Secret treasures

Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2000

Kasilof community maintains individuality on Kenai Peninsula

The new highway sign south of Soldotna announces that Kasilof is 12 miles away. Detailed maps of the Kenai Peninsula put the name about where the south end of Kalifornsky Beach Road meets the Sterling Highway.

"The people who put up the sign obviously have no idea where Kasilof is," complained Suzie Cook, owner of the Tustumena Lodge. "It's really upsetting for tourists."

They can find the post office. A quarter mile away is a store. And then there's the river.

But a town?

The late Enid McLane, schoolmarm and early community leader, called Kasilof "the little town that isn't there."

Kasilof has no main street or central business district. But it is a community -- a dynamic place with rich history, gorgeous scenery and colorful Alaska characters. You just have to know where to look.

The Kasilof River

It started with the river.

The Kasilof River is only about 12 miles long. It runs from Lake Tustumena down to Cook Inlet. Like the Kenai River, it churns out salmon fry.

Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College, has lived in Kasilof for six years. He said traces of human habitation along the river date back about 3,000 years.

"Kasilof is very interesting," he said. "Every significant event in North Pacific history had its counterparts in the Kasilof area. It is a sleeper place."

The Dena'ina Athabaskan villages in the area, Kalifornsky Village north of the river and one south of the river at the place called Humpy Point or Cape Kasilof, were abandoned in the 1920s.

Russian fur traders found the river and built a post they called Fort St. George on its banks in 1786, making it the second-oldest documented settlement on the Kenai Peninsula after Nanwalek. Five years later, a rival group of traders set up shop in Kenai, pillaged the Kasilof post and ran off its Native clientele. Fort St. George was abandoned, the area's Russian headquarters shifted to Kenai and, for the first of several times, Kasilof missed its chance to grow into a town.

The name "Kasilof," spelled in various ways, first appears in records from that era, Boraas said.

"There are two possibilities," he said. "Either it is a Russian surname or a Russianized version of a Dena'ina name."

About a century later, in 1882, the first fish cannery in western Alaska opened at the river mouth. Soon Kasilof was a thriving seasonal port. In 1900, the census counted 159 residents there.

Today, rotting pilings from generations of fish processing plants jut from the flats along the Kasilof estuary, but the tradition endures.

After a recent driftnet opening, salmon boats motored up the snaking course of the lower river as the sun sank toward the mountains across the inlet. Aluminum skiffs pulled up to the dock at the Trans Aqua plant, where crews maneuvered cranes to pluck brailer bags full of reds from their decks.

Bob Utrup is the manager of Inlet Salmon in Kasilof. This year, his company is leasing and operating the Trans Aqua facility. He has been working salmon along the Kasilof since 1979.

Some of the same fishers he met on the river then are still delivering their catches to his docks this year. He expects 60 to 70 boats from throughout the inlet this summer.

"There are a lot of guys who like this river," he said.

Utrup's Kasilof fish get sold to Canada, Japan and Europe as well as other parts of the United States. Roe fetches a premium in Japan.

With more than 20 years in the business, he has noticed changes. The quality of the product is higher. The work force is harder to recruit, and he is turning more and more to hometown teen-agers -- and finances squeeze the industry.

"The margins are really small right now. Quantity is the only way to make it," he said.

From his vantage on the river, how does he see Kasilof?

"Everybody is spread out," he said. "But everybody knows everybody."

Fields, forests and foxes

In the 1920s, Kasilof's canneries fell on hard times, and the area's fish processing companies relocated to Kenai. In 1923, the biggest, Alaska Packers, shut down.

The winter watchman's house at the mouth of the river, which had been perhaps the finest residence on the central peninsula in 1900, was abandoned and gradually decayed into the vandalized relic it is today.

But even as fisheries withdrew, lands north of the river were opened for homesteading. Intrepid newcomers and some Scandinavian bachelors from the canneries staked claims.

Raising hay, livestock and potatoes was challenging. People cleared land and tried to make a go of farming.

But ultimately furs proved more lucrative.

A 1925 article in the Anchorage Daily Times, under the headline "Fox farming to be one of territories (sic) leading industries," described the thriving farms of "the Kusilof river section." Alaska fox were superior because their pelts grew luxuriously, and they were free of diseases and parasites that plagued other states, it said.

Enid McLane and her husband, Archie, moved to Kasilof as newlyweds in 1922. They claimed a homestead next to Coal Creek and built a cabin on a knoll overlooking Loon Lake with a stunning view of Redoubt volcano.

"The fox ranchers prospered for the following 15 years. Kasilof became the center of the silver fox industry," she wrote two generations later in "Once Upon the Kenai."

Their son Stanley McLane, now the president of Kasilof Historical Society, remembers growing up on the farm in those days.

Kasilof's residents traveled to other communities by boat, and the main mail service came by air. Larger parcels, at least in winter, came via dog team. The game warden made rounds to assure that the homesteaders were not feeding poached moose to their voracious foxes. Fish was a legal alternative, and the canneries in Kenai were helpful.


The original Cohoe school now stands on Larry Meyer's property in Kasilof. Meyer said the building was built in the 1920s.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"They would bring a scow load of fish, when they got plugged, down to the fox farmers," McLane said.

About 1930, the farmers built a road from the mouth of the river along the north shore to the hilltop where the Pollards later homesteaded and gave their name to the road.

"It took two years to build that road with a team of horses," McLane said. "That was the only road in the area at the time."

But in the late 1930s, the fox farming boom collapsed. People cited World War II, the Depression, Russian imports and changing fashions as causes of the bust.

The area became a backwater as the war years came over Alaska.

"It was kind of a quiet time," McLane said.

