Barbecue brings Soldotna to its roots

People from every generation of Soldotna’s brief history may have been among the large crowd that gathered Friday at the Soldotna Homestead Museum for a barbecue in honor of the town’s homesteaders. Vice President Sara Hondel of the Soldotna Historical Society, who organized the event, plans for it to become an annual part of Soldotna’s Progress Days celebrations.

“This was probably the best kick-off for a new event, and we’re going to keep doing this,” Hondel said. “It’s a new tradition. I couldn’t be happier for how it went.”

A special guest book the Soldotna Historical Society created for the event filled up with over 300 signatures, requiring a second guest book for the rest. Hondel estimated about 500 people attended.

Area residents often overlook the Homestead museum — sometimes, Hondel said, they’re brought there for the first time by their out-of-town visitors. Hondel said she wanted “to attract the community to their museum, and not keep it hidden anymore.” That goal was met.

“This event has created the most traffic this museum has seen in like 12 years, leading up to the event,” Hondel said. “The past two weeks our volunteers have been exhausted. It’s a good problem to have.”

The Soldotna Historical society invited the area’s homesteaders to the barbecue, reaching out to as many as they could by word of mouth. Most of the names on their invitation list came from the notes and memories of Marge Mullen, who settled in Soldotna in the late 1940s and has been a long-time volunteer with the Historical Society. When former Soldotna mayor Pete Sprague asked in his opening remarks for the homesteaders or their descendents to raise their hands, “I’d say two-thirds had their hands up,” Hondel said.

As the crowd of visitors ate and listened to the folksy strumming of local musician Hobo Jim, many drifted up the hill to tour the museum’s six historic cabins. Museum docent Carroll Knutson, who grew up on a homestead near Kasilof, reminded them of how recent Soldotna’s history is.

“The rest of America called this era ‘mid-century modern,’” she told a group of visitors. “For us, there was nothing modern about it!”

A short walk away, the one-room log structure of the Slikok Valley schoolhouse seemed to illustrate her words. Among the vintage school books laid out on its rows of desks was “Little House on the Prairie” by Laurie Ingalls Wilder. Students may or may not have read that 1932 classic during Slikok Valley school’s two years of operation from 1958 to 1960 — but in either case the building they sat in might not have looked unfamiliar to Wilder, a frontier teacher in the 1880s.

Tommye Jo Corr, the homesteader who taught at the schoolhouse during its brief history, revisited it during Friday’s barbecue. Looking around, she commented on the museum exhibit’s additions.

“I don’t think we had encyclopedias,” she said, glancing over the bookshelf.

At the front of the room a mannequin, representing a teacher, was outfitted in a long skirt and light sweater over a blouse. A bystander asked Corr if the mannequin reminded her of herself.

“I’m sure I wore slacks,” she said. “I wouldn’t have worn a dress until summer.”

The schoolhouse lacked electricity — it was lit by Coleman lanterns and heated by oil stove, she said.

“It got cold,” Corr said. “When the kids in the back got too cold to write, they’d come to the stove to warm up until some one else had a turn.”

As Corr glanced over the rows of desks, Priscilla Mott and her brother Charlie Jackson stood near a list of the students who’d gone through the school during its two-year life. Each name prompted recollections from Mott — these were her old classmates. On the list she was Priscilla Jackson, first grade class of 1959.

Mott and Jackson’s family began homesteading on Slikok Creek in what’s now the Kalifornsky Beach area in 1955. Jackson, the older sibling, went to school in Kenai — which made for a difficult trip.

“We had to walk from our homestead out to the highway to catch a bus and take it to school and back,” Jackson said. “… A lot of times the bus never showed up. We’d get out there and they’d have trouble with the bus, or it’d go in a ditch or it wouldn’t start in the morning or whatever. So we were at the mercy of when the bus came. If it didn’t come by a certain time, we’d turn around and walk back home.”

The difficulty of the journey to Kenai — which wasn’t directly accessible from Kalifornsky Beach until construction of the Warren Ames Bridge in the mid-1970s — prompted homesteaders in the area to build the Slikok Creek schoolhouse on an acre donated by homesteader Lonnie Brumlow. The builders completed it in three weeks after the Alaska Territorial Department of Education agreed to authorize the school if a building was ready by the start of the school year, according to the Redoubt Reporter.

The construction of the school house is one of the subjects Mott and Jackson’s mother wrote about in her journals, along with the homestead’s first electrical connection, the challenges of travel, and the arrival of later homesteaders. Mott and Jackson had brought some of those journals — small blue books with the years 1957 and 1958 on their covers — to the gathering. They plan to copy the hand-written pages for the Soldotna Historical Society’s archives. Jackson also brought a 1961 high school yearbook to donate.

“We’ll probably find more (journals),” Mott said. “She was real good about writing things down and mentions some of the people who were here.”

Mott spent only one year at the Slikok Valley school. She went to second grade at Soldotna Elementary in 1960, the year the new school was built, complete with electricity, modern heat and plumbing. The schoolhouse remained a community center for the nearby families until it was made a local history museum in 1964. But the school and the people she’d known there remained in Mott’s life: as an adult she become her former first grade teacher’s co-worker, serving as a secretary for the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s correspondence education program, in which Corr was a teacher. Later, she wrote a grant to get improved security at the Slikok Valley schoolhouse museum, which was suffering from break-ins, she said. The schoolhouse remained at its original location near Kalifornsky Beach Road until it was moved in 1987 to the newly founded Soldotna Homestead Museum.

Mott and her siblings still own their homestead, and they’re still gardening and farming the land they helped clear as children. When asked whether she and the other homesteaders she knew ever envisioned Soldotna as the town it is today, Mott said it was something they didn’t think much about — they stayed “busy doing your everyday stuff.”

“We’re still kind of that way — you leave to go to work, then work at home, and I just don’t get very far,” she said. “They were laughing at me the other day because I never got to Homer or Seward until after high school. It was a long ways to go — took a long time to do that, and if you didn’t get your water you didn’t have any, if you didn’t cut your wood you didn’t have any. So you just didn’t get far from home. But that was fine with me. I like it.”

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