Editor’s note: This article has been updated to add information.
Four local children from homestead families – now grown with extensive families of their own — regaled the community with stories and anecdotes from their respective homesteads last Thursday during the second iteration of “Homestead Kids.”
Terry Epperson Harrington, Al Poindexter, Mary Haakenson Perry and Joyce Anderson Turkington all grew up in the area surrounding North Fork Road in Anchor Point, referred to generally as “the North Fork.” They presented “Homestead Kids: Tales from the North Fork” at the Alaska Islands and Oceans Visitor Center, moderated by Lynn Whitmore. The event is put on by the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust and this year was supported by the Alaska Humanities Forum.
To say all homesteaders and their children lived the same kind of life would be simplifying: Some were cattle ranchers (like the Eppersons and the Andersons), others were gardeners, still others were fishermen (like the Haakensons). One thing they all shared, though, was the experience of taming a piece of the Kenai Peninsula together through hard work, building and expansion.
Whitmore asked the panelists about a range of topics, from what their first cabins on the North Fork were like to how they got to school, particularly in the winter.
Each pioneering kid recalled that their first house on the North Fork was a one-room cabin. Some had lofts, others didn’t. It wasn’t uncommon to go through several homes in those days while the family settled into its homesteading lifestyle, eventually expanding and upgrading. Harrington recalled staying in an uninsulated house in Ninilchik before the family really got settled.
In Perry’s home, six older siblings all slept together in one loft, with the baby of the family sleeping downstairs with their mom and dad. Both Harrington and Poindexter described early homes in which the cracks between the logs were just about as wide as the logs themselves. They recalled waking up some cold mornings with their blankets frozen to the wall of the cabin where they slept.
Turkington’s family got the first grazing lease given out on the Kenai Peninsula after moving up from the New Mexico area. Poindexter’s family were successful chicken farmers from Seward, helping other families in other areas of the peninsula establish their own farms. As he tells it, though, things didn’t always go so smoothly.
Poindexter recalled his family buying a section of land in 1961 right in the area of what is currently Nikolaevsk. His family picked it for the grasses, he said, because his father had goals that the family would raise cattle.
“My dad knew that was a gold mine,” he said. “You can’t eat grass, but if you feed cows grass, you can feed the cows and then sell them and make money. And so that was the goal.”
Poindexter remembers he and his siblings calling themselves the “tennis shoe cowboys,” referring to their lack of experience and proper equipment in cattle farming.
“Our job … was to keep track of the cows,” he said. “We didn’t have any fence, we didn’t have no barn, we didn’t have anything except a bunch of stupid cows that wanted to go everywhere else but where they were supposed to be.”
“We didn’t know what rain gear was,” Poindexter continued. “And we didn’t have cowboy boots, and we didn’t have cowboy hats. And so consequently, we got soaking wet, every day, all day long. I got to thinking about that. My dad must have not done a very good job of planning because he kept telling us we were going to be cowboys — in fact he called us cowboys and cowgals. … All day long, all summer long, we were out there in our Converse All Stars up to our knees in muck chasing cows.”
While some homestead families grazed cattle and others relied more on fishing, all the kids recalled having plenty of chores to keep them busy. Feeding the animals and hauling water were a recurring theme throughout the night.
That’s not to say that the homestead children never had fun. In describing what it was like to get back and forth from their land to town or school, Turkington and Poindexter talked about getting to hunt for various critters on the way back.
At one point, Turkington and her siblings had a 4.5 mile commute to catch the bus.
“In the spring, the mud holes would be so bad that you could not get anywhere that you went and be clean when you got there,” she said. “You always packed a spare pair of clothes because wherever you got you were going to be covered with mud from head to toe.”
Turkington described how her family, on their way from Anchor Point to their ranch, would park their car at the Anchor River, cross the water on a log, get in their tractor and drive that the rest of the way home.
“Sometimes the boys would talk Mother into letting them take the .22 with them, and we’d stash it on the trail, and coming home then we’d hunt for spruce hens,” Turkington said.
Poindexter and his siblings had a slightly different approach.
“A lot of times we carried the .30-06, my brothers did. They took turns because it was an extra 10 pounds they had to pack,” he said. “We carried that 06 all the way out, and we’d just put it on the bus and go to school, and left it on the bus, and then it would be there on the way back. I don’t think we could do that now.”
The homestead kids also had a number of funny stories to tell. Turkington recalled one particularly rousing time when she was allowed to drive the family tractor back to the ranch by herself.
“My dad bought this Ford Major and I was gonna drive it home,” she recalled. “So I had to drive up Jantz Hill and all the way up, and I got just up in the Hidden Hills area just before you got down into where my folks lived. Homer Smith at that time owned all that Hidden Hills property and he had this big, fancy gate. And no one had taught me how to put the brake on the tractor.”
Turkington “jacked” the tractor around until it stopped rolling, got off, opened the gate and got back on.
“And I was feeling pretty proud of myself that I’d made it all this way and not had a wreck or anything,” she said. “I put it in gear and put the throttle on, and that tractor jumped in the air and it just went right to one of the poles on that big fence, and you could hear it crack clear to the house — took that whole fence out.”
Perry recalled one particularly irksome mouse that was driving her mother crazy, getting into all her food supplies. When her father returned from working in Anchorage one day, Perry’s mother complained to him about the rodent.
“About that time, the mouse popped its head out, so Dad just grabbed the .22 and shot it,” Perry said, to laughs. “Mouse guts all over the one-room cabin. And I’m sure Mom wasn’t too pleased about that.”
Harrington also recalled a story involving quite a big mess. Shortly after her family had moved up to Alaska from Los Angeles, their neighbor had shot a moose.
“It was an illegal moose, so he gave half of it to us and we had to put it up really quick before the game warden (came around),” she said.
Her parents butchered the moose and her mother began canning the meat with a machine in the cabin that held five cans.
“We’re just sitting down for dinner — it’s probably the last canner load of meat for the evening,” Harrington said. “And all of a sudden: kaboom! The canner exploded and the lid flew up through the roof and landed in the snowbank outside. And moose meat, scalding hot moose meat, just splattered all over the cabin.”
Each homesteader could recall with perfect clarity exactly where they were during the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. No one in their respective families was hurt, but they all described how unsettling and scary it was. They each described hearing a great roaring sound shortly after the shaking started.
“The roar is something you don’t forget,” Perry said.
“It just seemed to last forever and ever,” Harrington recalled.