Photo provided by Mona Painter 
                                Cooper Landing characters (from left): “Little Jim” Dunmire, Harold and Gary Davis, Beverly and Joe Sabrowski, and “Big Jim” O’Brien, circa 1940s.

Photo provided by Mona Painter Cooper Landing characters (from left): “Little Jim” Dunmire, Harold and Gary Davis, Beverly and Joe Sabrowski, and “Big Jim” O’Brien, circa 1940s.

From nomadic life to stability

The journey of Beverly Christensen — Part Two

AUTHOR’S NOTE: At the end of Part One, a month before her 22nd birthday, Beverly Sabrowski (nee Cox) and her mother Gertrude boarded the steamship Alaska on Aug. 23, 1929, on their way to work as teachers at the territorial school in Kenai. Also that week, Beverly had married Joe Sabrowski and become baptized as a Catholic.

And thus began early lessons in traveling in the North Country: First, expect delays and complications. Second, don’t expect much straight-line travel.

When they got married, Joe and Beverly Sabrowski had been short on funds, so they had planned for Joe to stay in Portland, Oregon, and work until he could afford passage to Alaska. Then one of Joe’s siblings loaned him the money for a last-minute ticket and he joined Beverly and her mother on the steamship.

Unfortunately, only steerage, below decks, was available to Joe at that point. Fortunately, ship officials granted him and other “presentable” young men the opportunity to spend daylight hours with a ship full of young women heading north to teach.

When they arrived in Anchorage, they learned that they would be departing on Heinie Berger’s boat, the Discoverer, at 2 a.m. In darkness, they climbed down a ladder onto the deck of the ship bound for Kenai. There, they moved into an old three-room federal building known locally as “the Farm House” because it had once housed scientists performing agricultural experiments. The brushy, overgrown field behind the house doubled as a local airfield.

Beverly taught 25-30 students in first and second grades, while her mother taught grades three through five, and the principal, Mr. Parish, taught grades six through eight.

Joe, meanwhile, had no job at first, so he helped around the house and picked up odd jobs in the village. The following spring, he became a census taker. According to Beverly, Joe reported that Kenai in 1930 had about 285 people and 500 dogs.

After his census work, Joe went to Anchorage to find employment. When the school year ended, Gertrude headed back to Portland, while Beverly resigned from the territorial school and traveled to Anchorage to join Joe.

Over the next several years, they moved back and forth between Anchorage and Kenai, with occasional sojourns in Portland. Joe’s jobs during this time ranged from hauling firewood in Kenai to trapping with Johnnie Monfor near Swanson River and driving a City of Anchorage gravel truck — his first time ever to operate a motorized vehicle.

In the fall of 1931, Gertrude was scheduled to teach in Chitina when she learned that she had breast cancer. While Gertrude traveled for surgery to the hospital at Kennecott, Beverly filled in for her as a substitute teacher. On the ride to Chitina, she said, the train rolled to a stop in an open, marshy area for no apparent reason, leaving passengers to speculate on what had gone wrong.

As it turned out, it was no big deal. The train crew had simply planned to hunt ducks in a nearby pond, so they stopped the engine and took off with their shotguns for a while.

After Gertrude returned to work, Beverly rejoined Joe in Kenai, where they lived temporarily in Monfor’s house while he moved in with a friend. Monfor allowed them to stay rent-free as long as they took care of his sled dogs, all 15 of them, a chore that included cooking up 5 gallons of corn meal and salmon for the hungry hounds every day.

That spring, one of the dogs had a puppy that Monfor gave to Beverly and that she named “Pooch.” She would add other dogs to her “pack” over the years.

Joe fished commercially while Beverly cooked for the fishing crew. Joe also did cannery work, and once tried prospecting for gold near Cooper Landing. Then in 1934, the sudden departure of the Kenai postmaster left a vacancy that Beverly was able to fill, starting in early October. Winter mail at that time was delivered via dog sled by Jack Lean of Cooper Landing, while summer mail arrived on Heinie Berger’s boat.

The Sabrowskis toyed with the idea of homesteading but opted instead to try prospecting. In early April 1935, only six months after taking the post office job, Beverly resigned as postmaster and in August moved with Joe to Cooper Landing.

As usual, there were logistical complications.

No road yet existed between Kenai and anyplace else. Consequently, a cannery ship called the Libby Main sailed the Sabrowskis to Seldovia, where they had to wait four days for a connecting ship. After loading their gear on the steamship Star in the pouring rain, they cruised around the bottom of the Kenai Peninsula to Seward, where they awaited a ride to Kenai Lake.

A Seward storekeeper named Paul C. McMullen sent word to Wilbert “Dad” Fuller in Cooper Landing, and Fuller motored up Kenai Lake in one boat for his passengers while towing another one for their provisions and possessions.

The Sabrowskis purchased a winter’s supply of groceries from McMullen, and he gave them a van ride to the head of the lake in time to meet Fuller, who transported the couple, their gear, their groceries and their dogs — they now had more than one — to Jack Lean’s place on the lower lake.

They asked Lean how much he would charge them to stay in the vacant house next to his home cabin. He wanted five dollars a night, but they didn’t have five dollars, so they walked 6 miles downriver to visit the Glynns, a couple Joe had met on his earlier prospecting trip.

The Glynns were happy to have the Sabrowskis pitch a tent in their yard and have access to their well water. When Joe and Beverly walked back to Lean’s place to gather their belongings, Lean took pity on them and gave them one free night in his extra cabin. The next day, Lean’s brother, Charlie, hauled the Sabrowskis and their stuff to the Glynns’ place.

The Glynn situation might have lasted much longer if not for two factors: an unfortunate chicken incident, and the weather.

Whenever the Glynns were away, they expected the Sabrowskis to watch their house and take care of their chickens, especially their pet chicken that they called “the Carpenter” because of its penchant for coming out and pecking whenever they were pounding away on a building project. That arrangement worked well until the day that one of the Sabrowski dogs killed the Carpenter, whom the Glynns then found “all dressed out in a dish” when they returned home.

Then, as autumn gave way to winter in Cooper Landing, life in the tent became brutally cold. In December, Mike Glynn, sensing the Sabrowski suffering, went to “Big Jim” O’Brien and “Little Jim” Dunmire, two miners living on Schooner Bend on the Kenai River, and asked whether the Jims might have some spare room to accommodate the thoroughly chilled married couple. They did.

And so the Sabrowskis and the Jims became close friends. But it was a while before Beverly’s itinerant life settled down, as Part Three will demonstrate.


• By Clark Fair, Special to the Clarion


Beverly Christensen photo from “Once Upon the Kenai”
                                Beverly and Joe Sabrowski pose in front of the Kenai Post Office in 1935. Beverly was postmaster at this time.

Beverly Christensen photo from “Once Upon the Kenai” Beverly and Joe Sabrowski pose in front of the Kenai Post Office in 1935. Beverly was postmaster at this time.

Beverly Sabrowski (with oars) in a boat at the mouth of the Kenai River in September 1929. Her passengers are (from left): Marie Hermansen, Susie March and Sabrowski’s mother, Gertrude Cox. (Beverly Christensen photo from “Once Upon the Kenai”)

Beverly Sabrowski (with oars) in a boat at the mouth of the Kenai River in September 1929. Her passengers are (from left): Marie Hermansen, Susie March and Sabrowski’s mother, Gertrude Cox. (Beverly Christensen photo from “Once Upon the Kenai”)

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