Residents carve out land, lives with trusty tractor

Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2003

When 82-year-old Jesse Robinson climbed aboard his bright red International Harvester Farmall tractor to cut hay in Sterling this summer, it wasn't anything he hadn't done before.

In fact, he cut the first crop of hay on his 160-acre homestead there in 1950 with the very tractor he used this year.

Shortly after serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater in World War II, the young Robinson returned to his family's cattle ranch in southwestern Colorado with a dream of heading to Alaska to start a ranch of his own.

"Nina found out I wanted to come up to Alaska and she held me to it," Robinson said of his wife who joined him on the adventure that began in 1946 and continues today.

When the couple first made their way to the Kenai Peninsula, they lived in a small cabin they built near Pat Gwin's in Cooper Landing.

They had met Gwin aboard the ship "Columbia" that carried them to Alaska.


With a fresh coat of paint and a recent overhaul, the International Harvester Farmall looks ready for its next 50 years of hay cutting on the Kenai Peninsula.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

"Pat knew they'd be opening homestead land to veterans down here," Nina said, and the couple was interested.

The Kenai Peninsula was untamed wilderness land at that time with few year-round residents and even fewer roads.

The first work Jesse found was with the road construction crew building the Sterling Highway.

During the spring of 1947, Jesse and Nina decided to take a hike to Kenai along the trail that one day would be the highway, and look at land that was soon to become available.

They found a spot on the Kenai River near the confluence of the Killey River that was attractive, but sadly learned that the bulk of it was on School Section 36 land that would not be open to homesteaders.

"We hadn't had much experience with wells and thought to get water, we should have land either on a lake or a river," Nina said.

Then one day, during their week-long hike, the couple stopped for lunch alongside the trail near a small meadow and decided that would be a good spot for a ranch.

The couple moved there the following spring.


Nina and Jesse Robinson stand along a fence that separates their yard from the horse pasture, party of 100 acres of hayfield the Robinsons farm in Sterling.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

"We took our chances on digging a well, and we got good water," Nina said.

"Being a veteran, we only had to live on (the homestead) six or nine months and didn't have to clear the land. We just had to have a habitable dwelling on it," Jesse said.

But the Robinsons' ranch plan called for more than just a dwelling.

Jesse had started skidding logs for a cabin with their team of work horses, Prince and Bell, and cleared a small garden patch near the homesite with the large, white steeds, but the business of farming and ranching could not begin in earnest without the help of a tractor.

Making arrangements through another peninsula pioneer, Burton Carver, the Robinsons purchased the 1950 Model M gasoline-powered, four-cylinder Farmall for $1,200 and had it shipped from Washington to Seward.

"The first thing we did was put on a Bell Sawmill and cleared about three acres," Jesse said.


Jesse Robinson proudly stands alongside the Farmall that has served him well cutting hay in Sterling since 1950.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

The tractor powered the sawmill that cut much of the lumber for their first Sterling cabin.

With the arrival of the Farmall, the couple set to work breaking up earth in a natural clearing near what today is the Sterling Highway and Rob-inson Loop intersection.

The couple's first son, Mitch, was born in 1948, and son number two, Steve, came along a year later.

Jesse continued working in road construction to support the growing family and used the Farmall to clear more and more of the homestead a few acres at a time, eventually totaling about 120 acres of gently rolling farmland.

He could see the end coming for the road-building work of the Alaska Road Commission on the Kenai Peninsula and, in 1951, decided to try his hand at dairy farming.

More people were moving to the area building an air force base at Wildwood, and the Bureau of Land Management had reopened land for homesteading, now to nonveterans.

Twin sons Dean and Zene were born in 1952 and a daughter, Sue, in 1954.

"We couldn't afford to hire help in the dairy and I was too busy with little ones to help with milk, so in 1955, we sold the cows and Jesse went back to road building," Nina said.

As the Robinson family grew, so did their need for bigger quarters.

Again, the Farmall was called into action. The couple had decided on the need for a basement and Jesse set to work digging the hole and putting in the foundation next to their existing home.


Jesse Robinson looks over 800-pound bales of this year's hay crop in his Sterling hay barn.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

He then put together a block-and-tackle type contraption and used the tractor to slowly pull the house onto the new basement.

Over the years, Jesse realized it was pretty tough trying to make a living raising cows on the Kenai Peninsula and spent much of his life in construction.

He worked for Morris Coursen, building the first Swanson River Road, and worked for other contractors on both sides of the inlet, building roads and airstrips and digging holes for many buildings as the area developed.

In 1968, Jesse joined with Coursen on the purchase of a D-7 Cat earth mover and eventually started his own construction company, CIC Construc-tion, with sons Steve, Dean and Zene.

"We do pretty much anything having to do with dirt," he said. "Sue also worked construction, driving the Cat and a dump truck."


Although his youthful dream of having a cow ranch in Alaska didn't quite pan out, Jesse Robinson has managed to raise a few cattle over the years while raising hay and running a construction business from his farm in Sterling.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

He said he kept the tractor and the dream of ranching for all those years, but when he went into construction in the early 1950s to make a living, he put farming on the back burner.

"Today, I farm hay pretty much as a hobby," he said.

And the 1950 Farmall continues to be the mainstay of the operation.

"I farm about 100 acres all hay and sell all the way from Homer up to Hope," Robinson said.

"I sell hay to just about everybody who has horses here and a few who have some rodeo cows."

Although the dream of a big cattle ranch never quite came to fruition, the Robinsons do maintain a small herd of about a half dozen cattle and pasture horses for others after the year's hay crop is in.

And after son Steve completely overhauled the Farmall last year, including giving it a fresh coat of bright red paint, the tractor looks as fit for duty today as it did when it first arrived on the peninsula in 1950.

Jesse Robinson can be seen aboard the farm machine on many summer days from the road named for his family, Robinson Loop, which borders the hay field on the west and north, and to this day, travelers on the Sterling Highway can see the results of yet another building project once made possible by the old tractor.

"That Farmall was used to cut the logs for the old Sterling Elementary School," Nina said. Today the one-room log-cabin schoolhouse is used as a community center on the corner of the Sterling Highway and Swanson River Road.

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