AUTHOR’S NOTE: Lawrence and Lorna Keeler and their family moved from Oregon to Alaska in June 1948 and began building a new life for themselves on the southern Kenai Peninsula. By 1951, they had moved from Anchor Point to a new homestead near Stariski Creek. A decade later, they were ready to move again.
Although operating his own sawmill was Lawrence Keeler’s primary occupation throughout the 1950s, he and his wife Lorna had other means of earning a living.
“They were selling property all the time,” said daughter April. “That’s how they made their money.” Starting with their homestead at the Anchor River mouth, they bought and sold land and homes, even a fishing boat, as they moved around the southern peninsula. April said her mother was the driving force behind all those land deals.
In 1959, the same year their roller rink burned to the ground, they moved from their beachfront property near Stariski Creek into Ninilchik, living first down in the village in a house provided by Uncle Waldo. This “uncle” was actually a family friend, Waldo Bishop, who in the early 1960s would sell them another piece of property on Oil Well Road.
After providing their children’s families with small Stariski parcels, Lawrence and Lorna sold the rest piecemeal, along with the large house in which they had hosted so many social functions. Later, they bought and sold more property along Oil Well Road.
Lorna also began raising chickens after the family’s move to Stariski Creek. At one time, she had about 300 laying hens. In addition to helping Lawrence with the sawmill, their sons branched off into other employment.
Larry began guiding hunters with Hal Waugh, while Marion fished commercially and operated heavy equipment. Marion, in fact, used a John Deere dozer to push the first road down Whiskey Gulch to the beach—where the public wayside is now.
Other than sawmill work, Lawrence also fished commercially out of a little blue boat he named the Ina Lea after his youngest daughter.
In 1963, Lawrence and Lorna were rocked by the death of a three-month-old granddaughter. They were jolted a second time in 1970 when their 29-year-old son Marion died in a quarry accident near Girdwood, leaving behind his wife Judith and their four children.
Lawrence himself was crippled with joint pain and was starting to have difficulty moving around the way he was accustomed to. He had been nearly 60 by the time Ina was born. “By the time I got old enough to really start doing things with him,” she said, “he had arthritis really bad.” He and Lorna began to adjust the family’s means of making money.
“Our main income was at-home industries that we could do,” said Ina. “We canned fish for tourists, and we dug clay out of the beach cliffs and made things … and sold (them) to the tourists. Mom babysat, and she baked bread for people around Ninilchik—and that’s how we earned our living. There wasn’t any big Social Security check. (Dad) got a veterans check, and that was about it.”
In 1974, with all of their children out of the house and the Keelers firmly established as empty-nesters, Lorna and Lawrence made their final trip to Anchorage together. Along with good friend Cookie Stuefloten, they drove to Anchorage on Sept. 28 and found themselves that evening at a bingo hall. As the night wore on, Lawrence won about $150 and was having a great time.
When it came time to leave, Ina explained, “he had Mom on one arm and Cookie on the other, and he’s talking away, and they walk over to the car. And Cookie let go of his arm to walk around and get in on her side, and Mom went around to do the driver’s side. And he went down on the sidewalk, instant heart attack…. The paramedics said he was dead when he hit the ground.”
“A woman on each arm and a hundred and fifty bucks in your pocket….” she added. “That’s a pretty good way to go.”
Her father, said Ina, had been suffering from hardening of the arteries. “Doctors told him he could live 20 years or he could live till tomorrow…. They kept telling him, ‘You gotta watch your diet. You can’t have salt. You can’t have that.’ And Dad said, ‘I’m gonna eat what I want till I die. If I can’t enjoy what I’m doing … might as well be dead, anyway.’ So actually, he went out a great way.”
Lawrence, who had been 78, was buried in the American Legion cemetery in Ninilchik.
In 1983, Lorna remarried to longtime Kachemak Bay resident Steve Zawistowski. She died in 1998, at the age of 85, of respiratory failure. Zawistowski died two years later. Both of them share a cemetery plot next to Lawrence’s grave in the Ninilchik cemetery.
After Lawrence’s passing in 1974, only one of the three Keeler siblings who had come to the Kenai Peninsula between 1947 and 1951 remained a peninsula resident. She had been born Verona Keeler, youngest of the large Keeler clan that had formed in Michigan and moved to the big woods of Oregon. In 1974, she was living in Soldotna with her third husband, Don Wilson.
Baby of the Family
Verona Theresa Keeler was born Jan. 21, 1909, the last of 12 children born to Samuel and Samantha Keeler. Twenty-three years younger than her eldest sibling—a sister named Nora—Verona would live nearly a century and be the last of the Keeler children to die.
At age 18 in July 1927, she married her first husband, Ophor Perdue, who was nearly 14 years her senior. Before their divorce about seven years later, they had two sons (Bill and Jim). The court granted her full custody of Jim and partial custody of Bill.
In June 1935, Verona entered her second marriage, this time to Howard Torvel Cox, who worked in Oregon’s logging industry. Five years later, he died on the job.
Cox was employed as “second loader” at the Seth Christian Logging Company camp near Vida on the McKenzie River in western Oregon. He suffered a fractured skull and was killed when he was struck by a falling tree limb. After his death, Verona and son Jim moved to Springfield, Ore., and lived there until about 1947. By then, she had married a third time.
On April Fool’s Day, 1944, Verona married Springfield resident Donald Everett Wilson, who had also had two previous marriages. Wilson had three sons of his own (Kenneth, Raymond and Robert). Before their move to Alaska, Don and Verona relocated to Sutherlin, Oregon, where Don ran a saw shop.
In 1951, the Wilsons took the Alaska plunge, joining Verona’s eldest brother Floyd, who had moved north to the Soldotna area in 1947, and brother Lawrence, who had moved to the southern Kenai Peninsula with his family in 1948.
Don and Verona arrived in Soldotna on June 20, and it took them little time to become important members of their new community.