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Growing Up In Old Chugiak
1950-1968


"As I Remember It"

By Coleen (Walker) Mielke 2017

Protected by Copyscape

 

I recently rediscovered 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, Alaska during the 1950's and 1960's.

The people I mention below were all Chugiak pioneers as well as family friends and businesses I mention, thrived during my childhood but no longer exist. Keep in mind that this is an account written through the eyes of my youth and may not be totally accurate, but it IS "how I remember it".

~~~

An Introduction To My Family

My father, Ollie Walker, was the 9th (of 11) children born to German-Russian immigrants in South Dakota. He had an 8th grade education and was drafted into the Army in 1942.  After boot camp, he was stationed at Bassingbourn, England where he worked as an Army switchboard operator during WWII.

My mother, Kathy (Furness) Walker was born in Cambridge, England. Her father worked in a brick factory until he lost part of his arm in a work accident; after that, he earned money on the street corner playing a barrel organ.

Mom and dad met during WWII and dated off and on until late 1945 when the Army sent dad back to South Dakota. He tried his hand at farming for about a year, then sold his equipment and livestock and went back to England to find mom. After a 4 week courtship, they were married (1947) and flew back to the United States aboard American Overseas Airlines.


folks

Tragedies Prompt a New Start in Alaska

My folks bought a small house in Ashley, North Dakota and dad worked at a hardware store. Life was good in the tiny German speaking community, although mom was lonely and very homesick. That first fall, tragedy struck when dad accidentally hit a little girl with his car. Police reports said that the girl and her grandfather were walking a team of horses (from one farm to another), when my dad approached them with his car. He thought he could safely get around the team by driving down into the ditch on the opposite side of the road, but as he was about to pass them, the little girl panicked and ran across the road, directly into the path of dads car. Her name was Geraldine Harter and she was only 10; she died later that day.

Three months after Geraldine's death, tragedy touched my parents once again. Their first baby (born Christmas Eve 1947) died two days later due to fluid he inhaled during the birth process; his name was David Oliver. 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 himself and hand dug the grave at the Ashley City Cemetery.

It had been a traumatic first year for mom. Eight months after the baby died, she went back to England to "recover"; she never told anyone "back home" about losing the baby.

After 2 months in England, mom told dad 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 agreed and sent her a return ticket aboard the S. S. America, which landed at Ellis Island late in 1948.

My folks moved from Ashley and rented a house in Wahpeton, North Dakota where dad enrolled in a trade school and learned auto body repair. When he graduated in March of 1950, they moved to Alaska.


Alaska, A New Start

Mom and dad chose Alaska because it promised work and free homestead land. Their first home was a tiny apartment behind the Stop & Shop Grocery in Mt. View. The "apartment" was actually a large wooden packing crate (surplus from the military base) which someone converted into a rental unit. Dad found a temporary job as a laborer on Elmendorf Air Force Base and got a second job as a pin setter at a bowling alley.

Moving to Chugiak

In the early spring of 1950, my folks built a tiny one room log cabin on half an acre of land they bought from Gib and Eileen Reid at mile 18½ on the Old Glenn Highway. I was born, that May, in the old Providence Hospital at Ninth and L Street in Anchorage.

Life in the new community of Chugiak was primitive; it had unmaintained dirt roads, no electricity, no running water, no telephones, no doctors and no law enforcement, but it DID have a lot of other homesteaders who were more than willing to help each other. 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.

The Homestead

Dad filed an application with the Land Office for a 160 acre homestead at mile 17½ on the Old Glenn Highway in May of 1950. In order to actually receive the patent, he had to stake the land; construct a habitable dwelling (tents not allowed); live on the land for 3 consecutive years AND have no less than 1/8 of the land under cultivation.

Mom and dad sold their little cabin at mile 18½ and moved an old building onto the proposed homestead at mile 17½. They planted potatoes, raised chickens, hauled water from a nearby creek and bought a bulldozer to clear the land. 

