History book looks at 50 years on the peninsula

Posted: Wednesday, February 03, 2010

As Alaska celebrated its 50th year of statehood last year, many historians took a wide view. In "Snapshots of Statehood: A Focus on Communities That Became the Kenai Peninsula Borough," published by the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association, the 30 authors take a narrower focus. What was it like in 1958-59 for Homer, Kenai, Soldotna and Seward -- or even Fritz Creek?

Submitted Illustration
Submitted Illustration

"The objective was to look in '58-59 and see what's different now," said Brent Johnson, president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association and the project coordinator for the book.

Johnson compared "Snapshots of Statehood" to an earlier historical association book, "Alaska's Kenai Peninsula: The Road We've Traveled," an updating of Lois Allen's 1946 book on the peninsula. Like that book, "Snapshots of Statehood" covers peninsula history, but with that narrow perspective.

Johnson and Mary Haakenson Perry and Colleen Kelly enlisted 30 writers from almost every town on the peninsula to write about life 50 years ago. Authors include Perry, writing about Anchor Point; Larry Smith, writing about Alaska Constitutional Convention delegate Yule Kilcher; Jane Middleton, on Fritz Creek; Clem Tillion on Halibut Cove; Shirley Schollenberg on Happy Valley; Wilma Shelford Williams on Homer; Sally Ash and James Kvasnikoff on Nanwalek; Butch Leman, Terri Leman and McKibben Jackinsky on Ninilchik; and Paulette Bokenko Carluccio on Seldovia.

"How could I have found better people?" Johnson said. "I'm very proud of the folks that stepped forward."

In his overview closing out the book, Johnson makes some interesting comparisons about then and now. For example, Homer remains the second-largest community on the peninsula, but number one in 1960, Seward, has slipped to the fourth largest town. Soldotna, 332 people in 1960, has grown more than ten-fold, now the third largest town at 4,386.

Oil production has gone from 36,000 barrels in 1959 to 82 million in 1970 to 470,000 in 2008. A big change was in the percentages of fish users. Today, seiners, sport and personal use fishermen caught about the same percentage of sockeye salmon as had been trapped in 1958. "Snapshots of Statehood" includes numerous comparisons like that, everything from the price of peanut butter (52 cents a pound in 1958) to the price of pinks (11 cents a pound in 1958 compared to 7 cents a pound in 2008).

The tour through text each author writes about a town expands on the plentiful historic photographs illustrating each section, like this description by Williams of 1959-era sewer systems in Homer:

"People had septic systems that would send a 'stateside' plumber into hysterics," she writes.

Statehood brought some new regulations, too, Williams notes. By 1959, Homer's post office had moved all around town, finally winding up on the corner of Main Street and Pioneer Avenue in what's now the Hair Gallery. Postmistress Arlene Kranich lived in the house next door in what's now The Fairy Ring Teahouse. After statehood, a police officer stood at the post office and told everyone entering that they'd have to buy state license plates.

"We were becoming aware that our town was part of a larger picture," Williams writes.

Out at Fritz Creek in 1959, Middleton writes people held weddings, parties and John Birch Society meetings at the Fritz Creek Civic and Social Center, built with logs from Cap King's Kwik-Log Co. mill. It's still the center of Fritz Creek as the Fritz Creek General Store.

"Snapshots at Statehood" was published with support from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, BP and Icicle Seafoods. The real support came from the people whose story the book tells, Johnson said.

"In the end, it is to the people who pioneered the Kenai Peninsula and Cook Inlet area to whom we owe the most," he writes in his acknowledgment. "It was they who poured the sweat equity into the area that became the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Without them there would be neither a tale nor anyone to tell it."

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