Bound and Determined: The Smith & Little Story — Part 2

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Best friends Ira Little and Marvin Smith came from California to the Kenai Peninsula in 1947. They homesteaded in the area that would soon be known as Soldotna and began building productive lives.

Many years after the construction effort, Soldotna homesteader Marvin Smith was asked about the challenges he and his friend Ira Little had faced in the winter of 1947-48 erecting a cabin along a high bank of the Kenai River. While they were building, he said, they lived in an army-surplus wall tent. “It only got down to 30 below that year,” he added, “so it wasn’t too bad.”

That comment, probably tongue-in-cheek, highlighted the difficulties inherent in the task. Nevertheless, they finished the cabin (Little’s) by January and then lived there together until the following autumn when they started on Smith’s place.

On Dec. 19, 1947, Smith and Little had filed on adjoining homesteads just downstream from the site of the bridge planned for completion during the summer of 1948. Smith filed on 151.66 acres immediately west of Little’s 160-acre parcel, which lay immediately north of the homestead of Marcus Bodnar, one of the earliest settlers in the area.

Each of the cabins measured about 12-by-14 feet, definitely more of a bachelor abode than a family home. At the time, both men were single, so the quantity of space was secondary to the quality of the insulating factor. Once complete, the two cabins stood only 60 feet apart, with the Smith-Little property line running between them.

Because much of the timber on the north side of the Kenai River was not conducive to cabin building, they gathered most of their house logs from the south side. Since no bridge existed while they were building their first structure, their log-gathering efforts required ingenuity and nerve.

Smith and Little employed a hand-built toboggan — fashioned from burned spruce poles fastened to runners crafted from barrel hoops — to haul the timber over the frozen river. “With two of us pulling,” said Smith, “we could haul four to five logs across at a time. We rigged up a block-and-tackle system to drag them up the riverbank once we got them across.”

According to a March 1949 article in Smith’s hometown Nebraska newspaper, the Wayne Herald, the furnishings in the two cabins were “crude,” consisting primarily of tables, chairs and bunk beds constructed from logs. Each cabin was heated by a Yukon stove, which also provided cooking space. They used the old wall tent as a storage shed for their firewood, and they hauled fresh water from a nearby spring.

Smith told the Herald reporter that their closest neighbor lived about a quarter-mile away, with the next one three miles farther. The nearest road, he said, was about a half-mile distant. By the following summer, the new highway would be complete, connecting residents from Moose Pass to Homer.

Smith and Little worked with a construction crew (probably in Anchorage) that summer to earn enough money to make it through the next winter. Despite the privations, Smith seemed satisfied: “If I were to sell my homestead now,” he said, “I could probably get $3 an acre for it. But I wouldn’t sell for $10,000. I like it there.”

Homestead Life, and Beyond

When the Lancashire family of Ridgeway, about four miles from the Smith and Little cabins, hosted a Thanksgiving dinner in 1948, it was a potluck-style affair. The Lancashires themselves supplied a moose roast and fresh dinner rolls. One family brought potatoes to mash. Another supplied half a squash and a cabbage salad. Others brought pies and cakes for dessert, ground coffee for the pot, and oleo for the rolls. Smith and Little came bearing home brew.

Rusty Lancashire called the occasion “very festive indeed,” but she was disappointed that their guests took home all the leftovers. “You knew darn well, though, they needed it,” she said.

Times could be challenging for early homesteaders, some of whom worked only seasonally in commercial fishing or trapping, while others left their homes for long stretches to seek employment in Anchorage or Seward. Generally, however, early residents tried to stay close to home and make the best of each situation.

At another get-together that Christmas, Marvin Smith dressed up like Santa. After his entrance, he asked questions of the children in attendance and wished them happy holidays.

Smith and Little also helped other homesteaders build their cabins, but at times they found it necessary to live and work in Anchorage. “Dad and Marvin started a construction company together (in Anchorage),” said Jeff Little, “but income was tight and continued throughout their time there. They took numerous gap jobs, such as working on the Alaska Highway and the railroad.”

