and a movie one
night a week) to locals and military men from Fort Richardson.
The lodge burned down in 1954 after Lillian tried to "tune up" the
heating system by using a double dose of Red Devil soot remover.
The lodge was rebuilt and
sold, but by 1964 it was the private residence of
the Bruton family (they had a son named Roy Bruton and foster
son named Ted Adkins). Later yet, it was a Jehovah Witness
Just south of the lodge was
Ralph Rollins’ gas station; I don't know much about
this family, but I do remember that when you went into the
station to pay for gas, Mrs. Rollins had a skunk and a raven in
South of Rollins gas station,
was Fish Hatchery Road. Pat and Mickey Earles lived
off of that road and were very good friends with my parents. They came
to Alaska in 1951 and moved to Upper Fire Lake in 1957. Pat was a quiet
man with a wonderful sense of humor and Mickey was warm and motherly;
they were great people and a big part of my childhood. Mickey baked
a lot of bread and I used to watch her endlessly; 55+ years later,
I still use her method to form my bread rolls. Their children were Patsy,
Larry, Peggy, Janice, Fred, Ricky, Danny and Tim. In the late 1950's
Pat and Mickey and three of their kids drove out to the states
with my family. Four adults and 7 kids in our old station wagon, from
Alaska to North Dakota (and back)!!
My mom used to visit with
Floss and Melba Charles at their "Swap & Shop" used furniture
store on the north end of Eagle River next to Jesse & Nella
Wooten's Tasty Freeze. Floss was married to Willie Charles and they
had 4 kids: Wade, Gayle, Tonia and Kelly. Melba was married to
Tony Charles (Willie's brother); they had two sons, Terry and Forrest
and they lived about where CC SkiDoo is today. Another business in
that area (across from today's McDonalds) was the Lamp Post Inn,
an upscale, family style restaurant-hotel, built by Walter and Marion
Bowen; they had 3 daughters: Nancy, Janet and Patty. Marion later
married David Pippel, son of Walt and Melva Pippel.
A Few Colorful Characters
From My Childhood
My folks had some unique friends in the early years of Chugiak. In no particular order, I'll start with Nora Collett. Nora came to Alaska in 1947 and found a job in an Anchorage candy shop where she learned the trade. In about 1950, she built a candy store on land owned by Cloyce and Justine Parks at mile 18½. Nora's plan was to sell candy to the bus loads of tourists who ate at the Parksville Coffee Shop. When the coffee shop burned down in 1953, Nora let the Parks family live in her candy store building and opened a another store in the Tommy Slanker building in Eagle River. Nora was a caustic tongued woman with a heart of gold and she was famous for closing her candy store and taping a paper sign on the door that said: "Gone fishing........you should too!!"
Another colorful family friend
was Dottie Cochran. Dottie's husband's name was
Corky and dad did a lot of land clearing on their homestead
in the early years. Dottie went to jail in the early 1960's for killing
a man. She told everyone that the she was forced to shoot him after he attacked
her. However, someone who knew Dottie, recently told me another version.
Supposedly, Dottie was intoxicated and very upset that this man had fallen
asleep in a chair, so she decided to shoot him in the arm. Unfortunately,
his arm was folded across his chest, so the bullet went through his arm and
into his heart. Dottie spent several years at Morningside Mental Hospital
for her actions. As you might have guessed, she was a real character and
drank heavily. She was very loud, no matter where she was, she swore like
a sailor and always dressed in mens Hawaiian shirts and wore her hair
heavily greased and combed straight back. She walked like a man and
jokingly threatened to steal everyones husband; but she was a great person.
Fred Bustrin, known locally
as Chief Chugiak, opened a jewelry shop on the north end
of our homestead in the late 1950's. Fred was a giant,
diabetic, bachelor who owned a parrot and a cockatoo (vestiges
of a pet store he once owned in Anchorage). We used to "baby-sit"
Fred's birds when he went out of town and we quickly learned that.....not
only did the cockatoo know a lot of curse words (much to the chagrin
of my religious father), but the bird also knew how to undo the cage
latch and let himself out.
Fred told tourists he was
from the village of Egegik, but in reality he was from
the east coast. He liked to paint. He made gold nugget jewelry
and a variety of other tourist type trinkets out of forget-me-not
flowers cast in clear resin. He paid neighborhood kids
50¢ a coffee can for moose nuggets "in perfect condition",
and used them to make novelty earrings and necklaces as well as
a very popular item called a "moosequito". A "moosequito"
was an oversized mosquito made out of varnished moose "nuggets"
with porcupine quills for the legs and stinger; he sold hundreds
of them to tourists every summer. His partner was a dog musher
named Fred Buske; the two were locally known as Big Fred and Little
In the heart of Eagle River
was the Market Basket grocery store in the Eagle
River Shopping Center. In 1960, it was the only store,
between Anchorage and Palmer to have a full service meat
counter. When the Market Basket store closed, it was replaced
by Value City Grocery and after
that closed, it became a Carr’s Grocery. Decades later, Carr’s Grocery built their big store (across the road) on Pippel’s field.
On the corner of Monte Road
and the Old Glenn Highway, was McGann’s Grocery. It
was a very small wooden structure that looked more like a
house than a store. It had two entrances; one for groceries
and one for the liquor store. The store was popular with
Eagle River kids because it had an excellent penny candy counter
and was close to the elementary school. The McGann family lived
in the back of the store and you often had to knock on their apartment
door (which was next to the bread shelf) and ask them if you could
pay for something.
