Homer woman shares family’s incredible story of starting cattle ranch on Akutan in ’60s
Joan Brown Dodd is the archetypal Homer woman: born somewhere else, exceedingly tough, multi-talented, artistic and humble. She’s gentle but assertive; she drinks her coffee black.
And at age 82, she’s a self-published, best-selling author.
Despite having been on the shelf for only six months, Dodd’s memoir “Cow Woman of Akutan” was Homer Bookstore’s fourth best seller in 2014. It’s not hard to see why. Both the book’s conception and subject matter are unusual.
The memoir has a basic plotline similar to that of James Cameron’s 1997 tragic film, “Titanic”: young, curious explorers find a clue that leads them to reach out to an older woman about her past, and said elderly woman sifts through the sands of time to share her story. In this case, the modern discovery that prompted the inquiry wasn’t a picture of a woman wearing a lost precious gem on a sinking ship. It was cows roaming the Aleutian island of Akutan.
In 2001, Dodd (then Joan Brown) received a letter from a man living on Akutan who had observed cattle wandering around and heard they were the descendants of cows Dodd and her family had brought to the island in 1965 to start a ranch.
“I am very interested in any details, pictures, recollections, memories or tales you may have concerning these critters,” he wrote. The two began a four-month correspondence that led to a proposal, and Doug Dodd and widowed Joan Brown were married. Doug encouraged Joan to share her Akutan adventures in a book, and “Cow Woman” is the result.
Akutan in the 1960s was home to a single Native village of 90 with one radio and occasional visits from a supply plane, a town isolated enough that villagers didn’t know who Martin Luther King Jr. was and when news of his assassination arrived, someone asked, “What boat was he on?”
Moving to the island was a big adjustment for a young teacher from Kansas City, her husband Charlie, their two young children, and a friend. They had followed Charlie’s older brothers to Alaska, and despite having no experience in cattle ranching, together they hoped to build a successful operation. Akutan was chosen for its climate and the fact that it was populated, unlike many nearby islands.
But hardships hit literally the minute Dodd’s boat docked at the harbor.
Before she even set foot on land, Dodd was called upon to use her nursing training to save two very ill village children. The little girl was too far gone and died, but Dodd was able to keep the baby boy alive until an emergency plane could come to the rescue. Over the next few years, she did all sorts of jobs, from filing taxes for the villagers to serving as the island’s only schoolteacher and postmistress and a resident cook for visiting ships with crews of as many as 90 men. She also ran a household of six and a ranch, sometimes as the sole provider when her husband and their friend Hans could not get work on fishing boats.
At five months pregnant, she braved the winter weather to help a suffering cow deliver its calf in a swamp.
“If someone had said, ‘Do you want to go to this island and live in this little barn with five other people and no running water? Oh, and there are chickens and you’ll sleep on a bed held up by two by fours?’ I would say ‘No way,’” she says. “But circumstances bring these things about. ... I didn’t know I could do them and you don’t always know what you can do until you have to.”
Dodd is quick to point out that she couldn’t have done it without the help of the local Native people, and says that recognizing that assistance was one of her main motivations for writing the book.
“I want to get this story out about what help I received from Aleuts who didn’t even know me,” she says. “There were no other white people on the island. I thought they might reject me. They did not. They couldn’t have been kinder and I wanted people to know that.”
Dodd still talks on the phone with some of her neighbors on the island, and she’s even Facebook friends with Moses, the little boy whose life she saved her first night in Akutan.
In 1970, the ranch was failing financially and Dodd and her family couldn’t get confirmation that they’d even be able to own the land. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 would soon hand legal ownership over to a Native corporation. The family moved to Dutch Harbor and then to Homer, where she’s been since 1973.
In Homer, Dodd brokered real estate for 19 years before retiring at the age of 62 to become a substitute teacher. The husband she moved to Akutan with died in 1999, and she and Doug were married in 2002. She now splits her time between writing, reading, oil painting and spending time with her family.
The three youngest of Dodd’s five children are too young to remember life on Akutan, but she says it was a formative experience for the two eldest. Both live in Homer, as does her fourth, Ben: Becky owns Timeless Toys, Malcolm recently retired as a major after a long career in the National Guard and Ben works at Spenard Builders Supply.
On Akutan, first and foremost, “I wanted a home for my children and a good life,” Dodd says. “And they got those. And they had an adventure that they’ll always have and they’ll always draw on.”
As will she. Dodd is working on a prequel to “Cow Woman,” tentatively titled “Four Years on the Chain.” It documents the time she and her first husband spent in Dutch Harbor with only one other family on the island as company.
Writing a second book is hard work, especially in your eighties, says Dodd.
But true to her nature, she won’t let any obstacles get in the way of accomplishing a dream.
“If you love to write, you’ll do it even if nobody reads it,” she says.
But she hopes you will.
Annie Rosenthal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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