Homer pioneer homesteader Robert P. “Bob” James, 89, died Monday, Jan. 26, 2015, at South Peninsula Hospital.
Friends and potato eaters are invited to services at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015, at the Homer Seventh-day Adventist Church, 210 East Pioneer. Burial will be at a family gathering after breakup.
Bob was born Jan. 26, 1926, in Grand Junction, Colo., to Parnell and Cleo (McBride) James. The family were prominent local ranchers; in the crash of 1929 Bob’s grandfather Sam James saved the local bank by making a large deposit. Parnell was killed by a kicking horse when Bob was 5, leaving Cleo to raise Bob and younger brother Russell, until she remarried a few years later. Growing up, Bob occasionally lived and worked at the Sam and May James ranch, as well as other spreads in the area.
In his teen years Bob took up leather carving, becoming quite skilled at hand-tooled gun scabbards and saddlebags. He was commissioned to tool a double holster and belt, later used by the actors in Hollywood Westerns popular at the time.
He was a daring motorcycle rider, pulling stunts with his Indian such as sliding it under a parked train to avoid pursuit by an overzealous cop. When drafted, he took the bike apart in his step-dad’s garage so his younger brothers would not ride it. Unfortunately, the family had a garage sale. The pile of nuts and fenders was unwittingly sold.
Because of religious convictions, Bob served in World War II as a conscientious objector, and was stationed at a hospital in Jamaica. Upon discharge in 1946, he returned to Grand Junction where he got a job with the state maintaining water reservoirs on Black Mesa. Except for the deer hunting, it was a bit tame; he jumped at a change in May of 1951 when Fred Frakes, an Army buddy, invited him along as Fred flew a single-engine plane to Alaska.
They ended up in Dillingham, on Bristol Bay, where they stumbled into the large Smith-Moody clan — with its flock of eligible young women. By November, Robert James, the self-proclaimed “woman-hating cowboy” was married to Doris.
The bustle of town grated on Bob’s independent spirit, and soon after the birth of their first child, he said to Doris, “You have too many relatives here. Let’s go somewhere else.” They arrived in Homer in May of 1953, and Bob staked a homestead east of McNeil Canyon. Carrying toddler and baby, the young couple would catch a ride to the end of the road (at Middleton’s), walk down Kilcher’s road and Dutch Ditch. Traversing the canyon on game trails, they hiked through the woods to the clearing where Bob had pitched a wall tent.
A cabin was built, and then moved up the bench to a better view and gardening site. Bob hired a Cat to punch a tractor trail around the head of the canyon. Two more boys were added to the family, and in the following years growing potatoes became a way of life. Bob was a detail man, teaching his children to pull every horsetail and taking great pride when the Alaska Certified Seed inspectors declared his fields the cleanest in the state. In winter, he sat for hours in the semi-dark cellar dusting and sorting potatoes for sale in 100-pound burlap bags: Bakers, number ones, number twos, seed size. With a quilt-lined, hand-made wooden box atop hydraulic-lift arms, and stacked with potatoes, the 1958 Ford tractor became a familiar sight on the 13-mile road to Homer.
The early 1970s brought hardship and tragedy to Bob’s family. The eldest son drowned in a fishing accident on the Naknek River, the homestead cabin burned to the ground and Doris nearly died from colon cancer. Still the land endured, and while the other children tasted life Outside, Bob and Doris remained on the homestead, nurturing potatoes, strawberries and each other.
Although in the last few years they have lived winters in more comfortable situations, Bob’s plan was to go back to the homestead come spring.
Robert P. James was preceded in death by his father and mother; brother, Russell James; half-sister, Betty Crow; half-brother, William Crow; and son, Jerry Samuel James. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Doris R. James of Homer; daughter, Judith A. James (M. Walter Johnson) of Homer; son, Jesse R. James (Shirley), of Williston, N.D.; son Jimmie W. James, of Homer; grandson, Jeremiah B. Fowler of Portland, Ore.; step-grandson Jim L. James, of Walla Walla, Wash.; step-granddaughter Joellen Haynes (Clay) of Richland, Wash.; and five great grandchildren; sister, Etta Portenier, of Milton-Freewater, Ore.; and many nieces and nephews and their children.