Over the years, dad connected other used buildings to our "house" and eventually built a second story over the whole thing. The final house was tiny, by today's standards, but we were comfortable. Three more children soon followed, all born in Anchorage. My sister Debbie was born in 1952; my brother Terry was born in 1955 and my sister Sherrie was born in 1957.

Before supermarkets moved into the area, the locals bought the bulk of their groceries from Anchorage or the military base. However, there were a few small stores in Chugiak that offered canned and frozen food, like Swanee Slopes, Moose Horn Trading Post and Allen's Grocery in Peters Creek.

Church

My father was raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church; my mother was raised in the Church of England, so I'm not sure exactly how/why we ended up going to Baptist Churches, but we did. We were members of the First Baptist Church in Anchorage from 1952 to 1958, pastored by Felton Griffin. In 1960, we joined the First Baptist Church of Eagle River, pastored by E.C. Chron. In about 1963, we became charter members of the First Baptist Church of Birchwood, pastored by George 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. Services were held in an old WW II military surplus building and the charter members (that I recall) were the Walker's, Sawyer's, Landreth's, Heagle's, Jones, Carawan's, Christine's, Kroeners's, Moore's, Johnson's, Hughes, Fretwell's and the Tyson's.

When the new Birchwood Baptist Church was built, at its present day location near the North Birchwood Loop overpass, the old church building was purchased by Ted Sadler; it became his first Alaska store where he sold new and re-upholstered (used) furniture.


Off To Grade School

Chugiak Elementary opened in 1951 on the Old Glenn Highway and was over-crowded soon after. Overflow classes were held in surplus Army buildings and Quonset huts on the school grounds.

When I started first grade in 1956, my teacher was Miss Rowland (married name Waterman). 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) told mom it was because the nurse had used the same syringe for everyone.....times have certainly changed.

My second grade teacher was Miss Saupe and our class was held in the Methodist Church across the street from the school; my third grade teacher was Mrs. May; fourth grade teacher was Miss Eggleston (married name Aske); fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Golden Pettit and my sixth grade teacher was Mr. Kerr.

Mrs. Tofson and Paul Swanson's sister, "Penn" Lee (her real name was Henrietta) were in charge of the school cafeteria, where (road killed) moose stew was often on the menu. Penn was a legendary baker and people STILL (60 years later) talk about the delicious bread rolls she made for us.

Paul Swanson (who came to Alaska in 1940) ran the Post Office across the street from the school. Once in a while, his Collie dog would come over to the playground to "visit" with us kids during noon recess. Mr. Swanson didn't approve, so he would walk over to the school, yelling and waving a board at the poor dog to make him go home. I don't know which upset him more, the disobedient dog or the jeering students (we all wanted the dog to stay and play). It was rumored that Mr. Swanson's offending board had a big nail in it, but I never saw one.

In 1962, the school boundaries were changed and I (very reluctantly) attended 7th and 8th grade in the new Eagle River Elementary School. My teachers were Ken Rouse, Carol Connell, Golden Pettit (again) and Natalie Brooks the music teacher. In the 7th grade, I was a cheerleader for the Eagle River Rams and in 8th grade I played on a girls softball team; our coach was Karen Missle who lived on Lower Fire Lake.

I attended Chugiak High School the first year it opened in 1964 and graduated from there in 1968; our class was the first group of students to attend all 12 grades in the Chugiak/Eagle River area (before 1964, junior and senior high school kids had to go to school in Anchorage). The first year that Chugiak High School was open, our principal, Frank Cline, (along with the principal of East High School) were killed in an airplane accident at the top of Lake Clark Pass. It was a sad beginning for the new school.

Telephones

I do not recall what year telephones were first installed in Chugiak, but 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, lots of Chugiak families strung up surplus Army wires between a few of their closest neighbors and then hooked the wires to a World War II, EE-8 Army field phone in each house. The field phones had a standard receiver, which hung from the side of a ten pound, canvas covered, battery pack base. The base had a hand crank on it that powered a 100 volt ringing generator. One full revolution of the hand crank (which took quite a bit of strength, as I remember) made everyone's phone ring at the same time. In theory, if someone wanted to talk to "family #1", the caller would turn the hand crank once. If the caller wanted to talk to "family #2" they would turn the hand crank twice....etc., but realistically, any time the phone rang at all, everyone listened in. The families connected to OUR phone line were the Robert Schoonmaker's, the Robert Aubrey's and the Hank Aust's. The homestead phones worked well except when moose accidentally tromped down the phone wires.