Next to McGann's store (but on the other side of Monte Road) was the First Baptist Church (built in 1960-ish), probably the largest building in Eagle River at the time. My husband and I were married there in 1970.
There was only one Alaska
State Trooper assigned to Eagle River in the mid-1960's, Trooper
Ken Dubber, who lived in the trailer court beside the bowling
alley. The teenagers kept him pretty busy with traffic tickets,
pranks, etc., but nothing serious that I recall.
Before the existence of todays
divided highway (that bypasses Eagle River and Chugiak), the
old (two lane) Glenn Highway used run right through the heart
of Eagle River, Chugiak, Peters Creek and up against the edge of
Mirror Lake without a single stop sign.
The old Glenn Highway, where
it crossed the Eagle River Bridge, used to be a lot steeper,
very narrow and had no lighting. In the winter, when that section
of road was icy, the traffic sort of "policed itself". By that, I mean
that the cars would come to a complete stop, at the top of the hill
(in both directions), and wait for the car in front of them to get
over the bridge and back up the other side before making their own bonsai
attempt. This cooperative measure began out of necessity, because some
people did not make it up the other side, on their first try, and had
to back down that treacherous grade; it was definitely "white knuckle
driving" with no four wheel drive or studded tires.
Mom Goes To Work
Between 1962 and 1964, Mom
ran a snack bar in the Eagle River Bowling Alley on Monte Road. Floyd
Smith was the bowling alley manager, Phyllis Stewart was the secretary,
Denny Marquis was the custodian and Lonnie Ryan owned the "The 300
Room" which was a bar/lounge.
About 1966, mom earned an associates degree in social work and worked with the Head Start Program. She also worked for the UAA Cooperative Extension Office, and finally, she worked for the Alaska State Public Assistance office (in Eagle River); she retired in about 1980.
On March 27, 1964, I was
helping mom at the bowling alley snack bar when the "big earthquake" hit.
At first, I was not sure what was happening. I could hear/feel a deep rumble
that sounded like an excavator pushing against the building. Within seconds,
all of the condiments above the snack bar cash register, bounced off
the shelf and landed in the deep fryer, causing a huge boil over. Stacks
of glass dinner plates crashed to the floor and the bowling
pins all fell over, causing the big orange (neon) Brunswick
Crown logo’s (that indicated a strike) to simultaneously light
up in all ten bowling lanes.
I remember someone shouting "what the *#&$% is that?" and Floyd Smith yelled back, "it's an earthquake!!" The next heave knocked all of the bowling balls off their storage racks and that is when mom decided we might be safer outside. As we ran out of the building, I looked to my left and saw Mr. Ryan, through the large plate glass windows that divided his tavern from the main bowling alley. He had both arms stretched out, valiantly trying to stop dozens of liquor bottles from sliding off of his counters; his eyes were as big as saucers. Once outdoors, the first thing I noticed was the absence of everyday noises, it was deathly quiet.....no cars, no machinery, no construction sounds, no dogs barking or people noises of any kind. All I could hear was the deep rumble coming from the earth and the sound of overhead electrical lines making a zinging noise as the wildly tilting power poles caused the lines to alternate from very slack to very taut. The earth was moving so violently that it was nearly impossible to stand up and I steadied myself by moving my feet far apart and flexing my knees like shock absorbers; it seemed like the shaking would never stop. Mr. Ryan finally gave up the fight to save his liquor bottles and tried to exit the big glass bowling alley doors, but as he did, the shifting building jammed the doors shut, leaving him frantically banging on the glass with his fists.... sort of like Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate". Ten seconds later, the building shifted again and the big doors sprung open and released Mr. Ryan. The earthquake shook for over four minutes!!
After the earthquake, the bowling alley was set up as a refuge for people that needed a place to stay. Mom sent me down to the Value City grocery store to ask the manager if they could donate food for those who were gathering at the bowling alley. The store was a mess; the big plate windows were broken, the isles were completely blocked by fallen merchandise that was at least three feet deep; the store smelled of broken pickle jars and it was all dark and VERY quiet. The manager generously donated lunch meat, bread, chips, milk, soda, ice and anything else that he could not keep without refrigeration. For the next three days, Mom and her best friend, Yadie Hutchinson, made hundreds of sandwiches for people who were camping out on the floor of Mr. Ryan’s tavern.
Our house didn't suffer very
much damage during the earthquake, just a few broken
dishes and a gold fish that sloshed out of its bowl. For
days after the earthquake, we felt after shocks. Just before each
sizable tremor, our sled dogs would start to howl in unison.
The earthquake happened
on a Good Friday, so schools were closed and no one was hurt when the
gymnasium walls of Eagle River Elementary School fell down. The people
of Chugiak & Eagle River were very lucky; most of the damage was
limited to collapsed chimneys, wells that went dry and other minor
An End To Homesteading
In 1968, my parents sold
their homestead at mile 17½, to Jimmie & Joyce Connell and moved
to Anchorage. Dad retired from Fort Richardson in 1975 and became a welder
on the North Slope until 1985. The old homestead house burned down in 2014.
My parents were good people
and like many other early Chugiak pioneers, they worked
hard, packed water, battled the elements, lived paycheck
to paycheck, tried several "get rich quick" schemes, pitched
in when neighbors needed a hand, broke fish & game laws
(when it was necessary) and participated in many “firsts” for
In their “golden years”,
they spent their winters in Texas and summers in a small
house they built on the last slice of the old homestead. Mom
died in 1992 and is buried near Palmer. Dad re-married and lived
in Florida and California; he died in 2007. I sure wish I had
asked them a lot more questions about their early days in Chugiak.
Coleen (Walker) Mielke