Tragedy and triumph of the Goat Woman — Part 1

Florence Lorraine “Rusty” Lancashire first met her neighbor, the old Goat Woman, in the fall of 1948

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I first wrote about the Goat Woman in 2009 for the Redoubt Reporter. In 2015, Deborah Poore researched further and greatly expanded the information base about this subject and authored a slim volume entitled “The Goat Lady of Kenai, Alaska.” Since I first stumbled across the Goat Woman’s story, she has rarely been far from my mind. I decided recently to build on Debi’s research and see what else I could learn. This multipart article is the result.

Rusty Receives a Visitor

Florence Lorraine “Rusty” Lancashire first met her neighbor, the old Goat Woman, in the fall of 1948. Rusty had been warned by husband, Larry, against stopping by the Goat Woman’s home at Mink Creek because, he said, she liked being left alone. She also might just come out shooting.

Rusty and Larry had moved to Alaska in March 1948 and homesteaded in Ridgeway with their three young daughters: Lorrie, Martha and Abby. When the Goat Woman — as Miriam Mathers was known in the area — first came to call, the Lancashires were still living in a canvas wall tent atop a rise called Pickle Hill, crossed by a rough new spur road recently constructed by the Alaska Road Commission.

“One day,” wrote Rusty in a letter to out-of-state relatives, “I heard an animal-like voice ask Martha where her mother was. I pulled back the tent flap and asked her what she wanted. She said she heard there was a grocery store down this way and wanted to know where. I told her and laughed — said I thought she was just snooping around to see how we lived. Anyway, she came in for some tea and we became friends.”

Less than two years later, the gregarious 31-year-old Rusty was attending Mathers’ funeral at the Kenai Chapel and her burial near the edge of town.

The post-mortem arrangements had gotten under way shortly after Mathers’ death May 26, 1950, on the beach at Kenai. The proceedings were nothing fancy.

On Kenai Roadhouse stationery dated May 27 was a handwritten inquiry about borrowing lumber from roadhouse proprietor John Consiel. “We cannot find a thing in town for a coffin and need two sheets of plywood,” read the note. “The marshal will replace this as he has charge of her money.”

In the end, three sheets of plywood were required, purchased for a total of $15.90 from the Petrovich Brothers sawmill in Naptowne (the original name for Sterling). Matrona Petterson and Feona Miller were paid $20 to prepare the body. Emil Carlson earned $30.50 for building the coffin. Grave-digging duties went to Robert Pederson ($10), Bill Nelson ($10) and Tom Foster ($5). Hal Thornton charged $7.06 for radiogram messages sent out of state to Mathers’ siblings.

A careful accounting of these expenses was necessary because Miriam Mathers had died intestate, with no direct descendents and no will to guide the dispensation of her possessions. Marshal Allan L. Petersen, administrator of Mathers’ estate, wanted to be sure all costs were covered and any remainder was delivered to surviving family — in this case, Mathers’ 10 brothers and sisters.

All of the proceedings related to her estate were later handled by a probate court.

“They made her a box out of plywood,” wrote Rusty about the Mathers service, “and on the top were three boxes of artificial flowers…. The missionary wife read a service—and sang—then they hauled her out to a truck. The marshall’s wife took pictures to send back [to her kinfolk] … all the natives smiling—it looked more like a wedding.

“At the little American cemetary they laid the box down—we all sang ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ The cemetary is just a place in the woods where nature grows wild and claims everything. After that they tied some ropes around the box and dropped it into the hole—as the box went down, the lid popped up—”

Rusty, who used to joke about her problems with accurate spelling, continued: “I thought Marian was going to sit up or something. If she had been able, she would have, as she hated almost everyone that put her away. Well, the missionary started to read a prayer and as she did so, a couple winos, the town’s worst drinkers, started shoveling dirt over Marian.

“The missionary prayed for those that were left. I couldn’t help but pray that poor old Marian was at last happy. She had had such a hard life and such a sour one.”

There are those who would dispute that the life of Miriam Mathers had truly been “sour.” Although she had been told that no woman her age (62 at that time) could make the journey alone to the Territory of Alaska, she had made it. Although she had been told that she could not travel alone over the swampy, roadless terrain between Cooper Landing and Kenai, she had done so. Although women in those days rarely filed for homesteads alone and rarely built cabins alone, she had done those things, too, and more.

