Hometown Booster: The W.R. Benson Story — Part 2

W.R. Benson was a mover and a shaker throughout his life, but particularly so in Alaska

W.R. Benson illustrated his own newssheet, The Homer Homesteader, with cartoons like this one from October 1948.

W.R. Benson illustrated his own newssheet, The Homer Homesteader, with cartoons like this one from October 1948.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: W.R. Benson was a mover and a shaker throughout his life, but particularly so in Alaska. After he and his wife Mable spent several years in Seward, where he sold real estate and was a member of the city council and, briefly, the mayor, they moved to Homer to seek new opportunities.

After moving to Homer with his wife Mable in late 1943, William Raymond “W.R.” Benson wasted little time getting started in business and integrating into his new community.

From longtime Homer resident Tom Shelford, Benson purchased property jutting into what is now Beluga Slough. He hoped to create there a dredged channel that would enable shallow-draft boats to enter with freight and unload at a dock that Shelford had begun to develop. He also hoped to demonstrate that the slough was a good place for a small-boat harbor, a project deserving of financial assistance from the Alaska territorial government.

By spring 1944, Benson was also building a nearby cold-storage plant, erected from hollow concrete blocks that he had manufactured in his own block-making plant, the first of his projects on lower Cook Inlet. To power the storage facility, he had obtained a generator originally intended for Ketchikan. Eventually, he would have an interconnected series of businesses at the intersection of Bunnell Avenue and Ohlson Lane in what is now old-town Homer.

On April 12, 1944, he launched an enterprise that was particularly advantageous to himself: a two-sided, mimeographed weekly newssheet called The Homer Homesteader—the first-ever commercial newspaper in Homer—that could offer a smattering of community news interspersed between advertisements mainly for Benson’s businesses and for editorials espousing Benson’s views and promoting Benson’s causes.

Subscriptions to the Homesteader cost $2.50 per year. Issues were mailed weekly to subscribers.

While distribution within the community was consistent, printing sometimes was a problem. Unreliable shipping to Homer meant that Benson’s printing supplies did not always arrive on time. On such occasions, he had to borrow paper from other locals in order to get his publication out on time.

Most of the issues were printed in a cursive font, except for the larger advertisements that were hand-lettered in a block style. Later issues eschewed the fancy font and opted for a more traditional look. Each issue also contained one or two of Benson’s own cartoonish, hand-drawn illustrations.

The holdings of the Alaska State Library contain copies of most of the issues between early 1946 and the end of 1949. Those issues, in aggregate, illustrate Benson’s savvy as an entrepreneur and his knack for tirelessly advocating for causes that he and many of his neighbors found important.

Among his many causes were: finding a consistent source of safe community drinking water; the electrification of Homer; the mining, burning and selling of Homer’s coal reserves; encouraging homesteading and selling real estate to promote population growth; increased and regular scheduling of steamship traffic; a public utility district to generate revenue for community projects and programs; a chamber of commerce to promote business; a railroad line to Anchorage; greater public involvement in elections; the improvement and expansion of Kenai Peninsula roads; increased air traffic; improved health care, and many more.

But Benson didn’t just write about these ideas; he worked aggressively to make them a reality, even as he ran his cold-storage plant, built a hotel called the Inlet Inn, sold groceries and other goods, and worked as a social, political and community activist.

For several years, it seems, Benson was a ubiquitous presence in Homer at all things progressive and business. When 21 Jaycees from the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce visited Homer in July 1944, Benson became one of their guides. His tour included a look at the site for his proposed harbor.

Later that month, when Homer residents formed the Homer Cooperative Association—a local corporation for farmers and fishermen—Benson was named its president.

Sensing another community need, Benson announced his intention in April 1945 to begin a dairy-farming operation and ordered two milk cows from the States. In September, he ordered a bull from the agricultural experiment station in the Matanuska Valley.

In order to offer the lowest prices on gasoline to his customers, Benson became, in the summer of 1948, the distributor for the Standard Oil Company in the Homer and Ninilchik areas, an appointment that allowed him to also offer a full line of Standard Oil products in his store.

