Off the Shelf: Hidden history

‘Once Upon the Kenai’ tells the story behind the peninsula’s landmarks and people

People in the Lower 48 had a lot of things to say when I told them I was moving to Alaska. There were the par for the course jokes about it being cold, the dark winters and the bears. It’s no surprise that there is a bit of a learning curve: Buying studded tires, obtaining a P.O. box and shoveling snow were all new experiences for me.

Undoubtedly the steepest learning curve, however, was playing catch-up on the thousands of years of history that make the Kenai Peninsula so special. From the Kahtnut’ana Dena’ina, to settlers in the 20th century, to contemporary vagabonds, the peninsula is rich with history I always want to know more about.

I was therefore quite delighted to happen upon a copy of “Once Upon the Kenai,” which I snagged for $0.50 after finding it in a pile of other Alaskana for sale at Bishop’s Attic in Soldotna. Beyond getting hooked in by the old family and town photos and colorful narrative, I’ve come to view the tome as a valuable source of modern Kenai Peninsula history.

Of course, someone’s lived experience might not necessarily line up with another’s. However, as editor Mary Ford writes in the book’s introduction, that is part of the charm.

“Readers should keep in mind that one person’s recollection may differ from another’s and the value of this book lies in its individuality,” writes Project Director Jetret “Jettie” Petersen, in the preface.

“Once Upon the Kenai: Stories from the People” is a mosaic of voices from some of the peninsula’s most recognizable names. An index of surnames in the back makes it a great go-to guide when I want to know more about the person for whom a street or building is called.

As the government and education reporter at the Clarion, for example, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Betty J. Glick Assembly Chambers, which is located inside the George A. Navarre Admin Building, on Binkley Street, near the Joyce K. Carver Memorial Soldotna Public Library.

As somebody with no familial ties to the central peninsula, it’s pretty neat to flip through the book and try to align old pictures with my understanding of the borough’s current layout. One of the book’s first pictures, for example, is a shot of the Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church. The first thing that came to mind? Look at all that bluff!

It’s hard not to wonder what the peninsula will look like in another 50 years, but it’s cool to know we’re all part of the story not-yet-written.

“Once Upon the Kenai: Stories from the People” was compiled and published by the Kenai Historical Society and printed by Walsworth Publishing Company in Marceline, Missouri in 1984.

Ashlyn O’Hara can be reached at

Off the Shelf is a bimonthly literature column written by the staff of The Peninsula Clarion that features reviews and recommendations of books and other texts through a contemporary lens.