Photo by Clark Fair 
Abby (Lancashire) Ala, seen here giving riding lessons in the early 2000s, was just a child when her mother befriended Miriam Mathers. Ala now lives on a portion of the old Mathers homestead.

Photo by Clark Fair Abby (Lancashire) Ala, seen here giving riding lessons in the early 2000s, was just a child when her mother befriended Miriam Mathers. Ala now lives on a portion of the old Mathers homestead.

Tragedy and triumph of the Goat Woman — Part 4

Mathers had only three cents in her purse when she arrived in Kenai

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the first three parts of this story, an unusual woman named Miriam “The Goat Woman” Mathers died on the beach at Kenai in the spring of 1950, and area residents speculated about her past as her meager estate was settled. Mathers’ life as a wife and mother — in Nebraska, Wyoming and Washington — had been beset by tragedy, and she set her sights on making a new start by homesteading in Alaska.

Arrival

On Oct. 7, 1946, nearly a year after sailing from Seattle to Seward, 63-year-old Miriam Mathers rode her horse down the main street in the fishing village of Kenai. Her arrival was the culmination of two and a half months of travel from Cooper Landing, in stops and starts, over the mostly roadless western Kenai Peninsula.

More than that, Mathers’ appearance in Kenai was the end of a journey that had begun in Wyoming in 1939, when she first announced her intention to homestead in Alaska.

Because of her late arrival in Seward the previous October, she had decided to spend the winter there. In early June, she departed the Gateway City in her covered wagon and traveled the established path to Moose Pass and Cooper Landing, where she gathered information about the travels that remained.

She left Cooper Landing June 28 and attempted to follow the old blazes that had once marked the dogsled trail comprising the winter mail route to Kenai.

Mathers supplemented her provisions along the way with berries and fish. She said she had carried both a pistol and a shotgun to deal with pesky bears but didn’t need the firepower. Her only bear encounter ended with some shouting and a fleeing bruin.

The route to Kenai crossed numerous swamps and streams and meandered around many lakes and ponds. Frustrated by directions she considered confusing and contradictory, she eventually returned to Cooper Landing for clarification and tried her luck again in mid-September.

In all this back-and-forth, she encountered one serious misfortune and one final, exasperating delay before she finished her journey.

Exactly when the misfortune occurred is uncertain, but where it happened is clear. About halfway between Cooper Landing and Kenai, near an old mail-route shelter called Middle Cabin, one of her two older horses sickened and died.

Since the younger of her two remaining horses had never been broken to a harness, Mathers said she was forced to abandon most of her outfit, including the wagon, at Middle Cabin. She packed what she could onto one horse and rode the other one the rest of the way.

The final delay involved crossing the Moose River. When she arrived near its confluence with the Kenai River, she discovered an Alaska Road Commission bridge-building camp on the north bank. ARC crew members, in the early stages of building the Sterling Highway, refused for several days to allow her passage over their temporary structure.

Once she was on the other side, she followed rough ARC clear-cuts to Kenai.

In the village, according to an article in the Anchorage Daily Times, she told folks that she planned to spend the winter in Kasilof and then stake a homestead and retrieve her wagon full of belongings.

The article said that Mathers had only three cents in her purse when she arrived in Kenai. Despite the lack of funds, she claimed to be unconcerned about finding a place to live that winter. “If I need a house, then I’ll build me one,” she said. “I’ve done it before.”

Land, at Last

In May 1947, Mathers traveled — almost certainly by steamship — from either Kasilof or Kenai to Anchorage, ostensibly to learn the homesteading rules for the Territory of Alaska.

The next month, however, delivered more misfortune — the depth of which Mathers would not learn for more than a year. The fire that ignited the Kenai Burn began in the Skilak Lake area in June, scorching more than 300,000 acres, including the site of Middle Cabin.

Likely, Mathers was busy all summer, working to earn money, staking a homestead and determining where to build a home.

On May 24, 1948, Mathers was back in Anchorage, doing business at the District Land Office. She completed her transaction with a receipt showing that she had paid $16, including a commission of 0.0375 cents per acre, to file a patent application for a 160-acre homestead near the Mink Creek bridge, between Kenai and an area that would soon be known as Soldotna.

In early autumn, Mathers befriended her nearest neighbor, Rusty Lancashire, who lived with her family atop Pickle Hill just outside of Soldotna. It is from Lancashire’s letters to out-of-state relatives over the next two years that much of the final chapter Mathers’ story is known.

By this time, Mathers had constructed her rudimentary cabin from cottonwood logs near Mink Creek. Her only visitors, besides Lancashire, appear to have been Marshal Allan Petersen and his wife, Jettie, and an occasional ARC worker or two — all stopping by to make sure that Mathers was OK.

Before winter set in, Larry Lancashire took Mathers down to the Kenai River to catch a supply of salmon for her. Rusty invited her to social gatherings and offered her rides into Kenai. When they had a chunk of extra moose meat, they made sure that Mathers received some.

