(Walker) Mielke 2013
I recently re-discovered
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 record
some childhood memories of Chugiak during the 1950’s & 1960’s.
The businesses mentioned in this story, thrived during my childhood but most no longer exist. The people, I mention, were all early homesteaders as well as family friends. Keep in mind that this account is written through the eyes of my youth and may not be accurate; however, it is how I remember it.
My father, Ollie Walker,
was the son of Jacob and Rosina Walker who were German-Russian immigrants
living in North Dakota. My mother, Kathleen (Furness) Walker, was the
daughter of Thomas and Kate Furness of Cambridge, England. My parents
met while dad was in the Army and stationed at Bassingbourn, England during
World War II. In 1947, he went back to England, married mom, and they moved
to Ashley, North Dakota where dad had a small farm.
Spur a New Start in Alaska
Ashley, North Dakota was
not a happy place for my mother. It was a staunch German enclave of
about 500 people who spoke no English and were very standoffish with "outsiders".
Mom said she felt very alienated and homesick for England.
A year after settling on the
farm, mom and dad had a baby boy. He was born on Christmas Eve 1947 and
died two days later because.....as the family legend goes....the doctor was
drunk and failed to clear the fluid from the babies lungs. My parents
were devastated and dad felt terribly guilty since he was the one
who insisted on the home birth; in anguish, he built the babies coffin
and hand dug the grave himself.
That spring, mom went back
to England to recover emotionally, although she never told anyone
in Cambridge about the death of her baby. After a six month rest,
she wrote to my dad and told him she would consider coming back to
America if he moved out of Ashley; so he sold his farm, moved to Wahpeton,
North Dakota.....enrolled in a vocational school, and sent mom a ticket
to come back on the S.S. America in late 1948.
In Wahpeton, dad attended
a trade school for auto body repair and had a job as a road grader
operator; life seemed to be turning around for them, until one weekend;
while dad was grading a narrow road, his grader accidentally hit a
child that was hidden in tall grass beside the road. The little girls
death, compounded by the grief over their own babies death, convinced
my parents to leave North Dakota completely. In March of 1950, they
moved to Alaska.
Alaska, A New Start
My parents first home in Alaska 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 had a second job as a pin setter at a bowling alley. I was born in May of 1950; my sister Debra 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 (near Gib & Eileen Reid) and built
a small log cabin. 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 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.
The first building that my
folks moved onto the homestead was tiny by todays standards, but they
added onto it over the years, making it a comfortable home and eventually
added a second story. They hauled drinking water and heated with oil,
which dad bought in Anchorage 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 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 joined the First Baptist Church of Birchwood,
pastored by Mr. Kesterman(?) and later Bob Chadwick.
The original First Baptist
Church of Birchwood was on the Old Glenn Highway, just past the North Birchwood
Loop. By today's landmarks, it would be on Lace Street. Services
were held in an old WWII military surplus building and about 45 people
attended. 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 furniture store in Alaska.
The Birchwood church families
(from the earliest days) were the Sawyers, Landreths, Heagles, Jones,
Carawan's, Christines, Moore's, Johnson's, Hughes, Fretwell's and Tyson'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 changed.
Starting in the third grade, kids were allowed to work in the lunch kitchen one day a month in trade for a free hot lunch. I think the most popular school lunch was moose meat stew served with homemade bread. The main cook Paul Swanson’s sister; her real name was Henrietta, but they called her "Penny" or "Penn" for short. Penn Lee was a fabulous baker and people STILL (nearly 60 years later) talk about the delicious bread rolls 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 chase the dog home with a board. I don't know which upset Mr. Swanson more, the disobedient dog, or the jeering kids on the playground (we all wanted the dog to stay and play). Some kids insisted 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 class (I can’t remember the teachers name) 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 cheer leader for the Eagle River Rams 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 the first year it opened (1964) and
graduated from there in 1968; Many in my graduating class had
attended 1st through 12th grade together; we were also the first
graduating class to attend all 12 grades in 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. Before that,
my parents and three other neighbors established 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 was very hard to turn) meant everyone on the system
would hear one full 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 system were the Robert Schoonmaker's,
the Robert Aubrey's and the Hank Aust's.
