AUTHOR’S NOTE: Over a four-year period beginning in 1947, three siblings from Oregon’s large Keeler family settled on the Kenai Peninsula. Lawrence Keeler and his young family came to Anchor Point and homesteaded near the mouth of the Anchor River. Lawrence’s youngest sister, Verona, and her husband, Don Wilson, moved to Soldotna and became business owners. And Lawrence and Verona’s oldest brother, Floyd, along with three of his adult children, found land just east of Soldotna and filed four homestead claims. This is the story of the Keelers who came to the Kenai and the trials they faced and the triumphs they had along the way.
Floyd, Lawrence and Verona Keeler came from a family with a dozen children, all born in Michigan, all residing later with their parents in Oregon. Most of those Keeler siblings married and produced children of their own, thus creating a large extended family. So the odds were good that the Keelers would experience a few tragedies along the way.
One Keeler sibling was killed in action in Europe in World War I. Another lost part of an arm. Another disappeared in the wilds of Alaska, never to be seen again.
One of the Keeler siblings lost her second husband in a logging accident and one of her sons in a boating accident. Her third husband also lost one of his own sons in a logging accident. And she herself was severely injured in an explosion.
Yet another Keeler sibling lost a son in a logging accident, and another lost a son in a quarry collapse.
Beyond these misfortunes, however, lay some impressive good fortune. Except for the war fatality and the Alaska disappearance, the shortest life of the remaining 10 siblings was 73 years. The sisters, in particular, were long-lived: One sister made it to age 103, two others to 99, and two more into their 90s.
In Alaska, Keeler siblings and their families aided in the construction of the Alaskan Highway, helped establish a grocery store, prospered in the buying and selling of real estate, ran a sawmill, built a roller rink, and became part of the fabric of growing communities on the Kenai.
While many of those early Keelers stayed in Alaska only briefly, others remained for decades. Today, more than 25 direct Keeler descendants, all originating from Lawrence and his wife Lorna, still live within the state, including many on the southern peninsula.
Early Keeler lands on the central and southern peninsula are now home to residential subdivisions, to a police station, an HEA substation, a church and a golf course. They were even the former home of the strip club known as Good Time Charlies.
The Lawrence Keeler Story
On June 18, 1948, Lawrence and Lorna Keeler were one day from reaching the Alaska border. They had been on the road from Oregon since June 3, “guided” by Lawrence’s 5-foot-4, older brother Floyd, whom the family called “Uncle Shorty,” and in whose assistance Lorna appeared to see little value.
“Got up, ate breakfast at café,” Lorna wrote in her travel journal on June 18. “Washed clothes, dried fast. Went up to Whitehorse rapids…. Left Shorty at his friends in Whitehorse while we got car greased, packed and went to get him. Lawrence found him and 3 or 4 women DRUNK. Got started out, ate at Perrin’s Café, not very obliging. Think Shorty insulted [the waitress]. He nearly made a scene.
“Drove on,” she continued, “until we hit Haines Crossing, gassed up and hit for higher ground. Found another gravel pit high on the [mountain] across from a whole row of snow-covered peaks. Not many bugs. Slept good.”
Floyd had worked on the construction of the Alcan and then had moved to Alaska in 1947, so he was supposed to be using his knowledge of the road to ease the journey for Lawrence and Lorna and their three kids. Instead, he was a source of irritation.
For example, Floyd waited until Lawrence, already low on fuel, had driven past a gas station and through Canadian customs before informing him that the U.S. customs was in Tok, not at the border, and that they would not encounter another source of fuel for nearly 100 miles. Lawrence was forced to turn around.
Another example: Whenever the windshield of their 1946 Willy’s jeep became muddied, impelling Lawrence to stop, Floyd would climb down from the passenger’s front seat and clean off only his own side of the glass, forcing Lawrence to clamber from behind the wheel to clean the other side. Never once did Floyd even offer to clean the entire windshield. Perched in the middle of the front seat between her husband and brother-in-law, Lorna could only seethe.
The Keelers reached the Glenn Highway by June 20, navigating its winding, muddy length and struggling over its slick, greasy stretches, its brutal potholes, and its grinding ascents and perilous descents. The tough terrain demanded four-wheel drive at all times.
After traveling through Glennallen and the Matanuska Valley, the Keelers arrived in Anchorage at about 3:30 in the afternoon on June 21, ate supper at a local restaurant and parked near Lake Spenard, delighted to find a campsite miraculously free of mosquitoes.
At this time, no road yet connected Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula. The Keelers had therefore arranged passage on the Mathison brothers’ barge, the Yentna, out of Hope. After loading their jeep and two-wheeled trailer onto the barge and launching into Cook Inlet, everything progressed smoothly until they grounded on a sandbar on the outgoing tide.
“Charlie Mathison said to go to sleep,” wrote Lorna in a remembrance for the book “In Those Days.” It was about 11 p.m. and still light out.
“After several hours,” she said, “we woke up from cramped positions, sleeping in (the) jeep, to see nothing but an expanse of sand whichever way we looked. In a short time we saw a dark streak in one direction. That was the incoming water. Within an hour we were afloat and moving.”
From Hope, they followed a crooked, narrow wagon road that delivered them, eventually, to Henton’s Lodge on the Kenai River downstream from Cooper Landing. At that point, they found themselves on a newer, wider road still under construction but “passable, with help in spots,” according to Lorna.
That road—which would be known a few years later as the Sterling Highway—led them through the homesteads of two of Floyd’s sons, Jack and Bob, and then west to the highway’s junction with the Kenai Spur Road and the village of Kenai.
Because of his background as an Oregon logger and a sawyer, Lawrence Keeler voiced disappointment in the spindly black spruce he saw around Soldotna and Kenai, but he hoped to find more impressive stands of timber when they reached the southern peninsula.
There were obstacles still to overcome before they could continue south: First, the Sterling Highway did not yet extend all the way to Homer—or even as far as Clam Gulch—because the highway’s northern and southern ends had not yet been joined, and the bridge over the Kenai River in Soldotna was still under construction.
Second, the Keelers needed more money. Lawrence and Lorna decided to work in a Kenai cannery for a month and, later, to sell both their jeep and trailer. Their next goal was Anchor Point.