Elementary school students and 21st century technology are reviving the Kenai Peninsula's past.
Sixth-graders in Terri Carter's class at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School in Soldotna are putting the finishing touches on a multimedia Web site about the Victor Holm Cabin Museum in Cohoe. The unique project will help preserve and publicize the treasures of one of the peninsula's oldest and best-preserved structures.
In the process, students have learned new appreciation for Alaska's pioneers, the peninsula and even for their own potential to shape the future.
"We want everyone to know about this great piece of Alaska history," said Chelsa Paulk, one of the students involved.
The cabin was built in the early 1890s by Finnish immigrant Victor Holm, who worked in the salmon fishery. The Scandinavian bachelor lived at his riverside homestead until the early 1940s, when he traveled to California and never returned.
The furniture, tools, papers and other items he left behind were a veritable time capsule of central peninsula life about 100 years ago.
The students researched Holm's life and times and documented more than 100 items inside the cabin using text and digital photos. The results will be posted on the Internet before the school year ends May 22.
The results have dazzled even the student creators.
"I didn't think we could do this," said Samantha Jones.
Carter, who has been teaching at K-Beach since 1996, instigated the project. She grew up in Soldotna and has a keen interest in peninsula history. She has made a personal mission of instilling a sense of place in her students.
"So much of the growth and development has been wonderful. But some of the changes have been heartbreaking," she said.
"I find great hope in the minds, hearts and understanding of these young people."
Carter got the project idea after taking a grant-funded class in digital storytelling. She contacted the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, which owns the cabin. The group gave her total access.
The class has been working most of the year on the project. In September, the entire class visited the cabin and researched its history.
But the bulk of the work on the project fell to a seven-member group Carter calls the tech team. Team members, selected based on responses to a class survey she conducted, are Remington West, Nick Janowski, Jamie Duke, Morgan Hintermeister, Whitney Murray, Jones and Paulk. That group made a special trip in March to the school district's Connections computer lab and worked with Technology Director Phil Biggs learning how to construct Web pages.
The Victor Holm Cabin sits on private property in Cohoe overlooking the Kasilof River.
Photo courtesy of K-Beach Elementary
The team has handled the technical aspects of coding in the pages with a competence that impresses their teacher. The students teach each other and work around the bottleneck of having only two computers in the classroom. They know more about computers and Web design than she does, Carter said.
The students said they thought it particularly interesting that they can link the 19th and 21st centuries, using cutting-edge technology to help people preserve and admire tools built long ago.
They also learned to think of Holm as a real person. His self-sufficiency and isolation impressed them. They talked about his activities such as ice skating on the Kasilof River and mushing dogs, and they studied things he made, such as meticulous records of snowfall spanning decades.
"His handwriting got sloppier over the years," Paulk noted.
Carter encouraged the students to imagine questions they would ask Holm if they could travel back in time. He became so real to them that one student expressed qualms that Holm might not approve of them photo-documenting his long underwear.
The students photographed some objects at the cabin, but Carter transported many of them to the school. Students set them up in good light and photographed them from 18 angles to get a sense of their shape in three dimensions.
"I hated having that stuff here. I was afraid to touch it," Carter said.
"But the payoff is irreplaceable."
The students had different opinions about which items were the most interesting. They cited weapons, bottles and the sled dog harnesses. Janowski singled out the knives, noting that despite the rust of nearly a century, they still keep a keen edge.
"Victor Holm had to do everything for himself," said Jones.
"It really made me respect the environment."
The students also learned what a big difference historic preservation can make.
The Holm cabin has been lucky. Post-war homesteaders Elfrieda and Charles Lewis purchased it in 1948. Rather than clear out the old things, they moved into the "new" vintage-1920 cabin on the property and set up the old cabin as a museum of frontier life.
In 1977, the cabin was put on the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation placed it on its list of Alaska's Top Ten Most Endangered Historic Structures. In 1999, the Lewis family donated the property to the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, which manages it in partnership with the Kasilof Regional Historical Association. The site is open to the public only by special arrangement.
Before visiting the Holm cabin, Carter took the students to see the Kasilof Winter Watchman's House, a structure of similar age on the other side of the river. Unprotected, it is has been heavily vandalized.
The cabin became a museum in the 1950s, preserving traces of Holm and other pioneers from the early 1900s.
Photo courtesy of K-Beach Elementary
"They were scandalized," she said.
Carter said she doesn't need to lecture when the students can see such things for themselves and have an opportunity for constructive action.
"I think it is so critical they have a purpose bigger than me. ... It is bigger than just a cool Web site," she said.
"It is education at its best."
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