Coleen (Walker) Mielke
I recently re-discovered 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. Where have the years gone?
people I mention below were all Chugiak pioneers
as well as family friends. The 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
My mother, Kathy (Furness)
Walker (born in Cambridge England in 1924) was the 3rd (of 6) children.
She graduated from secondry school just about the time that WWII started.
During the war, she worked at a grocery store in Cambridge.
and dad met during the war and dated off and on until
late 1945 when the Army sent dad back to South Dakota. He
leased his cousins farm and tried his hand at farming for about
a year, but it didn't agree with him, so he sold his equipment and
livestock and went back to England to find mom. After a 4 week courtship,
they were married and flew back to the United States aboard American
Ollie Walker and Kathy Furness
Cambridge, England 1945
Tragedy Prompts a New Start in Alaska
My folks rented 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 very homesick for England.
Their first baby (born Christmas
Eve 1947) died two days later; eight months later mom went back
to England. Two months after that, she wrote and told dad that she
would consider coming back to America if he moved away
from the town of Ashley; she said that 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
Mom and dad moved to Wahpeton,
North Dakota where dad enrolled in a trade school and learned
how to do auto body repair. When he graduated in March of 1950,
they moved to Alaska.
Alaska, A New Start
In the early spring of 1950,
mom and dad 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 Glenn Highway.
I was born, that May, in the old Providence Hospital at 9th and L Street
in the new community of Chugiak was primitive; it
had un-maintained, narrow dirt roads, no electricity, no running
water, no telephones, no doctors and no law enforcement, but
it DID have other homesteaders who were equally new to homesteading
and more than willing to help each other. That summer, dad
found a full time Civil Service job on Fort Richardson
Army Base; a job he would keep for the next 25 years.
Because mom wasn't an American
citizen yet, dad filed an application (by himself) for
a 160 acre homestead in 1950; it was at mile 17½ on the Glenn
Highway. In order to actually receive the patent, he had to stake the land,
get it surveyed and come up with a habitable dwelling, so they sold their
cabin at mile 18½ and moved an old building onto the proposed homestead.
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 old 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 in 1955 and my sister Sherrie in 1957.
Dad was raised in the Evangelical
Lutheran Church and 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 1959, 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.
First Baptist Church of Birchwood was
on the old Glenn Highway, just past (todays) North Birchwood
Loop intersection. Services were held in an old 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.
the new Birchwood Baptist Church was built (near
the North Birchwood Loop overpass) the old church building
was sold to Ted Sadler. He used it to sell new, used and re-upholstered
furniture; it was his first store in Alaska.
To Grade School
opened in 1951 on the Old Glenn Highway. When I started 1st grade
there, in 1956, there were two school buildings. My 1st grade
teacher was Miss Rowland (married name Waterman). The first
day of school, we were all lined up and given DPT shots by
the school nurse. Several of us had serious skin
reactions and Mrs. Emmert (the principals wife) told mom
it was probably because the nurse had used the same syringe
for everyone. Times have certainly changed.
My second grade teacher
was Miss Saupe; third grade was Mrs. May; fourth grade was
Miss Eggleston; fifth grade was Goldie Pettit and sixth grade
was Mr. Kerr.
Lorene Tofson and Henrietta "Penn"
(Swanson) Lee were in charge of the school cafeteria, where "road
killed moose" stew was occasionally on the menu. Penn was
a legendary baker and people STILL (60+ years later) talk
about the delicious bread rolls she made for our school lunches.
Paul Swanson came to Alaska in 1940
and married Margaret Boucher in 1941. After WWII, he built a home, a small
store and a few tiny houses near the store; he named the area "Swanee
Slopes". When Chugiak Elementary School was built in 1951 (across the
road from Swanee Slopes), Swanson rented the tiny houses to school teachers
and drove the school bus. In 1955, he opened a post office. As the elementary
school population grew, Mr. Swanson brought in military surplus quonset
huts and buildings and rented them to the school.
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,
Goldie 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.
attended Chugiak High
School the first year it opened in 1964 and graduated
from there in 1968; our graduating class was the first
group of students to attend all 12 grades in the Chugiak/Eagle
River area (before 1964, kids had to attend 7-12th grade 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.
not recall what year telephones were first installed
in Chugiak, but it must have been in the
late 1950’s. Our first real phone number started with "HO"
followed by 4 numbers (the HO stood for "Homestead").
