Photo from “Once Upon the Kenai” 
Kenai magistrate Jess Nicholas poses at his bench in this circa 1970 image.

Photo from “Once Upon the Kenai” Kenai magistrate Jess Nicholas poses at his bench in this circa 1970 image.

History with a sense of humor, Part 2

The second in a two-part collection of humorous tales gleaned from old newspapers on the central Kenai Peninsula.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part collection of humorous tales gleaned from old newspapers on the central Kenai Peninsula.

A spoonful of humor helps pay the bills

Running a newspaper in a small community has its challenges — including the maintenance of the profit margin. When the central Kenai Peninsula’s first regular newspaper, the Cheechako News, found itself drowning in red ink in 1969, publisher Loren Stewart took action by trying to brighten a dire situation with a little levity.

On page one of the Friday, Jan. 31, edition, Stewart created a boxed-in open letter to his readers. The letter, entitled “We Got Troubles,” made clear the seriousness of his situation while keeping the tone light-hearted:

“The Cheechako News is having tax trouble because it has far too many receivables. If everybody who owes the Cheechako News a bill would pay their bill, the publisher and his family could pay their taxes, buy a new car, and take a vacation to Hawaii. If half of the people who owe the Cheechako News would pay their bill, the publisher and his wife could pay their taxes and buy a new car and go out to a restaurant for dinner. If only one-third of those who owe the Cheechako News paid their bill, the publisher and his family could pay their taxes and stay home and eat beans. Send your payment in today and at least keep us in beans.”

In the next issue (Monday, Feb. 3, 1969), Stewart addressed his readers with another boxed-in page-one open letter — again with a sense of humor, but this time with better news. The letter, entitled “Have Beans and Friends,” made the following pronouncements:

“Thanks to our many advertisers and good friends who responded so promptly with payments on their accounts, we have managed to keep in beans. We especially thank Galen Gray of Tanglewood Supply in North Kenai who not only sent a check for the entire amount of his January account (for which he had not yet been billed), but also for the basket of beans, ham hocks and the onions which accompanied the check. The Cheechako News has arranged for short-term financing to take care of its immediate tax problems, but still needs to collect those outstanding accounts to assure that the business will remain on a stable basis.”

Stewart went on to thank the many readers and advertisers who had telephoned the newspaper office with offers of physical and financial assistance, and he said that he hoped that he had been able to put this fiscal emergency permanently behind him. He concluded with this line: “It is a GREAT, GREAT boost to morale to find we have so many friends.”

The Cheechako survived this financial adversity and continued to publish until the mid-1980s, despite competition from the Peninsula Clarion (starting the next year), frequent changes in the number of issues published per week, and eventually a change in ownership, name, and format. The last day for the newspaper occurred in March 1986 when the then-Soldotna Sun set for a final time.

Unintentional irony?

The Good Friday Earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska on the afternoon of March 27, 1964. Lasting nearly five minutes, it was the most powerful temblor ever recorded in U.S. and North American history. Less than one month later came the debut performance of the senior class play at Kenai Central High School. On the nights of April 17 and 18, the seniors performed in the comedy “All Shook Up.”

The judge’s new desk

Kenai Deputy Magistrate Jess Nicholas was familiar with roughing it, but in 1960 he decided he’d had enough and so he let someone know about his needs.

Judge Nicholas and his later-to-be wife, Carolyn, had come to Alaska in 1944 to do federal government work. They had married in Anchorage in 1952 and in 1956 homesteaded in Cohoe, where they lived in a small log cabin and drew their water from a hand-dug 32-foot well that they completed in early November.

The Nicholases had no electricity until almost a year later, and at first they had only one electrical outlet, which was fine by Carolyn as long as she could plug in her waffle iron and indulge in one of her favorite foods.

When they moved to Kenai in 1960, after Jess was appointed magistrate, they rented another small cabin, with only cold running water but no bathroom, until they moved into a fully equipped Quonset hut owned by Ed and Joanna Hollier.

However, Jess’s accommodations in his first office — in front of Seamans’ furniture store in Kenai — left something to be desired. And in the Aug. 13, 1960, edition of The Anchorage Times, a portion of Nicholas’s official letter of complaint was quoted:

“The reason I need a desk is because I don’t have one. I was using a card table; however, after two months of using it, the owner demanded it back. Presently I am using a Blazo box for desk, table, bench, etc. If you do not know what a Blazo box is, it is a wooden box that the Standard Oil Co. ships two five-gallon cans of Blazo gasoline to Alaska in. It made such a unique bench for a judge that two officials of Standard Oil have taken pictures of it to use in publications printed by that company.”

A short time later, Nicholas received a real desk.

