Mona Painter keeps tabs on life in Cooper Landing

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2001

Sparkling purple pumpkins are piled high on every available surface in Mona Painter's sewing room. When the project is complete, there will be 40 plump pumpkins ready for their place as centerpieces for a family friend's wedding.

Pumpkins aren't the only things filling the small room to the brim. Mona's haven is cluttered, orderly and bursting at the seams.

One wall is covered with shelf upon shelf of fabric of every color and print. An ironing board full of sewing notions stands in the center of the room.

It serves as a barrier between Mona's two worlds: her crafts on the sewing side and her passion for history which overtakes her desk on the other.

"I try to do everything in here," she said.


Collecti ng the history of Cooper Landing and the surrounding area has been a lifelong activity for Painter


Not only does Mona try to do everything, it would seem that she succeeds.

She currently is the president of the Cooper Landing Community Club and historical society, writes a weekly column for the Peninsula Clarion, runs her own craft business -- Keeping History Studio -- is a member of the Sexy Senior Dumpster Cleaners and the Dall Homemakers, and travels all around the Kenai Peninsula giving presentations on the history of Cooper Landing, where she has lived since 1959.

Mona first visited Alaska when she was 11. In 1949, she flew by herself from Oregon to Anchorage in a tiny, four-engine passenger plane.

"I don't even know how long the trip took, it seemed like forever," she said.

Being the pack rat she is, she still has her plane ticket.


Mona Painter sorts through a stack of clippings in her work room.


The road to Seward from Anchorage wasn't built then, so Mona and her aunt and uncle rode the train to their home in Seward. During her visit, they drove around the peninsula. On one trip they shot their dinner of rabbits along the way. Mona can remember going to Cooper Landing and being impressed by the beauty.

"There were lots of trees, not many houses -- no Princess Lodge," she said.

Nine years later, in 1958, Mona divorced her first husband, Marvin, and with her then 2-year-old son she made the move from Oregon to Seward.

"I suppose I did what a nanny does now, took care of kids, cleaned and ran errands."

After only one year in Seward, Mona met and married Jake Mlynarik. The marriage lasted 10 years and not only gave her two children, it brought her to Cooper Landing.


Mona Painter, at right, visits with longtime friend and Cooper Landing neighbor Alice Puster at a picnic table on Painter's porch.


There still weren't many houses in the area when she, Jake and her son moved to the small community of 130 people.

Not only was 1959 a year of change for Mona, it also was the year Alaska officially became a state.

"I actually was in Seward when it first became evident that Alaska was going to be made a state. People seemed to think it was a good idea. I remember bonfires and parties during a lot of that year. It was pretty exciting," she said. "But, there were other things on my mind."

When Mona first moved to Cooper Landing, most of the founding members of the community were still living in the area. Over the years, Jack Lean, credited with founding Cooper Landing, grew to be one of her closest friends. His brother Charlie passed away before Mona arrived, but she was close to his wife, Beryl, and son Nick.

She once used Jack Lean's old cabin as a store to sell her own crafts as well as pieces made by Alaska Natives. Jack's nephew, Nick Lean, has been a "really good friend" and also provided Mona with many of the family pictures and artifacts she uses in her presentations and crafts.


Mona Painter pulls weeds from a garden in front of the Painter family's cabin in Cooper Landing.


Jack Lean sold his homestead, the cabin and land now housing the Cooper Landing Post Office, when he went to Sitka to live at a pioneers' home. Mona and Lean exchanged letters until his death in 1976, and in one note to her he gave her his land. It already had been sold years before, but as Mona pointed out, it is the thought that counts.

She treasures the time she was able to spend with the Cooper Landing old-timers.

"I have been really fortunate. I loved to hear their stories on everything and really enjoyed being in their company. I've just been interested from almost the time I've been here.

"Getting to know Jack Lean, all of these old-timers, who were fun and interesting people. They were generous with their time and their photographs. It sparked an interest in me."

That spark has grown stronger throughout the years. Mona has developed her passion for local history into both a career and a hobby that does great service for the community of Cooper Landing.

She is the keeper of all things. If it happened in Cooper Landing, she knows about it.

"I think that the history is really interesting. It is fun to be able to share that with people, and I like talking to groups," she said. "What they are curious about makes me dig more."

In 1984, Mona literally did dig for more information when she volunteered at the Dena'ina archaeological site in Cooper Landing. Her work excavating barabaras, the Russian word for Dena'ina dwellings, provided her with even more information to add to her vast store of Cooper Landing history.

Her presentation circuit began in the 1970s at Kalifonsky Christian School. Over the past 30 years, she has added slides to her presentations. She has spoken at various locations, including the Kenai Princess Lodge and Alaska Wildland Adventures, both in Cooper Landing.

Every audience is different, and she tries to tailor each talk to her individual audience.

"I start off by telling them a little about myself and then leave it open for questions," Mona said.

Over the years, Mona has become somewhat of a star in Cooper Landing.

In 1999, Mona won the Alaskan of the Year, Denali Award for community service.

The Alaskan of the Year board named her as a recipient for the award because, as the program said, "Mona Painter is the glue that binds the community of Cooper Landing together and she has been Cooper Landing's No. 1 resident for 40 years."

She was wheeled to the stage in a wheelchair because of a broken foot. Even at $50 a plate, 20 friends from the peninsula traveled with her to Anchorage for the formal banquet where she accepted, as Larry, her husband of 21 years, put it, her "woman of the state award."

Mona was vaguely aware that she had been nominated for the award.

"I thought, 'You're kidding.' I had heard about it, but I really didn't know what it was. I had never received an award like this before. It was nice to receive the award, but it is also nice to know I have friends who would nominate me," she said.

