In the summer of 1948, while Soldotna homesteader Howard Lee was helping Ridgeway homesteader Larry Lancashire build a cabin, he got his first glimpse of Larry’s wife, Rusty: “She was right off Madison Avenue, so to speak,” said Lee in a 1991 interview, “in her natty suit, silk stockings, high heels, etc.”
Mrs. Lancashire certainly didn’t fit Lee’s notion of what a homesteading woman should look like.
And Lee’s wife, Maxine, was equally surprised: “Rusty had been a model at the Candy Jones Agency in New York and a socialite in Illinois. Rusty was the most beautiful, striking woman I had ever seen.”
Rusty and her three young daughters had first arrived in Alaska on June 19, 1948, and bush pilot Sig Krogstad had been stunned by her appearance. He noted that she was “dressed to the nines” — wearing platform shoes and a hat to match her dress.
Krogstad thought she looked anything but homestead ready. He assumed she wouldn’t last.
At the Kenai airport, after she climbed down from his red Gull Wing Stinson, he asked, “Where are you going?” She replied that she and the girls were going out to live on a homestead. Krogstad told her, “I’ll see you next week,” figuring by then she would be ready to flee back to the Lower 48.
Her husband soon arrived in a battered jeep to pick up his family. After packing them and their luggage inside, Larry began driving an 8-mile stretch of the rough, new Kenai Spur Road toward the homestead he had staked out a month earlier.
“Where’s Kenai?” asked Rusty as they motored along.
“We’ve just been through it,” Larry answered.
Rusty was initially unimpressed by the temporary home in which they were to live until the cabin had been completed, she wrote in “Once upon the Kenai.” This shelter, she said, was comprised of “two Australian army tents laced together, and to make them taller, they were up on three feet of logs. No door, you had to jump in and out.”
Inside the tent, “I looked up to the ridgepole and saw something. I asked Larry, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s a salmon Sergei Pete (Peteroff) brought for my woman!’ It was covered with big flies. It was thoughtful of Sergei Pete to do it.”
Even before she had begun gathering first impressions on this first day, Rusty had expressed doubts about her pioneering abilities. Prior to departing the Midwest for Alaska, she had confessed to a sister-in-law, “Well, Larry’s loving Alaska — and of course my only worry is — will I? You know how I love my parties and lots of people…. But I may surprise myself. Sorta think I will.”
Although Rusty’s only previous experience in outdoor living had been at a girls’ camp, she persevered on the Kenai. She even thrived. In fact, she went on to live on their Pickle Hill homestead in Ridgeway for the next 52 years.
About 10 days after landing in Kenai, she wrote to her mother: “I love it here and love to shoot the .30.06.” Rusty explained that she had hit the bullseye with her second shot during her first-ever target practice.
“Never saw Larry so happy in my life,” she wrote. “He even walked up and kissed me. I told him I was saving my money for bullets from now on.”
Only a month after her arrival, she was traveling with Larry and a group of new friends to Seward when they spotted a black bear alongside the narrow, unpaved strip of highway. They stopped, and Burton Carver hopped out with a rifle to dispatch the animal.
Over subsequent days, Rusty expanded her palate and her kitchen repertoire to include bear roast, bear steak, bear cheeseburgers and bear meat pie.
A year later — in a wry realization of how far she had come — she laughed when she heard a schoolboy refer to her as “the hillbilly woman that smokes a pipe and has all the patches on her pants.”
Florence Lorraine “Rusty” Tallman was born May 12, 1919 in Pontiac, Illinois, to Albert Henry and Florence Esther Tallman. She was the middle child of five, and she had a shock of red hair that quickly prompted the nickname that would follow her the rest of her life.
Lawrence Henry “Larry” Lancashire was born April 20, 1918, to a well-to-do family in Toledo, Ohio. His parents, Herbert Winterton and Martha Ireton Lancashire, owned the Buckeye Brewery and the first Ford dealership in Toledo. They lived in what Larry referred to as a “mansion” on the Maumee River.
At various times, the family mansion was populated by nannies, butlers and cooks. Larry was the lone son in a family containing five daughters.
“He just always loved being in the woods, even though he knew how to be a society boy,” said his own eldest daughter, Martha. “His family was a society family…. He did not like it.”
Larry’s middle daughter, Lori, called him “a poor little rich boy.”
Martha, the family historian, said Larry told her that when he was very young, he had a small boat tied off to a tree on the river bank. He was allowed to play in the boat and paddle around as far as the rope would take him, while his mother, nearby, monitored his safety.
After graduating from high school in 1936, Larry attended Ohio State University. Rusty graduated high school a year later. A few months before graduation, she got her first modeling gig — displaying spring fashions along with other students and members of the Pontiac Woman’s Club.
Rusty, according to Lori, was from “a lower-middle-class family.” Sometime after high school, she traveled to Toledo to “metaphorically spread her wings. She was working at a Woolworth’s drugstore. Dad pulled up outside in a red convertible and ran into to purchase something. Mother made sure she helped him. They were married six weeks later,” on Nov. 17, 1939.
Rusty “wanted a good life,” said Lori. “She wanted country clubs. She wanted choices more than she had. Dad’s parents were not in favor of Dad’s marriage to Mom because it was such a quick closure. But everyone in Dad’s family soon fell in love with Mom. If you knew her, she was the life of every party. She was one of the best storytellers you would ever meet. She was also quite beautiful.”
The majority of Rusty and Larry’s siblings would go on to live all or most of the rest of their lives in the Midwest. One of them moved to Georgia, another to Arizona, but Rusty and Larry, said Martha, “had the biggest wanderlust.”
In Alaska, the Lancashires tried to convince family to come north to live, but they had to settle for visits only.
“Mom encouraged (her brother) Jerry to come up here one summer,” said Martha. “So he came up for a little while, and one night — he had a pup tent, and we were living in the cabin — a big moose walked by. Uncle Jerry got up and took down his pup tent and went back to Illinois.”
In a Time of War
On Oct. 16, 1940, less than a year after his nuptials, Larry signed his military draft-registration card. (He stood 5-foot-10, weighed 160 pounds, and had brown eyes and blonde hair. He was 22 years old and a salesman for the Travelers’ Insurance Company in Maumee.)
When he officially joined the U.S. Army in February 1941, according to the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, he was “making good on a pledge his parents gave at the time of his birth.” The Lancashires’ baby announcement had stated: “Mrs. and Mrs. Herbert Winterton Lancashire pledge to the United States of America their son.”
In late January 1941, when Larry appeared before the Selective Service Board, he waived any possible exemption because of his marriage. He asked to be placed in service at once.