AUTHOR’S NOTE: The first of the three Keeler siblings to travel from Oregon to the Kenai Peninsula for a chance at a better life was Floyd Nelson Keeler, accompanied by three of his grown children, Myrtle, Jack and Bob, in 1947. As has been documented in previous parts of this story, he was followed north by brother Lawrence Keeler in 1948 and sister Verona (Keeler) Wilson in 1951.
“Most of those homesteaders won’t last.”
That quote from an unnamed Kenai resident appeared in a January 1949 letter written by Ridgeway homesteader Rusty Lancashire to her family in the Midwest. Lancashire agreed with the quote. She knew first-hand the hard work required of new homesteaders. She understood the necessary staying power.
“Already it’s starting to show,” she wrote. “The Keelers are proving up in February and heading back to the states.”
Lancashire was essentially correct about the Soldotna-based Keeler family. Most of them were, indeed, preparing to pull up stakes.
A year earlier, Floyd Robert “Bob” Keeler had filed on a 160-acre homestead just east of Soldotna. He was nearly finished proving up but wouldn’t receive patent to his land until March 5, 1951. By the time the paperwork came through, he would already be back in Oregon. In fact, his youngest son, Tommy, was born in Oregon in August 1949, so Bob (or at least his wife Betty) had departed Alaska well before his patent came through.
His younger, bachelor brother, John William “Jack” Keeler, had filed on a 160-acre parcel adjacent to Bob’s in October 1947 and had already proved up. Jack would receive his patent four months after Lancashire penned her letter. He, too, was—as Lancashire had indicated—preparing to leave Alaska.
Their sister Myrtle, along with her husband, Melvin Minor, had recently filed on 80 acres near the Mackey Lakes, while their father, 60-year-old Floyd Nelson “Pappy” Keeler—one of very few “seniors” living in the Soldotna area in the late 1940s—was about to file on nearly 135 acres in the same area. Neither Floyd nor the Minors would ever finish proving up.
The Minors, in fact, returned to an Oregon logging area known as Four Mile (in Coos County) by the time the U.S. Census was enumerated there on April 27, 1950. Living nearby was Myrtle’s brother Jack, in the same household as their widowed grandmother, 85-year-old Samantha Keeler, and their uncle, George William Keeler.
Two weeks earlier, in another Oregon county to the north-northeast, Bob Keeler and his wife and kids were also counted as residents of Oregon once again.
Floyd, on the other hand, was the lone Keeler counted in the census when was it was conducted near Soldotna by Frank Mullen in late May 1950. Floyd’s brother, Lawrence Keeler, and his family were living in Anchor Point. Sister Verona (Keeler) Wilson and her husband were still a year away from moving to Soldotna.
For the brothers Jack and Bob Keeler, their homesteading efforts of the late 1940s may have been financial investments—opportunities for cheap land that they could later turn into profit. It is possible, however, that they both returned to Oregon to earn enough money to afford a more permanent move north later on.
At the time of the 1950 census, Floyd was still living in a cabin on Jack’s homestead, but he was getting itchy feet.
Changes in Fortune
Jack Keeler was back in the timber business in Oregon by at least April 1950. According to the census in Four Mile that year, he was a choker setter for an area logging operation.
He had served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946, honorably discharged as a corporal. He had accompanied his father and siblings to Alaska in 1947 and successfully homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula. Besides his time in the military and in Alaska, he had been employed in the logging industry much of his adult life.
Logging has consistently been one of the most dangerous industries in the United States. Already, the extended Keeler family had been wracked by a logging-related loss when Verona’s second husband, Howard Cox, was killed in 1940 while working for a lumber company. On Sept. 22, 1953, the Keelers were devastated again.
Employed as a faller and a bucker at a logging camp in Curry County, 29-year-old Jack Keeler was killed instantly when a tree fell directly on him, fracturing his skull and right femur and crushing his chest.
A few months later, when a notice to creditors appeared in the Seward Seaport Record, Jack’s father Floyd was listed as the administrator of the estate. Interestingly, Floyd’s address was listed as a post office box in Juneau, meaning that all of Floyd’s branch of the Keeler clan had departed the Kenai.
Among the survivors listed in Jack’s obituary was his mother, Edith Lillian Keeler, whose residence was listed as Cottage Grove, Ore. Also living in Cottage Grove at this time was Jack’s sister Myrtle, who, earlier that year, had been granted a divorce from her husband for what she claimed in the divorce petition was “cruelty.”
Jack Keeler’s estate was likely fairly substantial for the times. A year before his death, Jack had signed a contract agreeing to sell his entire homestead, including all structures, to Kenai residents William and Lillie Mongeau.
The Mongeaus moved into the Keeler homestead house in about July. The entire structure burned to the ground on the last day of November. Lillie Mongeau, who was at home with their five children, managed to get everyone out safely and even salvage a few of their possessions from the ground floor.
Over the next few years, the Mongeaus negotiated several deals involving the former Jack Keeler homestead. One of those transactions granted a half-interest in the land to a woman named Virginia “Ginger” Tallman. In the early 1950s, on the portion of the homestead north of the Sterling Highway, Tallman, created a bar called The Circus, which became the Hilltop Bar and Café in the early 1960s and then the Zodiac Club and finally Good Time Charlies in the 1970s.
Also in the 1970s, the homestead land south of the highway was transformed into the Birch Ridge Golf Course.
The line that ran between Jack’s homestead and Bob’s became the eastern boundary for the City of Soldotna. In 1968, Bob and his wife Betty signed a survey plat showing the transfer of a 12.3-acre parcel south of the highway and abutting Jack’s homestead to the Homer Electric Association, which later erected a large substation on the property for the generation of electrical power.
Residential subdivisions, at least one church and several businesses now occupy the land that Bob once homesteaded.
Bob Keeler, who had served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, lived to age 71, dying in 1990 after spending most of his life in Coos and Curry counties in Oregon. He had owned a chainsaw shop, driven a school bus and fished commercially. He had also been a member of the VFW, the Lions Club and the Port Orford Senior Center.
But the life of Floyd Nelson Keeler, the father of this branch of the Keeler clan, differed widely from the lives of his children.