Sterling entrepreneur finds riches, rewards in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, May 23, 2004

Basil Bolstridge is a man who knows the value of a dollar. He knows how to make money. And, he believes that people with money should be ready and willing to help others when asked.

After 80 years of life his birthday's actually not untill next Saturday Bolstridge, the man who lives by the big orange and white windmill in Sterling, has amassed tremendous wealth as a real estate dealer, land appraiser and oil and gas broker and has enjoyed using that wealth to help whenever he could.

"The important thing is, if you make money and you can afford it, you donate it," said the man who paid almost the entire amount for Soldotna's first ambulance, did the excavation for the city's hospital without charge and paid for the first streetlights on the highway through Sterling.

In addition to his many years in the real estate business, he's made money trapping wolverines and lynx, he's mined for gold, and he and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a successful excavation and gravel business from their home in Sterling.

Bolstridge, who was born in Maine, first got the idea to come to Alaska in 1953 when he and his wife were traveling through Montana.

"We had left Maine because the economy wasn't good," he said.

"I saw this car with Alaska license plates on it and when the guy offered me $10 an hour to work in Alaska, I said, 'Let's go!'"

Elizabeth Bolstridge, who died three years ago, wasn't quite sure she wanted to leave the Lower 48 or her mother, who lived in Connecticut, but she did and the couple headed north, arriving in Anchorage, where Basil got work driving a gravel truck.

Elizabeth got a job clerking for an Anchorage law firm and the couple was on its way, earning a good living in Alaska where they'd eventually build a home, start a family and find their fortune.

In 1956, Basil and Elizabeth traveled to the Kenai Peninsula to do a little fishing, and they spotted 100 acres for sale on the Kenai River. They bought it for $6,250.

Knowing something about gravel and trucking, Basil set up shop and began Bolstridge Excavating Company.

Basil and Elizabeth built a 20-by-24-foot house on the property in which Basil still lives.

"We just added and added onto the house, and put in a full basement," he said.

He also dug a gravel pit behind the home and says he never stopped hauling gravel.

The couple's livelihood, however, began in real estate. They bought four homesteads in what he refers to as McGahanville present day Nikiski.

They then bought land and developed the Valhalla Heights section of Kenai and the Mackey Lakes area of Soldotna.

"At one time that was all mine," he said. "I put in the roads, the homes, everything.

"I knew the land and bought thousands of acres. One day, I went into the bank and said I needed to borrow some money. They asked me how much and I said half a million. They said, 'OK,'" he recalled.

"I bought a half million dollars worth of Kenai River frontage, sold it, made a fortune and spent it," he said.

Thirty-three years ago, Bolstridge bought 67 acres of land along the river across from its juncture with the Killey River and cut in a series of canals.

He subdivided the property into 100 half-acre lots and created what today is known as Kenai Keys.

He and his wife also became oil and gas brokers, buying and selling mineral leases from Kasilof to East Homer.

From 1957 to 1967, he traveled the peninsula, buying leases from homesteaders, guaranteeing that he could sell them to oil companies and then delivering on his promise.

"The royalties went back to the homesteaders after five years," he said.

"I got 2 or 3 percent, or sometimes I bought the deeds to the oil rights myself."

Basil and Elizabeth learned that business from friends who worked as landmen for Union Oil Company north of Anchorage, and both eventually earned oil and gas brokers licenses.

"We didn't know nothin' about the business, but we listened," he said.

During the winter, when the real estate business was quiet as the frozen landscape itself, Bolstridge would fly 400 miles of trap lines on both sides of Cook Inlet, hunting for lynx and wolverines.

"Lynx was number one," he said. "I'd average 20 wolverine a year and more than 100 lynx."

He also bought furs from other trappers and worked through Sterling businessman Ed Whitaker selling most of the catch to furriers in Seattle.

When asked why he trapped, he said, "I was doing it to make money and to have fun.

"Actually, my father was half Indian, and he tried to teach me how to trap, but I didn't pay attention. It wasn't important to me until I came up to Alaska," he said.