British War Brides In
Mom 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, and other names lost in time. Many afternoons were spent with these English friends, laughing, chatting (in their best English accents) and reminiscing over tea and Peek Frean )biscuits (cookies. 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. That is when they were told
they had made a critical error that would cost them over half
of their homestead. 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 of 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. Before long, mom went back to Vanover’s and got another baby pig; two summers later, our pigs had 11 piglets of their own. They grew quickly, and that fall dad 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.
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, which was several older buildings joined together, a 20' x 20' plot of potatoes, a Jamesway hut storage shed, a large pole barn, a small travel trailer, chicken coops, rabbit pens 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 (and a million 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, a cow, and
forty sled dogs.
The Sled Dogs
The dogs were dads passion
and he made his own race and freight sleds, as well as his own 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, 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 in a huge pot, over an outdoor 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 Club and many 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
and the kids stood on the runners and hung on to the sled for dear life,
while their dog (usually a speedy veteran lead dog) pulled them around the
circle at breakneck speed. The one with the fastest time 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. I can still hear
the sound of the sled runners in the snow.....the piercing whistle commands
to the dogs..... dads insistent "gee" and "haw" commands and the occasional
loud crack of his 16' braided leather whip. Those sled rides are one
of my favorite childhood memories.
Although dad did not win
any dog races, he did win First and Second place trophies in the Fur Rendezvous
weight pull competition (1958 and 1959). His lead dog, Yukon,
won first place for pulling 1,198 pounds in the single dog class; dad
also won first place in the three dog class, with his dogs Yukon, Skipper
and Ghost?, who pulled 2,350 pounds together; he was so proud of those
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 sled 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 had recovered enough
to move around a little, dad made him a harness contraption and suspended
the dog from the ceiling of my bedroom so 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 Fur Rendezvous womens race in 1966, 1969 and 1970; Myron was a race marshal.
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 easy to get to the creek, but in the winter, it was a little more tricky. There was usually a spot in the creek that didn't freeze over and dad use to lay on the ice and hold the "Jerry cans" under the water 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 running
water, I was in seventh heaven when I started school 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 1958, my parents decided
dig a well. Our homestead was 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 in 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.
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. Mom recorded the successful
blast, with her Kodak Brownie movie camera.
The water 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 protect the
water pipes in the summer and 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, Brian and Carolynn
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, Audrey 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 Gardners, 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 log home of James and Janell Lamay.
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 bees (honey)
commercially; he later went into politics.
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 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 little 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.
Bob was in the military and had a shop in his basement where he sold
eyeglasses. He and his family 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. Needless
to say, I didn't eat chicken for a long time after that.
The Aubrey's moved to Peters
Creek in the early 1960's and eventually to King Mountain. Their
son Robyn died from smoke inhalation during a fire at UAF 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
In 1960, Jerry Setters,
who first lived on Darby Road (in an old military Jamesway
Hut) bought 2½ acres of our homestead, just south of our
house. When they had the survey done, they dedicated a road easement
between our homestead and the land they sold to the Setters. They 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, they
sold a small corner of the homestead, just south of the Aubrey's, to Dr.
Green, Eagle Rivers only doctor at the time.
In 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 army 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 always 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’ abandoned (walk up) sandwich stand on the right side of the highway at mile 17¾. In 1958, the “building” was still in good shape and neighborhood kids (me included) used it as a playhouse. I met Sareefa Wright, in Wasilla, 35+ years later; she was a secretary at my childrens school and her husband Jake Wright was the Wasilla Fire Chief.......small world.
At mile 18, just north of
the Old Glenn Highway and 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 a 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. (Andy), Polly, Patty,
Peggy, Wendy, Paul, David & Russell who died as a baby.
Today, a small sunken house sits on the south side of the old Fuji Gift shop. In the 1950’s it was owned by former Matanuska Colonists, Einar and Inez Huseby, good friends of my mother. They were wonderful people who had exotic birds and ran a “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 smelled like good food and strong coffee. Long after the McDowell's were gone, Moose Horn became a bus garage for the Anchorage School District and later yet, it was turned into apartments. They 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 Concrete Co.
