John Potts "Jack" Lean stands in front of his Coopers Landind Store.
Photo courtesy of Mona Painter
John Potts “Jack” Lean was my friend and it was through him that Cooper Landing and Alaska history came alive. The first time I saw a picture of author Tony Hillerman, I thought of Jack. He was a smiling, white haired, slightly rounded figure, standing with his hands in his pockets. Jack was still living in one of the cabins at his place on the Kenai River, although he sold the property in 1954 to Leo and Edna Gleason, who then sold it to Betty J. Fuller before 1960. Jack loved his long-haired calico cats and good music. “Sunshine Of Your Smile,” “Somewhere a Voice Is Calling,” and “La Paloma,” are listed in one of his journals.
I’ve never seen marigolds grow larger or more vibrant than Jack’s. His delphiniums were stately and covered with blooms. He told me that burying spawned-out salmon in a trench alongside the garden rows made good fertilizer.
Jack and his brother, Charlie, killed many brown bears and sent the hides outside where they were desired for carriage robes, Jack said. A picture dated 1910, the year they came to the Cooper Landing area, shows Jack and his brother with many bear and a few wolverine hides strung up between them.
Jack built the log cabin that was his Cooper’s Landing Store in the 1920s. In 1963 when Betty Fuller became postmaster, the store became the post office for the next 40 years. The cabin description in the National Register of Historic Places nomination form in 1976 reads, “This chalet-type log structure, extensively ornamented at the overhang porch front entrance, is the oldest utilized building in Cooper Landing. It is one of the most picturesque rustic structures on the Kenai Peninsula extensively photographed by visitors and tourists.” It is still charming and well photographed in its present life as a Cooper Landing Museum. Jack had an eye for the ladies, too. I think he would chuckle to see Jean Bolam’s lingerie on the bed in his old cabin today, and Helen Gwin’s bright orange flowered dress displayed nearby.
Repairs were being done on the Kenai River bridge in the summer of 1949, so traffic was halted for a couple of hours and I was an 11-year-old romantic. I fell in love with Cooper Landing while gazing at Jack’s cabin and his vegetable garden and the enchanting flowers and rock steps to the river at the Towle house with Cecil Rhode Mountain as the backdrop. I wrote in my scrapbook under the picture I took of that view: “Cooper’s Landing the most beautiful town on the Kenai Peninsula.”
To meet the man who helped create this lovely vista was indeed a thrill. Later I learned about his exploits while carrying the mail by dog team from Seward to Kenai and on the Iditarod Trail, guiding, fur farming and operating a road house in Rainy Pass. Jack wrote in 1968 from the Pioneer Home in Sitka that he’d had to kill a man trying to rob the mail on the Iditarod Trail.
This column was provided by Mona Painter with the Cooper Landing Historical Society. Peninsula Reflections appears each Monday on the Community page.
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