"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), then 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 Main Street, right about where the fire station is today; it had a rope with a bucket and pulley. You'd put the bucket down the well and fill it up, even in the winter time. Electricity didn't come to Wasilla until about 1942."
tried gold mining for a while but had little luck. He was discouraged
and wanted to leave Alaska but May had fallen in love with the Valley
and wanted to stay. In spite of her objections, he sold the family truck
and household goods, then left for Seattle without her. She was now
an unemployed single parent, in the wilds of Alaska, with two young
children, no income, no furniture and no transportation.
May didn't give in to self pity. Instead, she quickly landed a secretarial job for the FAA in Anchorage and rented a little one room apartment "it was just big enough for a single bed and a bath". Later, she found a better paying secretarial job with the railroad.
A beautiful and resourceful
young woman; May was not single for very long. She fell in love with
a man named Thomas “Pat” Carter. "In 1942, before he went into the Army,
Pat had a job freighting materials, food and supplies to the crews that
were building the Glenn Highway. The first camp he delivered to was about
2 miles north 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. After that, Pat joined
the Army and was stationed at Valdez which was about as far away as China
in those days. His job was to transport prisoners from Valdez to Anchorage
(and back) for the Army. He picked them up in Valdez and took them up the
Richardson Highway to Fairbanks, where he put them on the train to Anchorage.
Then he took them on the reverse route to get the prisoners back to Valdez."
"It wasn't easy to find time, between
transport routes, to get married, in those days because the law required
a 3 day waiting period between the time you applied for the license and the
ceremony itself. Since Pat's circuit with the prisoners took 2 days, it was
hard to find that 3rd (waiting) day. We finally found the time to get married
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. "She had all kinds of faith in
me I guess" May laughed, "I applied for the job and became the 1st woman
U.S. Commissioner and Postmaster for Wasilla."
"My 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. 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 he said 'Theodore wants to talk to you'. I asked him what the problem was. Well, Theodore would only talk directly to Nick and then Nick would repeat it 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 2 little boys on his own. I don't know if he listened, but I do know that old Theodore ended up raising the 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 from Palmer
and the other couple was from over on the Richardson Highway. I didn't know
how to perform a wedding ceremony; I didn't know if you asked both brides
first or if you asked both grooms first or whether you asked one couple
and 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, but 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 understood and 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, 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; I think there are 4 graves but
I don't remember who is buried there; most people were buried in Anchorage
or Palmer. The main cemetery that we have now was the result of Martin
and Edith Olson; they had a 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 old 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 1 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 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 1 telephone in town and it
was at the depot. When I was working, I always had some lawyer calling for
information or a description of a piece of property that someone 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
2 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
and walk back down and call the lawyer back. We lived on Main Street, across
from the community center. In 1944, our house was one of only 3 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 like wing-dings, dances, basketball
games, etc. and people would ask to go across the street to use my bathroom.
Yes, there were only 3 houses in town with plumbing: mine, Dorothy Nelson's
(she was a school teacher) and the Herning's. The Herning's were living in
the back of their store when we moved to Wasilla, but Mr. Herning had this
nice house built shortly after that. It had modern appliances and running
water but his wife refused to live in it."
May was the U.S. Commissioner of Wasilla from 1944 until 1959 and the Postmaster 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 those 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. "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 assured her that if she didn't want to get married, by all means, she shouldn't. Five minutes later, she changed her mind the other way; well, 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, but 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 a certain amount
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 big
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", she chuckled.
May had a wealth of early Wasilla
stories to tell, like the one about Jay Lavan. "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
2nd form and it all had to be notarized. Levan was a great big, tall, lanky
guy who carried 2 of those 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 into my office and signed the homestead papers and Jay
paid the $10, he was so happy. Well, on his way home, he saw a car stalled
beside the road. It belonged to a family that everyone called 'the goat people'
because they let their goats live in the house with them and always let
them ride in the car too. Well, Levan stopped to help them get their rig
started and they drove off. When he went back to his truck, he realized
he had left the door open and the goats had gotten in and eaten his homestead
papers! He came to my office the next day and he was so forlorn.....$10
was a lot of money in those days. I thought it was so funny that I burst
out laughing and told him, 'Oh Van, don't feel bad, just get yourself some
more forms and bring those witnesses back in and I won't charge you $10 this
"Another well known Wasilla character was a “Native man named Blind Nick who was a very intelligent man and he spoke English very well. He was completely blind and walked everywhere by feeling the edge of the road with sticks and people watched out for him; he had a cabin about a mile out on 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 help him out by building Nick a fire and making something for him to eat every day, Pat was good to people like that."
"Another character was Oscar Anderson, an older Swedish man who lived in Wasilla but had a homestead out at Big Lake. There was no road to Big Lake back then, so Oscar 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, Abeeda, on the weekends."
“Shorty Gustafson was another old timer. He 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 1 or 2 miles below the mines and he landed there. There was another long landing strip over at Lucky Shot. Shorty lived near Herning's store and never married. He played the guitar and banjo and he loved to sing 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”.
"Jack Fabyan was another character,
he worked for the mines as a mechanic and welder. He won a bunch of money
on the Nenana Ice Pool one year and his friends helped him drink most of
it away. Many years later, 2 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."
"I 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 WWII, Bill
and Ila took care of them. You wouldn't believe the darndest rigs that those
young families drove over the Al0Can Highway with. Bill would help the men
find their corner stakes so they could file for a homestead and Ila would
teach the women how 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, that's for sure. Other early families were the Hernings,
the Pecks, 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."
were different back then. The road to Palmer 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 it 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 2 or 3 times
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, but the
government brought the colonists in and built them houses and cleared
their land. They built them stores and a hospital and roads. Those colonists
didn’t always work on their own places either, they worked for somebody
else and got paid for that too. They 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, 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
and didn't have to cultivate any of the land and the house they built didn't
have to be finished at all, it just had to have 4 walls and a roof.....not
even a floor."
"There was 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. 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 itself, the tangle became worse. Since it was not moose hunting
season, Baker went into Wasilla 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 they 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!".
May's husband Pat, passed away in 1991; "He was a kind and generous man with a great sense of humor and he 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 moment and looked wistfully out over the lake next to her house. She smiled and said, "He used to get a moose in the fall and bring it in with his 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 the, Pat would tell them, 'I have 2 services, a long one and a short one, which do you want?' They would always ask, 'well, whats the short one?' and Pat would tell them, 'Do you have her?' and 'Do you have him?' Pat passed away on Christmas Eve of 1991, I miss him terribly," May said softly.
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 May that I admired her dedication to public service, she said, “Well, you know, when I was a little girl, maybe 6 years old or so, our school lesson was about school boards. They told us that people got paid for their mileage to go to meetings, so I asked my dad if he got paid when he went to school board meetings and he said 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 it. 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 told me, “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 went one step farther and 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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