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Homesteaders' dream

Soldotna family recalls earlier days of life on central peninsula

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2000

Editor's note: Everyone has a story. And, everyone enjoys a well-written or well-told story, especially one that is lively, laughable and has a point of common interest. The focus of this periodic column is stories written by and about people on the Kenai Peninsula. Many of these will focus on "the way it was" and show, rather than tell, history tidbits about the area.

Marge Mullen grew up on the far south side of Chicago. Newly married at the age of 24, she flew with her husband, Frank, in their two-seater Stinson plane north to Alaska.

They settled in Anchorage, awaiting the opening of homesteading on the central Kenai Peninsula.

With the aid of maps and with glimpses from the air, they chose a spot about 75 air miles south of Anchorage, where a small creek flowed into the glacial waters of the Kenai River.

 

Peggy and Marge Mullen

Photo courtesy of Peggy Mullen, from the book, "I'd Swap My Old Skidoo for You."

In 1947, since there were no roads in that direction, they traveled the Alaska Railroad to Moose Pass and hitched a ride along a road that went toward Cooper Landing. When the road ran out, they backpacked 60 miles further.

The trek took them out of the mountains into the western peninsula, which was still smoldering from the 300,000 acre Kenai Burn.

After walking for three days, they arrived at Soldotna Creek. The only other people nearby were three bachelors down the river, a few fox farmers 14 roadless miles south at Kasilof, and the approximately 250 villagers at the mouth of the Kenai River.

Frank Mullen was the first entryman to file on Soldotna Creek. The Caucasian settlement of the area had begun.

 

Marge Mullen makes bread at Four Seasons Restaurant in Soldotna.

Photo courtesy of Peggy Mullen, from the book, "I'd Swap My Old Skidoo for You."

Today the population tops 4,000.

Settling in didn't happen over night.

"With two little children, it was necessary to have a warm shelter before moving permanently from Anchorage," said Marge. "After placing six upright log stumps as the foundation for the cabin in the fall, Frank returned in February to build the 14-by-16-foot cabin. The children and I moved back down in April. No door, no chinking, well, we never ran out of tasks to do."

 

No caption was contained in the photo file

Their intention was to farm, raise chickens and sell eggs and produce.

"Even today, 50 years later, it is not possible to earn a living that way," laughed Marge.

But, undaunted, that summer of 1948, they chopped down trees, pulled roots and planted a garden of cabbage, potatoes and carrots.

During the next few years, war veterans quickly moved in and soon all the surrounding homestead lands were claimed.

When homesteading was first opened by the U.S. Department of Public Lands, requirements for veterans were minimal. Soon, however, it was apparent that people could move on, prove up and move away; therefore, more residency time was then required and land clearing became a stipulation.

"The majority of homesteaders were single men," said Marge. "The bachelors would often stop by the cabin for a loaf of bread or a haircut. I baked bread nearly every day, and find it's almost second nature now."

Even when women began to arrive, it was the men who traveled the road, borrowing equipment, going hunting and exchanging news and ideas. In the classic sense, the women were tending the home fires and looking after the children.

One of the prime necessities was a battery-operated radio, a lifeline to news and folks outside the homestead life. It was a challenging existence, but they were young and healthy and adventurous.

Tragically, that changed.

 

Marge Mullen makes bread at Four Seasons Restaurant in Soldotna.

Photo courtesy of Peggy Mullen, from the book, "I'd Swap My Old Skidoo for You."

In 1952, a polio epidemic swept through Alaska. With 1,000 chickens on order for spring laying season, three children under the age of 6 squeezed into the tiny homestead cabin and a fourth on the way, Frank became a victim. He was evacuated out of Kenai by the Tenth Air Rescue and diagnosed as having poliomyelitis. He would never walk again.

"With four children and one partner not able to work, I just didn't see how we could stay on the homestead," said Marge.

But they did.

