Debbie Smith                                 Marge Mullen is seen on her original homestead in Soldotna on Monday.

Debbie Smith Marge Mullen is seen on her original homestead in Soldotna on Monday.

Homesteader at heart

Soldotna pioneer Marge Mullen turns 100

How does it feel to turn 100?

For Soldotna’s Marge Mullen, who turns 100 today, it’s the question everybody wants to know. Her answer?

“Every day I think it’s a bonus that I wake up and want to get up.”

Disappointed with that answer? Peggy Mullen, Marge’s daughter, said those looking to elicit emotional answers from her mother usually are.

“Margie has always been head down and shoulder to the wheel,” Peggy said. “She’s very productive. She can do a million things at once.

“She’s not one of those people who will give you a lot of wisdom. I’ve met a lot of people she’s inspired in so many ways, but she’s not going to tell you any of that.”

It’s better to ask Marge questions about her actions:

How did you survive as a Soldotna homesteader after growing up in Chicago?

How did you continue the homestead after your husband contracted polio and lost use of his legs?

How did you play a role in getting oil companies to stop flaring large amounts of natural gas from Cook Inlet platforms?

How do you continue to show your affinity for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge each day?

Adventuresome genes

Marge and her husband, Frank, were both raised in Chicago. Both of their parents always lived in apartments, so when a 3-inch column appeared in the Chicago Tribune telling of homesteading opportunities available to World War II veterans in Alaska, both were intrigued.

Soon, Frank was flying the two to Alaska in a two-seater plane.

“We came in 1945 and spent two years in Anchorage before homesteading opened,” Marge said.

In 1947, the two left their two children in Anchorage with Frank’s mother and set out for the central Kenai Peninsula.

Peggy, a Soldotna resident, and Eileen, a Homer resident, were the two children left in Anchorage. The couple’s other children are Frank Jr., who has passed away, and Mary, who lives in Forest Grove, Oregon. Frank also has died.

The Mullens took a train from Anchorage to Moose Pass, then hitched a ride on a Jeep trail to the area where the Seward and Sterling highways join today.

The Sterling Highway was still under construction. Its official ribbon-cutting ceremony would be on Sept. 6, 1950, and the road would be paved in 1958. The Mullens walked three days and 65 miles to their eventual homestead, using an Alaska Road Commission trail.

“It was my first time backpacking,” Marge said. “I had hiking boots I thought were pretty good. I ended up with one sore foot and thought I’d never see my babies again.”

The summer of 1947 was a hot one. Marge remembers swimming every day in June and July in Anchorage as smoke wafted over the city from a wildfire that burned 300,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula. By comparison, last summer’s Swan Lake Fire burned about 167,000 acres.

The Mullens brought only a covering made of mosquito netting. Naturally, that first night it rained. The couple wrung out their tent and sleeping bags and carried on.

“I guess I have more adventuresome genes coming with me,” Marge said.

The two homesteaded on the bank of the Kenai River. The two 40-acre parcels, plus irregular river lots, added up to 103.45 acres as surveyed, according to the homestead patent. Soldotna Creek ran through the property, which today contains the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways.

‘Up for anything’

While the Mullen homestead land today bustles with life as the heart of Soldotna, Marge said there were only two cabins in today’s Soldotna city limits when she arrived.

“I was up for anything, as I say, at a young age,” she said. “If I was ever going to be daring, probably then was a good time in my life to do that. I learned a lot.”

Mullen was born just before the 19th Amendment, which extended suffrage to women, was adopted on Aug. 18, 1920. A lifetime ensued in which Marge became, according to daughter Peggy, “a lovely feminist by her actions and her heart.”

Marge notes that Frank’s name was the only one on the homestead patent. The couple had to live on the homestead seven months per year to prove up the patent.

Marge would live on the homestead from April to November with the children while Frank worked in Anchorage, flying back and forth to the 14-by-16-foot cabin.

“He had never as much as made a pantry shelf for his mother,” Marge said of Frank’s skills with tools.

This meant a lot of the cabin maintenance fell to Marge.

“I did chinking while the children napped,” she said. “I’d fill in the horizontal holes as much as I could. They could become so large I’d have to take down tiny spruce and nail them in to keep the moss from falling out.”