In turn, Mathers occasionally babysat the Lancashires’ three young daughters. “This she does only because she feels sorry [for us],” wrote Rusty. “She doesn’t like to.”

At one holiday celebration in the Lancashire home, Mathers contributed a pound of coffee and brought knives as gifts to the men. Rusty remarked that Mathers would even put on lipstick if she was “going out to see people.”

Downhill Slide

In the summer of 1949, because of her age and her perceived frailty, Mathers had difficulty procuring cannery work. By fall, she was short of funds, and Marshal Petersen grew concerned about her welfare as winter approached. He urged Mathers to consider accepting financial assistance.

In September, she sent a registered letter to a Bureau of Land Management field examiner, seeking financial help while claiming that she had been “barred from working in both canneries” and had “never taken charity yet.”

Marshal Petersen supported her cause in letters of his own. “She is very independent and is also very stubborn,” he wrote. “I talked with her for some time before she indicated that she would at all consider help from anyone or any place. She seems to feel that the people down here are against her, which of course is not the case. We all want to help her if she will let us.”

The Alaska Department of Public Welfare granted her $30 per month.

In mid-October, without realizing that Middle Cabin had been destroyed two summers earlier, Mathers attempted to return there and collect some of her belongings. But the forest fire had altered much of the landscape, and she was unable to even locate the cabin remains.

Rusty Lancashire commented on the aftermath: “After hearing the Goat Woman froze her feet, I went down to see her. We took eggs, rolls, bread, bandages, tape and etc. Her toenails are all off and she is in bad shape. [I] made her her dinner, cleaned her cabin.

“The poor gal — she wanted some things she left up at Middle Cabin…. [She] got lost in a swamp — camped out in the cold two nights…. She’ll pull through — and I don’t imagine she’ll wander off again.”

In January 1950, Rusty visited Mathers in her Mink Creek cabin. She wrote that she went there to deliver some sort of medicine. What she discovered upon entering the cabin required more than that medicine could remedy.

“There she sat — hovering over her little stove,” wrote Rusty. “The small cabin — dirty — her dishes looked as if they hadn’t been done since I did them a month before — old rags propped her pillow up on her bed — boxes, rags, food everywhere. She turned to look at me — her face was dirty — a nasty open sore on her nose — in fact, several sores where her face [had] hit the stove.”

It was growing dark, but Lancashire knew she had to get Mathers some medical attention soon. She told Mathers she might “kick the bucket” if she failed to get to a doctor. “I can’t walk to the road,” Mathers replied.

Rusty drove into town to get help. There, she gathered four men and a Red Cross stretcher. Back at the cabin, she “found two dirty old socks and put them on her — two old felt boots — and luckily had some safety pins on me to pin on her coat.” Civil Aeronautics Administration personnel called in a passing airplane, and shortly thereafter, Mathers was on her way to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where she spent several weeks recuperating.

After the rescue, an Anchorage newspaper published an article featuring this headline: “Plucky Woman, 67 — Homesteader waits 5 days alone in cabin — stroke — Marshal gets her to plane in half hour.”

Although she returned to her home in the spring, and although her determination was as evident as ever, her full physical strength and her health failed to come back. When she died on the Kenai beach on May 26, the cause of death was determined to be a heart attack.

Her obituary stated that Kenai-area dogs had killed her goats and that one of her two remaining horses had not survived her winter in Kasilof.

Because Miriam Mathers’ stay in Kenai was brief, because she valued privacy and shared few personal details of her life, the stories about her after her death shaded toward myth. Families moved into the area, and children who had never seen her explored the sagging remains of her old cabin and could only imagine what the Goat Woman and her life had been like.

Only curiosity seemed to keep her spirit and her memory alive.

As it turns out, Miriam Mathers was worthy of those memories.

In October 1946, Miriam Mathers arrived on horseback in the village of Kenai. This is the headline from an Anchorage Daily Times article about her achievement.

In October 1946, Miriam Mathers arrived on horseback in the village of Kenai. This is the headline from an Anchorage Daily Times article about her achievement.

On Oct. 3, 1945, the Spokane Chronicle published this A.P. photo of Miriam Mathers and her goats as she prepared to board a Seattle steamship bound for Seward.

On Oct. 3, 1945, the Spokane Chronicle published this A.P. photo of Miriam Mathers and her goats as she prepared to board a Seattle steamship bound for Seward.

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Digital Archives 
Denied overland access to Alaska in 1943, Miriam Mathers successfully made her way north in 1945 aboard the S.S. Denali, bound for the Port of Seward.

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Digital Archives Denied overland access to Alaska in 1943, Miriam Mathers successfully made her way north in 1945 aboard the S.S. Denali, bound for the Port of Seward.

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Tragedy and triumph of the Goat Woman — Part 4

Mathers had only three cents in her purse when she arrived in Kenai