Annual luncheon offers chance to reminisce

Posted: Monday, August 30, 2004

A group of longtime Kenai Peninsula residents gathered last week to continue what has become an annual tradition. More than 100 homesteaders, family and friends showed up Thursday for the old-timers lunch at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center.

The annual event grew out of a group that has met for lunch every week for a number of years.

"We have a group of old homesteaders that's been meeting for lunch on Thursday for a hundred years," Joanna Hollier said.

One Thursday, six or seven years ago, the group decided to invite all the old-timers in the area. The luncheon was such a success that it's been held annually ever since, Hollier said.

This year's lunch-goers caught up with each other and told stories over a turkey dinner served by senior center staff and volunteers. Many of the homesteaders had similar stories about the difficulties of the early days, including the trip north.

Homesteader Betty Nelson, 85, was lucky she even made it to the Last Frontier. Nelson arrived in Seward just after World War II. The ship she sailed on, the S.S. Yukon, made the voyage from Seattle without incident but sank on the way back, Nelson said. As she recalls, 17 people died.

Gini and Al Poore commuted for several years between their home state of Minnesota and Alaska, where Al worked seasonally as a carpenter.

"He worked at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf (Air Force Base) when they were building those places," Gini Poore, 81, said of her 86-year-old husband, who was sick and didn't make the luncheon. "At that time, there was only construction in summer. We went home in wintertime."

Debbie Poore looked a bit out of place among the group a bit too young to be an "old-timer." Debbie, a retired school teacher who lives in Homer, came up to have lunch with her mother.

"My parents were homesteaders at Eagle Rock on the Kenai River," she said.

Debbie was born in Anchorage and "brought home to Kenai." She knew many of the homesteaders in the room.

"I grew up around most of these people," she said.


Staff and volunteers at the center dish out a turky dinner.

Photo by Mark Harrison

One of those people was Shirley Henley. Henley came to the far north from the deep south in 1949. She was motivated to make the move partly because the way some southerners treated African Americans offended her sense of justice.

"(The south) was having all those racial problems. I believe in equal rights for everyone, and it didn't look like things were going to change very soon," she said. "(Alaska) was as far away from Alabama as I could get with the money I had."

Henley used to be a Cook Inlet itinerate public health nurse at a time when doctors on the peninsula were rare. She was sometimes faced with medical situations beyond her training. Henley's glad for many of the changes she's seen on the peninsula over the years, in-cluding a big increase in the number of doctors.

"I like having electricity 24 hours a day. I like flush toilets. I like having doctors available. There've been a lot of changes," she said, then added one more. "I like paved roads."

After surviving the potential perils of Alaska for more than 50 years, an accident while gardening last year almost did Henley in. She was trimming bushes on the bluff behind her house when the wind knocked her off balance.

"I was throwing (the clippings from) the raspberry bushes over the bluff ... the wind was blowing and I should have had better sense," she said. "Before I knew it I was going with (the clippings) 85 feet down the bank: bang, bang, bang."

The resilient 80-year-old survived the fall with only a fractured wrist.

The oldest old-timer at the luncheon was Fiocla Wilson, who is Native Alaskan with Kenaitze and Russian ancestry.

"I'm the oldest person that was born and raised here," she said.

Despite her age, the 88-year-old still gets around.

"I went moose hunting last week for three days," she said.

Wilson went hunting with her daughter and son-in-law. She said the trip was made a little easier by the gas generator they brought along to power a television and microwave. Although Wilson didn't tote a gun, she did get up at 5:30 each morning and help look out for moose, she said.

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