AUTHOR’S NOTE: By March 1948, a month before his 30th birthday, Larry Lancashire had already experienced an eventful adulthood. He had flown numerous missions as a bomber pilot in World War II, had been shot down by Axis forces and captured as a prisoner of war, had married his sweetheart Rusty and produced three young daughters, and had driven — with the company of only Tuto, his springer spaniel — from Ohio to Alaska to begin building a home and a life for his family.
On a trip to Seward in early March 1948, Larry Lancashire purchased a Yukon woodstove. At his homesite atop Pickle Hill — between Kenai and what would soon be known as Soldotna — he erected a wall tent and installed the stove with the assistance of fellow homesteader and former bomber pilot Frank Mullen.
Mullen also introduced Lancashire to moose meat, which Larry found delicious. “I’ll take it over beef anytime,” he wrote home to his family on March 24. As long as he was able to avoid the game warden, he said, it should be no problem to keep himself and his family — once they arrived from Ohio — in tasty “Alaska beef.”
He also admitted that he and Mullen had “swiped” a table from a nearby “unoccupied” road camp to lend more comfort and convenience to his own temporary dwelling.
“Tomorrow,” he added, “I’m going to start shoveling a road into where the (saw)mill is going up. It probably will take all day, for there is still a couple feet of snow on the ground. Sure glad I’ve got those snowshoes.”
By early April, Lancashire reported, he had been scouting for good timber land and stacking piles of his equipment in places he believed would be most advantageous as spring arrived. He warned his wife, Rusty, that mail from him might be sporadic for a while because breakup was underway, and the road to Kenai (8 miles away and the site of the nearest post office) would soon be impassable for a month or more.
On April 6, on one of his final trips into town before breakup, he caught a flight to Anchorage to file for timber permits on nine sections of land he had located. He said he hoped to buy a used bulldozer to simplify the process of knocking down trees and dragging them to his mill.
A month later, Lancashire selected a homestead parcel stretching from the Kenai River to the top of Pickle Hill — adjacent to the 1,200 acres he had selected for timber harvesting. “I plan to build our home here and possibly clear a little land,” he wrote.
According to his eldest daughter Martha, Lancashire, in his search for the right parcel, had initially driven right through the area he would eventually homestead. When he had reached Kenai in early March 1948, he had turned around and started driving back to give the area another look-see.
He selected the spot for his mill and later his homesite for what he deemed its view potential (which he knew Rusty desired), its proximity to the new Kenai Spur Road, and because it appeared already partly free of trees, meaning that he’d need to clear less acreage when he began creating fields.
He had been fooled, however, by the heavy snow that still blanketed the property. After the spring melt, he learned that the open land, though mostly treeless, was rife with muskeg and knobby, uneven ground.
At the time, individuals were allowed to stake up to 160 acres of land in areas open to homesteading. After recording their choices with the Land Office in Anchorage, prospective homesteaders had to meet several specific requirements in order to “prove up” on their property and qualify for a patent.
Among those requirements: live on the claim for three consecutive years, build a habitable dwelling, and clear a certain percentage of the land and plant it for agricultural purposes.
World War II veterans such as Lancashire were customarily given first preference for a certain period of time to claim land in areas open to homesteading. Vets also received exceptions to the rules related to the time necessary to live on the land and the amount of acreage required for agriculture.
After he began to settle in, Lancashire found himself with enough work to fill each day and carry over to the next. He had no electricity, no running water, no way to refrigerate or preserve food during the warmer months and, until his mill was in operation, no way to generate any income.
He also knew that he would eventually need to have a water well — and would likely have to dig it by hand. Until then, like most of the Soldotna area’s earliest homesteaders, Lancashire gathered fresh water from Soldotna Creek, nearly 2 miles away. He hauled the water from the creek in 5-gallon cans and transported it to his homesite with his jeep.
Rusty and the three Lancashire daughters — Martha, nearly 5 years old; Lori, 2; Abby, 8 months — arrived in Kenai on June 19.
Rusty was impressed by her husband’s industriousness. “Larry works very hard. Always something for him to do,” she wrote home to family in the Midwest. “When all equipment is running, he cuts and brings in logs. Other days—when he has the needed lumber (he) continues to build the saw mill…. (He) has to finish digging our well—build the cabin … get all the logs in—then peel the logs—shape them…. As near as I can figure he has enough work for the rest of his life—plus sawing lumber for our living.”
Immediately after her arrival, Rusty assessed their situation and began to realize how many things they still needed, despite the huge load that Larry had towed up the highway from Ohio.
Often, it was more practical to request things from family Outside and pay the freight to have them sent north than it was to order items themselves from catalogs or drive the rough roads to Seward or Kenai in search what they needed. The road north to Anchorage had not yet been completed, nor had the road south to Homer.
Some of their letters to family back home contained lists of items they wanted: life jackets for the girls, shoepacks for Larry and Rusty, wool socks for all of them, work boots, extra raingear, old magazines (for reading and extra toilet paper), and how-to books on making log furniture, cross-country skiing and doctoring at home.
Usually, they simply did the best they could with what they had. Before they had dug their well and installed a pump, the Lancashires traveled in their jeep every other night to Soldotna Creek “to rinse, get water and catch some food,” wrote Rusty. They packed themselves and their dog into their vehicle, along with five large cans in which to gather water, plus another can for dirty diapers, sleeping bags for tired children, insect repellent and fishing gear.
Sometimes on their jouncing ride to the creek mouth, they also picked up “neighbor” Howard Lee, a former Navy pilot, and his two water cans.
Once, said Rusty, they stretched an illegal net across the creek to expedite their salmon harvest. “We couldn’t see any fish hitting so we all threw stones and chased them into the net. We caught about 24 large salmon in this manner…. The two other gals on the road and I canned them the next day.”
When Rusty referred to “other gals on the road,” she generally meant other women living along the Kenai Spur Road between Soldotna Creek and the Lancashire homesite on Pickle Hill. The proximity of neighbors took on a different sense than it had for her back in Toledo, Ohio. Greater distances and the difficulty of conquering those distances were just two of the many challenges she faced early on.
Mail was flown in and out of Kenai only on Tuesdays. The roads could be hazardous, and road signs and road names were almost nonexistent. She noticed that most people traveling to and from Kenai gave directions by the streams and rises they crossed — Mink Creek, Beaver Creek, Beaver Hill, Coffee Creek, Coffee Hill. “If anyone asks us where we live,” she said, “all we have to say is Pickle Hill. Pickle Hill is also the hardest to get up after a rain.”
Nearly two weeks after arriving on the homestead, Rusty told relatives she was starting to overcome her fear of wild animals: “I am not afraid to be here alone anymore—but it sure takes a lot of singing to walk just back to where Larry is building our house.”
Still, she noticed near-constant, positive changes and was excited to watch their raw land transform into a home. “I am really liking this life very much,” she wrote in July. “I love the spirit our little family seems to be growing into…. The life is still tiring—rough—but very, very full of happy little things. I even baked breakfast rolls today.”
In a letter dated July 30, Rusty announced that Larry had struck water at 25 feet: “Martha, who was standing nearby, walked over and looked way down to her dad and asked, ‘Daddy, you got water down there?’ He said, ‘Yes, Martha, at last.’ Martha, in a very sweet voice, asked, ‘Daddy, will you hand me up a drink?’”
The pump they had ordered from Anchorage had yet to arrive.
In the meantime, the Lancashires continued to work on their cabin. They had sill logs and one more layer in place by the time Larry struck water.
Progress wasn’t perfect, but the commonality of their goals kept them motivated and focused. “In all honesty,” she told her parents, “Larry and I have never known such happiness.”