"real phones" arrived, lots of Chugiak families ran wires
to their closest neighbors and then hooked the wires to surplus
World War II, EE-8 Army field phones. 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 all of the neighbors phones
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.
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 British friends, laughing, chatting and reminiscing about England.
In 1955, my mother became
a U.S. Citizen so, my folks 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 that they originally
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 their homestead, the land office declared it was technically TWO pieces of land and they would have to decide which piece of land they wanted to apply for. After much thought, they decided to file for the smaller parcel that lay up against the mountain because our house was there and because it included a section of Fire Creek (a guaranteed source of water). They begrudgingly released their claim to the 100 acres that lay on the other 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.
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 a second 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 them and put up a spruce pole fence to keep them 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 (Savetilik) 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 wonderful people who were tough as nails. Their foster son, Eddie Sarren, was in my class all through 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 about a billion spiders). The travel trailer was used to store dog harnesses, rigging, extra dog chains and it doubled as the birthing place for our outdoor cat, Ginger. The barn was made with spruce poles and corrugated aluminum sheeting. It was about 15'x30'and was primarily used for dry storage. Occasionally, local families who were down on their luck stored stuff in there.
the years, besides the pigs, we had goats, dozens
of guinea hens, rabbits, 40 sled dogs and we even had a
mule and a cow one summer.
The Sled Dogs
The sled dogs were dads passion. He made his own 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 he used it when he made the dog sleds. The soaked rawhide was wrapped around wooden sled joints and cinched tight. As the rawhide dried, it shrunk and tightened even more, yet it remained strong and flexible.
In the winter, the
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,
washing out the cans became one of my jobs
and I hated it.
Mom and dad were
charter members of the Chugiak Dog Mushing Association
and some of those first meetings were held in our living room.
in the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous as well as the races on Tudor Road
and the weekend, races 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 one-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 runners)
won a small trophy. That race was always a lot of fun to watch and cheer
In the late 1950's,
I thoroughly enjoyed dad's evening ritual of harnessing 7 or
8 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 full 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 for the memory
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 crisp 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
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 him from the
ceiling of my bedroom. The 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.
dogs were fast; he clocked them at
an easy 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 our 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 Gavin was a dog race
Marshal for many years.
Homestead Finally Gets Running Water
don't remember ANY neighbors that had
running water in the early years. My parents hauled
water (1950-1959) 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 put into the upper reaches of Parks Creek. On the downhill
end, they propped the pipe up 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 I'm sure. 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 only 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
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 option 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 wrong with the dynamite. Of course, the
table we were under was right next to a big glass window,
but I guess they didn't think that far ahead.
Dad and our neighbor, Bob Aubrey,
drilled holes into the bedrock and filled them with sticks
of dynamite. Next, they lit the fuses and "ran like crazy"
as Dad recalled it. 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 protect the water pipes, Dad encased them in an
(above ground) wooden box filled with insulation and heat tapes. Once
in a while, 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
Our Chugiak Neighbors
My earliest birthday
party guest lists (copied from my
baby book 1950-1955),
read like an early Chugiak telephone directory:
*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 neighbors that lived closest to our homestead were Robert & Lillian Schoonmaker. They 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 on a hunting trip at Lake Louise in 1962.
They had 4 children: Kathleen 9, Jimmy 7, Rebecca Ann 3 and Suzanne
The next people to live in that
log house were John and Dorothy Liska. Mr.
Liska was a taxidermist and raised honey bees; he later went
North of the Lamay/Liska
house is Athanasius Street where the St. John Orthodox
Church is. When I was growing up, the road had no name and
only three families lived on it: the Cremin's (who had 2 boys named
Mitch and Mike), the Radiskie's and the Despain's (the road dead ended
just past the Despain's house). I used to baby-sit for the Rediskie's
and the Despain's.
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. She made home brew one summer and proudly displayed the finished product on a shelf in her 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 her kitchen. The Hutchinson's had a son named Archie who was an Anchorage City Police officer for many years.
In 1951 Bob &
Susie Aubrey staked a 5 acre homesite next to our homestead. Bob
was in the military and had a shop at his house where
he made eye glasses. He made my first pair 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 shop was decorated with Japanese
souvenirs, including a dried and inflated puffer fish that
hung on a string from the ceiling. It's funny the things you remember
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
5 acres, on the north end of our homestead, to Hank and Pat Aust. By todays
landmarks, the Aust driveway is now a street called Del's Lane and the
old Aust homesite 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
(pronounced Mos-Kweet-O). 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
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 "cave", dug deep into the side of a hill. It was obviously
hand dug because the moss, plants and trees that grew
around (and on top of the hillside) 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 dark 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
very faintly like a wood fire. Their home was quite 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 later
that summer....one day they were just gone.