When time and circumstances allowed, both men also traveled out of Alaska — Little back to California to see his parents and his sweetheart, a registered nurse he would marry in 1950; Smith to his home state of Nebraska to spend time among the familiar faces of his youth.

Smith also liked speaking his mind about statehood for Alaska. In March 1949, for instance, he penned a letter to the editor of Omaha’s Evening World-Herald, asking Nebraskans to support Alaska’s desire to join the union. Without statehood, he asserted, Alaskans were getting no real representation in Congress for the federal taxes they were forced to pay.

He wrote to the same paper in 1951 and 1953 because of what he perceived as a lack of support for Alaskan statehood from Nebraska’s U.S. Sen. Hugh Butler. He called Butler’s negative stance on the issue “highly undemocratic” and said the time had come for Nebraskans to “do something about” their senator.

By the time Ira and Ann Little settled more permanently in Alaska in 1953, they already had one son. Their second son was born in Anchorage. Eventually, they would have five sons and a daughter. The Littles and their growing family lived first in Ira’s homestead cabin, then in a trailer and finally in a house they built with the help of Smith and some other friends.

The Littles moved back to the States for good in 1957. Ira returned to the aerospace industry (where he’d been employed in the 1940s), working as a rocket mechanic in Florida and New Mexico. He then spent more than 20 years helping to build aircraft engines for General Electric in California. After the family settled in southern California, Ann returned to nursing, including a stint at Los Angeles County Hospital in Lancaster.

In 1958, a year after Littles’ departure, Smith married Ira’s younger sister Phyllis. They lived in Soldotna and, over a period about four years, produced a son and two daughters. Marvin, who continued to voice his views in occasional letters to newspaper editors, became vice president of the Kenai Civic League and found long-term employment as a supervisor for the Lochler Pipeline Company, helping to direct the construction of the natural gas pipeline from wells off Kalifornsky Beach Road.

The route for the Soldotna end of that road owes its existence in part to Marvin Smith, who in the mid-1950s assisted Grant Phillips and his family in moving to their homestead along the lower Kenai River. They strung streamers of toilet paper to mark a route, including a crossing of Slikok Creek, so that heavy equipment operator Morris Coursen could rough in a roadway.

In the 1980s, the Smiths, too, departed Alaska and returned to southern California.

Phyllis (Little) Smith died at age 64 in 1993. Her brother Ira, nearly 74, died about one year later. Ann Little remained a widow until her own death at age 75 in late 2002. And Marvin Smith, the longest-lived among this quartet of friends, died at about age 88 in 2012.

At some point after both Smith and Little had left Alaska, Marvin Smith told officials of the Soldotna Historical Society that his old homestead cabin had become the kitchen in someone’s home.

Ira Little’s cabin, on the other hand, passed through several hands, including those of Tom and Loretta Sokol. In 1983, when they sold their riverfront property, the Sokols donated the cabin to the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce. “I had enjoyed the cabin over the years and was afraid it would fall into disrepair,” Tom Sokol told the Peninsula Clarion.

Initially, the chamber used the cabin as a business office, but in 1987 the structure was moved to the grounds of the Soldotna Historical Society’s Homestead Museum. The museum has preserved the Little place and has it on display, along with other homesteaders’ cabins, during each museum season.

Little Family photo courtesy of the Soldotna Historical Society
Ira Little poses in the doorway of the cabin he recently completed with the help of his buddy, Marvin Smith, in the winter of 1947-48. The cabin stood on a high bank above the Kenai River in the area that would soon be known as Soldotna.

Little Family photo courtesy of the Soldotna Historical Society Ira Little poses in the doorway of the cabin he recently completed with the help of his buddy, Marvin Smith, in the winter of 1947-48. The cabin stood on a high bank above the Kenai River in the area that would soon be known as Soldotna.