The cabin was located where Kenai River Brewing is today. Local beer aficionados will relish the historical nugget that Marge did homebrew there long before Doug Hogue and company set up shop.

“Right where our cabin was,” Marge said. “Exactly.”

Soldotna grows up

Though there were just two cabins within the current city limits when the Mullens arrived, Marge said many soon followed.

“It was really free land, you know,” Marge said. “In the ensuing years, the word planning couldn’t be mentioned out loud. You couldn’t say anything about planning.”

In 1952, Frank contracted polio and never walked again. The family sought to survive by selling eggs and produce. Family came up to help the Mullens build a big chicken house, while tractors were adapted so Frank could drive them without legs.

Marge said she had 800 laying hens.

“If I hadn’t been a friend of Larry Carr, I don’t know how I would have gotten rid of the eggs,” Marge said of the man who developed Carrs Quality Centers. “He took all the eggs.”

Marge said the kids would sell produce at the Y in Soldotna while Marge worked in the fields.

“The squash was so large, people bought them thinking they were watermelon,” she said.

The Wildwood Army Station arrived in 1953, giving the Mullens a place to have a regular market.

The biggest change came July 19, 1957, with the discovery of oil north of Sterling at Swanson River.

“Until they struck oil, a banker wouldn’t even talk to you,” Marge said. “Before that, we couldn’t borrow $500 for our next plow, but after we struck oil we were able to borrow money and build a couple of cabins.”

The two cabins were rented to oil field workers who wanted family with them, because Mullen said the workers never received days off. Soon, the chicken house was turned into a duplex and Marge opened a laundromat where workers could clean greasy coveralls.

Alaska gained statehood in 1959 and the city of Soldotna was incorporated in 1960 with 332 residents and an area of 7.4 square miles.

Conservation efforts

While experiencing firsthand the economic changes brought by the oil industry, Mullen was not comfortable with everything the industry brought to the area.

The Kenai Conservation Society was founded in the early 1970s. Mullen joined and was frequently the group’s secretary.

The group took hikes together and organized letter-writing campaigns to promote environmental issues. Mullen said that one of the group’s biggest successes regarded reining in the practice of flaring off natural gas on the Cook Inlet platforms.

Peggy said those platforms were after the oil, so they would just flare off the natural gas. Some flaring is still allowed on the platforms today for things like safety purposes, but nothing on that scale.

“Whenever I flew to Anchorage and sat on the left-hand side, they were very obvious out there,” Marge said of the flares. “Now when I fly to Anchorage I still sit on the left-hand side. I’m only too happy to see the wind power on Fire Island.”

Saying she wants a better world for her grandchildren, Mullen continues to be concerned about climate change.

“I want to say when we were planting fields for produce, we had to select seeds that matured in 90 days,” she said. “Not even 50 years later, we have 120 growing days. That’s a big one for a short time in history.”

After seeing oil development on the Kenai National Moose Range, the Kenai Conservation Society also advocated for wilderness areas on the Kenai National Moose Range.

In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act made the Moose Range the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and established 1.32 million acres as wilderness.

The century mark

While her parents not owning property in Chicago shaped Marge’s life by sending her to Alaska in search of land, Marge credits another aspect of her Chicago childhood for part of her longevity.

“Walking. My love of walking,” Marge said. “My father never owned a car in Chicago. We never needed one.”

Marge lives with Peggy in a house on the homestead and the two report to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge each day for a walk. Marge will use her walker in the parking lot while Peggy will take to the trails.

It’s no mistake the walks come at the refuge, because Marge continues to value its protections of wilderness to this day.

“How about having a Walgreens or the Bear Den in the middle of the wilderness?” Marge said, speaking of a bar that used to sit next to the Maverick Saloon in Soldotna. “It’d be awful.”

Marge also said other factors in her longevity are modern medicine and her Irish genes.

For Marge’s birthday, a total of 25 friends called her for 15 minutes apiece Tuesday and Wednesday since the new coronavirus pandemic is no time for gatherings. Peggy said others wanting to share a wish or memory can reach her at Marge Mullen, c/o River City Books, 338 Homestead Lane, Soldotna, AK 99669.

Peggy requests that no presents be sent. Instead, a donation to a favorite charity or Marge’s favorite charity — Covenant House Alaska — is suggested.

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