Mayme Ohnemus was one of those friends. She has been Mona's neighbor and friend for more than 30 years.

"I have always admired Mona for her dedication and love for the community. She has been an inspiration," she said.

"The whole essence of her life has been to make this community a better place to live and to restore the history of the community. We're not always on the same side of the issues, but we have maintained a friendship."

If not a woman of the state, she certainly is a woman of the Kenai Peninsula, particularly in her beloved Cooper Landing. She dedicates a majority of her time to ensure the community runs smoothly.

"I love Cooper Landing. I love the mountains and the river and the people here," she said.

Her love shows, too.

"I would have to be 100 years old to accomplish even a fraction of what Mona has," Ohnemus said.

Mona was first elected to office in the community club in 1966. Ever since, she has been tireless in the energy she gives to the organization.

This year is her third consecutive term as president of the club -- Cooper Landing's answer to a form of local government. The club holds a lease a three patents for community property, pays for the electricity that provides television reception to the area, and oversees the cemetery.

Mona has had a hand in the planning of the annual Snail-a-thon, held to raise money for the club and Cooper Landing Elementary School, and in the community Christmas party, which raises money used to buy treats for area children from Santa.

Recently, Mona played a large role in the community club's appropriation of a $150,000 state grant used to put in a kitchen and indoor plumbing in the community center.

"The combination of the people past and present and the community, it all works. I just don't seem to be able to sit still," she said. "But, as far as the community club goes, I am not running again."

Instead, Mona is redirecting her energies to the historical society that she founded in 1998.

Cooper Landing has plans to build a new post office, and in the next year, once the new building has been erected, the old post office -- once the home of Jack Lean -- will be turned over to the historical society.

The old structure already is on the state's national registry of historical sites and will remain so even though the society has plans to move it to where the community center was once located. Lean's cabin will be joined by an old school house, circa 1955, and eventually will house a museum dedicated to Cooper Landing history.

A lot of artifacts given to her by old settlers are in Mona's home and will be moved to the museum. She has an old washing machine, clothes wringer and several turn-of-the-century chairs that Nick Lean gave her from his mother.

Her love of history also has been manifested in her newest endeavor, the Keeping History Studio, which she started in 2000.

"I was doing so many things for different door prizes and things, so my husband said I should just go into business."

Most of her commissions are through friends and family, such as two out-house decorated pillows she recently created for a doctor in Arizona who was a friend of a friend of a friend.

Mona still donates different pillows and hangings for door prizes and she has a stand at the Kenai River Festival this weekend.

"I try to do everything with an Alaska historical theme, anything with moose on it -- moose or bears."

She tries to tie history into her life in whatever way she can. She even weaves it into her column for the Clarion.

"There always seems to be something to write. I try to write what is happening, but if I have space I like to put old stories in."

Although her craft business is a new development, Mona isn't a stranger to hard work. In the past 40-plus years, she has held countless jobs.

She cooked for various lodges such as Hamilton's Place, Gwin's, Sportsman's, Kenai Lake and Sunrise as well as baking wedding cakes and other goodies for sale.

As a teacher's aide and then as an administrator's assistant, Mona taught several classes at the Cooper Landing school. Starting in 1966, she worked in the post office and after the postmaster retired in 1992, she also filled in as a temporary officer in charge. In 1994, she worked in the office of Alaska Wildland Adventures in Cooper Landing.

In the 1980s, Mona commuted to Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna. She took classes in art, history, English and archaeology. After three years, she graduated Magna Cum Lauda with an associate of arts degree.

"I was sad when my time was done there. It was like leaving a family. I learned a lot of self-awareness, knowing what makes you who you are," she said.

She also praised archaeology professor, Alan Boraas.

"I learned more about writing from him than from the writing teacher I took a class correspondence from at Alaska Pacific University."

While her archaeology classes helped hone her writing skill, they also gave her the opportunity to meet and speak with Dena'ina elder, Peter Kalifornsky, who has since passed away.

She also learned taxidermy in a KPC class taught by Boyd Shaffer. Mona found a moose on the side of the highway in Cooper Landing and decided to try her hand at her new-found skill. It had to cure for a month, and she left it soaking in the bathtub.

"It looked like a slaughterhouse in there," said Larry.

Mona and Larry met in 1968 when she worked at the post office. He proposed at Thompson's dance hall in Soldotna on New Year's Eve 1969, and they were married nine days later.

Larry offered a honeymoon in Hawaii, but Mona chose instead to visit Kotzebue and Nome. While there, she bought muktuk and, according to her husband, tried to cook it with a cigarette lighter.

Larry has other stories of Mona, such as her chasing their five horses down the Sterling Highway trying to recapture them.

And she has stories about the Good Friday earthquake of 1964.

"Our house was probably the worst damaged," she said.

"The house was on glacier muck and it shook like a bowl of jelly."

It came off the foundation, furniture was walking everywhere, the cinder block chimney went to pieces, she found bottles from the medicine cabinet under the bathtub, and cooking oil from the deep fat fryer covered the kitchen in a greasy film.

"I was scared to death. I thought it was the end of the world, and I wasn't ready," Mona said.

The solid cement porch broke in half and the two sides went up and down at different times with the quake. Ice jammed up and destroyed the bridge. The army blasted it apart so Cooper Landing didn't flood, but the blast broke a 4-by-7-foot window in the house.

Combined with the aftershocks and snowslides, the window was the last straw.

"I just lost it," she said.

Although it was terrifying, both Mona and Cooper Landing survived, and both are looking to the future.

Mona fully intends to keep track of what happens and to grow along with her community.

"The official census says 369, but the post master says it is more like 500," she said. "It is going to grow, I am sure. We hear a lot from people wanting to live here. I hope to keep as much of the character of the community intact as it grows."

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