As Soldotna celebrates its progress from a collection of homesteads on the edge of the Kenai National Moose Range to the business and tourism hub it is today, some of those responsible for that transformation will gather at the Soldotna Homestead Museum for a free barbecue and pioneer meet-and-greet on Friday, July 27 from 4–7 p.m.
Sara Hondel, Vice President of the Historical Society and Museum, said she’s spent the summer “trying to come up with activities so the community gets excited about their own history, because they have a lot of fascinating history.” She said she pitched the idea of the idea for the homesteader barbecue to the Soldotna Historical Society board of directors as an event where “people would not only come and see the museum, but where we’d invite as many homesteaders from the greater Soldotna area as we can, so we can have our community mingle with our living history, if you will.”
Museum docent Carroll Knutson — herself the daughter of a homesteading family — and the Historical Society directors will be leading tours of the museum’s homestead cabins, historic schoolhouse, and natural history displays. Other happenings include Dutch oven cooking, scavenger hunts, and music by Hobo Jim.
That Friday will also be something of a city holiday. At the Soldotna City Council’s Wednesday meeting, mayor Nels Anderson is set to proclaim July 27 as Marge Mullen Appreciation Day, honoring a first generation Soldotna homesteader and “unofficial historian” of the town, according to Anderson’s proclamation. Mullen, who with her husband Frank built a cabin on the site where the Kenai River Brewing Company now stands, plans to be at the barbecue.
Born in Chicago in 1920, Mullen remembers seeing an article on Alaskan homesteading in the Chicago Daily News in 1947. She and her husband Frank, who’d recently been a bomber pilot in World War II, bought a small airplane from a farmer in Iowa, she said, and flew up to Alaska to take advantage of the U.S government’s special homestead provisions for veterans of the war. She was uncertain what kind of future they might have during the family’s first years in the state.
“I had two little tots and I wondered who they’d go to school with,” Mullen said. “But it worked out well, and I have four wonderful kids, and I live where I live, not in Chicago.”
After Frank died of polio in 1952 Mullen said she’d considered leaving the homestead.
“At that time it was kind of easy to think I’d drop it all and go back home, but somehow I made it and I’m glad I did,” she said.
Knutson’s family opened their homestead south of Soldotna in 1958 after spending a decade living in Anchorage. Before that her father had brought the family on trips to the peninsula after the Sterling Highway opened in 1951, “but he didn’t see how he could make a living down here — that was the problem for most of the settlers when they came.”
“Quite frankly, a lot of the people who homesteaded down here, the guys kept their jobs in Anchorage,” Knutson said. “They parked their wives and kids on the homestead. They’d fly in on Friday night and fly back out on Sunday night to go back to work, and it was the wife and kids who did the homestead work.”
Knutson’s father, a carpenter, spent three or four months at a time away on jobs in the Alaska bush. Her mother, a nurse, and the rest of the family did land-clearing work on the homestead — cutting trees in the winter and pulling out the stumps with jeeps and chains during the summer.
“People talk about the good old days,” Knutson said. “But I’ve got to tell you, it was pretty hard. Haul water, chop wood, and it was a long time before electricity came in. We lived eight miles south of Soldotna, and we’d didn’t get electricity until October of 1963. Then when the earthquake happened in March of ’64 we lost it again, and it took another six months to get it hooked up.”
Soldotna wasn’t counted in the 1950 U.S Census, which had a minimum of 25 people, Mullen said. The town wouldn’t be counted until 1960, when the Census recorded 32 residents, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough. In addition to that slow growth, the intervening decade brought other changes to Soldotna — the Sterling Highway in 1950, Homer Electric Association’s first connections in 1954, paving of the Sterling Highway in 1956, the discovery of oil in Swanson River in July 1957, and Alaska’s statehood in 1958.
By 1970 Soldotna’s population had reached 1,202 and would grow to 2,320 by 1980. The oil discoveries in particular brought a rush of new arrivals.
“(Oil companies) brought all their help with them,” Knutson recalled. “In late 1957 and 1958, all of a sudden everybody around here is wearing pointy-toed boots and talking funny — they all came up from Texas, Lousiana, and Oklahoma.”
As more people arrived, homesteaders began subdividing their properties and selling them as businesses and residences, Mullen said. By the late 1950s, residents had decided that the rapid change called for a parade.
Al Hershberger — who arrived in the area with the Alaska Road Commission in May 1948 — said Soldotna’s first annual festival and parade wasn’t called Progress Days. He wasn’t sure if they had a name for it, or when the present name began being used, but the idea of progress, he said, was there at the beginning.
“Every year we had new businesses,” Hershberger said. “And every year, as a general rule, these new businesses would be in the parade, and this was the progress — we had new businesses and new things going on. It was basically showing off the progress that had been made in the previous year. More things going on here, more people and more businesses, and just growth.”
Hershberger’s part of this growth was opening Soldotna’s first TV and radio repair shop. Though he’d been fixing other peoples’ radios as a hobby for a long time, the activity “just kind of grew and grew and grew,” he said, into an enterprise that did a little bit of everything.
“When we started getting TVs, I opened the business,” Hershberger said. “I’d been doing it in my house for years. Actually my first business was a charter air service. Then that kind of morphed into a TV and radio business, and then that morphed into a furniture business… There was a period of time when I had a room in my house — it had originally been a garage, but I converted it to a boiler room when I got the boiler for heat. In that boiler room I had a bench on one end where I fixed radios and TVs, and on the other end I had a barber’s chair where I cut hair, and I also had an airplane available for charters.”
Mullen recalled hardware stores, cafes, gas stations, a bowling alley, a brick-maker, and several churches springing up.
“All the homesteaders along the highway, whoever had highway frontage, opened their own businesses,” she said.
Her family’s venture was a laundromat — a business that she said benefited from the surge of oil workers on 12-hour shifts and living in trailers without accommodations like washing machines. In early Progress Days parades, Mullen remembered pulling a trailer with one of her daughters riding along in the back with a galvanized tub and scrub-board.
“Progress Days was always a big hit,” said Mullen, who will be the grand marshal of this year’s parade. “We went from nothing to something.”
Last summer the streets of Soldotna saw their 60th Progress Days parade. Looking back from a more recent perspective, Hondel said Friday’s barbecue and homesteader meet-and-greet — which she hopes will be first installment of an annual Progress Days event — will offer more activity as well as a glimpse into the past.
“As a kid in the early 1980s, I remember that Soldotna Progress Days was chock full of activities,” Hondel said. “The Kenai Peninsula Airshow used to be on the same weekend as part of Progress Days. I’m not sure when some of the events split from Progress Days and started to be on other weekends — maybe it was because Progress Days was too chock full of events. But there used to be so much going on, and it was neat to see Progress Days span three days instead of two. So we thought, since it’s called Progress Days and it’s about our pioneers, this homesteader meet-and-greet will be a great kick-off for it.”
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.