Moving to Alaska at 25, in the late 1940’s was a more rigorous transition than making the trip today.
After taking a short walk across the playground of Soldotna Elementary School, Shaya Straw’s third grade students huddled in the tight space of the Soldotna Historic Post Office to hear about what life was like for Marge Mullen, 92, when she arrived in 1947 as Soldotna’s first female homesteader.
A wooden table draped in a red-checkered cloth took up the center of the cramped, perfectly square room. An old set of skis, a small, blue sewing machine that was long out of use, and a dusty Aladdin lamp were on display, all items used in the area’s early households.
Mullen talked about the daily duties of being a homemaker decades ago. She said it was challenging heating the large metal cooking stove with nothing but wood chips, and making ice cream was only possible during the winter season because natural refrigeration was the only way to keep things frozen.
Slowly walking the perimeter of the downstairs, her fingers brushed penny-postcards, rusting scissors and an old black and white Sears catalog that advertised clothing.
“A whole outfit only cost $1.19 back then,” Straw said to her students, evoking low murmurs of surprise.
Students took turns venturing upstairs into the family bedroom. In opposite corners of the room sat a crib with chipped white paint, a double bed and a white, lidded metal pot, which had once functioned as a short-term toilet.
“Can you imagine sharing a room with your whole family?” Straw asked.
“That would be scary,” Zach Rodman said.
Out of necessity, Howard and Maxine Lee made their home into the area’s first post office, and served eighteen area families until 1951, Mullen said. The Lee’s had to walk miles to where Mullen’s home was built at the mouth of Soldotna Creek to retrieve the buckets of water they used sparingly for cooking, bathing, drinking, coffee and tea, she said.
“I didn’t even notice the post office here, and it was just a short walk from school,” Trinity Murphy said.
Her sister Alyssa Murphy said she was excited to finally go inside the cabin, because she saw it from her school bus every day.
Mullen had spoken previously to Straw’s students in her classroom. After many requests for Mullen to return, Straw asked her if she could personally guide the class through the cabin.
Mullen said she gives tours upon request, and once the Soldotna Homestead Museum opens on May 15, people can drop by and make appointments as well.
The Soldotna Historic Post Office will also be open to the public every Saturday, once the local Farmers Market begins in June, Mullen said. Near the end of the tour, while students milled around upstairs and asked Mullen their remaining questions, Straw popped her head out of the narrow staircase doorway.
“Marge we’ve got a question up here about toilet paper you might want to answer when they come back down,” Straw said smiling.
Kelly Sullivan can be reachead at firstname.lastname@example.org