"In Wasilla, the people were very friendly, they just opened their hearts and were good to us", May said, "they helped us find a house to live in on Main Street, which was about all there was in 1940; the road didn't go any farther than a block off of Main Street to the school and the main road went back up to the mines. There was no plumbing in the houses but there was a public well right in the middle of the main street, right about where the fire station is today. They had dug a well and it had a rope and a bucket and pulley. You'd put the bucket down the well and fill your bucket, even in the winter time. Electricity didn't come to Wasilla until about 1942."
May’s husband tried gold mining for a few years but
had little luck. He was discouraged and wanted to leave Alaska,
but May had fallen in love with the Valley and didn't want to leave.
In spite of her objections, her husband sold the family truck and the household
goods and left for Seattle. She was now an unemployed single parent, in
the wilds of Alaska, with two young children, no income, no furniture and
May didn't give in to self pity. Instead, she landed a secretarial job for the FAA in Anchorage and rented a little one room apartment "just big enough for a single bed and a bath". Later, she found an even better secretarial job with the railroad and faced all of those early adversities with the grace and courage she is still well known for.
beautiful and resourceful young woman, May was not single for very
long. She fell in love with a man named Thomas L. “Pat” Carter.
"In 1942, before he went into the Army, Pat had a job freighting the materials,
food and supplies to the crews building the Glenn Highway. The first camp
he was at was about two miles out of Palmer. You should have seen it. He had
a big 8 wheel Ford truck that he hauled all the stuff for the camp with. When
he joined the Army, he was stationed at Valdez which was about as far away
as China in those days. His job was to transport prisoners to and from
Valdez for the Army, but there was no direct road to Valdez. Occasionally,
they took prisoners from Seward directly to Valdez by boat, but more often
Pat had to go from Valdez, up the Richardson Highway to Fairbanks and then
back to Anchorage by train, then reverse the route. It wasn't easy to find
time (between transport routes) to get married in those days because the law
required a three day waiting period between the time you applied for the
license and the ceremony itself. Since Pat's circuit with the prisoners took
two days, it was hard to find that 3rd (waiting) day. We finally found the
time to get married in 1943”.
1944, while May was in the hospital having a baby, Eva (Fleckenstein)
Herning went to visit her and suggested that she apply for the job of Wasilla
Postmaster-Commissioner. "I don't know a thing about being Postmaster
or Commissioner" May told Eva; "Well, May, you can learn! Eva had all kinds
of faith in me I guess". May was hired to replace the recently deceased Howard
Wilmoth, as Postmaster-Commissioner (magistrate) of Wasilla in 1944.
husband got out of the service in 1945 and we bought the larger house on
the hill across from the Community Hall on Main Street. It was originally
built by Eva's husband, Stan Herning, but they had moved into Anchorage where
they bought a bar.
Privacy was an issue when we bought that house because it had all those front windows and people could see into the house when they came to the Post Office. Well, one day, two old Indians, named Blind Nick and Theodore, came in and Blind Nick said, 'You Judge?', I told him yes and Nick said 'Theodore wants to talk to you'. I asked him what the problem was. Well, Theodore would only talk to Nick and Nick would then talk to me. The upshot was that Theodore wanted me to stop his young wife, Katie, from running off on the weekends. I told Nick to tell Theodore that he might be better off raising his two little boys on his own. I don't know if he listened, but I do know that old Theodore ended up raising the little boys by himself and he did a pretty good job for an old man."
"My first job as Commissioner was a double wedding. I can't remember their names, but one couple was a couple from Palmer and the other couple was from over on the Richardson Highway. I didn't know how to perform the ceremony; I didn't know if you asked both brides, or you asked both grooms or whether you asked one couple then the other. I didn’t have a book and I didn’t get any training at all, absolutely nothing, so I learned as I went.. At first it was hard when I was called away from home to do my job, so after my husband got out of the Army, I went to the Judge and explained that I had small children AND the Post Office to contend with, so I couldn't go out of town when the job required it. The Judge appointed my husband Pat as a special U.S. Commissioner and from then on he was able to legally handle those out of town things".
I asked May to describe early Wasilla: "Well, as far as businesses in Wasilla (in 1940), there was a general store, a hotel that had an eating place, a tavern, the Post Office and a one room school. There was no church of any kind and not much of a cemetery...well, there was a little cemetery on this hill back here, the first little hill you go up on Knik Road, just right out of town; there are 4 graves there but I don't know who is buried there; most were buried in Anchorage or Palmer. The main cemetery that we have now was the result of Martin and Edith Olson; they had an old homestead where Fred Meyer is now. Edith organized a bunch of women to raise money to buy land for a cemetery. I think the first person to be buried out there was Gus Swanson."
