Volunteers planning the 2017 Kenai Peninsula local history conference got a wonderful surprise in December. Long-lost films of a 1974 Kenai history conference have been found, salvaged and digitized.
The recovery culminated a string of unlikely events, with the credit going to modern technology and the skilled staff at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections in Juneau.
The recovered material includes footage of well-known but now deceased peninsula leaders such as Kenaitze linguist Peter Kalifornsky, Soldotna co-founder Dolly Farnsworth and three-time Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Stan Thompson.
It also contains talks by the late, prominent Alaska historians Morgan Sherwood and Claus Naske. The main presenters still alive are retired University of Alaska linguist James Kari and Mother Victoria (then a historian and nun with the St. Herman’s Pastoral School in Kodiak and now the abbess of a monastery in California).
The upcoming event, 150 Years: Kenai Peninsula History Conference, will be April 21 and 22 at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus in Soldotna. It is one of several events around the state marking the 150th anniversary of Alaska’s purchase from Russia by the United States.
In a sense it is a belated sequel to that first Conference on Kenai Area History, held Nov. 7-8, 1974, at Kenai Central High School, inspired by 1967 Alaska Centennial observations.
For more than a generation, the local history conference was not repeated, and peninsula people lost track of the films that recorded it. The only traces were fond memories among surviving participants and aging copies of its book, titled “The Native, Russian and American Experiences of the Kenai Area of Alaska.” According to acknowledgments in that book, it was illustrated, typed and published by Kenai Central High School students, who also filmed the presentations under the supervision of Tom Ackerly.
Shana Loshbaugh, project manager for the upcoming conference, went to Juneau in late September for the 2016 Alaska Historical Society meeting. She never had been to the state capital before and scheduled extra days to explore the state archives, looking for goodies about Kenai Peninsula history. When she looked at the online index of the Juneau holdings, it listed a box of material from the 1974 Kenai conference.
Loshbaugh signed up to look at the box, hoping to find a program and photos from the prior event. When Assistant Librarian Sandra Johnston brought out the box and opened it, both were surprised to find it contained tapes of half-inch reel-to-reel, black and white video.
Johnston called film specialist Damon Stuebner from the back room. He was concerned that the tapes were probably too old and frail to salvage, but offered to try. The state-of-the-art process involved prolonged low level heat treatment which temporarily stabilizes the polymers which bind the magnetic elements to the tape. The tapes were then run through a legacy video player and specialized capture equipment to digitize the audio and video components. With magnetic tapes of this vintage there is no certainty of success.
The early results were not promising. But at the beginning of December, Johnston phoned Loshbaugh and said, “I have good news.”
Against the odds, Stuebner had succeeded.
They mailed a box of DVDs to Loshbaugh containing the entire conference recording. The content runs about 8½ hours total and covers the two days of presentations, panel discussions and audience comments. Although the quality varies, only about half an hour is unintelligible.
In the cover letter, Johnston wrote that the original tapes were in danger of deteriorating to the point of no return and even the machinery to read them is disappearing, so it was critical to transfer them to a digital format. She estimated that Stuebner spent 50 hours working on them and the commercial value of the restoration would have been $2,500. Because of the content, the state decided to donate a set of the digitized films to the upcoming conference project.
“We believe they will prove invaluable to you, and are happy to have rescued such an important resource,” Johnston wrote.
Loshbaugh spent days watching the footage on the DVDs and was thrilled by some of the content.
For example, Naske, Sherwood and peninsula residents had a lively discussion about homesteading. Sherwood, then a professor at the University of California Davis, gave the keynote talk, and it turned out that he had a summer home at Halibut Cove and was enthralled by the Kenai Peninsula’s history mysteries. Kari spoke about the Dena’ina language, with the assistance of fluent speakers Kalifornsky and his sister, Fedosia Sacaloff, and discussed the project the three of them recently had begun to bring the area’s indigenous tongue back from the brink of extinction.
Highlighting the conference’s rare information was an exchange on the last day. It began with tales of the misdeeds of the bullying shopkeeper, Alec “Paddy” Ryan. With no police near, Ryan dominated Kenai with erratic violence. Residents, aided by the priest, petitioned the Territory for help, to no avail. A bullet stopped Ryan’s career in 1918, but one of his pals killed the shooter, all during what was supposed to be a school-board election. Two people in the audience, Alex Shadura and Mary Kalifornsky Nissen, shared details they had seen as children.
“Everybody was scared,” Nissen recalled.
Mother (then Sister) Victoria said that church records confirmed their eye-witness accounts, and the lawlessness of the early U.S. decades led many villagers to look back at the late Russian period with nostalgia.
Phil Ames, who served as an area marshal, said dictatorial trading-post managers were a major problem that eventually led the Territory to post deputy marshals to communities such as Seldovia and Kenai. “If you got a Ryan,” he said, “heaven help you. Nobody else could.” The audience responded with applause.
After reviewing all the footage, Loshbaugh resolved to contact the surviving speakers or families of the deceased to tell them about the film’s recovery and work out ways to get copies for them. Finding people took some amateur detective work, but with the help of local contacts and the Internet, she found most of them. This led to interesting emails and phone calls.
Most people reacted with surprise and delight. One message called the news “astonishing,” and the son of one presenter said that, based on this turn of events, he intends to travel up from the Lower 48 to attend the April conference.
Loshbaugh now plans to distribute some still images from the film to ask the public to help identify some people pictured. She also wants to arrange to get an edited version of conference highlights, about an hour long, to screen as a documentary at the April conference. The state library, meanwhile, intends to post excerpts online via You Tube, according to Jim Simard, the head of the historical collections.
Having this windfall right before Christmas made her feel like one of Santa’s helpers, Loshbaugh said, and the recovered film will make a perfect starting point for beginning the long-deferred second local history conference after Easter.
150 Years: Kenai Peninsul History Conference
WHEN: April 21 and 22
WHERE: Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus in Soldotna
MORE INFO: http://www.kenaipeninsulahist.wixsite.com/conference on Facebook at “150 Years: Kenai Peninsula History Conference”
TO GET ON EVENT MAILING LIST: Contact Shana Loshbaugh at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 907-460-7554