Ray Sandstrom photo courtesy of the KPC historical photo archive
Soldotna’s first-ever grocery store was built and opened in 1952.

Ray Sandstrom photo courtesy of the KPC historical photo archive Soldotna’s first-ever grocery store was built and opened in 1952.

Keeler Clan of the Kenai — Part 5

By 1952, the Wilsons constructed a simple, rectangular, wood-frame building and started the town’s first grocery

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Verona (Keeler) Wilson and her husband Don moved from rural Oregon to Soldotna in 1951, about the same time her brother Lawrence Keeler and his family were moving from Anchor Point to Stariski and another brother, Floyd Keeler, was leaving the Kenai Peninsula for a different kind of Alaska adventure. By the late 1960s, Verona and Don were well established in the business and social fabric of their community.

Close Call

A bit after 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 25, 1968, Soldotna Elementary School students, who had just been excused for the day, were spilling onto the playground, or waiting for or climbing onto their buses, when they heard and felt two booming explosions.

They craned their necks upward as a giant plume of black smoke filled the afternoon sky behind the leafless trees on the near horizon. Beyond those trees, near the current location of the Soldotna Police Department, the local propane company was in the midst of a disaster.

Minutes earlier, longtime Soldotna resident Al Hershberger had been standing in the door frame of his television and electronics store less than a quarter-mile from the blast site. He said that the Petrolane Company delivery driver, after filling the tank on his truck, “forgot to unhook the hose (before he) drove away, and tore the valve off the truck. And all that propane leaked out, and it was laying on the ground.”

Hershberger said no one was sure what triggered the initial explosion, but the fire from the first one certainly set off the second.

The first blast shattered one wall of the propane company’s garage and office building and set ablaze the rest of the structure, as well as the adjacent home of company manager Paul Frickey. The second explosion destroyed a tanker truck containing a thousand gallons of liquefied petroleum gas.

Soldotna’s fire chief, standing nearly 30 yards away, was blown off his feet.

Miraculously, no one was killed.

During the fire department’s response, Verona and Don Wilson’s grocery was saved with jets of water from high-pressure hoses.

Just before the blasts, close friends Verona (Keeler) Wilson and Vera Howarth, who had been alerted to the propane leak, were attempting to flee. The two women, both nearly 60 years old, were walking quickly in the low-lying area between their nearby homes when they were caught by the ignition of the heavier-than-air gas and were burned about the legs, hands and faces. Wilson and Howarth were, in fact, the only people injured in the incident.

“Verona had gone over to Vera’s to tell her to get out (of harm’s way),” said her niece, Ina (Keeler) Jones. “(Verona) always wore nylon socks over her nylon leggings, and then she had on leather shoes, and she had on a (wool) skirt (and) a taffeta top…. (The explosion) melted those big heavy nylon crew socks into her ankles and feet, and then her nylon-clad legs, it all melted into them…. And her taffeta shirt melted onto her body.

“And when it happened,” Jones continued, “she immediately laid down in the snow and, trying to put the fire out, started rolling…. And the reason why Vera got hurt so much worse was that Vera just froze. She just stood there, and Verona was rolling down on the ground and saying, ‘Vera, roll!’ She’s screaming at her to roll, and then it clicked and Vera got down and rolled.”

Both women were transported to a hospital in Anchorage—Howarth staying for many more weeks since her burns were more severe. The two friends received skin grafts and bore the scars of their experience for the rest of their lives.

The burns also affected the nerves in one of Verona’s hands, making it difficult for her to use two of her fingers. Over time, the nerves mostly healed.

“Her hands were a mess,” said niece April (Keeler) Williams. But the damage was never severe enough to prevent her from playing solitaire. “She loved to play cards,” said April’s husband, David Williams.

Months later, Verona Wilson and Vera Howarth avoided a trial when both women settled out of court with the Petrolane Alaska Gas Services Company.

Community

When Verona and her husband Don had moved to the Kenai Peninsula in June 1951, they had to ship their car by train from Anchorage to Portage before they could continue driving toward their destination. At that time, the Seward Highway connecting Anchorage to the Kenai was not yet complete, although it would be by year’s end.

