The rich display of artwork depicting Kenai’s historic buildings this month at the Kenai Fine Art Center is not limited to the artwork inside the building. Just ask anyone who knows the history of the art gallery that sits on Cook Avenue, only a quarter mile from the mouth of the Kenai River.
“We’re in a historic building,” explained Marion Nelson, vice president of the Fine Art Center.
The Historic Buildings of Kenai opened last Thursday and will last for the month of June, with an array of paintings and photographs giving viewers a bit of a history lesson of Old Town Kenai.
Part of that lesson is the history of the Kenai Fine Art building, which years ago was part of the Kenai Volunteer Fire Department. During the exhibit’s opening reception June 6, the original fire truck sat outside the building it once occupied. A 1941 Chevrolet 1-1/2 ton pump truck that was used in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was recently restored by John Leake, Dalton Best and Daniel Rust over the course of a year at Freddie Pollard, Sr.’s Toy Shop.
Inside the building, photographs and notebooks still remaining from over 50 years ago tell of a time when Kenai was just a fledgling community reaping the benefits of an oil boom. Paintings hang on the wall depicting the old Kenai harbor, complete with illustrations of the former Columbia Ward Fisheries and the Libby, McNeill & Libby cannery on the mouth of the Kenai River.
There are also photographic pieces portraying the iconic Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church that stands watch over the old town — Nelson said that building is one of the most significant in Kenai’s history — and the rafters of the Columbia Wards Fisheries cannery that bore the years fisherman worked there, etched into the wood of the ceiling.
As for the Kenai Fine Art Center, which originally headquartered the Kenai Volunteer Fire Department, two original members were on hand at the opening reception, and shared stories of the very building they were standing in.
Jim Doyle, 84, said he joined the volunteer force at age 27 when he saw the community needed the help when an emergency called.
“I wanted to help,” Doyle said. “You got a lot of satisfaction when you were helping people. We never got paid, and when we went out on a call or rescue, we knew we were helping people. It gave you a good feeling.”
Doyle opened Doyle’s Fuel Service in 1962 and still operates the business with son Jimmy. Doyle was one of the volunteer firefighters who hauled in the concrete blocks that still make up the wall that separates the art gallery from the kiln shop.
He also drove the 1941 Chevy firetruck countless times to house fires and other emergencies during his time with the department.
“Couldn’t begin to guess (how many times),” Doyle said. “Whoever got to the station first, they got the door open and drove the truck. The people that come along after that, followed the truck to wherever they were going, or get on the back and ride.”
Also at the reception was Nick Miller, 73, who has lived in Kenai since 1952. Miller is a lifelong Alaskan who has experienced the great 1964 Alaskan earthquake, a 14-month tour in Vietnam and plenty of nights working volunteer shifts at the department.
“One time in the winter, we had three fires in one night,” Miller recalled. “We’d go home, hit the sack and boom, there’s another fire. We’d do that one, come home and get cleaned up, and then another.
“We got done about five in the morning and by eight in the morning, I was back at my job working.”
Miller created Nick’s Iron Works, a welding shop in Kenai, and said he joined the Kenai Volunteer Fire Department in 1969 and served until its closure in 1973.
Perusing the items and artwork at the exhibit, Miller said he recalls people and events that he hadn’t thought about in years, but was glad to be reminded of.
“The one thing that struck me and still does today, it was a very tight-knit group,” he said. “And they were very dedicated to what they did. Any time, day or night, weather didn’t make any difference. Anything you had to do, you did it.”
With about 500 people living in Kenai around the time oil was discovered in the Swanson River in 1957, the town experienced a population explosion as the oil boom took off, and Doyle and Miller explained that the town needed a consistent emergency presence.
“That’s when these things started to come on,” Miller said. “There’s more people here, we need a fire engine, we need people that can go do this, because we don’t (have them).”
The volunteer fire hall was constructed in 1955, and the jail cell — which still remains today — was added two years later. Doyle said a dispatch worker was available to notify the department of fires and emergencies.
By the early 1970s, a greater need for a paid staff of firefighters who would be trained more regularly led to the construction of the current fire station on Willow Street. The old volunteer building was used as the Kenai Library for a brief period of time in the ‘70s, but by 1980 it was turned into the art gallery that sits there today.
Doyle said around 20 guys at any given time were part of the volunteer department, but Miller estimates that maybe five or six stayed as paid firefighters.
“That’s when they started hiring paid firemen,” Doyle said. “The volunteers that had been here a lot of years, some of them just didn’t like taking orders from the paid department.”
Miller added, “It went from just a volunteer fire guy thing, to a paid fire department with new equipment and better-trained firemen. You come to work every day and train. Not just every Thursday night.”
With records of the former volunteer service nearly 50 years in the past, Miller said the exhibit serves as a nice tribute to not only the building, but the history of the town of Kenai in general.
“There’s no way you’re going to remember everything from that far ago,” Miller said.