“We bought most of our groceries from Herning’s store. You couldn’t get fresh milk or fresh meat and during WWII stuff like sugar and butter was rationed; you got one pound at a time and it didn’t last long enough, so we bought fresh meat and milk from Palmer farmers. An Eskimo lady, married to a white man that lived out on Wasilla Lake had cows so that's where we got our milk; their name was Peck and he was the railroad depot agent in Wasilla."
"We had one telephone in town and it was at the depot. When I was working, you always had some lawyer calling for information or a description of a piece of property that somebody wanted to buy. Well, they would call for me, and the depot agent would have to tell the caller ‘I’ll go get her’ and he would come and get me and I’d walk the two blocks down to the depot telephone and call the guy back and find out what he wanted, then I would walk back up to my office, and get the information, then walk back down and call him back and give him the information. We lived on Main Street, across from the community center. In 1944, our house was one of only three buildings in Wasilla that had running water and a flush toilet; my bathroom was very popular with friends. It was only a block up from where I had my office, right across from the fire hall. The Community Hall, which is now the museum, was the place where we had everything, wing-dings, dances, basketball games, etc., and people would ask to go across the street to use my bathroom. Yes, there were only three houses in town with plumbing, mine, Dorothy Nelson who was a school teacher here, and the Herning's. The Herning's lived in the back of the store when we moved to Wasilla, but Mr. Herning had this nice house built with modern appliances and running water but his wife wouldn't live in it".
May was the U.S. Commissioner of Wasilla from 1944 until 1959 and the Postmaster of Wasilla from 1944 until 1973. If you had business in the Valley during those years, chances are you met May Carter. She performed weddings, investigated deaths, issued death certificates, helped people file homestead papers, set fines and jail sentences for fish and game violations, she did title searches, recorded leases and transfers, issued license plates and drivers licenses; “all you had to do to get a drivers license, in the early days, was to fill out the application”, May said. She recorded gold mine claims and was the probate judge and notary. She was “on duty” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. May recalled "one time late at night, a young couple wanted to get married. They had already submitted the application, so I just had to make out the license, round up a couple of witnesses and perform the ceremony. Half way through the ceremony, the bride said 'I've changed my mind, I don't want to get married'. I told her if she didn't want to get married by all means she shouldn't. Five minutes later, she changed her mind the other way; this went back and forth for half an hour and finally, I told her it was late and she had to make up her mind. They finally decided to get married. The next morning when I opened the office, the groom showed up and said, 'May, will you tear up those papers, I never even got her home'."
Working as Commissioner didn't pay much, “You didn't get an hourly wage but you were allowed to keep your fees. They had a fee system and people paid so-many dollars for a drivers license and that part was my pay; I was allowed to keep up to $1,600 a year. As Postmaster, my wages were based on stamp sales and registration fees. Independence Gold Mine melted their gold down into disks about the size of a small cast iron frying pan. Then they put the disk in a canvas bag and fastened it with a lead seal and mailed it to Seattle; it took $100 worth of stamps, so that was always a special payday for me. Nobody knew it, at the time, but those gold disks were put right on the mail cart with the rest of the mail. Of course, there wasn't a lot of crime in Wasilla in those days", May said.
had a wealth of early Wasilla stories to tell, like the one about Jay
Levan. "He moved to the Valley as a GI homesteader, with a wife and young
son. To meet the homestead requirements, GI's had to fill out a set of
forms and then get a witness to fill out a second form and it all had
to be notarized. Levan was a great big, tall, lanky guy who carried two
of those great big black lunch boxes to work because he had such a big appetite.
He was a happy go lucky guy and everybody liked him. Well, his
witnesses came in signed the papers and Jay paid the $10.00. Oh,
he was so happy and he went on his way. Well, there was a family
that had moved into Knik and they were called 'the goat people' because
they had goats that lived in their house and climbed all over everything
and when they went anyplace in the car, they took the goats with them.
So, on his way home, Jay Levan ran into the goat people. In those early
days, if somebody was broken down or stalled on the road, you always stopped
to help them. So, Levan got out of his truck and helped the family
get their rig started. After they drove off, he realized he left the door
to his truck open and the goats had gotten in and eaten his homestead papers!
