Soldotna couple finds success in love, family, business, life

All's well that ends well

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2001

A lot of changes have happened in Alaska since Frank and Betty Kraxberger left their Nebraska home and headed north nearly 50 years ago. And from their 40-acre homestead on Gas Well Road, the couple views the changes with the same unshakable mixture of humor and inner strength that bound their paths together when they were 16 and 19.

The way Betty tells the story, she was warned away from Frank.

"I had a friend who said I shouldn't have anything to do with him," she said. "I never did know why she said that."

The Kraxbergers' daughter, Cindy Miller, offered details that her mother chose not to mention.

"I've heard this story," Cindy said. "He was the bad boy and she was the good girl. I think he got kicked off the school bus when he was in the second grade."

Every story, however, has two sides.

"We went on a double date. I was with a gal that was interested in me and (Betty) was with a guy that was interested in her," Frank said of the roller-skating date. "I like to broke my neck trying to catch up with her. And in the car afterward, I said, 'Boy, you've got a smart mouth. How old are you anyway?' And she said, 'I'm sweet 16 and never been kissed.' I went right over the seat and fixed that."

Hearing him tell the story, Betty rolled her eyes.

"And he got sat down in his seat pretty fast, too," she said.

Several days after that date, the smitten young man decided to pay a visit to the object of his affection. Arriving unannounced on her doorstop at 10:30 one evening, he came face to face with his future father-in-law.

"This old guy who was 6-feet, 6-inches tall, weighed 220 pounds, and was wearing overalls came out and asked what I wanted," he remembered. "I asked if Betty was home. He said, 'Yeah, she's in bed and that's where she's going to stay.' I didn't question him."

That was in 1947. The two were married in 1949.

In 1952, Frank landed a civilian job with the Navy. Based out of Kodiak, he worked on a boat that supplied the military bases at Dutch Harbor, Attu, Cold Bay and Adak. His job was a direct result of Betty's interest in Alaska.

"Alaska sounded like a good place to be," Betty said. "And he said he would come if he had a job, so I signed him up."

Frank arrived in Kodiak first. By the time Betty and the couple's German shepherd arrived in June, Frank had found a 16-by-16 cabin, for which the couple paid $25 a month.

"The floor was painted tar paper," Betty said. "And when the wind blew, it lifted the tar paper up off the floor."

The cabin had no electricity, but it had running water.

"I ran to the spring to get it," Betty said, delivering the punch line to the couple's familiar joke.

Playing the straight man, Frank added, "And the spring was a quarter mile away."

The cabin's walls were insulated with sawdust.

"There were things in the walls," Betty said. "They told me it was mice, but I swear it was rats."

Two years later, the Kraxbergers, their infant son Randy and their German shepherd bid Kodiak farewell and boarded the mail boat for Seward. With their 1950 Plymouth secured to the 100-foot boat's deck, they were bound to Nebraska for the winter.

At first, the Kodiak-to-Seward crossing went smoothly. Then the legendary waters of the Gulf of Alaska caught up with them.

"It got so rough that the boat lost its anchor," Betty said. "Frank said he was too seasick to get out of bed and help me with the baby. And he'd worked on a boat!"

By the time they tied up at the Seward dock, the Plymouth had been exposed to so much splashing seawater that it refused to start. Frank had the car towed to a garage, only to be told the mechanics couldn't get to it for a week. Undaunted, he bought the necessary parts and began working on it right on the street.

"And this guy came out and said there was a city ordinance against working on a car on the street," he said. "But the cops didn't show up, so I kept on working."

The trip over the Alaska Highway was no less eventful. One evening they stayed at a place where, according to Frank, the mattresses were made of corn shucks. A large barrel stove in the main room was the only source of heat for the adjoining rooms. In the morning, the Kraxbergers left their room to gather around the stove with other guests.

"There were about a dozen men standing in their underwear around that stove," Frank said. "When they saw Betty, they scattered."

The following spring, Frank, Betty, Randy and a German shepherd puppy headed north again. Their families packed food for them for the trip. And Betty, who was pregnant, was sporting a cast after having shattered the bones in her leg when she was thrown while horseback riding.

According to their daughter Cindy, the Kraxbergers' automobile broke down somewhere along the way. Sure that Betty and their son would be OK, Frank hitchhiked in search of what was needed to make repairs to the vehicle.

"Mom just stayed in the car with Randy and the dog while my dad was gone for four days," Cindy said. "People would come by and stop to see if she needed help. And Randy would always say he wanted candy. So they'd buy him candy at the next town and have the next car bring it back to him."

By the time they reached Anchorage, the couple had enough money in their pockets to purchase a little unfinished house. But after Frank found work at a coal mine in Houston, they sold their little house and bought a 28-by-8-foot house trailer, which they shipped to Houston by rail.