WW II EE8 Army Field Phone


British War Brides In Chugiak

My mother was always homesick for England and nurtured friendships with other English war brides in the area, like Jo Cates, Daphne Monroe, Daisey Shetzle, Eileen Reid, Violet Hall, Edna Seabolt, Dorothy Liska, Myra Lehman and other names lost in time. Mom spent many afternoons with English friends, laughing, chatting and reminiscing about England.

Homestead Life

In 1954, my parents went to the land office, thinking they had fulfilled all of the requirements to receive a patent to their 160 acre homestead. To their shock and dismay, they found out they only qualified for a fraction of the land.

According to the Homestead Act, a person could only apply for one continuous piece of land. Since the Glenn Highway ran through one end of our homestead, the land office declaired it was technically TWO pieces of land and my parents would have to decide which piece they wanted to apply for. After much thought, they decided to file for the smaller parcel that lay up against the mountains because our house was already on that side and because it included a section of Fire Creek (a guaranteed source of water). They grudgingly released their claim to the 100 acres that lay on the west side of the highway and were granted U. S. Patent No. 1152305 to the remaining 58.62 acres at mile 17½ of the Old Glenn Highway in 1955.

In 1958, our family inadvertently went into pig farming when JoAnn Vanover gave mom a baby pig that was destined to be destroyed because it had 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 pigs were a lot of fun for us kids to watch and of course we named them all. Dad built a small shed for the pigs to live in and put up a spruce pole fence to keep them all corralled. They grew quickly and that fall, dad decided they needed to go into the freezer (huge shock for us kids). He arranged for a fellow dog musher named Joe Traversie to butcher the pigs in exchange for half of the meat. 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 fur trim. Joe and Gladys were janitors at Chugiak High School in the early years; they were great people who were tough as nails. They had a foster son named Eddie Sarren who was in my class at school. 

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 large plot of potatoes, a Jamesway hut storage shed, a large pole barn, a small travel trailer, chicken coops, rabbit pens, a goat shed and the obligatory outhouse. The Jamesway hut was a 16’x32’ surplus military structure with a canvas skin over heavy wooden 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 cat. The pole barn was made of spruce poles, covered with corrugated aluminum sheeting and was about 15'x30'. It was primarily used for dry storage, but occasionally local families, who were down on their luck, lived in our barn in the summer. One of my third grade classmates, Gale Gibson and her family, lived in our barn for a while after their house burned down. 

Over the years, besides the pigs, we had goats, dozens of guinea hens (for the eggs), lots of rabbits, forty sled dogs and we even had a mule and a cow one summer.

The Sled Dogs

Our sled dogs were dads passion. He made all his own (race and freight) dog sleds, harnesses and rigging. In the early days, it seemed like we always had a five gallon bucket of rawhide soaking in the house somewhere because dad used it when he made dog sleds. The soft/soaked rawhide was threaded through eyelet's drilled into the wooden pieces of the sled, then wrapped around wooden joints and cinched tight. As the rawhide dried, it shrunk and tightened even more, yet it remained strong and flexible.

In the winter, the sled dogs were fed an easily digestible mixture of oats, meat and tallow scraps that dad cooked together in a big vat on an outdoor propane burner. A dog friendly butcher at the Piggly Wiggly store in Anchorage, gave dad 30-gallon metal garbage cans full of meat trimmings every Friday (for free) as long as the cans were washed out before they were brought back. Unfortunately, that became one of my jobs and I hated it.