Later that year, he began negotiating with the Alaska Steamship Company to improve service locally, including the possibility of putting Homer on the company’s regular route, therefore guaranteeing that freight arrived “in the best possible condition, as cheaply as possible, and as fast as possible.”

In March 1950, a group of Homer businessmen sent Benson all the way to Cincinnati to meet with members of the Methodist Board of Education and make what one Alaska newspaper called “an on-the-spot bid” for Homer to become the site of a proposed new liberal arts college.

For a while in 1951, Benson acted as a distributor for Memo Liquid Coffee and traveled to Seward, Anchorage and Palmer to promote the product. One newspaper advertisement for the coffee said, “No Muss, No Fuss, No Waste! Sold By Your Grocer, Made Easier Than Tea.”

If Benson had an abundance of exterior paint to sell, he’d hire someone to paint one of his businesses and then write a brief story about it—next to one of his advertisements, of course. In 1955, when he had a shuffle board, a pool table and other such equipment to sell, he promoted the idea that Homer needed its own recreation facility. (He even offered an empty building to rent for that purpose.)

That same year, Benson installed a water-filtration system in his hotel, then promoted the benefits of the system to other potential customers.

He bought and sold real estate. He built and sold homes. When Poe Realty, of Anchorage, opened a branch office in Homer in 1954, Benson became the branch manager, with the office located in his hotel.

That hotel, now the Driftwood Inn and owned by Alex and Adrienne (Walli) Sweeney, was originally called the Inlet Inn, part of a conglomeration of buildings. The oldest structure in that collection was a wood-frame schoolhouse constructed in 1930 or 1931, according to Janet Klein’s 2002 book, “Celebrating Homer’s Buildings.”

About decade after its construction, wrote Klein, the school was scheduled to be destroyed but was purchased, instead, by a gravel contractor with the Civil Aeronautics Administration. The contractor moved the old school to the Bunnell-Ohlson intersection. After Benson acquired the property from Shelford, he built a house for himself and his wife immediately to the west of the school building.

At the other end of his lot, Benson built Homer Cold Storage. Later, he added a second story above the storage facility, and soon he transformed this section into a small hotel he called the Inlet Inn.

He used his cold storage to preserve the perishables that he sold in his store and any other short-shelf-life items owned by Homer customers. Hazel Heath, who, along with her husband Ken, owned and operated the Kachemak Café in the late 1940s, recalled in the book “In Those Days” the occasional necessity of employing Benson’s storage service.

One of Heath’s biggest challenges as a café proprietor was the preservation of meat, as her business had no running water, electricity or refrigeration. “Mr. Benson had a cold storage facility in the Inlet Inn … which I used when I absolutely had to,” she wrote, “but he had a habit of turning the power off at night, and sometimes he’d forget to turn it back on. I never knew what shape my product would be in when I went to get it.”

“When the freezer compressor in the cold storage plant failed permanently,” said Janet Klein, “that section was converted to guest rooms also.” Eventually, all the buildings were combined under a single roof.

Today in the Driftwood Inn, added Klein, a focal point of the lobby is still the large fireplace that W.R. and Mable Benson constructed from dark, local beach rocks.

TO BE CONTINUED….

Each issue of the Homer Homesteader featured a unique illustration by writer/publisher/editor W.R. Benson. This image appeared in April 1948.

Each issue of the Homer Homesteader featured a unique illustration by writer/publisher/editor W.R. Benson. This image appeared in April 1948.

William Raymond “W.R.” Benson’s draft-registration card from 1942 reveals that he was 52 years old, living in Seward and self-employed. His wife, Mable, is listed as a person who will always know his address. (document from ancestry.com)

William Raymond “W.R.” Benson’s draft-registration card from 1942 reveals that he was 52 years old, living in Seward and self-employed. His wife, Mable, is listed as a person who will always know his address. (document from ancestry.com)

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