Cheechako News photo
Mable Smith (second from right) joins the Cheechako News’ staff and friends for its 10-year anniversary dinner in 1969. From L-R: Publisher/owner Loren Stewart, Betty Karsten, Marion and Leo Oberts, Emmett Karsten, Smith, and Dorothy Stewart.

Cheechako News photo Mable Smith (second from right) joins the Cheechako News’ staff and friends for its 10-year anniversary dinner in 1969. From L-R: Publisher/owner Loren Stewart, Betty Karsten, Marion and Leo Oberts, Emmett Karsten, Smith, and Dorothy Stewart.

Don’t stop the presses

The Mable Smith Story — Part 2

Author’s note: Eight years after becoming a widow in Oklahoma, 55-year-old Mable Smith moved to Alaska, planning to live near her younger son John Jr. and his family. In late 1960, she applied for a homestead patent on 160 acres off Kalifornsky Beach Road. The following summer, she began working as a reporter and editor for the Cheechako News, based out of Ridgeway.

While living in Anchorage in August 1959, Mable Whitlock Smith learned that the newspaper she had once worked for in Hominy, Oklahoma, was under new ownership. She wrote a letter to the owners, congratulating them and noting that, while things seemed to be improving on their end, the Kenai Peninsula suffered from a dearth of regular news coverage.

“How about coming to Alaska and putting in a paper?” she wrote. “Big country up here but not many newspapers…. The nearest thing to a newspaper on the entire Kenai Peninsula is the Petticoat Gazette at Seward. It is a mimeographed affair put out by the Business and Professional Women’s Club and contains local news and advertising.”

The new owners published Mable’s letter in their newspaper and attached an editorial note calling her “the best female reporter the News has had in many a year.”

As luck for Mable would have it, however, another opportunity in journalism was hatching for her in the very direction she would soon be heading — to the Kenai.

Loren’s Launch

In a concrete-block building near the bluff on Main Street in Kenai on Friday, Oct. 30, 1959 — just two months after Mable’s letter appeared in Hominy — Loren and Dorothy Stewart launched the central peninsula’s first newspaper, The Kenai Peninsula Cheechako, later renamed The Cheechako News.

Under the masthead of Volume 1, Number 1, was this subheading: “News from the Oil Center of Alaska.” Beneath that were two articles bearing large headlines — “Gas Service in Kenai by 1960 Is Possibility” and “Soldotna Bank Open For Business.”

The stories centered on the burst of local progress evident since the Swanson River oil discovery in 1957, the promise of local natural gas in commercial quantities, and the recent arrival of statehood.

The front page that day also featured a quarter-page advertisement for Archer’s grocery store and filling station in Kenai and a photograph of a young girl, with a caption that offered a free three-month Cheechako subscription to the first person to correctly identify her.

Inside, readers could find Loren Stewart’s first editorial, which contrasted with the progressive themes on page one: “The Kenai Peninsula Cheechako is one ‘voice in the wilderness’ that would have liked to have seen the Territory remain as it was,” Stewart wrote.

Stewart’s opening salvo was, essentially, a lament for things past and passing. Its ending, however, was more upbeat. He noted the inevitability of progress and said that, once it arrived, few would desire to return to the way things once were. He mentioned paved roads and electricity among the many benefits of progress.

Loren and Dorothy Stewart’s little 10-cent weekly paper, wrought on an ancient linotype machine that assembled lines of copy from a molten lead alloy, brought a steady diet of community information and news to the central peninsula.

No longer did area residents have to rely solely on word-of-mouth or on limited radio broadcasts available from Anchorage.

From the Kenai office initially, and, after 1961, from a more permanent office in Ridgeway near Soldotna, the Stewarts and their small dedicated staff made a difference in the lives of peninsula residents.

For Mable Smith, the Cheechako News became an opportunity for her to make a difference, too.

Before Alaska

Mable Ruth Whitlock was born on Feb. 10, 1903, in Corning, Iowa, to William and Minerva (Harrider) Whitlock. The Whitlocks moved the following year to Eldon, Missouri, where Minerva died when Mable was only 6.

