Kenai's 'Brown Bear' collects a part of history

Story by Doug Loshbaugh k Photos by M. Scott Moon

Posted: Sunday, March 04, 2001

The owner of the Brown Bear Gun Shop and Museum in Kenai said he likes old guns, but his real pride and joy is the antique tractor he is rebuilding behind his shop.

"I'm 70 years old," said David Thornton. "Before I was ever born, this old tractor was pulling a road grader on the Kenai Peninsula. It's a Caterpillar 30-horsepower crawler. It was made in 1928. It was shipped to Seward on a steamship, new, to the Bureau of Public Roads ... . It was used on the only road there was -- from Seward to Moose Pass."

Thornton moved his family from Texas to Kenai in 1963, when the Cook Inlet oil industry was in its infancy. Kenai was a sleepy town, he said, but by 1966, oil was booming.

In 1964, his wife, Mary, became a bookkeeper with Mukluk Freight Lines. In 1967, he took a job with Pan American Petroleum Corp., a predecessor to Amoco, as a roustabout on Platform Anna.

 

Thornton's store, a display of hand tools covers much of one wall in the store.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The crew was drilling Anna's first wells. Thornton helped install production equipment and connect the pipelines to shore. He later worked on the Bruce and Dillon platforms. He retired from Amoco in 1988 and opened the gun shop in 1990.

"Because of hunting so much in Alaska and the love of firearms and rifles, it was a hobby for me," he said. "I don't make much money, but it's something I always thought I'd like to do."

The store, on Tinker Lane in Kenai, takes its name from his CB radio handle.

"They called me Brown Bear because I went around in a pair of brown overalls a lot of the time, and I hunted bears a lot," he said.

 

Mounted animals and antiques occupy most of the usable space inside Thornton's store.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

He still wears the overalls.

Thornton said he likes old guns for some of the same reasons he likes old machinery. He shined a light through the octagonal barrel of a 45-70 caliber Model 1886 Winchester rifle, lighting the spiral grooves in its gleaming bore. He loaded it, then worked the lever, ejecting shells across the counter.

"It's over 100 years old, and it still works perfectly," he said. "It's more than capable of killing a moose or a bear. It's just a nice piece of American ingenuity. You look at the patent dates: Oct. 14, 1884, and Jan. 20, 1885. That wasn't many years after the Civil War. How many people do you know that's got a good workable rifle that old?"

Thornton said he rebuilt the gun from top to bottom and carved its stock from a blank.

 

David Thornton has been working to restore a 1928 gasoline-powered 30-horsepower Caterpillar tractor.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"That's a brand new barrel I put on it. It's serial No. 3515, built in January 1887," he said.

He likes that and other lever action guns developed by John Moses Browning.

"They're as American as apple pie and ice cream," he said. "... He favored lever guns. He rode a horse. Lever guns are flat and thin, and they work well in the scabbard on a horse."

The Model 1886 was made for hunters, trappers and miners, he said. The rifles came with miners to the Klondike and down the Yukon River to Alaska.

 

Thornton holds a piece of machinery from his tractor that was used to distribute oil when the Caterpillar was running.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"That was a man's protection," he said. "It provided him with home protection and protection for his family. It provided him with food. It protected him from the evil men that might kill him. It was something a man needed in those days."

Thornton stopped to tell a telephone inquirer that he no longer deals with Smith and Wesson, which, to end certain lawsuits, agreed to install child safety locks and secret serial numbers on its guns and to develop "smart guns" that only can be fired by authorized users.

"I don't like what they done. They sold out to the feds," he said later. "I believe in the Second Amendment that Americans have the right to keep and bear arms and protect their homes and families."

A hand-written poster at the front of his store bears a sketch of a pistol and the words, "We don't call 911."

He bought the 10,000-pound Caterpillar tractor from two men in Moose Pass. Rain and snowmelt had run down the stack, frozen and broken the engine.

He started rebuilding it last fall, and joined the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club to locate parts and learn the history of his machine. He pulled out copies of the club's magazine with photos of vintage Caterpillars skidding logs, pulling potato diggers and ripping hard-pan soil.

"A lot of people don't know these things," he said.

Thornton said young people think his old machine is junk.

"But it shows what American technology was able to do," he said. "It was very simple and it worked good. It was very heavy and endurably built. The fact that this tractor has survived over 70 years shows that it's well-built."

His tractor was built three years after C.L. Best Gas Traction Co. of San Leandro, Calif., and Holt Caterpillar of Stockton, Calif., merged to form Caterpillar Tractor Co., he said, and before tractors had electric wiring or hydraulic controls. It had a four-cylinder, hand-crank gasoline engine.

