‘Meet the People’ spotlights Homer’s pioneering women

Stories about Homer’s bygone days fill the pages of books. On April 3, the public had an opportunity to hear the stories told by the ones that wrote them at “Meet the People,” an event co-sponsored by the Pioneers of Alaska and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. 

Introduced by CACS Executive Director Beth Trowbridge and CACS volunteer Daisy Lee Bitter, Larene Tepa Hansen Rogers, Joan Gordon Edens, Laura Lofgren Barton and Wilma Shelford Williams shared accounts of growing up in Homer and raising their own families on the shores of Kachemak Bay.

“The most important thing that is special about Homer is the people,” said Bitter. “We’ve heard the guys stories a lot, and someone said, ‘It’s about time we heard from the women.’ So we chose four pioneer women to tell their stories.”

Rogers’ father Bert arrived in Homer in 1921; her mother Inga arrived in 1926.The family’s log house was built on the south side of Kachemak Bay, dismantled, rafted to Homer and reassembled. Now the Old Inlet Bookshop, it is the house in which Rogers was born and where she lived until she married in 1953.

Hansen’s father operated Homer’s first taxi company with a fleet of two Model A Ford sedans. If her father was busy, 12-year-old Hansen filled in, using driving skills learned while gathering coal on the beach.

One of Hansen’s first jobs was working for Arthur and Natalie Hewlett when they opened the Bank of Homer.

“I told them I didn’t know anything about banking. They said, ‘We don’t either. We’ll just learn together,’” said Hansen.

Edens and her family came to Homer in 1936. A clipping from a Seward newspaper marked the family’s arrival to Alaska aboard the SS Yukon, before continuing aboard the SS Curacao for the “coming Cook Inlet metropolis” of Homer. The family’s connection to Homer was through Edens’ uncle, Sam Pratt. 

“Coal from the backyard, gold on the sloping beach beyond the front door and electrical power generated by a natural waterfall on the premises made too strong an appeal for Harris Gordon to resist, so he packed up his things and with Mrs. Gordon and three children, left their happy home in Venice California, and headed to Homer, Alaska,” the newspaper said. 

One worrisome piece of family history was only recently answered for Edens.

“When Uncle Sam found out we were coming…he went out to the Spit and got lumber. A lot of people were building homes out of old Homer mining buildings. I was always wondering did they just take (the lumber) or what? The other day I found a receipt, ‘Received, sum of $50 for remains of buildings located on the Homer Spit known as office buildings.’ That relieved my mind,” said Edens of knowing the lumber wasn’t stolen.

Barton and her family arrived in Kodiak in 1941 and made a side trip to Homer, before returning to their home in Puyallup, Wash. They returned in June 1945.

The first summer in Homer, the Bartons got a dozen chickens.

“By the time I was in high school, we’d get 1,200 baby chick in the spring and aim for 1,000 laying hens and get 800-some eggs a day,” said Barton. “We sent eggs to Ninilchik, Clam Gulch, all the way to Seward. We had a lot of eggs.”

When Hazel Heath began Alaska Wild Berry Products in Homer, she told Barton’s father she would buy all the rhubarb he could raise. 

“She did not know my dad,” said Barton. 

When Heath saw the amount of rhubarb the family had grown, she decided one truck load was enough.

Shortly after her birth in Washington in 1925, Wilma Williams came to Alaska with her parents. The family settled in Seldovia, but a series of circumstances resulted in Williams being out of Alaska for awhile. She finally returned in 1941.

Williams talked about learning to fish with set nets at McDonald Spit. Those lessons proved useful when her son, Tommy, insisted on fishing at Bristol Bay.

Williams told her son, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll write to the fellow taking care of the set nets out there on that beach and if he’ll take us, we’ll all go. Now that was a little mean of me because who in their right mind would take a woman and a half dozen kids?” 

Sometime later, Williams was underneath the family’s Homer house using a blowtorch to thaw out frozen water pipes. When she crawled out, blowtorch in hand, she was greeted by the man to whom she had written.

“I wanted to see if you could handle a set net and I guess you’ll do,” Williams recalled the man saying. 

“We are excited at Coastal Studies to partner with Pioneers of Alaska to have this talk and have these amazing women here to tell their stories,” said Trowbridge.

“It’s not often women behind some of the efforts of homesteading and growing the community are recognized for all they do behind the scenes. This is an opportunity to hear their stories and not let that be forgotten.”

Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News