Assured their home would arrive within the next 24-hours, the Kraxbergers stocked it with food, including fresh meat, and proceeded to the coal mine to await their new home's arrival. However, one day stretched to several days.

"Betty lived with me in the bunkhouse and the cook tore up sheets so she could use them for diapers," Frank said.

When it finally arrived, the house trailer was a welcome sight. The same could not be said for the meat.

Until 1967, the Kraxbergers continued to winter in Nebraska. While there, Frank worked in the oil fields. During summers in Alaska, he worked in construction. In 1956, their twin sons Rick and Scott were born in Providence Hospital in Anchorage. Cindy was born in Providence Hospital in 1958.

"When Randy went to school, he brought home every sickness known to man," Frank remembered. "It was terrible."

One illness was treated with penicillin, to which Randy had an allergic reaction.

"He broke out in horrible hives," Betty said. "But I didn't know what hives were and neither did the neighbors whose house I went to, to use the phone. They were scared to let me in."

In 1958, the family was introduced to the Kenai Peninsula when Frank worked in the Swanson River area. And in 1961, they made the peninsula their home.

"They bought the first acre off our homestead," said Nina Robinson of her and her husband, Jesse's, property on Robinson Loop.

She said she met the Kraxbergers when they stopped to buy some milk and the two families became friends.

"They were very good neighbors," Robinson said. "They are very honest people, and I was glad to have them on the peninsula."

It was at that time that Frank went to Anchorage and got a drilling rig for digging water wells.

The first rig was leased. When the owner needed it back, the Kraxbergers decided to purchase a rig of their own and Kraxberger Drilling was born.

"We've drilled over 3,800 wells on the Kenai Peninsula and on the other side of Cook Inlet," Betty said.

The deepest well was 700-feet deep, but on their homestead on Gas Well, where they settled in 1962, the wells are only 30-feet deep.

"All of my kids learned to drill with their dad here on the homestead," Betty said.

Six different wells scattered around the homestead bear testimony to her children's skill. Last summer, four of the Kraxbergers' eight grandchildren also worked with them. Their son Rick is in the process of taking over the business.

"They have always been hard workers," Rick said of his parents. "They taught all of us kids how to work hard."

Rick described his parents as "kind of displaced westerners. They've always had livestock."

Scott said, "We always had a small farm operating on the homestead. We often sold milk and eggs to others in the community.

"My father had worked in his father's small dairy when he was young, milking a dozen cows a day without machinery. I was in awe of his milking ability -- sitting in a nearly dark barn at 10 below, on a tiny, one-legged milking stool, generating fast, rhythmic splashes in his bucket. The bucket would be full in no time. Mom was no slouch at milking, either."

Cindy claims to have inherited her mother's love for animals.

"We frequently go on horse trips," she said. "In fact, we just did that last weekend, but we didn't bring a new horse home this time."

Frank and Betty still live in the log house they built on the homestead in 1962. It is well guarded by a flock of geese, hundreds of rabbits, dogs, horses, llamas and a cat. There's also a cow that Betty bought at the 4-H club auction at the Kenai Peninsula State Fair in Ninilchik this summer.

A circular driveway connects the homestead to Gas Well Road. A thick wall of trees separates it from the surrounding area, maintaining the sense of a home chiseled out of Alaska's wilderness.

Scott remembered how he and his siblings worked with his parents on the homestead, turning acres of spruce forest into level fields, free of rocks and roots. The task of pulling smaller roots out of the ground and stacking them in large piles, which were later burned, was a task done year round.

"When school was in session, even if Dad was off working, Mom would feed us when we got home -- often freshly baked bread or rolls -- and lead us out to the fields and work with us picking roots or building fence," he recalled. "Over the years we created more than 15 acres of tillable fields."

Looking back on the years spent in the family home, Randy, a resident of Port Townsend, Wash., said what stands out is how his parents built family unity into all their activities.

"It didn't make any difference if we were cutting wood or clearing the homestead or butchering chickens, it was always a family affair," he said. "We grew together doing those activities. It not only taught me how to do things, but to enjoy the doing of things."

George and Nancy Herr have the homestead next door.

"I've known them since 1962," George said. "They're good neighbors. They drilled our well. As a matter of fact, they drilled all our kids' wells, too. They've been at it a long time."

During the winters spent in Nebraska, did Frank and Betty ever consider trading their Alaska dream for the familiar surroundings of their childhood?

"There was nothing at all for us in Nebraska," Frank said. "There was never a question about coming back."

Nor was there ever a doubt that the reason Frank came to Alaska was because of Betty.

"I was madly in love with her then, and I still am," he said. "Wherever she wanted to be, I wanted to be."

"Mom's a heck of a woman," Cindy said. "She keeps Dad in line. That boy doesn't dare step out of line.

"They're a pair to draw to."

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