(Walker) Mielke 2016
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 and 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,
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 an Army
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 dad got back to North Dakota, he did what his parents expected
of him and moved onto his cousins vacated farm and bought some livestock.
Dad gave farming an honest effort for about 14 months, then decided farming
life wasn't what he wanted. In December of 1946, he sold his farming investment
and flew back to England to see mom. After a 4 week courtship, they got married
(1/2/1947) and flew back to the United States (1/17/1947) aboard American
Tragedies Spur a New Start in Alaska
When my parents got back
to Ashley, North Dakota (where dad's parents lived), they bought a small
house and dad went to work at the local hardware store. Eight months later,
tragedy struck when dad accidentally killed a little girl with his car.
Newspaper articles reported that she and her grandfather were walking
a team of horses down an unpaved, narrow road (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 the team, 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 that day.
Four months after Geraldine's
death, tragedy touched my parents once 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 and he 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
Ashley, North Dakota was
a tiny, old world German community that spoke no English. It was SO German,
that my dad didn't learn to speak English until he went into the Army!! Mom
always described the people of (early) Ashley as standoffish to "outsiders"
like herself which added to her grief and homesickness for England; she wanted
to go home.
That spring mom went back
to England with another English war bride named Mary Bosch. She lived
with her parents in Cambridge and spent the next six months with her siblings,
although (I found out 45 years later) she never once told them about the
death of her baby.
In the fall of 1948, mom
wrote to my dad and told him that she would consider coming back to America
if he moved away from the town of Ashley; there were just too many bad
memories for her there. He sold their small house and used the money to buy
mom a return ticket aboard the S.S. America which landed in New York 11/11/1948.
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 in Anchorage 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. My folks had four children, all born at the old Providence Hospital at Ninth & L Street in Anchorage: 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.
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 today's 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
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 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's, Moore'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 skin reactions and Mrs.
Emmert (the principals wife) deduced it was because the
nurse had used the same syringe for everyone.....times have
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 yell at 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 her 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, school boundaries
were changed 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).
do 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. The
system worked well except for when moose accidentally tromped down the cable
British War Brides
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 Lehman 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 (today's) 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 sled dogs were dads
passion. He made his own (race and freight)dog 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 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 Anchorage. 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 wasn't very good at it. 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
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
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 easy 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
to 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
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's (or Simm's?) 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 Robbie, 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 while loading a rifle into his truck which was in his front
yard. 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 Arctic Optical Services in his basement where he sold
eyeglasses. I got my first pair of glasses from Mr. Aubrey and they
were "beauties" (metallic 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, Robbie, Audie 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. Robbie'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 just 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
In 1962, the Aubrey family
moved to mile 22½ of the Old Glenn Highway. Their new home was
once the Candle Light Inn. After that, they moved to King Mountain and we
lost contact with them. Their son Robbie 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 today's landmarks, the Aust driveway
is a street called Del's Lane and the old Aust home site is
now owned by the Kurt and Cassie Koehler.
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 time.
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", dug deep into
the side of a hill. The "cave" was obviously hand dug because the
moss, plants and trees that grew around 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 Native 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 the intersection of South Birchwood Loop and mile 18 of the Old Glenn Highway, was Ralph Anderson's gas station. Ralph received patent to his land in 1957. He was quite an industrious businessman. 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. The post office was also there for a short time.
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 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 today's landmarks, the coffee shop would sit in the
driveway of the Klondike Concrete Co.
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 hazard 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 charge 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 our homestead.
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
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 her office.
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
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
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 on the Glenn Highway. 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 different 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
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 and no matter where she was, she swore like a sailor and dressed
in men's Hawaiian shirts and wore her hair heavily greased and combed
straight back. She walked like a man and jokingly threatened to steal
everyone's husband; but she was a great person.
Fred Bustrin, known locally
as "Chief Chugiak", was a local artist and jewelry
maker. In about 1960, he opened a jewelry shop on the north end of
our homestead. Fred was a diabetic, bachelor who owned
a parrot and a cockatoo (vestiges of a pet store he once owned
in Anchorage). My folks 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
Fred told tourists he was
from the village of Egegik, but in reality he was born
in Oregon. He liked to paint and was quite good at it. He also made gold
nugget jewelry and a variety of other tourist type trinkets
out of forget-me-not flowers cast in clear resin. Fred
paid neighborhood kids 50¢ a coffee can for "moose nuggets
in perfect condition", and he 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 an oversized
stinger; he sold hundreds of them to tourists every summer. His
partner was a small quiet man named Fred Reising. The two were affectionately
known as Big Fred and Little Freddie.
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 the Eagle
River Homestead Road (today it is called 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 O. J. 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.
Before the existence of
today's 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
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 keeping 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 glass windows were broken, the isles were knee deep in fallen merchandise; 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 in 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. We had aftershocks for days after the earthquake and before each
sizable tremor, our sled dogs would start to howl in unison, as
if to say "here comes another one".
The earthquake happened
on a Good Friday, so schools were closed and no one was hurt when
the gymnasium walls of the new 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 damage.
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 many "get rich quick" schemes,
pitched in when neighbors needed a hand, broke fish & game
laws (when it was necessary) and participated in many “firsts”
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 at the Butte Cemetery.
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.
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