In 23 years of trapping, Bolstridge logged more than 10,000 hours of flying and says he wore out seven Super Cub airplanes.

As if the trapping weren't enough to keep him busy, Bolstridge also mined for gold across the inlet.

He designed a device called a "trumble" for sluicing rock. The machines are 40-foot long, steel cylinders into which rock is dumped and turned.

The finer material comes out the bottom of the 10-foot diameter pipe and collects in a large sluice box where it is worked for gold. Bolstridge said he built 13 of the devices and barged them to the gold fields.

"In the '70s and '80s I had as many as 1,000 claims.

"I got a lot of gold and never sold any of it," he said. "I never needed any money for it."

He did pay his mine workers in gold, however.

The Bolstridges' daughter, Iris, who was adopted as an infant, recalls traveling to the gold mines as a young girl. She also remembers that growing up with Basil was "extremely fun."

"He was always doing something interesting," she said. "I was just fortunate enough to have been placed into a family with so much love and so much generosity."

She recalled traveling a lot as a child, visiting all 50 states and witnessing Basil's generosity, even while on vacation.

"Once, we were on a road trip with mom and dad and I remember we stopped and saw this lady doing wash in a restroom. Mom came out and told Dad, and the next thing I knew, he went in and gave money to the woman's husband.

"I didn't understand why he would do that and he said, 'We're fortunate enough to have money and so we can help.'"

Iris, now 30, who said her parents taught her the value of a dollar and the need to work to earn it, now owns the excavating business with her husband, Chad Hammond.

She said she has been driving a loader since she was about 9 years old, moving rocks and "planting" them around the family yard in Sterling. She now drives everything loaders, bulldozers and backhoes.

"I also remember all the times people in need would come over to the house and Dad would hand them money," Iris said. "He still does."

The Bolstridges also adopted a son, Jim, who now owns an excavation business in Anchorage.

When Jim, now 37, was attending Sterling Elementary School, Basil took him and his entire class of 10 children to Disneyland.

Once, when the children were younger, a boy was hit by a car while waiting for a school bus on the Sterling Highway near the family's home and Basil went out the following day and asked the other children if they'd like street lights on the busy road.

They said they would, and he personally paid to have the lights installed. He also paid the electric bill for them for many years, according to his companion of five years, Gene Boblett.

When officials from Soldotna were trying to raise money to purchase an ambulance, they came to Basil and he asked them how much they had already raised.

"They said they had a couple thousand. I gave them the rest," he said. That was about $14,000.

Basil also was called upon for help when the city wanted to build a hospital.

"Me and my friend, Morris Coursen, went over there with a couple of bulldozers and did the excavation," he said.

"It was a donation. We didn't even get paid for the fuel. Now, we're lucky to have (the hospital). I go in for blood tests and stuff all the time," he said.

The list of Bolstridge's accomplishments in the development of the Kenai Peninsula goes on, and may be exceeded in length only by the unwritten list of those he has helped.

In honor of the generosity, his friend, Boblett, is organizing a gala 80th birthday celebration for the man, complete with congratulatory letters from the governor and area mayors, at the Sterling Senior Center, a structure that also carries the handprint of Basil Bolstridge.

"Seventeen years ago, we owned that land and decided they needed a building up there," Basil said.

"I took Jim and Steve Sholen and Bobby McCowan and went up there. I had bought them all loaders.

"They did the excavating, and I built the senior center. I sold it to (the people) for 50 percent of the value of it ... with two acres of land," he said.

"The thing is, I didn't do this all for me. I had my daughter and my sons. (He fondly refers to Steve Sholen and Bobby McCowan as his sons, also).

"I taught them the construction business and that if you can afford to help others, you do."

Oh, and the orange and white windmill?

Bolstridge had it built just because he wanted a windmill back in his flying days.

"Isn't it beautiful?" he asks.

"It made me a lot of money, too."

When asked how that is possible, since it isn't even hooked up to a generator, he says, on many occasions, people would stop just to ask about the windmill.

"I'd get to talking with them and end up selling them a piece of land."

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