Kasilof lets

progress drive by ...

Dave Letzring, past president of the Kasilof Historical Society, has delved into the community's history during 30 years residency.

The federal government had platted a Kasilof town site during the war, he said.

Between what is now the Kasilof Post Office and the river, it had tidy grids of half-acre lots with areas set aside for schools and government buildings. Some people bought lots, but it never achieved critical mass to develop. In the 1970s, when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was redrawing the state's map, the town site was shelved, he said.

Stanley McLane noted that half-acre lots were a hard sell when people could homestead 160-acre tracts in the same area.

"People wanted more room, I think," he said.

By 1950, the peninsula had changed dramatically. Postwar homesteaders flooded into the Johnny-come-lately communities of Soldotna and Sterling. The Wildwood military base opened in Kenai and became the area's big employer. Construction of the Sterling Highway was under way, linking the Kasilof road with the rest of the world.

A new generation came into the area.

Homesteading opened on the south side of the river. Residents there got their own post office, called Cohoe, to avoid the inconvenience of crossing the river, McLane said.

But after the new highway bridged the river, distinctions between the two communities blurred. Some even considered Clam Gulch, founded even further south, as part of a larger community.

"The whole area might be called Tustumena," he said.

And that is what residents chose to name their school, which opened in 1958 to serve Kasilof, Cohoe and Clam Gulch. Enid McLane was the first principal.

... but holds

onto its history

Residents know that Kasilof's rich history and rustic lifestyle are becoming rarer elsewhere.

In 1996, a group got together and incorporated the Kasilof Historical Society. Since its inception, it has been attracting attention from people far from Kasilof who share a passion for peninsula history.

Last year, the group entered into an agreement with the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to manage the Victor Holm cabin in Cohoe, one of the peninsula's oldest buildings. It has recorded old-timers talking about their experiences and helped families preserve heirlooms.

The group now is looking into getting grant funding to help preserve and restore the cabin, the McLane Center on K-Beach Road and maybe eventually the old watchman's house by the river mouth. Someday the group may convert the McLane Center into a museum.

One person forging ahead in the field of preservation is Larry Meyer, who has lived near Pollard Loop for about 40 years.

His hobby is bringing home old buildings. He dismantles endangered structures, then reassembles them on his homestead.

Meyer got started in the early 1970s when his then-wife complained she wanted to live in a house rather than a trailer. Not considering himself much of a carpenter, he decided to move a house rather than build one. He paid $1,800 for a cabin Scandinavian homesteader Abram Erickson had built in 1928 for hunting guide Slim Crocker.

Meyer painstakingly labeled the pieces, pried it apart, carted it across town and rebuilt it like a big puzzle, he said.

Next he brought home the community's original schoolhouse, built in 1912.

About six years ago, he started getting into the hobby in a big way. In the process, he collected old cars, snowmachines, dories, rusted traps and a random array of sourdough antiques.

His collection gives an intriguing glimpse into life on the peninsula in the early 20th century.

He has accumulated several cabins, outbuildings and a combination boat shop and barn from the 1920s. One is furnished with a plank bed and a cast-iron stove with art-nouveau details.

His latest project is collecting fox houses that belonged to Edvard Lovdahl, Erickson's nephew, who filed for a homestead in 1929 along what is now K-Beach Road. Meyer dug them out of the woods and marvels at their passageways and nest boxes.

He admitted he is unsure what to do with his museum pieces, but said he intends to keep working on their preservation.

"I went from nothing to do to four buildings to rebuild," he said. "I suffer from dump-itis."

Doing their own thing

Decades ago, Kasilof's people set on the course they have followed to this day -- a group of rural individualists who cherish their privacy. Many seem content to let outsiders drive past without discovering their town. Some fear that if more visitors snooped around, they might all want to move in.

But for all that, there is a real spirit of old-fashioned, country neighborliness.

Suzie and John Cook at the Tustumena Lodge put on dinners and events for holidays, attracting a diverse clientele whose other "families" live far away, she said.

"On a music night, you see the 20-year-olds dancing with 80-year-olds. And they all get along," she said.

Besides collecting hats (19,372 at last count) the Cooks try to maintain a family atmosphere and do a lot for the community, including hosting the Tustumena 200 sled dog race, sponsoring a soccer team at the Boys and Girls Club and pitching in for special events at Tustumena Elementary.

"It's kind of an unusual thing because we are a bar," she said. "I love the people here, and I'm really glad we ended up here."

Mary Lambe agrees.

She moved to Kasilof in 1971 and now owns Kasilof Mercantile along with her husband, Robert. The store caters to residents more than tourists. It offers a general store selection running the gamut from groceries to souvenirs to video rentals to animal feed. In 1998, it opened a family cafe.

Despite growth and other factors eroding the rural social network, she still sees a strong sense of community identity.

It comes out clearly in emergencies, she said, citing what happened in May when word got out that a family's cabin was on fire.

"Several people who were in the store dropped everything and jumped in their vehicles to see if they could help," she said.

"Within our community, our 'family,' there is a sense of concern for each other. I have a real sense that anyone who needed help, they would be there for you."

But forget any talk of ever incorporating.

"Once you make it a town, you have to raise taxes, which people here do not want. There is always someone who wants to be the big cheese," said Letzring.

Boraas phrased it a little differently.

"It is probably the least municipal-government oriented place in Alaska," he said.

Stanley McLane summed up the viewpoint of a lot of the residents.

"I wouldn't call it a town," he said, "I'd call it a community."

Within our community, our 'family,' there is a sense of concern for each other. I have a real sense that anyone who needed help, they would be there for you.

--Mary Lambe, owner of Kasilof Mercantile

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