A Kind and Sensitive Man: The Rex Hanks Story — Part 1

The main action of this story takes place in Happy Valley, located between Anchor Point and Ninilchik on the southern Kenai Peninsula

This cross in the Anchor Point Cemetery marks the grave of Rex and Irmgard Hanks’s daughter, who was stillborn in Seward on this date. (Photo courtesy of findagrave.com)

This cross in the Anchor Point Cemetery marks the grave of Rex and Irmgard Hanks’s daughter, who was stillborn in Seward on this date. (Photo courtesy of findagrave.com)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This first chapter of the Rex Hanks story includes many other individuals and numerous actions and transactions. It is helpful, therefore, to know a little background: The main action takes place in Happy Valley, located between Anchor Point and Ninilchik on the southern Kenai Peninsula. Of the “characters” in this tale, Rex Hanks, in May 1946, was the first to file on a homestead. A week later, his friend, Clyde Thomas, filed on an adjacent homestead. Two years after that, Homer and Nell Crosby also filed in the same area. By 1953, much had changed: Thomas was dead. Hanks had sold his homestead, bought a small piece of Crosby property, moved away to find work and gotten married. The Crosbys had also left the valley, moved to the Anchorage area and begun trying to sell the rest of their homestead. Meanwhile, in Eagle River, Mac and Ella McGann were eyeing the Kenai for homesteading possibilities.

Cemetery Concerns

When Mac and Ella Mae McGann first viewed photographs of the Crosbys’ homestead, they noticed what appeared to be some sort of marker, like that which might denote a grave. The Crosbys offered to explain.

The McGanns had been living and working for several years in Eagle River, north of Anchorage, but now they sought a change of scenery and new opportunities. They were in the market for a homestead, and they had begun to focus on the Kenai Peninsula.

One day in 1956, Homer and Nell Crosby wandered into the McGanns’ Eagle River store and announced that they were trying to sell their own homestead in Happy Valley. The McGanns seemed intrigued, so the Crosbys, who were living near Anchorage at the time, offered to bring back a slide projector and some color transparencies to illustrate what they were selling.

The marker showing in the current photo on the screen, the Crosbys said, showed the last resting place of an early homesteader and a former neighbor named Clyde William Thomas, who had died five years earlier, in the wintertime in 1951. Thomas, they added, had been a close friend of another neighbor, Rex Hanks, who had downsized around the time of Thomas’s death. Hanks had sold his own homestead, purchased 2 acres of Crosby property and decided, out of respect, to bury his friend there.

The Crosbys added that, since the photo was taken, Rex Hanks had added a second grave to his parcel. Also, in recent years, Hanks had moved to Seward, gotten married and, in 1954, had a child, a daughter, who was stillborn.

The McGanns seemed relatively unconcerned about the graves, and they expressed an interest in seeing the rest of the Crosby place in person. The Crosbys were pleased but added a proviso: They encouraged the McGanns — if they decided to purchase the homestead — to have a re-survey done of Rex Hanks’s northern property line. The Crosbys weren’t sure, but they worried that the two graves might not actually be on Hanks’s land.

The McGanns bought the homestead in 1957 and began trying to sell their Eagle River assets. At some point while exploring their new land, they wandered over to check out Rex Hanks’s little graveyard. They found a neat white fence surrounding the plot, but inside the fence there were now three graves. The latest, for a female, bore a single date in 1956 and the surname Machado.

“On Sept. 13, 1957,” wrote Ella Mae McGann in her book, “The Pioneers of Happy Valley, 1944-1964”, “I received a letter from Seward, Alaska. Mrs. Rex Hanks asked us if we knew that Mr. Crosby had sold Mr. Hanks a piece of property from our homestead. She then told us about the cemetery.”

Mrs. Hanks appeared to acknowledge that the graves might lie beyond their property line, and she raised an additional concern.

Were the McGanns aware, asked Mrs. Hanks, that Homer Crosby had signed a deal with the Territory of Alaska in 1949, allowing a portion of his homestead to be moved into the public domain so that the Alaska Road Commission could extract gravel for use in construction and maintenance of the Sterling Highway?

The Hankses’ three graves, said Mrs. Hanks, seemed likely to be within the bounds of the contracted gravel pit location.

Would the McGanns be willing, she queried, to grant them that sliver of land for their cemetery?

Ella Mae McGann responded with a letter on Sept. 25. She said the Crosbys had, indeed, explained to the McGanns their arrangement with the Territory. The McGanns were still, however, trying to divest themselves of their Eagle River property; once they were fully settled in Happy Valley, she said, they’d see about having a new survey made and try to clear up any land-ownership questions.

Rex Hanks himself visited Happy Valley several times over the following year, hoping to catch the McGanns but missing them on every visit. Hanks was planning to build a new house for himself and his wife on their 2 acres, and he was eager to have the gravesites included in the deal.

