Ralph Anderson Pioneer of Chugiak, Alaska
(Walker) Mielke 2013
For those of us who grew up in Chugiak-Eagle River in the 50’s
and 60’s, there are some legendary landmarks that survive only in our
childhood memories; places like Swanny Slopes, Spring Creek Lodge, the
Dairy Delight, Moose Horn, Fire Lake Lodge, and Anderson’s Gas Station.
These historic cornerstones have been gone for decades, yet old-timers often
refer to them nostalgically, as if they were still in business today.
This story is about Ralph Anderson, the man who built one of those
landmarks: Anderson’s Gas Station, at mile 18 of the Old Glenn Highway.
Ralph Milton Anderson and his identical twin brother Russell, were
born in Wisconsin in 1931;they were the youngest sons of John Henry Anderson
(a policeman) and Blanche Brown of Racine.
Twenty three year
old Ralph and his first wife, 18 year old Carol Ann Fogarette, came to
Alaska in 1954 with big dreams, very little money and a two ton truck.
They got a lot done in those first years in Chugiak; they bought 2½
acres of land, renovated an old house trailer to live in, built a small
gas station and garage and turned the truck into a wrecker; Anderson's
Gas Station was an instant success.
In 1958, Ralph and Carol wanted to visit relatives, so they leased
the gas station to one of their neighbors, Wade “Tiny” Gardner, and spent
that winter in Wisconsin. The next summer, they drove back to Alaska with
a five ton truck and big plans, but the stress of it all got to the young
couple and their marriage ended later that year; Carol stayed in Alaska and
Ralph went back to Wisconsin for a while.
In 1960, Ralph married Bernelda “Bernie” Mae Thorson, a nurses
aide at St. Luke’s Hospital in Racine; she had a young son named Daniel.
They all came back to Alaska later that spring, driving a semi-tractor
and low-boy loaded with Ralph’s International Carryall and a cement mixer
destined for their Chugiak neighbor Till Wallace. I wonder what went through
Bernie and Daniel's mind when they first saw Ralph's primitive homestead;
there wasn't much time to lament over the lack of accommodations since the
Highway Department immediately surprised them with an order to move the gas
station 150' back from the highway (to accomodate future road improvements).
The newlyweds spent most of that summer complying with the order, but the
road improvements never happened.
In 1963, Ralph built a small restaurant next to the gas station
and hired people to run it for him; he named it the Wheel-R-In. It was
never quite the success that he hoped for, but it was a popular eatery
for the locals.
In the summer of 1966, Bernie gave birth to a baby boy that only
lived for two months; he died of SIDS and is buried in the Valley Memorial
Park out at the Butte. They purchased a statue to mark his grave in the
baby section of the cemetery; his name was Russell Lawrence Anderson.
The back half of the Anderson's 2½ acres was a hillside
of clean gravel which Ralph sold piecemeal over the years, to a local
excavator named James Polyefko. Once the majority of the gravel hill was
gone, he hired Ralph Doyle to level the site. Anderson built a daylight
basement, then moved his small house onto it and added several more rooms.
The house was now big enough for their growing family. Ralph and Bernie
raised 8 children in that house: Daniel, Ralph II(nicknamed “Andy”), Polly,
Patty, Paul, Peggy, Wendy and David.
After their house was moved and enlarged, Ralph decided to put
in a trailer court with the extra space that he had. The process to get
a trailer court permit was lengthy and included a committee approval
which Ralph suspected would be lengthy. He decided to take a gamble and
he built the trailer court while he waited for the permit to be approved/unapproved.
One of the requirements for a six place trailer court was a well that
produced at least 7 gallons of water a minute, so Ralph hired a water
dowser to locate the well. The well drillers hit water at 90’ but it produced
less than needed for the trailer court permit, so they drilled to 100’.
This time they hit sand and all of the water (that they got at 90’) disappeared.
They continued to drill and at 118’ they hit water again AND lots more
sand. The well driller pumped sand out of the well for a full week and in
the end, the well produced 70 gallons of water a minute.
