Citizens’ group aims to organize history conference

There are bits and pieces of the Kenai Peninsula’s history scattered in archives from Russia to Washington, D.C.

It’s hard to get a detailed picture of the peninsula’s history in one place. That’s one of the goals of the conference a group of Kenai Peninsula residents is planning for April 2017.

Shana Loshbaugh got the idea for the conference when she realized the sesquicentennial — the technical term for the 150th anniversary — of the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia is coming up next year. A longtime history fan, she wondered if she could help out with any of the celebratory events.

“It became clear that there was nothing going on in the area,” Loshbaugh said. “I realized that if I wanted something to happen here, I would have to make it happen.”

She began to look into organizing a larger event commemorating the anniversary. It’s still in the early planning stages, but the tentative date and venue for the Kenai Peninsula History Conference are set: April 21–22, 2017 at Kenai Peninsula College. Loshbaugh said those are still subject to change right now.

She and the other four members of the steering committee — who represent a wide swathe of the Kenai Peninsula from Seward to Nikiski to Seldovia — are in the process of finding participants and coordinating events such as guided tours through historical sites and a potential fair with booths where vendors like traditional craftsmen could sell display their wares, she said.

The Pratt Museum will serve as the fiscal agent for the convention, said Diane Converse, the museum’s director and a member of the steering committee. Because there is no one body coordinating the effort, the Pratt Museum will accept donations intended for the conference and assist in grant applications, she said.

The Pratt Museum focuses on the lower Kenai Peninsula’s history but sometimes broadens its perspective to the whole peninsula. The conference came in line with the historical aspect of the museum’s mission, Converse said.

“We’re the museum in this corner of the world, and history is one of our mission areas,” Converse said. “It makes a lot of sense for us to partner on the project.”

One overarching theme for the conference will be to highlight the variety of cultures present in the area and how they converge. The Kenai Peninsula is unique with its active Alaska Native cultures as well as its Russian Orthodox villages and more Americanized urban centers, Loshbaugh said. Before the Russians arrived, the peninsula hosted at least two completely separate Alaska Native cultures. The Russians brought their own culture as well as Alaska Natives from other parts of what is now the state, and the American homesteaders from the Lower 48 brought yet another culture to the mix.

“There’s just all these stories, and some of them are just totally amazing,” Loshbaugh said. “It just boggled my mind that people don’t know them.”

Loshbaugh originally moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 1981 but also lived in Fairbanks for a time. She said she was surprised by how much information about the Kenai Peninsula was available in the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ library but not on the peninsula itself. She has also found some of the peninsula’s history buried in photo albums in the archives of universities like the University of California—Berkeley and the University of Washington in Seattle, she said.

Loshbaugh studied the Russian language when she attended college, which she said has helped with her ability to look into some of the events during the Russian period of Kenai’s history. Many of the names on maps and in letters and journals are inconsistent, passed between languages in translations from Dena’ina to Russian to English, she said.

One mystery, in fact, is the very name “Kenai.” Loshbaugh said she is still investigating where the name came from, where it was first mentioned and how it became attached to the town, the river and the people who lived there. And that’s not all — she has seen documents that tell stories ranging from a picture of the trading post in Old Town Kenai in the 1890s to a plan to dredge the entire Kenai River looking for gold dust.

Some of the documents show how different Kenai might have looked today, she said.

“It’s kind of an alternative history sometimes,” Loshbaugh said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly offered its support through a resolution passed at its May 3 meeting. There hasn’t been a conference focused on local history on the Kenai Peninsula since 1974, according to the resolution.

The committee has applied for a $15,000 grant from the Alaska Historical Commission to help defray some of its costs, but the public can still donate to the conference through the Pratt Museum as long as they denote that it is for the conference, Converse said.

Loshbaugh has begun to write newsletters, updating the public on what is happening with the conference and how to get involved. There are 81 people on the mailing list so far, she said.

“It’s been a lot of legwork and outreach,” Loshbaugh said. “It’s quite a diversity of people. We have lots of local people … but also some scholars from as far away as the Lower 48. It’s really a pretty diverse, far-flung group.”

To receive updates or to get involved, Loshbaugh directed the public to call her at 907-460-7554 or email her at s.loshbaugh@gmail.com.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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