On Oct. 18, 1958 — with the McGanns still trying to get out of Eagle River — Ella Mae received a new letter from Mrs. Hanks. She wanted to let the McGanns know that their little cemetery now contained four graves, as Mr. Hanks had recently been to the property to bury their second stillborn daughter. The Machado grave, she said, belonged to the stillborn daughter of Mrs. Hanks’s sister, who also lived in Seward.

By this point, the original landowners, the Crosbys, had moved from Alaska to Oklahoma. Ella Mae wrote to them and asked their advice in dealing with “this sad problem.” Nell Crosby replied that she and her husband had been completely truthful in their agreement with the McGanns. She added that her husband was quite ill in a veterans hospital in Texas. He died shortly afterward.

In November, Rex Hanks sent the McGanns a legal description of the land he had purchased from the Crosbys, including information about a warranty deed that had been recorded in Homer. That was it, according to Ella Mae McGann. There was no cover letter. Nothing else about the graveyard. No more questions about a new survey.

“We assumed they had settled something on it,” wrote Ella Mae in her book, “and we heard nothing more from them.”

Gravel and Graves

By 1959, the year Alaska achieved statehood, Ella Mae McGann wrote that her family was now “free of Eagle River and (had) moved onto the homestead.” Meanwhile, work on maintaining and upgrading the Sterling Highway continued, and State transportation officials contacted the McGanns about acquiring additional gravel.

With their own attorney, the McGanns crafted a new gravel deal. No mention was made of the graveyard on the revised plat, and the McGanns didn’t mention it because they believed the matter had been settled.

In 1963, the state set up a road-construction camp in Happy Valley. Once again, the state determined that it needed more gravel than it had previously determined. Once again, the McGanns signed a new contract.

And then the issue with the graves resurfaced. The Hankses’ cemetery, it was determined, was on McGann land, precisely where the new contract called for gravel extraction.

Rex Hanks was therefore compelled to exhume all four bodies and rebury them closer to the new home he had constructed. Unfortunately, he didn’t move them completely off McGann property. He was forced to dig up all the bodies except Clyde Thomas’s and move them again. This time he got them onto his own land.

Moving Thomas’s remains took a little longer.

“We found a sister of Clyde Thomas living in Yakima, Washington,” wrote Ella Mae. In July 1963, the sister provided written permission to remove Clyde’s body and re-bury it. “The American Legion Post 18, of Ninilchik … removed the body from Happy Valley, and he (was) buried in the veterans’ section of the cemetery in Ninilchik.”

“Who was right or who was wrong?” wrote Ella Mae McGann. “We had to believe the Crosbys because we (had) received an honorable contract from them. There was no mention of any graveyard. We assumed Mr. Hanks would not (have) buried his beloved babies on ground he did not believe was his, or on ground that had not been legally set aside for that purpose.”

When Mrs. Hanks died in 1984, she was buried in the Anchor Point Cemetery; Rex was buried next to her four years later. Nearby, today, are three white-painted wooden crosses, one for each of the children: Ellen Priscilla Hanks (May 24, 1954), Lorelei Jean Machado (Sept. 7, 1956) and Heather Kristi Hanks (Oct. 11, 1958).

Except for some hard feelings, the problem seemed to be solved—except, perhaps, the issue with the ghost.

TO BE CONTINUED….

Photo courtesy of Katie Matthews
Nell and Homer Crosby were early homesteaders in Happy Valley. Although they had left the area by the early 1950s, they sold two acres on their southern line to Rex Hanks.

Photo courtesy of Katie Matthews Nell and Homer Crosby were early homesteaders in Happy Valley. Although they had left the area by the early 1950s, they sold two acres on their southern line to Rex Hanks.

The cover of Ella Mae McGann’s history book, “The Pioneers of Happy Valley, 1944-1964,” shows the original homesteading cabin of Homer and Nell Crosby. (Cover image courtesy of Adrienne Walli Sweeney)

The cover of Ella Mae McGann’s history book, “The Pioneers of Happy Valley, 1944-1964,” shows the original homesteading cabin of Homer and Nell Crosby. (Cover image courtesy of Adrienne Walli Sweeney)

Photo from “San Chat,” May 1956 issue
In 1956, when this photo of nurse Irmgard Hanks, wife of Rex, was taken for the 10th anniversary of the Seward Sanitorium, the Hanks were still living in Seward but were preparing to move to a new home in Happy Valley. Irmgard was the Night Supervisor and Relief Supervisor for the facility, which fought against the ravages of tuberculosis.

Photo from “San Chat,” May 1956 issue In 1956, when this photo of nurse Irmgard Hanks, wife of Rex, was taken for the 10th anniversary of the Seward Sanitorium, the Hanks were still living in Seward but were preparing to move to a new home in Happy Valley. Irmgard was the Night Supervisor and Relief Supervisor for the facility, which fought against the ravages of tuberculosis.

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