As a reminder that things aren’t always easy, however, Carolyn Nicholas reported an even more trying experience the following year.

According to her story in “Once Upon the Kenai,” she had gone to the Soldotna clinic of Dr. Paul Isaak on a warm day in June so that the doctor could deliver her first child. But she learned that there would be a delay.

A local teenager who had been zigzagging on a downhill stretch of the Kenai Spur Highway between Soldotna and Kenai had flipped his car, been ejected from the vehicle, and landed on his back on the pavement in the glass from his own windshield.

In the clinic, Jess Nicholas and Dr. Isaak hoisted the boy onto the operating table, where the doctor stood carefully extracting the pieces of glass embedded in the boy’s backside.

When Carolyn’s labor intensified, Jess helped Isaak move the boy from the table so that Carolyn could climb on and give birth. Their son, Tom, was born at about 9 p.m.

“After the delivery, the table was occupied by the young man,” Carolyn wrote. “The next morning as I was getting ready to take my baby home, I said good-bye to him, but all he said was, ‘So it was you that made me have to be removed from the table.’”

Wobbly reminiscence

Author’s note: Many of the details and all of the quotes in the following story come from an anonymous nostalgic remembrance printed in the Cheechako News in early January 1980. Although the account is uncredited, it appeared near some other history-flavored articles written by publisher Loren Stewart about early homesteading life on the Kenai Peninsula. Stewart, who came to live in Ridgeway in 1948 and founded the Cheechako in 1959, almost certainly penned the piece, which was entitled “Irish Whiskey & Fishing Trip.”

When the tracks in the fresh snow left the graveled Sterling Highway that late afternoon in mid-winter 1949, they formed a fresh clear path down the crude 3-mile road Bob Mackey had cut to his home on the Mackey Lakes. So the two late arrivals to Mackey’s social gathering — an ice-fishing party — followed those footprints, and followed them easily … at first.

Soon, however, the tracks began to wander, and the two travelers later distinguished a disturbance in the snow indicating that the person ahead of them had fallen. Sometime afterward, they discovered evidence of another fall, and lying alongside that small snowy crater they spied an empty Irish whiskey bottle, which told them all they needed to know.

“McGuire!” they said in unison.

They knew they were trailing Lawrence “Mac” McGuire, a transplanted Irishman (from County Donegal) who a year earlier had become one of Soldotna’s first homesteaders. McGuire was a man who loved his cabin across the Kenai River bridge from Soldotna, loved to welcome company to his door, and loved a bottle of good Irish whiskey.

The two travelers continued their journey, and additional evidence began to present itself: More blemishes in the snow indicating more tipsy toppling. A single glove. A wool hat. Another glove. And then McGuire himself.

They found the wiry Irishman “lying peacefully in the snow, with an opened, half-empty bottle of Irish whiskey in his bare, blue hand — and what is more, he hadn’t spilled a drop.”

Although McGuire may not have realized it, he needed to be rescued. The two travelers “half-carried, half-dragged” him to Mackey’s cabin, where they “poured some hot coffee in him and stuffed him into a sleeping bag.”

Then they left him alone in the cabin and joined the ice-fishing festivities out on the lake, hoping in the meantime that McGuire survived the night and avoided pneumonia and the loss of any frostbitten fingers or toes.

The party on the lake went late into the night, and eventually everyone returned to the cabin to find the “indestructible” McGuire sleeping comfortably. The other partiers crawled into sleeping bags arrayed on the cabin floor and sacked out, intending to snooze until about noon the next day.

However, the well-rested McGuire was up and energized before daybreak, shaking awake his friends to offer them the coffee he had brewed and the bacon he had fried.

Cheechako photo courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula College Historic Photo Repository 
Loren Stewart, owner and publisher of the Cheechako News, is pictured entering his newspaper office, then in Kenai, in 1959.

Cheechako photo courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula College Historic Photo Repository Loren Stewart, owner and publisher of the Cheechako News, is pictured entering his newspaper office, then in Kenai, in 1959.

In this 1950s image, Chell Bear (left) and Lawrence McGuire display a stringer of small trout they caught through the ice in front of the homestead cabin of Bob Mackey, for whom the Mackey Lakes were named. (Photo courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula College Historic Photo Repository)

In this 1950s image, Chell Bear (left) and Lawrence McGuire display a stringer of small trout they caught through the ice in front of the homestead cabin of Bob Mackey, for whom the Mackey Lakes were named. (Photo courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula College Historic Photo Repository)

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History with a sense of humor, Part 2

The second in a two-part collection of humorous tales gleaned from old newspapers on the central Kenai Peninsula.