Being the resourceful person that he was, Ralph wanted to install
the water and sewer lines for the trailer court himself, so he bought
a dilapidated old backhoe and rebuilt all of the hydraulics on it for
Ralph’s gamble to build the trailer court before he got the permit
paid off; his first tenant moved in one week after the permit was issued.
A year later, the Anderson's bought some adjacent property and put in an
additional 20 trailer court spaces.
Another example of Ralph’s “can do” attitude was his Arctic Cat
Panther snowmachine with a heated cab. His son, Dan, described it this
way: “It was running a 20 HP Wankel engine and it produced an immense
amount of heat; the exhaust pipe glowed cherry red; it had excellent torque
but terrible fuel economy. Arctic Cat gave us the machine for a year
and told us to ‘wear it out’. Dad raced it in the Midnight Sun 600, which
is why he put the cab on it. The windshield was super sized so he could
easily sit upright and not be near the top. It had a light weight metal
frame with a light weight canvas cover. He would be riding around when
it was -20° with his snowsuit open, his gloves on his lap and the
back of the cab unzipped and waving in the breeze. We weren’t allowed
to modify the air system and it was severely restricted, still it had excellent
torque but no top end. At the end of the season, Arctic Cat took the machine
back; later they told us that we had put NO wear on the engine.”
Ralph’s ingenuity produced other successful business ventures
as well. He built a cesspool pumping truck that didn’t use a pump; it
used the vacuum from the manifold which drew a vacuum on a heavy tank
that was attached to an old truck chassis; Ralph called it the “IT” Wagon.
When he learned that there was a demand for winter cesspool pumping, he
used the trucks engine exhaust to blow heat onto the valve to keep it
from freezing, something none of his competitors were doing. Ralph was
a great trouble shooter and possessed the “can do” attitude of many Chugiak
pioneers; he certainly never let his 8th grade education slow him down.
Ralph, a charter member of the John Birch Society of Alaska, was
very politically conservative. He ran for public office twice. The first
time (1966) he ran as an Independent, from House District 8, but he lost
to incumbent Ted Stevens. In 1970, Ralph ran for Governor against Bill
Egan and lost.
Although he knew
he could not win the 1970 election, he campaigned actively, trying to
get enough votes to legally establish the American Independent Party.
His favorite quote was, “Government big enough to give you all you need,
is big enough to take all you have.”
His campaign promoted:
1. Work-oriented welfare programs
2. To expedite the construction of the pipeline
3. Relocating the State capital to a place accessible by road
4. Extending territorial waters to protect the fishing industry
5. Unrestricted right to bear arms
6. Re-opening of Alaska to homesteading
Not everyone was
happy that Ralph was trying to legally establish a third party. As it
got closer to election day, he received death threats and a few bullet holes
in the cab of the truck that displayed his campaign signs, but neither dissuaded
him from finishing the race. On election day, he wasn't able to garner
the necessary 10% of the votes to establish the American Independent Party
About a year later (1971), Ralph and Bernie sold their gas station
to William and Jeanette Knowlton and moved back to Wisconsin for a while
before settling permanently in Oklahoma. In the spring of 1978, Ralph
was killed in a head-on car collision on rain slick Oklahoma Highway 63;
he was only 48.
Ralph's first wife Carol, married Ray Monroe in 1960 and passed
away in 1995 in Chugiak. His 2nd wife, Bernie died in 2003 in Muse, Oklahoma;
they had 14 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. Ralph's twin brother,
Russell Ruud Anderson, practiced law in California for a while and was
a veteran of the Korean War. He died in North Little Rock, Arkansas in
2001; Ralph and Russell are buried next to each other in Graceland Cemetery,
Racine, Wisconsin, close to where they grew up.
Ralph M. Anderson II ("Andy")
City Directory for Racine, Wisconsin 1954-1960
Graceland Cemetery Racine, Wisconsin
The Racine Journal-Times
Oklahoma Historical Society
Times Newspaper North Little Fork, Arkansas
Alaska DNR Recorders Office
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Anchorage Daily News
1920 U.S. Census
1930 U.S. Census
1940 U.S. Census