He came into the office the next day and he was so forlorn…..$10.00 was
a lot of money in those days. I thought it was so funny and I burst
out laughing and I told him, Oh Van, don’t feel bad, just get yourself
some more forms and bring those people back in and I won’t charge you $10.00
this time” (big laugh from May).
Another well known Wasilla character was a “Native man named Blind Nick who was a very intelligent man and he spoke English well. He was completely blind and walked everywhere by feeling the edge of the road with sticks which was fantastic and people watched out for him; he had a cabin about a mile out Wasilla Fishhook. One time, he was drunk and laid down in the middle of the road and someone ran over his legs. There were no broken bones, but he couldn't walk for a while and my husband Pat used to go and take care of him by building a fire and making something for Nick to eat every day, Pat was good to people like that."
Another character was Anderson, an older Swedish man who lived in Wasilla but homesteaded out at Big Lake. There was no road to Big Lake back then, so Anderson drove his tractor along the railroad easement as far as Pittman, then he would lay blocks of wood over the rails so he could drive the tractor over the tracks and continue down the trail to Big Lake; he came into town to see his wife on the weekends.
“Shorty Gustafson had the first airplane in the valley and he used it to fly back and forth to the mines. There was a flat, wide, strip beside the road up there, about one or two miles below the mines and he landed there; there was another long landing strip over at Lucky Shot. Shorty had kind of a log building, near where the store was, and he lived upstairs and never married. He played the guitar and banjo and he loved to entertain when he got a little drunk. He was quite a character. He was a jack-of-all-trades and ran kind of a taxi from Wasilla to Palmer”.
A woman that May thought highly of, was Rose Johnson “…she was a nurse and she was always doing something for everybody. When a baby died, we would make a little coffin and she and I would take some satin and padding and fix it up and she was a jewel at it, just out of the goodness of her heart, no charge. She used to make pressed flowers and made pictures with them. She lived over a couple three houses back from my house off of Main Street, the building is still there”.
Fabyan was another character, "he worked for the mines as a mechanic
and a welder. He won a bunch of money on the Nenana ice pool one year
and his friends helped him drink most of that money away. Many years
later, two IRS agents came to my office and asked where Jack Fabyan lived
(he lived in a tiny shack, with absolutely nothing to his name). The agents
told Fabyan about his tax debt on the ice pool winnings and he told them,
'Well, this is it, you can have it if you want it'. The agents would
leave but every couple of years new agents would show up and he would tell
them the same thing...he was fool-proofed."
wish the old timers were still here to tell you stories" May told me,
"like Ila and Bill Senske, who homesteaded 4 miles out Knik road in
about 1927; they befriended every person who ever came to this country.
When the GI's poured into this area after World War II, Bill and Ila
took care of them. You wouldn't believe the darndest rigs that those young
families drove over the Al-Can Highway with. Bill would help the men find
their corner stakes so they could file for a homestead and Ila would teach
the women to bake bread and slice up moose meat to survive. If it weren't
for people like Bill and Ila Senske, those young families would have starved
to death. Other early families were the Herning's, the Peck's, the Dodson's,
the Thorpe's and the Fleckenstein's. The Thorpe's had a homestead 4 miles
out on Knik road on the left hand side."
roads were different back then. There was a road to Palmer, it went out
of Wasilla and crossed the railroad tracks and turned and went up the hill
where there is a gravel place now. Well, you went up that hill and down
and followed it, well, the road basically went by Green Acres. It's all
changed some because they took some of the bad curves out of it. You know
where Wilderness Nursery is? Well, that was the place where it was always
blocked with snow, every winter."
didn’t go to Anchorage for very much in those days because a trip to
Anchorage and back was an all day event. The road went from Palmer to
Anchorage on what they call the Old Glenn Highway now. The road across
the flats, by Eklutna, was so wash-boardy it was hard to stay inside of
your car. We went to Anchorage maybe two or three times a year."
I asked May what early Wasilla residents thought
about the Palmer colonists, "Well, there has always been animosity
between Wasilla and Palmer because the people in early Wasilla, came
here on their own and paid their own way and fought the battle by themselves.
