A Kind and Sensitive Man: The Rex Hanks Story — Part 2

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Happy Valley resident Rex Hanks began his own private cemetery in the winter of 1951. By the end of 1958, the little graveyard’s inhabitants numbered four. The problem was that Hanks and his wife didn’t own the cemetery land. Kenai Peninsula road-builders had other plans for that location, so all the graves had to be moved.

Imagination and Grief

In the 1950s, Rex Hanks and his wife had a small cemetery near their home in Happy Valley. Buried there were Rex’s friend, homesteader Clyde Thomas, and three stillborn girls — two belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Hanks, the other belonging to Mrs. Hanks’s sister. Thomas had died in 1951, and the girls’ deaths had occurred in 1954, 1956 and 1958.

According to the Happy Valley chapter in “Snapshots at Statehood,” since Thomas had died in the winter, neighbors had used dynamite to blast a hole for his grave. The three girls had all died when the ground was still pliable enough to dig in the usual manner.

When it was later determined that the Hankses did not own the plot on which they had established their cemetery, they were forced to move all the graves because the land had been contractually signed over to the State of Alaska for use as a gravel pit.

As arrangements were being made in 1963 to transfer Thomas’s remains to the veterans’ section of the cemetery in Ninilchik, gravel extraction was under way. Soon, according to “Snapshots at Statehood,” enough gravel had been excavated to isolate Thomas’s grave on a tall pinnacle of ground protruding many feet above the floor of the pit.

“The neighborhood kids anxiously watched the activity around the gravel pit, expecting the ghost of Mr. Thomas to be released at any time,” wrote Shirley Schollenberg, author of the Happy Valley chapter and a resident of Happy Valley during her childhood.

“The day the Archdiocese and the America Legion came to move the body of Mr. Thomas, all the kids were hiding in the nearby alders to witness this unusual event,” said Schollenberg. They watched the “black-robed priests and nuns,” witnessed the digging, and were fascinated by the procession carrying Thomas’s body away.

“For several days,” she added, “the former burial site served as a playground for the local kids, all pretending the ghost of Mr. Thomas was still there.”

Although the neighborhood kids made a game of playing around the graves, the losses caused by the forced relocations had been much more acute and painful for the Hankses.

Colleen (McGann) Wood, whose family owned the gravel pit, recalled that Mrs. Hanks “was not friendly, never smiled and always seemed sad.”

Shirley Cox (formerly Schollenberg) was once the target of Mrs. Hanks’s grief. “As kids we would ride our horses near, tie them up and sneak over to see the graves (now on Hanks property),” Cox said. “Garilyn Presley and I had a couple friends over. We were probably 10-12 years old. We thought it a good idea to show the friends the graves. Mrs. Hanks was visiting the graves at the time and yelled at us and said (to) never come back. I don’t think we did. Ever!”

Coming into the Country

Rex Clinton Hanks was born March 9, 1911, in Twisp, one of a trio of tiny farming towns in the Methow Valley of Okanogan County, Washington. His parents were Weldon “Clint” and Blossom Belle (Brinkerhoff) Hanks. Clint was a North Carolina-born rancher at the time, and Blossom was an Iowa-born schoolteacher.

By the time Rex was a 19-year-old laborer on the family farm, his father was mining gold and working for the U.S. Forest Service. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Rex, who stood maybe 5-foot-9 and weighed less than 140 pounds, also spent some time in the Forest Service. In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and spent 26 months overseas in the Army Medical Corps during World War II.

When he was discharged in October 1945, he was 34 years old and pondering bigger things than farm life in Washington.

“I was not content,” he told Ella Mae McGann for her book, “The Pioneers of Happy Valley, 1944-1964.” “After I read the book by Ernest Gruening, telling of the great opportunities in Alaska and the Matanuska Valley, of how green and fertile the land was, I began dreaming of it — although I was not a farmer at heart, but a person in love with the outdoors.”

Almost certainly, Hanks was referring to a 1945 book by George Sundborg, entitled “Opportunity in Alaska” and containing a forward by Alaska’s then-Gov. Ernest Gruening.

In March 1946, he booked passage on a steamship to Seward. “I thought it would be spring,” he said, “but when I got off the boat, it was the middle of winter, and I almost froze to death. I took the train to Anchorage and invested in some heavy, warm Alaskan clothes.”

Hanks found a railroad job farther north, in Curry — now a ghost town on the Alaska Railroad line, north of Talkeetna. He worked there until he saw sure signs of spring, then began searching for land in the Matanuska Valley. “All the good land was gone,” he said. “I took the train back to Seward. There was no land there that I cared for.”

Soldotna did not yet exist, and there was no road to Kenai and points farther south on the Kenai Peninsula, but Hanks became excited by reports of available land in and near Homer.

“After the war,” he said, “there were several pilots with small planes around. I hired one that had a small Piper plane to take me to Homer. I stayed there for a few days to get my directions straight and look around. Some of the men I met there were talking of land just opened up north of Homer and Anchor Point. I put a pack on my back and started walking in a northwest direction, up the beach.”

Before he reached the mouth of the Anchor River, Hanks passed the homes of several families living close the beach and was impressed by their hospitality. Eventually, though, he reached the Walli family’s fox farm and began to wonder if he was ever going to find a piece of land to his liking. Still, he refused to give up.

“One day I came to a beautiful waterfall,” he said. “I thought of water power. I worked my way to the top of the falls. I could see no houses around. I started looking for markers left by the 1919 government survey but didn’t find any that day. The next day I started checking and found the first blaze and stake. It took several more days to find all of the corners. This would be an ideal place for a sawmill, on my own homestead.”

On May 29, 1946, he was in the Land Office in Anchorage, filing on three adjacent parcels totaling 121.15 acres, including the falls at the mouth of Happy Creek and the land immediately north, south and east of the falls.


In the summer of 2016, this was all that remained of Rex Hanks’s original homestead cabin, located just above the waterfall on Happy Creek. (Photo by Clark Fair)

In the summer of 2016, this was all that remained of Rex Hanks’s original homestead cabin, located just above the waterfall on Happy Creek. (Photo by Clark Fair)

In the summer of 2016, this was all that remained of Rex Hanks’s original homestead cabin, located just above the waterfall on Happy Creek. (Photo by Clark Fair)

In the summer of 2016, this was all that remained of Rex Hanks’s original homestead cabin, located just above the waterfall on Happy Creek. (Photo by Clark Fair)