"This fan doesn't have no belts to burn up. It's all gear-driven," he said. "The radiator is all connected with steel flanges. There's no hoses to burst. That's the reason I say our forefathers were sharp."

The tractor dragged a grader with four wheels and a blade. Its serial number is missing, he said, but every piece has a part number that begins with an "S," indicating that it was made in San Leandro.

"By looking at the modifications on this tractor and by looking at the patents, you can pinpoint that this tractor was made in 1928," he said.

Someone years ago painted the tractor highway safety yellow. Thornton said he plans to restore it to its original gray with red trim. He hopes to have it running in time for Kenai's Fourth of July parade.

In a shed behind his shop, two trucks await restoration -- a 1948 Studebaker and a 1953 Ford.

"I said 1953 was a good year for me. That's the year I came home from the service, the year I got to come home and see my wife and kids. It's the 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Co., and it so states around the steering wheel of that truck. I hope to live long enough and keep my health long enough to have that old truck runable also."

He already has rebuilt the engine in the Ford. He said he just has to install a carburetor and connect some wires and hoses to make it run. The Ford would not be the first antique machine he has restored.

When he built his store, he bought the biggest logs he could find for the walls -- hefty spruce from Jakolof Bay -- and bought a 1952 Koehring 20-ton crane to move them.

"I replaced all the bolts in the boom and did lots of welding and repairs on the boom," he said. "I went completely through it from a safety standpoint, repairing broken and worn parts."

He paid $3,000 for the crane, and after the shop was done, he sold it for $4,000.

"I got the use of it, and I just about got my money back out of it," he said.

After retiring from Amoco, he also made a hobby of restoring antique Fairbanks-Morse engines.

"I enjoy cranking up one of them and getting it running. I just really enjoy those old engines," he said. "They were just beautiful to me -- to hear that slow-speed, one-cylinder engine turning at 200 to 400 RPMs and the stack popping, it just made music to my ears. Just old slow-speed engines. They made fly wheels on them. A big heavy fly wheel gives a smooth source of power."

A hundred years ago, he said, Fairbanks-Morse pioneered gasoline engines for farm and ranch use.

"They ran saws, feed grinders, hay bailers -- all types of equipment. They were from 1 1/2 horsepower up," he said. "In Alaska, they were used for driving pumps, sawmills and winches, like in the coal mine in Homer around the turn of the century."

Heavy flywheels made the one-cylinder engines a smooth source of power, he said.

His collection included the engine from a sawmill at Silver Sal-mon Creek in western Cook Inlet. His biggest, a 15-horsepower engine from a mine in Moose Pass, had a flywheel four feet in diameter. He hooked it to a sawmill with a 28-inch circular blade near his shop.

"It was just to show and tell people how it worked," he said.

He sold his Fairbanks-Morse collection two years ago, but his shop and museum still are crammed with history.

Hanging from the walls and rafters are scythes and sickles and iron candle holders made to spike into mine timbers. There are snowshoes, fishing floats and an Oneida Newhouse No. 6 bear trap. Thornton also has antique grindstones, a portable forge, outboard motors a collection of antique chain saws.

The rifles hung from the ridge pole include a Model 1873 Winchester made in 1881 and a Model 1886 Winchester made in 1889. There are steel saws four or five feet long with teeth worn nearly flat. Thornton said were used to cut ice from the Yukon River for an ice house in the village of Eagle.

"All of this stuff is Alaska stuff," he said. "All of this was used by homesteaders, trappers and miners."

A cash register came from the Koslosky Mercantile in Palmer, he said, and likely arrived about the time of the homesteaders in 1935.

A hand-crank drill press came from the gun shop the late Bill Fuller ran in Cooper Landing.

A cast iron wood-fired cook stove came from the home of Jesse and Casper Knight in Eagle.

"They were the last agents on the Yukon River for Northern Com-mercial Co. when the last of the steamers came up the Yukon River," he said.

A red plywood case inscribed with the initials A.L.P. holds reloading supplies that belonged to Allan L. Petersen, deputy U.S. marshal in Kenai from 1946 until the early 1950s. There are other historic treasures.

"That's Kenai's first lawn mower," Thornton said. "When I came here, Kenai had three paid employees. Frances Torkilsen was the city clerk. That came from her home."

Thornton heats his shop with a tin wood stove he obtained from Julie Waugh, widow of Hal Waugh.