William remarried and, in 1918, moved his family to Hominy, Oklahoma. Mable graduated in 1920 from Hominy High School, where one of her best friends was a classmate named Amanda. They remained great friends and in the early 1960s both found themselves living on the Kenai — with Amanda as the wife of heavy-equipment operator D.C. “Pappy” Walker.

In Hominy after high school, Mable worked as a clerk in a justice of the peace and police court and then, in January 1921, was admitted into the University of Oklahoma (in Norman), with a major in journalism and a minor in English. In the summers, when school was out of session, she worked as a bank clerk.

Probably at some time during 1922, she met John Sterling Smith, a bulldozer operator from Emporia, Kansas. They married in Guthrie, Oklahoma, in January 1923 but did not announce their nuptials publicly until April. By this time, Mable was in the early stages of pregnancy. She gave birth to her first child, Charles William “Bill” Smith, in December.

The Smiths had two more children: John Sterling “Poon” Smith, Jr., in 1926, and Jacquelyn Ann “Jackie” Smith in 1929.

Although Mable was primarily a homemaker and a mother during the 1920s and 1930s, she also pursued part-time work — as a substitute teacher in a junior high school, as an employee in the office of a large department store, and as an assistant to attorney needing help with income tax returns. She also did office work and bookkeeping for John’s business.

Like most residents of the United States, the Smiths were hit hard by the Great Depression. And like many people living in the Dust Bowl era of Oklahoma, the Smiths sought the promise of better economic times in California, perceived to be a land of opportunity.

In the early 1930s, they moved their growing family west to Humboldt County, where John was employed by a sawmill operation called the Little River Redwood Company. By 1940, the Smiths were back in Hominy. Their children had become adults there by the time John Sr. was killed in a heavy-equipment accident in early 1950.

Making the Most of an Opportunity

In the Nov. 3, 1961, edition of the Cheechako News, a photograph of Mable’s homestead cabin appeared on page five. The photographer had obviously complained to Mable about the rough nature of the road leading into her property because her response was printed in the caption: “That’s a good road. You should see it during the break-up.”

Each spring, she had to park out on Kalifornsky Beach Road and walk back to her home until the roads dried up and became firm once more.

By April 1963, Mable had finished proving up on her homestead, and on July 3 the Bureau of Land Management issued her a patent for the full parcel. The next year, however, she stopped living there, as her son built her a new frame home on his own homestead on Ciechanski Road across K-Beach Road. He then began subdividing his and his mother’s land to provide them with extra income.

Mable lived out the rest of her life on her son’s homestead.

In addition to her newspaper work, she became a founding member of the board for the creation and maintenance of the Soldotna Library. She served on the Soldotna Centennial Committee to help celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Alaska’s purchase from Russia. She also served for many years as the secretary of the Peninsula Sled Dog and Racing Association.

The Greater Soldotna Chamber of Commerce declared March 26, 1968, to be “Mable Smith Day,” in honor of her community service.

In her spare time, she took classes in painting and ceramics and worked in her flower garden.

Within a few years of being hired at the Cheechako, she was named editor, and Loren Stewart granted her (as Mable “Scoop” Smith) top billing in his list of employees.

Still, Smith expected more. In a 1965 letter to the Alaska Press Women, she said she felt restricted by “limited staff,” and added that she had “no time to rewrite or polish, (and the) material often shows it—never satisfied with it.”

Yule Chaffin, Alaska nonfiction author and member of the APW, read Smith’s letter and disagreed: “I am constantly amazed at the amount of informative material that Mable gathers for her paper—and in spite of what she says, I find it well written.”

Mable was certainly dedicated. “She left early (for work) and came home late,” said daughter-in-law Betty Smith. She often stayed on the job even when she wasn’t feeling well. “I can remember Loren finally forcing her to go home from work when she was so sick that she could hardly hold her head up,” Betty said, “but she was still going to get that paper out.”

Under the leadership of Smith and the Stewarts, the Cheechako was in its heyday throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, when competition from Anchorage dailies and the new Peninsula Clarion undermined its readership and began to spell its doom.

When Mable retired in 1974, Betty said of her newspaper tenure, “Those years allowed her to do work she loved and attain a position in a society that recognized and appreciated her as an individual.”

Mable Smith died of a heart-related ailment on May 11, 1977. She was buried in Spruce Grove Memorial Park in Kasilof.