By 1952, the Wilsons constructed a simple, rectangular, wood-frame building and started the town’s first grocery. Next to the white front door were two small Pepsi-Cola signs, and above them hung a small white-painted board containing one black-lettered word: “STORE.”

Generally, the business was called the Soldotna Store. Later, it was known as Wilson’s Grocery. Inside were the basics, many of which had been neatly stacked and organized on white-painted wooden shelves nailed to the walls.

In 1959, the Wilsons expanded their operation and went more modern, opting for a larger, concrete-block building erected next door. Into the old structure moved Verona’s buddy, Vera, who, during the previous year, had been selling goods from the trunk of her car while hoping to be able to afford a real store someday. She named her new business Vera’s Variety.

Vera, just three months older than Verona, was offered the chance to buy the building and the lot upon which it stood, said April Williams, but she declined. Don and Verona allowed her to use it, anyway, and she ran her business there for many years. Verona was pleased to have her best friend right next door.

In 1960, Soldotna residents voted to incorporate as a fourth-class city. They also elected Don Wilson as their first mayor. He and Verona operated their grocery for 17 years, and Don remained active in civic affairs well after his time in office had expired.

Despite these successes, the Wilsons—like Verona’s Keeler kin elsewhere in Alaska—were not immune from tragedy. In March 1959, Don’s son Jack, a faller and bucker for the Arrington and Ray Logging Company, had been fatally injured in Elliot State Park (Oregon) when he was struck by a 90-foot tree that rolled down a hill above where he was working.

In late September 1978, Verona’s elder son Bill died when his 20-foot-salmon dory struck a stone jetty on the Rogue River (Oregon) in heavy fog. A companion on the fishing trip was also killed, and more than a month passed before searchers found and recovered Bill’s body.

Two years later, 83-year-old Don Wilson, a heavy smoker suffering from emphysema, died in his home in Soldotna. In 1982, with help from her son Jim, Verona moved back to Oregon after 31 years on the Kenai. She lived there for another 26 years.

Unfortunately for Vera, Verona’s departure from Alaska meant the eventual sale of the property occupied by her Soldotna store, so she was forced to move to a smaller, backstreet location nearby.

In the fall of 2008, April and David Williams, on vacation in Oregon, visited Verona in a nursing home in Bandon, where she lived with one of her nephews, Ernie, a son of her eldest brother Floyd, who had been the first of the Keeler clan to come to Alaska. At the end of their visit, 99-year-old Verona insisted on seeing them out to their car.

She died on Dec. 15, about one month shy of her 100th birthday.

From her obituary: “In her last years, her memory slowly went away. She used to say that people in Soldotna still owed her money, and she would like to go back for a visit with old friends, mainly Vera Howarth, who was as dear to her as one of her sisters. She was never told that Vera had passed on (six years earlier), because it might have been too much for her to take.”

TO BE CONTINUED….

Cheechako News photo courtesy of the KPC historical photo archive
Don Wilson feeds a “pet” moose from the door of his first Soldotna grocery store, circa 1950s.

Cheechako News photo courtesy of the KPC historical photo archive Don Wilson feeds a “pet” moose from the door of his first Soldotna grocery store, circa 1950s.

Photo by Clark Fair
Verona (Keeler) Wilson’s best friend in Soldotna was Vera Howarth (seen here in the 1980s), owner of Vera’s Variety, located right beside Verona and Don Wilson’s grocery store.

Photo by Clark Fair Verona (Keeler) Wilson’s best friend in Soldotna was Vera Howarth (seen here in the 1980s), owner of Vera’s Variety, located right beside Verona and Don Wilson’s grocery store.

Don and Verona pose inside their first Soldotna grocery store in 1952, the year they opened for business. (Photo courtesy of Al Hershberger.)

Don and Verona pose inside their first Soldotna grocery store in 1952, the year they opened for business. (Photo courtesy of Al Hershberger.)

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