"I bought it from her home in Eagle," he said. "He was Alaska's No. 1 master guide. His master license was serial No. 1."

The stove's inner liner burned out long ago, and the sides began to buckle. Thornton screwed sheet metal patches onto the sides.

"It's old and it means a lot to me. I just couldn't throw it out," he said.

The owner of the Brown Bear Gun Shop and Museum in Kenai said he likes old guns, but his real pride and joy is the antique tractor he is rebuilding behind his shop.

"I'm 70 years old," said David Thornton. "Before I was ever born, this old tractor was pulling a road grader on the Kenai Peninsula. It's a Caterpillar 30-horsepower crawler. It was made in 1928. It was shipped to Seward on a steamship, new, to the Bureau of Public Roads ... . It was used on the only road there was -- from Seward to Moose Pass."

Thornton moved his family from Texas to Kenai in 1963, when the Cook Inlet oil industry was in its infancy. Kenai was a sleepy town, he said, but by 1966, oil was booming.

In 1964, his wife, Mary, became a bookkeeper with Mukluk Freight Lines. In 1967, he took a job with Pan American Petroleum Corp., a predecessor to Amoco, as a roustabout on Platform Anna.

The crew was drilling Anna's first wells. Thornton helped install production equipment and connect the pipelines to shore. He later worked on the Bruce and Dillon platforms. He retired from Amoco in 1988 and opened the gun shop in 1990.

"Because of hunting so much in Alaska and the love of firearms and rifles, it was a hobby for me," he said. "I don't make much money, but it's something I always thought I'd like to do."

The store, on Tinker Lane in Kenai, takes its name from his CB radio handle.

"They called me Brown Bear because I went around in a pair of brown overalls a lot of the time, and I hunted bears a lot," he said.

He still wears the overalls.

Thornton said he likes old guns for some of the same reasons he likes old machinery. He shined a light through the octagonal barrel of a 45-70 caliber Model 1886 Winchester rifle, lighting the spiral grooves in its gleaming bore. He loaded it, then worked the lever, ejecting shells across the counter.

"It's over 100 years old, and it still works perfectly," he said. "It's more than capable of killing a moose or a bear. It's just a nice piece of American ingenuity. You look at the patent dates: Oct. 14, 1884, and Jan. 20, 1885. That wasn't many years after the Civil War. How many people do you know that's got a good workable rifle that old?"

Thornton said he rebuilt the gun from top to bottom and carved its stock from a blank.

"That's a brand new barrel I put on it. It's serial No. 3515, built in January 1887," he said.

He likes that and other lever action guns developed by John Moses Browning.

"They're as American as apple pie and ice cream," he said. "... He favored lever guns. He rode a horse. Lever guns are flat and thin, and they work well in the scabbard on a horse."

The Model 1886 was made for hunters, trappers and miners, he said. The rifles came with miners to the Klondike and down the Yukon River to Alaska.

"That was a man's protection," he said. "It provided him with home protection and protection for his family. It provided him with food. It protected him from the evil men that might kill him. It was something a man needed in those days."

Thornton stopped to tell a telephone inquirer that he no longer deals with Smith and Wesson, which, to end certain lawsuits, agreed to install child safety locks and secret serial numbers on its guns and to develop "smart guns" that only can be fired by authorized users.

"I don't like what they done. They sold out to the feds," he said later. "I believe in the Second Amendment that Americans have the right to keep and bear arms and protect their homes and families."

A hand-written poster at the front of his store bears a sketch of a pistol and the words, "We don't call 911."

He bought the 10,000-pound Caterpillar tractor from two men in Moose Pass. Rain and snowmelt had run down the stack, frozen and broken the engine.

He started rebuilding it last fall, and joined the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club to locate parts and learn the history of his machine. He pulled out copies of the club's magazine with photos of vintage Caterpillars skidding logs, pulling potato diggers and ripping hard-pan soil.

"A lot of people don't know these things," he said.

Thornton said young people think his old machine is junk.

"But it shows what American technology was able to do," he said. "It was very simple and it worked good. It was very heavy and endurably built. The fact that this tractor has survived over 70 years shows that it's well-built."

His tractor was built three years after C.L. Best Gas Traction Co. of San Leandro, Calif., and Holt Caterpillar of Stockton, Calif., merged to form Caterpillar Tractor Co., he said, and before tractors had electric wiring or hydraulic controls. It had a four-cylinder, hand-crank gasoline engine.

"This fan doesn't have no belts to burn up. It's all gear-driven," he said. "The radiator is all connected with steel flanges. There's no hoses to burst. That's the reason I say our forefathers were sharp."