The demise of Mable’s beloved Cheechako News followed a few years later.

The Stewarts sold the Cheechako shortly after its 25th anniversary in 1984. The new owners brought in computers for the first time and renamed the paper The Soldotna Sun, but the “refresh” didn’t keep the paper afloat. It closed up shop suddenly in March 1986.

Mable Smith and the Cheechako News had found each other and prospered. Then suddenly, it seemed, both of them were gone.

While they were together, each had left an indelible mark on the history of the Kenai Peninsula.

Cheechako News photo
Mable Smith pecks away at her typewriter in the Cheechako News office in Ridgeway, circa mid-1960s.

Cheechako News photo Mable Smith pecks away at her typewriter in the Cheechako News office in Ridgeway, circa mid-1960s.

Cheechako News photo
Mable Smith holds a large dahlia grown by her childhood friend Amanda Walker, wife of Kenai’s Pappy Walker, in October 1961.

Cheechako News photo Mable Smith holds a large dahlia grown by her childhood friend Amanda Walker, wife of Kenai’s Pappy Walker, in October 1961.

photo courtesy of the Smith Family Collection
Mary Ruth Nidiffer (Miss Alaska 1965) hands Mable Smith a plaque of appreciation for Smith’s service to the Alaska Purchase Centennial Celebration committee.

photo courtesy of the Smith Family Collection Mary Ruth Nidiffer (Miss Alaska 1965) hands Mable Smith a plaque of appreciation for Smith’s service to the Alaska Purchase Centennial Celebration committee.

Amanda Walker, of Kenai, poses in front of her friend Mable Smith’s homestead cabin off Kalifornsky Beach Road, circa 1961. (photo courtesy of the Smith Family Collection)

Amanda Walker, of Kenai, poses in front of her friend Mable Smith’s homestead cabin off Kalifornsky Beach Road, circa 1961. (photo courtesy of the Smith Family Collection)

More in Life

tease
Getting creative with camping

Making healthy, diverse meals while outdoors takes some planning

James Franklin Bush was arrested and jailed for vagrancy and contributing to the delinquency of minors in California in 1960, about a year before the murder in Soldotna of Jack Griffiths. (Public document from ancestry.com)
A violent season — Part 4

James Franklin “Jim” Bush stood accused of the Soldotna murder of Jack Griffiths in October 1961

Will Morrow (courtesy)
Hard to say goodbye

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve been perfectly happy with my 14-year-old, base model pickup truck.

File
Minister’s Message: Faith will lead to God’s abundance

Abundance is in many aspects of our lives, some good and some not.

Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion
Lisa Parker, vice mayor of Soldotna, celebrates after throwing the ceremonial first pitch before a game between the Peninsula Oilers and the Mat-Su Miners on Tuesday, July 4, 2023, at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai.
Kenai and Soldotna square off once more in ‘King of the River Food Drive’

Food can be donated at the food bank or at either city’s chamber of commerce

These noodles are made with only three ingredients, but they require a bit of time, patience, and a lot of elbow grease. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Filling the time with noodles

These noodles are made with only three ingredients, but they require a bit of time, patience and a lot of elbow grease

[csC1—]Jack and Alice Griffiths, owners of the Circus Bar, pose together in about 1960. (Public photo from familysearch.org)
A violent season — Part 3

The second spirit, said Cunningham, belonged to Jack Griffiths….

Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion
The Kenai Potter’s Guild’s annual exhibition, “Clay on Display,” is seen at the Kenai Art Center on Tuesday.
Expression in a teapot at July art center show

Kenai Art Center’s annual pottery show takes front gallery, with memories of Japan featured in the back

Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion
Attendees take food from a buffet during the grand opening of Siam Noodles and Food in Kenai on Tuesday.
Soldotna Thai restaurant expands to Kenai

The restaurant is next to Jersey Subs in Kenai where Thai Town used to be located

Ruth Ann and Oscar Pederson share smiles with young Vicky, a foster daughter they were trying to adopt in 1954. This front-page photograph appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on June 17, 1954.
A violent season — Part 2

Triumph, tragedy and mystery

Nick Varney
Unhinged Alaska: Sometimes it’s not cool to mention heat

Thanks for the joke fest material rolling into our Unhinged Alaska headquarters folks but chill out.