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 in the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, the track on Tudor Road and on the weekends at 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 because the dogs were way too strong for me to control. The Pippel's Field races also had a 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 guys stood on the sled runners and hung on "for dear life", while their dog (usually someone's veteran lead dog) pulled them around the circle at breakneck speeds. The kid with the fastest time (without falling off of the sled) won a small trophy. They were always a lot of fun to watch and cheer for.

In the late 1950's, I thoroughly enjoyed dad's evening ritual of harnessing 10 or so dogs to the sled and taking them on a run from our house down to Beach Lake and back. I used to sit in the sled under a ton of blankets, with only my red cheeks and frozen nose exposed. My all time favorite memory of my Dad happened on one of those evening rides when I was about 8 years old. It was a very cold night and the sky was perfectly still with a super bright moon. I asked dad what made the snow sparkle so bright in the moonlight and I have never forgotten his answer: "those are diamonds in the snow", I was beyond impressed, thanks dad.

To this day, it is still easy to recall the sound of the sled runners breaking through the snow crust.....I can hear dad's piercing whistles to the dogs.....his insistent "gee" and "haw" commands and the occasional loud crack of his 16' braided leather whip, high in the air.

Although dad didn't win any dog races, he did win trophies in the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous weight pulling competition. In 1958 and 1959 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.

 In 1963, the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association sponsored Nickolai Pavilla and Sinkna Hurd, two Eskimo racers from Kasigluk (near Bethel) who wanted to compete in the Anchorage Fur Rondy. The men ended up staying at our house while they were in town and I remember how impressed  they were with our television, something they had never seen before.

Towards the end of dads dog mushing days, he starting breeding sled dogs to sell.  He had big plans to cross-breed the standard husky with a greyhound, hoping to produce a super fast race dog. One summer, one of his "experimental dogs", a young male named Pluto, jumped out of our moving truck and badly injured his back and hips.

When the dog recovered enough to move around a little, dad made a harness contraption and suspended it from the ceiling of my bedroom. The suspended dog was then able to exercise for several hours a day without putting weight on his joints. He was a funny looking dog.....long legs, with a skinny body and droopy ears. The unorthodox treatment worked well and "Pluto" went on to run again.

Dad's 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 the family and they bought a lot of puppies from dad when Shirley first started racing dogs; they lived in a subdivision behind Steven's gas station in Peters Creek. Shirley went on to be a very successful racer and won first place in the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Women's Race in 1966, 1969 and 1970; Myron was a dog 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 years. My parents hauled water (1950-1959) from from a creek that ran near the Parksville Coffee Shop (near Moose Horn). In the summer dad filled our five gallon metal "Jerry cans" (as he 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 cans under the "water spout".



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, face down, on the ice and hold the water cans down in the water hole to fill them up, it was a bone chilling job. As for bathrooms on the homestead; an outhouse and an indoor "honey bucket" was the norm until 1959. Our outhouse was
a frightening thing to use, since it was precariously perched out over the edge of a bluff and was supported by wobbly wooden poles. It had no front door and the "seat" was a built in bench with a (very uncomfortable) triangle hole cut into it. I'm not sure WHY it was a triangle, maybe that was easier to cut than a circle? Oh yes, it also had the obligatory Sears catalog for "clean up". 

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 at school!! 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 next "plan" was to dig a well beside Fire Creek which was at the bottom of a 100' bluff right behind our house. After several days of digging near the creek (and getting no water), dad decided to try 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 helped dad drill holes into the bedrock and fill them with sticks of dynamite, then they 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 camera.

The new well produced lots of water that had to be piped up the 100' embankment to the house. To do that, Dad built an (above ground) wooden box, with insulation and heat tapes wrapped around the water pipes to keep them from freezing during the winter months. Every other winter, or so, the heat tapes would either fail and the pipes would freeze, or they would overheat and catch the wooden box on fire, but it was great tasting water and there was plenty of it.

Our Chugiak Neighbors

My earliest birthday party guest lists (copied from my baby book 1950-1955), read like an early Chugiak telephone
directory:

*Billy Cairns
*Olga Johnson
*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 baby Mary
*The Sehm'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 the Watkins family). 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 killed in 1962 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.