The tractor dragged a grader with four wheels and a blade. Its serial number is missing, he said, but every piece has a part number that begins with an "S," indicating that it was made in San Leandro.

"By looking at the modifications on this tractor and by looking at the patents, you can pinpoint that this tractor was made in 1928," he said.

Someone years ago painted the tractor highway safety yellow. Thornton said he plans to restore it to its original gray with red trim. He hopes to have it running in time for Kenai's Fourth of July parade.

In a shed behind his shop, two trucks await restoration -- a 1948 Studebaker and a 1953 Ford.

"I said 1953 was a good year for me. That's the year I came home from the service, the year I got to come home and see my wife and kids. It's the 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Co., and it so states around the steering wheel of that truck. I hope to live long enough and keep my health long enough to have that old truck runable also."

He already has rebuilt the engine in the Ford. He said he just has to install a carburetor and connect some wires and hoses to make it run. The Ford would not be the first antique machine he has restored.

When he built his store, he bought the biggest logs he could find for the walls -- hefty spruce from Jakolof Bay -- and bought a 1952 Koehring 20-ton crane to move them.

"I replaced all the bolts in the boom and did lots of welding and repairs on the boom," he said. "I went completely through it from a safety standpoint, repairing broken and worn parts."

He paid $3,000 for the crane, and after the shop was done, he sold it for $4,000.

"I got the use of it, and I just about got my money back out of it," he said.

After retiring from Amoco, he also made a hobby of restoring antique Fairbanks-Morse engines.

"I enjoy cranking up one of them and getting it running. I just really enjoy those old engines," he said. "They were just beautiful to me -- to hear that slow-speed, one-cylinder engine turning at 200 to 400 RPMs and the stack popping, it just made music to my ears. Just old slow-speed engines. They made fly wheels on them. A big heavy fly wheel gives a smooth source of power."

A hundred years ago, he said, Fairbanks-Morse pioneered gasoline engines for farm and ranch use.

"They ran saws, feed grinders, hay bailers -- all types of equipment. They were from 1 1/2 horsepower up," he said. "In Alaska, they were used for driving pumps, sawmills and winches, like in the coal mine in Homer around the turn of the century."

Heavy flywheels made the one-cylinder engines a smooth source of power, he said.

His collection included the engine from a sawmill at Silver Sal-mon Creek in western Cook Inlet. His biggest, a 15-horsepower engine from a mine in Moose Pass, had a flywheel four feet in diameter. He hooked it to a sawmill with a 28-inch circular blade near his shop.

"It was just to show and tell people how it worked," he said.

He sold his Fairbanks-Morse collection two years ago, but his shop and museum still are crammed with history.

Hanging from the walls and rafters are scythes and sickles and iron candle holders made to spike into mine timbers. There are snowshoes, fishing floats and an Oneida Newhouse No. 6 bear trap. Thornton also has antique grindstones, a portable forge, outboard motors a collection of antique chain saws.

The rifles hung from the ridge pole include a Model 1873 Winchester made in 1881 and a Model 1886 Winchester made in 1889. There are steel saws four or five feet long with teeth worn nearly flat. Thornton said were used to cut ice from the Yukon River for an ice house in the village of Eagle.

"All of this stuff is Alaska stuff," he said. "All of this was used by homesteaders, trappers and miners."

A cash register came from the Koslosky Mercantile in Palmer, he said, and likely arrived about the time of the homesteaders in 1935.

A hand-crank drill press came from the gun shop the late Bill Fuller ran in Cooper Landing.

A cast iron wood-fired cook stove came from the home of Jesse and Casper Knight in Eagle.

"They were the last agents on the Yukon River for Northern Com-mercial Co. when the last of the steamers came up the Yukon River," he said.

A red plywood case inscribed with the initials A.L.P. holds reloading supplies that belonged to Allan L. Petersen, deputy U.S. marshal in Kenai from 1946 until the early 1950s. There are other historic treasures.

"That's Kenai's first lawn mower," Thornton said. "When I came here, Kenai had three paid employees. Frances Torkilsen was the city clerk. That came from her home."

Thornton heats his shop with a tin wood stove he obtained from Julie Waugh, widow of Hal Waugh.

"I bought it from her home in Eagle," he said. "He was Alaska's No. 1 master guide. His master license was serial No. 1."

The stove's inner liner burned out long ago, and the sides began to buckle. Thornton screwed sheet metal patches onto the sides.

"It's old and it means a lot to me. I just couldn't throw it out," he said.



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