The colonists…well, the government brought them in and built them houses
and cleared their land. The government built them stores and a hospital
and roads and the Colonists didn’t always work on their own places, they
worked for somebody else and got paid for that too. The Colonists were always
a little more on the grabby side, for instance, services that we had here
in Wasilla, like the US Commissioners office and the Road Commissioners office
and auto licensing all used to be done here in Wasilla, but after Statehood,
it was all moved over to Palmer. To make matters worse, When the
colonists came, the government closed all the rest of the land around here
to homesteading. There was no land available until after WWII
when the government opened it all back up. To qualify for a homestead, regular
people had to stake the land, live on it for 3 years and cultivate part
of it, but the GI's got special treatment. They only had to live on the
land for 7 months, did not have to cultivate any of the land and the house
they built didn't have to be finished, it just had to have 4 walls, a roof
and no floor.
had a Deputy Marshall in Palmer, but there wasn't much crime back then.
We had more Game Wardens because they had this silly law that you couldn't
shoot a moose within a mile of the road. Well, I defy anyone to be be out
hunting and try to figure out whether they are a mile from a road, unless
a car goes by and they can hear it. Well, we tried to look the other way
a lot, but I remember one guy at Knik. He killed a moose about 2 or 3 miles
from his house and then dragged it, bleeding, right up to his house. Well,
that's putting the evidence right in front of the Wardens nose."
man named Ed Baker told me a wonderful story about May Carter. He said
that when he was a young man, a moose got its legs seriously tangled in
some tree branches in his back yard. As hard as the moose fought to release
himself, the tangle became worse. Since it was not moose hunting season,
Baker went into town and asked May what his legal options were. She told
him to kill the moose, dress it and divide all of the meat between Wasilla's
old timers, so that's what he did. He said he took a big moose roast over
to Clyde and Alice Thorpe. They were so happy to get the meat that Clyde
gave Baker a dust covered gallon jar of pickled beaver tail in return.
Baker told me "I saw salmonella written all over that jar and you could
still see hair on the beaver tail". But that was May, common sense and charity
husband Pat, passed away in 1991; "he was a kind and generous man with
a great sense of humor and worked hard to help people in need.
Over the years, he was employed by M.E.A., the Alcantra Youth Camp
and Civil Defense among other things. He and Frank Smith were responsible
for obtaining Wasilla’s first fire truck." May paused for a minute and
looked sadly out at the lake. After a minute or so, she smiled and told
me, "He used to get a moose in the fall and he would bring the whole thing
in because he had a small Caterpillar. Once he took this moose head and
propped it up on a barrel in the middle of Main Street", she laughed. He
was such a comic. "If a young couple came to the office to get married,
especially if we knew them, Pat would tell them, 'I have two services, a
long one and a short one', which do you want? They would always ask, 'what's
the short one?' and Pat would tell them, 'Do you have her?' and 'Do
you have him?'. He passed away on Christmas Eve of 1991, I miss him terribly."
The Carter’s were very community minded and served on countless boards, committees, fundraisers and work parties. May was on the school board, the Sacred Heart Parish Council, the Wasilla Cemetery Association and she was the treasurer of the “Bishop’s Attic” for 25 years. They donated land to the V.F.W., as well as land for a children's park on the edge of Lake Lucille. Asked if she approved of the city that Wasilla has become, May, ever the diplomat, assured me that Wasilla was still a great town, "except for the traffic".
When I told Mrs. Carter that I admired her dedication to public service, she said, “Well, you know, when I was a little girl, maybe six years old or so, our school lesson was about school boards. They told us that people got paid for their mileage to go to school board meetings, so I asked my dad if he got paid when he went to school board meetings and he told me he did not, then he told me something I have never forgotten… he said ‘it’s just something I do for my community’, that was over 80 years ago but I’ve never forgotten that... and when you think about it... what can you do for your community? I’ve served on every board there ever was here. It’s just what I did for my community".
Towards the end of our visit, I asked May if there was anything she regretted about her years of service as Commissioner. She was silent for a minute, and then said, “It would have been nice to get a note of thanks for doing a good job for 17 years, but I didn’t hear anything and that hurt my feelings”. Hearing the sadness in her voice, I was determined to find a way to publicly recognize May Carter for her years of dedication to the Valley. I sent a copy of this “story” to the Mayor of Wasilla and asked if the City could do something special for May. The Mayor asked the Alaska State Legislature to issue a special award to May. Just before her 88th birthday, in a ceremony at City Hall (with her family all around her) May Carter was presented an official Alaska State Proclamation Award for “Her dedication and service as a great pioneer of Alaska”.........you should have seen her eyes sparkle!!!
Matanuska Valley is a much better place because of the unselfish hard
work of May and Pat Carter. Their tireless efforts, generosity
and compassion are wonderful examples of early Alaskan pioneer spirit;
they are wonderful role models for us all.
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