Yet the triumphs of Miriam Mathers were nearly lost to the shadows of history, and that would have been a “sour” loss, indeed.

Tying Up Loose Ends

Outwardly, the Mathers estate appeared meager. Although she had applied for a patent to the 160 acres of land she had staked, that patent had not yet been approved, so the land, technically, had not belonged to her. There were doubts, too, about whether the patent would be approved posthumously because Mathers had not completed the proving-up process required of homesteaders at that time.

Mathers had built a habitable dwelling — a 12-by-11-foot cabin constructed of cottonwood logs — in which she had lived until the time of her death. Marshal Petersen, in a June 1950 letter to U.S. Commissioner Rose Walsh requesting her permission for him to act as estate administrator, said of Mathers’ home, “She built a cabin on the place and you may be sure it is not a good one. She had very little of value in it.”

In a separate letter two months later, Petersen told Walsh: “[Mathers] had no land under cultivation. The only way she would have been able to get [the required] twenty acres under cultivation would be to hire it done and I am sure she would never have done that. I have been told by men from the Land Office that she would probably get a five acre homesite and that would be about all…. I believe the old lady was entitled to that much after all she went through trying to get a home for herself.”

About her cabin, he added: “There is so little it is not worth probating, so … I will sell the cabin and the few other things she had and send the money to the brothers and sisters.”

When she died, Mathers had $171.25 in cash on her — all that remained from the $263.55 in bonds that she had cashed nine days earlier through the Bank of Alaska in Anchorage. A few months earlier, she had reluctantly accepted the marshal’s advice to apply for welfare assistance — which had been granted at a rate of $30 per month. And then she had suffered heart trouble and spent much of the winter in an Anchorage hospital.

When her cabin and its contents were sold for $100 to James and Millie Medema in July 1951, the total value of her estate climbed to $271.25, minus a growing list of expenses. After those expenses were paid, a check for the remainder ($123.80) was sent to Mathers’ eldest sibling, Cora Mosser of Ashland, Oregon, with instructions to divide the proceeds equally among the brothers and sisters.

The siblings had one more request: They wished Marshal Petersen to attempt to complete the proving-up process on their sister’s homestead so that the estate could receive patent to the land.

Petersen checked with the Bureau of Land Management to see whether such a plan was allowed. Technically, the time to fulfill the terms of the patent had not elapsed, so the BLM granted the request.

The marshal contracted Larry Lancashire to do the job of clearing and cultivating, and gave him six months to complete the work. Lancashire, who had his own 160-acre homestead to manage, did not complete the work, and in January 1953, Petersen drew up a second contract — this time with heavy equipment operator Morris Coursen.

The contract called for Coursen to be paid $250 an acre to “clear, cultivate, seed or plant 20 acres” of the Mathers homestead. He completed the work on time and then had to wait to be paid until after the land was sold — which could not happen until the homestead patent was granted.

The patent became official Dec. 4, 1953, nearly three and a half years after Mathers’ death. Almost a full year later, the land was auctioned at the front door of the office of the U.S. Commissioner, Stanley Thompson, in Kenai. The winning bid of $5,800 came from Morris Coursen, who was owed $5,000 of that amount for his clearing and cultivating work.

Most of the remaining $800 went to pay probate costs and attorney and administrative fees. Only a few dollars remained for Mathers’ heirs.

The Lancashires later wound up with 40 acres of the Mathers homestead, and Abby (Lancashire) Ala still lives on a portion of that land. Meanwhile, the neighborhood around Mink Creek and the surrounding area began to grow, and children poking around in the brush explored near the dilapidated old creekside cabin, despite parental admonishments to let the spirit of the old woman rest in peace.


Better Homes & Gardens article photo, 1955
Rusty Lancashire, who befriended her neighbor, Miriam Mathers, climbs into her vehicle in front of the Kenai Commercial Company store in Kenai.

Better Homes & Gardens article photo, 1955 Rusty Lancashire, who befriended her neighbor, Miriam Mathers, climbs into her vehicle in front of the Kenai Commercial Company store in Kenai.

Photo courtesy of Peggy Arness
Allan Petersen—Marshal Allan Petersen handled the estate of Miriam Mathers after she died in Kenai in May 1950.

Photo courtesy of Peggy Arness Allan Petersen—Marshal Allan Petersen handled the estate of Miriam Mathers after she died in Kenai in May 1950.