At mile 20, there was a small log building on the right side of the Old Glenn Highway (built 1949), called the Spring Creek Lodge; as a child, I thought it was a huge building. 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 the location for the Chugiak Benefit Associations annual spring carnival. The whole community attended the 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 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 ran behind todays Circle S Grocery building, instead of in front of it). On that ridge, was the Birchwood dump. Paralleling the old Loop; the dump was a crude 400’ open dumpsite, which had no fees, no regulation and minimal maintenance. People dumped everything imaginable there. Bigger items like vehicles, old appliances and dead animals, were pushed over the ridge, but most of the household garbage was just tossed beside the road. Occasionally, when the garbage started to spill out onto the road, someone would use a bulldozer to push it all back and set it on fire. My husband John remembers a whale that was dumped there in 1962. Evidently, it died while it was being prepared for shipment to a lower 48 aquatic zoo, and for unknown reasons, it ended up at the Birchwood dump; you can imagine the smell.
Reece & Gracie Tatro filed for a homestead (in 1945) that included all of Mirror Lake. In the early years they farmed geese and chickens which they sold in Anchorage and 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 about 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 it 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 (towards Eagle
River) from 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, a stones throw south from our homestead; it was the 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 Church.
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 and Upper Fire Lake. Pat and Mickey Earles
lived on the lake and were very good friends with my parents. They
came to Alaska in 1951 and moved to 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 used furniture shop on the north end
of Eagle River; the store was called the "Swap & Shop". 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. The “Swap & Shop” sat next to Jesse & Nella Wooten’s
Tasty Freeze. 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. In no particular order, I'll start with Nora Collett. Nora came to Alaska in 1947; she got 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 gave her candy store building to the Parks family 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 posting a hand written sign that said: "Gone fishing........you should too!!"
Another colorful family friend
was Dotty Cochran. Dotty's husband's name was Corky and
dad did a lot of land clearing on their homestead in the early years.
Dotty went to jail for shooting a man that she said was attacking
her in her house. Dotty was a real character, she always dressed
in mens Hawaiian shirts and wore her hair heavily greased and combed
straight back. She was a loud person, who walked like a man and jokingly
threatened to steal everyones husband; she also swore like a sailor,
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
Fred told tourists he was
from the village of Egegik, but in reality he was from the east
coast. He liked to paint and 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 and porcupine quills for the legs and stinger; he sold
hundreds of them to tourists every summer. His partner was
a small guy named Fred Buske, a dog musher; the two were locally 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
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
Dubber, who lived in the trailer court beside the bowling alley.
The teenagers kept him pretty busy with traffic tickets, pranks,
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
got very 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
My mother had a snack bar
in the Eagle River Bowling Alley, on Monte Road, from 1962-1964. Floyd
Smith was the bowling alley manager, Phyllis Stewart was the secretary,
Denny Marquis was the custodian and Frank Ryan owned the 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.
The 1964 Earthquake
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 earth 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
I remember someone shouting "what the *#&$% is that?" and Floyd Smith, the manager, 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 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.....no cars, no machinery, no construction, 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. The shifting building had 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 four minutes straight!!
After the earthquake, the bowling alley was set up as a refuge for people that needed a place to stay. Since the electricity and telephones were out, mom sent me down to the grocery store to ask the manager if they could donate food for those who were gathering at the bowling alley. The grocery 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. Mom and her best friend, Yadie Hutchinson, used the facilities at the snack bar to make hundreds of sandwiches for people who were camping out on the floor of Mr. Ryan’s tavern over the next three days.
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 had after shocks. Just before each sizable tremor,
our sled dogs would start to howl in unison.
The earthquake happened
on a Good Friday holiday, so schools were closed and no one was hurt when
the gymnasium walls of Eagle River Elementary School collapsed. 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.
They 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 Chugiak.
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 more questions about their early days in Chugiak.
Ollie and Kathy Walker 1987
Coleen (Walker) Mielke
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