Ralph Anderson Pioneer of Chugiak, Alaska

by Coleen (Walker) Mielke 2013
Ralph M. Anderson of Chugiak, Alaska

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 the job.

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 in Alaska.

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.

Written by
Coleen Walker Mielke in 2013

Information sources:

Daniel Anderson
Ralph M. Anderson II ("Andy")
David Anderson
City Directory for Racine, Wisconsin 1954-1960
Graceland Cemetery  Racine, Wisconsin
The Racine Journal-Times
Oklahoma Historical Society
Poteau News
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