Editor’s note: With 2014 marking the Homer News 50th anniversary, it’s the perfect time to look at Homer’s past. WKFL Park is a lot that’s been associated with the Barefooters since 1958.
The current controversy over whether to put a bronze statue of Brother Asaiah Bates in WKFL Park isn’t the first time that land has been involved in a debate over what to put on it. While this discussion has been cordial, in the fall of 1990 things were heated. The Homer City Council faced an angry crowd of veterans wanting to know why the council was reconsidering its decision to allow the American Legion Auxiliary to build a veterans memorial at WKFL Park.
The name of the park means “Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love,” and refers to the organization that bought the land about 1958, Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love Fountain of the World. Started in Simi Valley, Calif., in the late 1940s by Krishna Venta, WKFL came to Homer in 1957 to establish a branch, on 480 acres of land in the Fox River Valley at the head of Kachemak Bay. Helen Jackson, 86, came up in August of 1957. She met her husband, R.B., at the WKFL homestead.
“It was considered a humanitarian service group. It wasn’t a religion,” Jackson said.
Brother Asaiah had met Venta in the 1950s and became a member at the California headquarters. He first came to Homer in 1959.
The WKFL group became known as the Barefooters because of their habit of going barefoot. They also swore not to cut their hair or beards until there was world peace and hunger was ended. The Barefooters would wear shoes on walks out to the homestead in winter, but mostly went barefoot.
“We weren’t idiots. We used common sense,” Jackson said. “It’s mind over matter. Your feet are tender at first. You have to watch out you don’t walk on broken glass.”
Venta and WKFL bought the lot at the corner of Heath Street and Pioneer Avenue. There was a machine shop there, and under head mechanic Tom Boblick, they repaired the equipment used at the homestead. WKFL also bought a house behind what’s now the Kenai Peninsula Borough offices on Pioneer Avenue. Jackson, a nurse, delivered three babies there.
The shop became known as Barefoot Machine Shop or Barefoot Welding. In the late 1960s, Ralph and Betty Miller bought the lot next to it and built Miller’s Mini-Mall, where Betty had a beauty shop and Ralph a machine shop. They rented part of the Barefoot Machine Shop land for parking and storage.
In 1958 after two former WKFL members killed Venta and seven others in a suicide bombing in Simi Valley, the WKFL groups began to fall apart. The Jacksons moved to Homer permanently in 1960. Brother Asaiah acquired the WKFL lot because he was the member in charge. Eventually Asaiah bought out Ruth Venta, Krishna’s widow.
Brother Asaiah lived on the lot in a small house until he moved to another home on Bonanza Avenue in the late 1970s. Michael Kennedy rented the property from him, where he ran The Last Chance Repair and Recycling. When the city got the land from Brother Asaiah in 1988, the city eventually had Kennedy move The Last Chance.
“Asaiah got some grief from a few people in the city over me having a junk yard in the town,” Kennedy said. “That bothered him a little bit. He was really anti-conflict.”
Brother Asaiah saw even worse conflict in 1990. After the city got the land, it solicited proposals. The American Legion Auxiliary put forth an idea for a veterans memorial. In July 1990, the Homer City Council approved the memorial. Others who had ideas didn’t learn about that, and in September, one of them asked the council to reconsider the memorial.
At an Oct. 11 meeting, a standing-room crowd, including many veterans, asked the council to uphold its decision. Brother Asaiah, a World War II combat veteran, asked that it be a peace park. He tried to give the auxiliary $5,000 for its design work, but a legionnaire refused. One man said the Brother Asaiah “should take his $5,000 and go see a psychiatrist, because he is sick and he is crazy.” Brother Asaiah responded, “Would you tell that brother I love him?” Council member Harry Gregoire, later elected mayor, and also a WWII combat vet, said he found his war experience hard to talk about.
“I don’t want to go this little jewel of a park and be reminded of things I put away,” Gregoire said then.
The council postponed action to give the auxiliary time to comment more on the proposal. In a compromise, the auxiliary backed off on its proposal for a memorial at WKFL Park, and the council overturned its earlier decision. Eventually a legion memorial was built at Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
No other projects were put in the park beyond a gazebo and a large rock. Last year, the city built a public restroom in the park, to be opened soon. The 1988 resolution accepting the land said “the city should erect a suitable plaque on the site acknowledging the donor’s generosity,” but all that is there is a sign that says “Joy to the world for thinking, loving and understanding. The W.K.F.L. Park is dedicated to the Great Spirit of Life.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Krishna Venta and his followers arrive in Homer from California and settle a homestead on 480 acres in the Fox River Valley beyond the end of East End Road.
WKFL purchases a lot on the corner of Pioneer Avenue and Heath Street.
Barefoot Machine Shop is run by WKFL to repair its equipment.
Brother Asaiah first visits Homer. He eventually settles in Homer and first lives in a house on the WKFL lot.
WKFL group in Homer and Fox River begins to fall apart.
Brother Asaiah moves to a home on Bonanza Avenue. Michael Kennedy opens Last Chance Repair and Recycling.
May 16, 1988:
City of Homer acquires WKFL land for the the price of $250 a month for the rest of Brother Asaiah’s life. — about $36,000 by the time he dies in 2000.
WKFL Park is built.
City approves an American Legion Auxiliary veterans memorial at WKFL Park, but the legion later withdraws its plan after a bitter controversy.