After months in a V.A. hospital, Frank returned in a wheelchair. With some adaptation, he was able to drive a tractor and help plow the fields and go moose hunting. Marge's three Chicago brothers added another room to the cabin and built the chicken house.

The daily chores continued -- chopping wood, hauling water, cleaning the chicken house, collecting the eggs, pulling roots, planting, weeding and harvesting, getting produce and eggs ready for sale -- all the while the care of the children was paramount.

On those long winter nights, Marge would plan her dream house by the Kenai River, darn and mend, read stories to the toddlers and candle and box eggs for market.

Like most homesteaders, the temporary cabin became almost permanent. It wasn't until 15 years later that they could afford another home.

Looking back on growing up

The Mullen children have fond memories of their homestead life. Mary Mullen, the youngest, has worked in education and social services.

"It wasn't until I was an adult that I understood we were poor. I knew I had a rich childhood," she said.

"I spent a lot of time riding around on the tractor with my dad. Mom gave me a whistle to blow if we got stuck and needed help. Sometimes help came and sometimes it didn't. When it didn't, I quickly learned about chains and pulleys."

The children's playground was the woods and fresh air.

"The only thing I was sometimes scared about was getting between a cow moose and her calf on my way to school in the morning when it was dark," said Mary.

As the oldest, Peggy shouldered a lot of responsibility. She remembers working in the fields 10 to 12 hours a day. There was little difference in gender role expectations.

"We were always around a lot of really strong, courageous women. These homestead women did some incredible physical stuff, but they were still very traditional," she said, then laughed. "They made sure when they got together that they gave themselves permanents just to keep up."

In 1977, Peggy and Marge built and opened the Four Seasons Restaurant, a gourmet eating establishment, tucked among the birch trees on a corner of the homestead property.

For 15 years, Marge applied her energies there, including daily bread-making. The restaurant recently was sold and is now the Buckets Sports Bar.

Later, Peggy opened Northcountry Fair, a shop of fancy and whimsical household items. More recently, Peggy opened River City Books and Espresso Cafe on the homestead property, at the Soldotna "Y."

Eileen, the second oldest, is a long-time fisher who now operates a lively bed and breakfast in Homer.

"What I loved best about the homestead was having the forest at my doorstep," she said. "We weren't afraid to take off into the woods. Mom gave us confidence and a sense of adventure. We played with birds' nests and made tea out of bushes and climbed trees."

Alaska is home.

"I've never found any place I like better than Alaska. Alaska gives me personal freedom."

Son Frank returns to Cook Inlet each summer to fish. He likes his life guided by the tide book rather than the calendar.

"The radio came with huge batteries that mom would order from the Sears catalog. They would show up every fall, and you hoped they would last until summer again or until the next barge could come in. We used to rush home after school, grab a piece of toast with currant jelly and listen to some of those great serial radio stories of the '50s."

He added another vivid memory.

"We used to have a big diesel generator which provided electricity, especially for the hen house. We shared the power with another family. When it was our turn, mom was the person who had to go over to start it up and turn it off.

"In January, that meant walking on a narrow foot path at sometimes 25 below and meeting many moose obstacles. Mom would be out there with frozen hands, this little city girl, cranking on this huge piece of equipment that was designed for a big, healthy male. And, that's just one of the things she did to get us by."

No matter how horrendous the struggles were either then or later, Marge clung to her land. After 25 years, the marriage failed, and her part of the land was in jeopardy of foreclosure because of tax debts. Still she hung on when she could have sold out to overcome the crisis.

"Life's small moments are much more special than trying for great wealth," she said.

In the civilized wilderness of Soldotna, her home continues to be a pocket of warmth. Her favorite times are moments of sanctuary near the river bank, the wind upon her cheeks and enjoying the exhilaration of the sunrise. This is home.

This story was adapted from Nan Elliot's book, "I'd Swap My Old Skidoo for You." It was edited by Naomi Gaede-Penner and further adapted and updated by Marge Mullen in April of this year.



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