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 when I was a kid: the Cremin’s (had 2 boys named Mitch and Mike), the Radiskie’s and the Despain’s (the road dead ended just past the Despain house). I used to babysit for the Rediskie's and the Despains who had a big dance floor in their 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 (which hit the ceiling) 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 our homestead to Bob & Susie Aubrey who came to Alaska in 1951. Bob was in the military and had a shop in his basement where he made/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).....I was so proud !! Before coming to Alaska, the Aubrey's were stationed in Okinawa for a while, so Mr. Aubrey's eye glass shop was decorated with Japanese souvenirs, including a dried and inflated puffer fish that hung on a string 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 and then 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 the mid 1950’s, my parents sold five acres, on the north end of our homestead, to Hank and Pat Aust. By today's landmarks, the Aust driveway is now a street called Del's Lane and the old Aust home site is now owned by 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. That is when dad put in a road to mark where our homestead ended and Setters land started. He named the little road (which was only about a half block long), Newmarket Road, after the name of the street in Cambridge, England where my mother was born. In 1965, my folks sold a small corner of our homestead (just south of the Aubrey's) to Dr. Thomas Green, Eagle Rivers only doctor at the time.

In the summer of 1960, two Native girls and their mother 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 that her daughters sold at Chugiak Elementary for 50¢ each.

The Mosquito's 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 (and on top of the hill) were totally undisturbed. The entrance to their “house” was made of unpeeled spruce poles about 5’ tall and their door was an old tarp. The interior walls were covered with old boards and their floor was smooth dirt. I don't recall a stove of any kind although there must have been one because the girls’ clothes smelled faintly 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

A stones throw north of our driveway was Del’s Drive Inn, or I should say, the empty shell of what used to be 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” (which was just a plywood shell) 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, from our house, on the Old Glenn Highway and just before Moose Horn Lodge, was a small green house, originally built in the late 1940's, by Simon and Bobbie Media, family friends. In the 1950’s it was owned by former Matanuska Colonists, Einar and Inez Huseby, also family friends. The Huseby's had exotic birds and ran a laundry/steam bath 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 small café, hot showers and post office boxes; Jim ran the gas pump and had a tow truck. They 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 school  bus garage and later yet, it was turned into apartments.  The building burned down 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 great pies and Cloyce's business sense. By  today's landmarks, the coffee shop would sit in the driveway of Klondike Concrete.

At mile 20, there was a small log building on the right side of the highway called the Spring Creek Lodge. Vernon and Alma Haik built the diner with logs they harvested from the Goat Creek area; it opened in 1949. The Haik's had three children, Vernon Jr., Beverly and Joan. 

The Chugiak VFW Hall (a military surplus building at about mile 21) hosted bingo games and dances in the 1950's.  Nora Collett (the Candy Kitchen lady) manned the concession stand at the bingo games and sold small bags of her homemade candy for 50¢. The VFW Hall used to sit where the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center is today.

Just north of the VFW Hall, was where the Chugiak Benefit Association held its annual spring carnival during the 1950's. The whole community attended for three days of motorcycle races, games, food booths, beauty contests and Les Fetrow was Chu-Chu the carnival clown. The earnings went to local fire departments, the Boy Scouts and other civic groups.

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, Birchwood Loop followed a sharp ridge, back towards its present day route (except it used to run right along 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 broken appliances, dead vehicles, dead animals, moose hides and everything in between. In 1962, a small dead whale was even dumped there. It died while being prepared for shipment to a lower 48 aquatic zoo and for some unknown reason, authorities dumped the whale over the bluff at the Birchwood dump!! Garbage spread from the edge of the road and continued down over the bluff for several hundred feet. The unofficial dump 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, pushed 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 raised geese and chickens which they sold in Anchorage and grew potatoes which they sold to Fort Richardson. I remember Gracie as a very short woman who smiled constantly. In the early 1950's, they opened a "drive-in" hamburger and ice cream stand at mile 22; they called it the Dari Delight; it was a popular destination for many years; they sold it to the Al Tanner family. Today, the Dari 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 (Sheryll, Vonda, Diane, Valda, Jeannie and Lyle). One of my favorite memories of Elsie was when I was at the dog races on Pippel's field when I was about 10. She noticed I was so cold that my hands had started to hurt. She stood me close to her and wrapped her long black coat around me (so that we were  both inside of it); I was warm in just a few minutes. It was such a motherly thing to do and I've never forgotten it.

