Keeler Clan of the Kenai — Part 3

Lorna Keeler had a well-deserved reputation for being the bachelor’s friend in time of need

This is the grave marker for John Martin “Smitty” Smith, who lived out the end of his life with the Keeler family at their Anchor Point and Stariski Creek homes. Photo from findagrave.com.

This is the grave marker for John Martin “Smitty” Smith, who lived out the end of his life with the Keeler family at their Anchor Point and Stariski Creek homes. Photo from findagrave.com.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Lawrence and Lorna Keeler and their family left Oregon in June 1948, and began driving to what would become their new home on the southern Kenai Peninsula. By 1951, they had sold their Anchor Point property and moved to a homestead near Stariski Creek. Around this time, they welcomed another former Anchor Point resident into their household.

Bachelor’s Friend

In his 1957 memoir “Go North, Young Man,” Gordon Stoddard offered this description of Lawrence Keeler’s wife: “Lorna Keeler, somewhat younger than her husband, had a well-deserved reputation for being the bachelor’s friend in time of need.”

Stoddard, a bachelor during his time on the Kenai, knew about Lorna Keeler’s altruism from experience. During the winter of 1951-52, Stoddard’s first winter in Alaska, he had cut his eyebrow and cheek on the unfortunate rebound from a double-bladed axe. He had staggered, bleeding, two miles down the road to the Keeler homestead. There, Lorna “washed the wound and gently (and) expertly bandaged it with some clean napkins,” he wrote.

Stoddard also appreciated the good food with which she supplied the area’s unmarried men—particularly her specialty, homemade pies.

Another area bachelor, however, had joined the Keeler household in 1951, just before the family’s move from Anchor Point to Stariski Creek, and had remained with them for the remainder of his life: He was “Smitty,” the former mining and trapping partner of John Paul Standke, the man from whom the Keelers had purchased their Anchor Point homestead in 1948.

John Martin Smith, born in Scranton, Penn., in 1876 and an Alaska resident since 1912, was nearing his mid-70s and in failing health when he came to live with the Keelers. He had moved to Seldovia in 1932 and had spent the subsequent years in the Kachemak Bay vicinity, mostly mining alone or with Standke.

“Mother took care of him until his passing,” said Lorna’s younger daughter, Ina (Keeler) Jones. He lived in a separate cabin on the Anchor Point property and then in the Keeler home after the family moved to Stariski.

Jones, who was born the year after Smith died in 1954, said her mother told her about some of Smitty’s peculiarities: “He always hid when strangers came to the homestead and when they left,” she said. “He would come in the house and ask Mother if it was the Canadian Mounties and if they were looking for him. She always wondered if he had done something bad in Canada.”

Standke, Smitty’s friend and companion, died out of state a few months before Smith. Standke was buried in his home state of Washington, while Smith’s interment became one of the earliest burials in the Anchor Point Cemetery.

Point of Origin

Lawrence Delbert Keeler was born in Montcalm County, Mich., in 1896—the seventh child in what would be a family of 12 offspring for parents Samuel and Samantha Keeler. By 1918, the whole Keeler clan had moved from the Midwest to the big timber region of western Oregon.

Lawrence, 5-foot-10 and lean, with dark blue eyes and brown hair, entered the U.S. Army in March 1918, hoping for deployment to the World War I front lines in Europe, but he was disappointed. While his older brother James was sent overseas, Lawrence contracted scarlet fever and was hospitalized for weeks. Even after he recovered, the Army kept him stateside, and soon the war was over.

“He was always kind of upset about (missing out),” said his daughter Ina. He was particularly bothered by the fact that James had been deployed overseas and been killed in action.

After the war, Lawrence Keeler returned to logging country and began operating his own sawmill. In 1932, just before his 38th birthday, he married 19-year-old Lorna Myrtle Chenoweth in Coos County, Oregon. They had four children together—Larry Darrell Keeler, born in 1934; Marion Leroy Keeler, 1936; April Lyn Keeler, 1943; and Ina Lea Keeler, 1955. They named their first daughter for the month in which both Lawrence and Lorna were born and during which they had been married.

In addition to his own sawmill business, Lawrence worked for the Douglas County Lumber Company near Roseburg, Oregon. Although generally quieter than his wife, he enjoyed their social life, which expanded once they had settled on the southern Kenai Peninsula.

In fact, when they were living in Stariski, their social offerings were occasionally noted by the local press. “The Keelers are having a square dance at their place Saturday night,” reported the Homer News in its Nov. 18, 1954, edition. “The Methodist church will have a family night Sunday. Services will be held at 4 p.m. with a potluck dinner at 6 p.m. at the Keeler residence.”

A few months earlier, they had hosted similar events, entertaining, according to the newspaper, “a crowd of about 50 at another of their famous potluck dinners and square dances.” Participants came to their homestead from Ninilchik, Homer, Anchor Point and as far away as Anchorage.

Lawrence and Lorna “just loved everybody to get together and dance,” said Ina. “Both Mom and Dad liked to dance. They liked to polka. They like to square dance and the schottische and the two-step…. Everybody would show up and bring something. And they’d dance, and usually somebody was still there for breakfast the next morning.”

With crowds like that, it was therefore no wonder, perhaps, that the Keelers decided to expand their social offerings by creating a roller rink.

Today, nothing but a cluster of tall alders fills the corner northeast of the Mile 152 junction of the Sterling Highway and Kutafya Avenue, but in about 1957 the Keelers owned that lot and began construction there of the Roll Around roller rink.

Lawrence Keeler and his sons created what was essentially a 40-foot octagon, with a large spruce pole in the center as the primary ceiling support and a floor constructed of two layers of laminated spruce two-by-sixes. They applied a hard finish to absorb the pounding of skates, and the gleaming floor’s tightness and lines had onlookers swearing it must be hardwood, according to Ina.

After they completed construction in 1958 and purchased the requisite number of roller skates, they opened the rink, which became an instant south-peninsula hit. “It was getting to be a going thing,” Ina said. “It was beautiful.” People came from as far as Anchorage to try it out. Besides roller-skating, the Keelers also offered the space for community dances and other occasions.

But in 1959, after closing one night, Lawrence went to the furnace room to “button it up … and he turned the oil up, instead of off,” said Ina.

“And so it burnt,” added April. What had been a community center of growing popularity was suddenly, dramatically gone.

For years afterward, Ina said, the center pole stood alongside the highway as a reminder of what might have been, and it was possible, said Ina, to wander the then-sprouting alders and find heaps of melted roller skates.

TO BE CONTINUED….

Brothers James (left) and Lawrence Keeler with their Kissel car, circa 1910s. Both brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War I. James was killed in battle. Photo courtesy of the Keeler Family Collection.

Brothers James (left) and Lawrence Keeler with their Kissel car, circa 1910s. Both brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War I. James was killed in battle. Photo courtesy of the Keeler Family Collection.

Lawrence Keeler (left) poses with his father and younger brother (Dewey) in about 1920. Photo courtesy of the Keeler Family Collection.

Lawrence Keeler (left) poses with his father and younger brother (Dewey) in about 1920. Photo courtesy of the Keeler Family Collection.

Members of the Anchor Point Homemakers Club pose in 1950 in front of Sherman and Louvie Chapman’s home. Standing second from the left is Lorna Keeler. Louvie “Vi” Chapman photo courtesy of the Pratt Museum.

Members of the Anchor Point Homemakers Club pose in 1950 in front of Sherman and Louvie Chapman’s home. Standing second from the left is Lorna Keeler. Louvie “Vi” Chapman photo courtesy of the Pratt Museum.

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