A stones throw north
of our driveway was Del’s Drive Inn, or
I should say, 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 wood 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 when she was the secretary at Iditarod
Elementary School in Wasilla. Her husband was Jake Wright, 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 family friends, Simon and Bobbie Media. In the 1950’s it was owned by former Matanuska Colonists, Einar and Inez Huseby. 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 and Marie McDowell. Marie had a small cafe, hot showers and post office boxes; Jim ran the gas pump and had a tow truck. They made everyone feel welcome and the lodge was always very warm and 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
At mile 20, there was a small log building on the right side of the highway (heading north) called 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
Just north of the VFW Hall, was where the Chugiak Benefit Association held its annual spring carnival during the 1950's. It was three days of motorcycle races, games, food booths, beauty contests and Les Fetrow as 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 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, the Birchwood
Loop followed a sharp ridge, back towards its present
day route (except it used to run right along the edge of the
Also on that bluff,
was the infamous 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. The 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 got so bad that someone, with a bulldozer, pushed the
majority of it over the ridge and set it on fire. 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 spot for many years and they eventually 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 Oberg was when I was
about 10 years old. We were all at the sled dog races on Pippel's
field and she heard me say that my hands were hurting from the cold.
She told me to stand close to her (face to face) and she put my freezing
cold hands under her armpits, then she wrapped her long black coat around
both of us; I was warm in just a few minutes. It was such a motherly thing
for her to do and 60+ years later, I still remember her kindness.
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
One half mile south of my
parents homestead was a landmark that ALL Chugiak-ites should remember;
it was called the Fire Lake Lodge. The land was originally
owned by Kenneth Laughlin and the lodge started out as a hot-dog
stand in 1936. Over the years, a variety of people like the
Merrimans, the Polyefko's and Sally Anderson leased the lodge.
In 1973 it became a Jehovah Witness Church. Click
here to read my story about the Fire Lake Lodge.
Just south of the
lodge was a gas station owned by the Ralph Rollins family.
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 up towards Upper Fire Lake. Pat and Mickey Earles, who were great family friends, lived off of that road. 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 friendly; I remember watching her make bread, I was fascinated. Their children were Patsy, Larry, Peggy, Janice, Fred, Ricky, Danny and Tim. In the late 1950's, Pat and Mickey and their 3 youngest boys, 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 stopped
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 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 short 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. Click
here to see my story about Dottie Cochran.
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 the cockatoo knew a lot of curse words (much to the chagrin of my religious father).
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. One of his more popular tourist trinkets was the "Moose-quito"
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.
In the heart of Eagle River was the Market Basket grocery store. 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 kids because it was close to Eagle River Elementary School AND
it had the BEST penny candy counter. 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.
the present day multi-lane Glenn Highway bypassed Eagle River
and Chugiak, the old (two lane) Glenn Highway
went from Anchorage, right through the heart of Eagle River
and Chugiak, and all the way to Palmer without a single stop sign
or stop light. Just south of Eagle River, the road went down a steep
grade before crossing the 2 lane Eagle River bridge, then back up the
north steep grade.
section of road had NO street lights and in the winter, when the roads
were icy, the traffic basically "policed itself". By that, I mean that
the cars would come to a complete stop at the top of the hill (going north
AND south) and wait for the car (coming down the opposite
grade) 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 safely up the other side (on their first try) and had to BACK DOWN that treacherous grade in the dark; 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"
In 1965, mom went back to school and 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.
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 was pushing against the building. Within seconds,
all of the bowling pins 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.
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 wide,
valiantly trying to stop dozens of liquor bottles from sliding
off of his counters; his eyes were as big as saucers.
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 between
very slack and 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
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 nearby 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 gone, the aisle's were knee deep in fallen merchandise; the whole store smelled of pickles 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".
goodness the earthquake happened on a Good
Friday because 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.
In 1968, I graduated
from Chugiak High School and went off to college. 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 homestead house burned down in
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 and game laws (when it was necessary) and participated in many "firsts" for Chugiak.
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.