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 from our homestead.

Heading South From Our Homestead

Today, there is an old dilapidated building sitting at mile 17 of the Old Glenn Highway, just north of Fire Lake;  when I was a kid, it was known as the Fire Lake Lodge. Ken Laughlin homesteaded that area in 1935 and built a cabin on it in 1937. He sold hot dogs and hamburgers to the road construction crews that were building the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Anchorage. Myron and Vesta Merriman bought the land from Laughlin and Jim and Lillian Polyefko bought it from the Merriman's in 1950. In it's hay day, the lodge was a thriving "hang out" that served drinks and dinner (and a weekend movie) to locals and military men from Fort Richardson. The lodge burned down in 1954 after Mrs. Polyefko 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 for 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 that went back towards Upper Fire Lake. 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 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 in the kitchen. 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, built by Walter and Marion Bowen; they had 4 daughters: Shirley, 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 on the old 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 and she opened a new 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. She was very loud, swore like a sailor, 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 with a wicked sense of humor.

In 1960, Fred Bustrin, known locally as "Chief Chugiak", opened a jewelry shop on the north end of our homestead. He 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 himself out.

Fred told tourists he was from the village of Egegik, but in reality he was born in Oregon. He made gold nugget jewelry and a variety of other tourist type trinkets out of forget-me-not flowers cast in clear resin.  He also made earrings and necklaces out of "moose nuggets" that he painted gold. He also made and sold a comical souvenir called the "Moosequito" which was an oversized mosquito made out of varnished moose nuggets with porcupine quills for legs and an oversized stinger. He paid neighborhood kids 50¢ for a full coffee can of moose nuggets in PERFECT condition.

Eagle River

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.

In down town Eagle River, 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.

Before the existence of the "New Glenn Highway" (that bypasses Eagle River and Chugiak), the old (two lane) Glenn Highway used run right through the heart of Eagle River, Chugiak and all the way to Palmer without a single stop sign or light.

The old Glenn Highway, where it crossed the old Eagle River Bridge, used to be a very narrow and steep road with NO lighting. In the winter, when that section of road was icy, the traffic sort of "policed itself". By that, I mean 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" since few cars had four wheel drive and none of us had studded tires in those days.

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" (a bar/lounge).

About 1966, mom earned an associates degree in social work and went to work 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 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 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. 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 light up on all ten bowling lanes at once.

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 of 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 Lonnie 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.

Outdoors, you could hear the earth rumble. Everything else was deathly quiet...no cars, no machinery, no construction sounds, no dogs barking or people noises of any kind. Just about the time I started wondering if the shaking would EVER stop, I noticed the power poles tilting wildly back and forth. As the lines alternated from very slack to very taut, they made a zinging noise. The earth was moving so violently that it was hard to stand up and I steadied myself by keeping my feet far apart and flexing my knees like shock absorbers. 

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 glass doors sprung open and released Mr. Ryan. The ground shook violently for four and a half minutes straight!!

After the earthquake, the bowling alley was designated as a shelter 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 whole store smelled like broken pickle jars and it was dark and deathly 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. 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 injured 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 and a few wells that went dry.

An End To Homesteading

In 1968, my parents sold most of 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. I heard that our old 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” for Chugiak.

In their “golden years”, mom and dad 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 died in 2007 and is buried in California. I sure wish I had asked them a lot more questions about their early days in Chugiak.





This is a (very rough) sketch of the
Chugiak neighborhood
I grew up in  (1950-1968)
"As I   remember It"

 

 


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Written by:
Coleen (Walker) Mielke
coleen_mielke@hotmail.com