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Bringing back the past

Community project takes on life of its own

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2002

Old photos: they fill the yellowing pages of dusty albums, pile up in drawers and fall from between the pages of books passed down in the family. Too often, their origin and descriptions are forgotten, and they get tossed out when the old makes way for the new.

But those pictures could contain priceless historic information for future generations.

 

The photo the right shows the same location today.

Photo by Alan Boraas

Two central Kenai Peninsula residents with a passion for the peninsula's heritage are collaborating to preserve and document such photos. Anthropology professor Alan Boraas and Soldotna homesteader Marge Mullen are setting up a photo archive at Kenai Peninsula College.

"I didn't want them to get tossed away, which is so often the case," Mullen explained.

Now 81, she came to Soldotna in 1947 to stake a claim and in 1948 moved into a cabin between Soldotna Creek and the junction of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways.

"And I've just lived here ever since," she said.

As the longest living resident of Soldotna, she has been in a unique position to watch it evolve from a bulldozer track in the wilderness to a town of 3,800. She put the word out that she was interested in old photos of the area if families no longer wanted them.

The first batch came to her about 10 years ago. They had belonged to Ray Sandstrom, who had worked for the territorial Alaska Road Commission. He helped build the Sterling Highway through Soldotna and had his family home next to it, where the Wells Fargo Bank now stands. Sandstrom's daughter, Barbara Jewell, gave a box of pictures to Mullen.

"(Sandstrom) kind of had a nice little intent to get pictures of families, of which there were very few," Mullen said.

Other people began giving her pictures, mostly found among the effects of their deceased friends and relatives.

Meanwhile Boraas, who has lived on the peninsula for 30 years and taught at the Soldotna college campus for 27 of them, was pursuing his own photo projects. He has researched historic photo archives, collecting vintage photos of the peninsula and Cook Inlet from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For example, using archives from the University of Alaska, he compiled a collection of pictures depicting fish canneries and Dena'ina settlements at the mouth of the Kasilof River around 1900.

Mullen came across a windfall when a man bought a Ridgeway house. It had belonged to the late Loren Stewart, who had published the Cheechako News, Soldotna's first newspaper. The buyer found boxes of newspaper archive photos from the 1950s and 1960s and gave them to her.

Among the pictures were hundreds of images of area people, places and events, including a series on the original oil and gas development in the region with corporate press releases. The high-quality photos document the refinery and the first development of the North Road near Nikiski.

She and Jean Brockel, her friend and a longtime resident, took the boxes to the basement of Soldotna's city hall and began going through them and adding identifying notes.

By the end of 2000, Mullen and Boraas began working together on the photo project.

"She started really putting a lot of time in, and I set up the database and all," Boraas said.

"It just worked out. I was able to get her some student helpers to start out."

Mullen said the college partnership solved the problem of the long-term fate of the budding collection.

"I never thought they would come to this place in the college. I am certainly relieved that they have," she said.

Modern computer technology has revolutionized historic preservation. Irreplaceable documents such as rare photos, which used to be difficult to find, preserve and access, now can be copied and spread to the world through media such as the Internet.

But such projects still take time, effort and, of course, money.

Boraas estimated that a project such as the KPC photo archive, if undertaken at a museum, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and could keep five workers busy full time. Instead, the new archive is proceeding a bit at a time through volunteer efforts. He described it as a grass-roots project.

 

Marge Mullena nd Alan Boraas look over old photographs taken in the central Kenai Peninsula area. The two are in the process of preserving the area's history by documenting the photos. Individuals who have contributed so far to the Historic Photo Project at the Kenai Peninsula Colelge Anthropology Lab include Bill Allen, Jim Arness, Cheechako News, Misty Coumbe, Virgil Dahler, Celeste Egan, Jo Godes, Joanna Hollier, Barb Jewell, Dick Mommsen, Marge Mullen and Dee Stack.

Photo by Shana Loshbaugh

The goal is to preserve, stabilize and identify the pictures, then put them into the database.

"This is the first step," he said. "The rest takes a lot of money."

Mullen and Boraas, with the aid of KPC students, assign each photo a number and place them into archival binders. The albums go into a climate-controlled room.

Future plans include getting a fireproof safe or vault.

One by one, Mullen and Boraas are scanning the photo-graphs into digital form. Using Microsoft Access, Boraas set up an information form about each photo. Mullen comes to the college, usually twice a week, and types in information for each one -- when it was taken, who is in it, what is shown and anything else she and her friends can figure out.

When she is unsure of the content herself, she coaxes information from other longtime residents of the area. She visits their homes or invites them out for coffee.

"Sometimes I chase them around a little bit," she said.

The results go into a growing database.

"We want to provide a photo with a context that will reflect on the changes that have happened and will happen in the area," Boraas said.

"We are really not interested in someone's photos from Barrow. The focus is the Kenai Peninsula, Cook Inlet region."

Although Mullen's personal expertise is Soldotna, she and Boraas are eager to preserve photos from anywhere on the peninsula.

The collection includes slides and prints, faded and crisp, amateur snapshots and professional glossies. Together they show a collage of peninsula life through the 20th century: dinner parties, fishing in its assorted forms, parades, dog mushing, bowling, moose, canneries, road building and more.

"There is also a history of film there," Boraas said.

 

The Kenai Peninsula Borough was formed as a second-class borough in 1964 and occupied a portion of this building until the current Borough Building was built in 1971. This building was owned and first occupied by Dolly Farnsworth's Soldotna Bookkeeping in 1959, and she continued that business while the borough offices were there. The Farnsworth house is immediately behind the building. This building was where the current Smith Way and the Sterling Highway meet - Where Heritage Square (Napa Auto Store, Travel Place and Grand Burrito) is today. The office was crowded. In addition to the desk of Harold Pomeroy, the first borough mayor, and his secretary, Frances Brymer, it contained the desks of the assessors setting up the first borough tax structure: Don Thomas, Jerry Heier, Art Snyder and secretary Donna Palmer.

Old photos are rarer in Alaska than in most other parts of the country. Until the 1970s, it was difficult for residents to even buy film, and then there was the slow and expensive process of sending it out of state for developing, he said.

So far, they have about 700 photos entered. But others are piling up.

Mullen walked across Boraas's crowded anthropology lab and pulled luggage out from under a desk. Inside one stout, old-fashioned case was a series of small drawers containing slides. The neatly filed images came from the estate of Virgil Dahler, who homesteaded near Soldotna after World War II and stayed there until his death in a September auto accident.

 

This photo shows the location today.

Photo by Alan Boraas

Three more large suitcases of pictures await their attention, she said.

"As long as I can do it, and as long as they keep falling into my lap, I don't mind doing it," Mullen said.

Mullen and Boraas are not actively soliciting photos, because they do not want to be overwhelmed. But they are eager to rescue any in danger and are interested in volunteers who can help out.

Ultimately, Boraas and Mullen would like to have the archive accessible online and capable of selling copies of the photos to people for educational purposes. They also want to compile a book or a series of books using the pictures, they said.

"I always think it's ironic when we talk about historic pictures of Soldotna. It's only 50 years old. It's hardly history," Mullen said.

"But in 100 years it might be."



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