An early businessman was a squatter and his business was illicit but Eagle River John has to be recognized as one of the “first” in the field of commercial businesses — and certainly the first local manufacturer.
The moonshiner took his product by skiff from his cabin below the railroad tracks down Eagle River to Knik Arm, then to customers in Anchorage. Before him, roadhouses on the Iditarod Trail provided food and lodging to travelers between the northern gold mines and the seaport at Seward.
Various enterprises sprang up in the 1940’s. One of those was a pig farm operated by Glenn Briggs, formerly a superintendent with the Reindeer Service on the Seward Peninsula and who tried to enlist at Ft. Richardson after Pearl Harbor but was rejected due to his age. He and his wife Mary Lou bought Jack Cobol’s homestead in Eagle River and sold meat to the Army. Ken Laughlin, Empress Theatre mood music organist who had a home site at Fire Lake, sold hot dogs and coffee to crews working on the Palmer Highway. With the improved connection to Palmer available, coffee shops and bars opened, along with gasoline stations and garages.
With victory in Europe and the Pacific attained to end World War II, Ft. Richardson continued to grow as the government saw the need to beef up defensive forces in this strategically located place. Population north of the post increased significantly, albeit slowly at first.
Today, subdivisions are regulated and laid out according to approved plats. Such was not the case in the 1940s and earlier.
The land was made available but there was little or no access to the parcels. Off-highway roads were the responsibility of residents. When a new one was cut through, it was supposed to follow dedicated rights-of-way. The operative word there is “supposed.” Not all did.
What now is North Birchwood Loop was put through by the Road Commission to reach the railroad section house. As tracts in the Birchwood Small Tracts were filed on, the locators had to push roads through to their land. That they did not all go in at the same time is the reason the Loop twists and turns with many 90-degree corners. Not everyone followed a straight line; some just took off in the shortest direction to their lot. The result led to many squabbles over infringement and in some cases, the later owner was unable to utilize his full lot. A road cutting through someone’s property was considered untouchable if those living beyond it had no other access to their homes.
Not everyone in the early years took the effort to locate their lot lines. In some cases a survey was incorrect. Septic systems and wells were sometimes located beyond the property lines, causing future problems. Such was the problem of frontier development.
Many years after the Palmer Highway was pushed through in territorial days, it was discovered that a classified executive order set aside the roadway for military use. That secret order designated the right-of-way width to be 300 feet rather than the much smaller usual width of a throughway. When the situation came to light, it was found that many structures were in the right-of-way. In some cases, a section of the lot along the highway was given to the property owners. In a few, the existing structures continued to be encroaching. The owners had not known of the secret dedication but faced the loss of land and potential loss of their homes.
A saving grace for the pioneer homebuilders was a place endearingly called “Wing D.” That was shorthand for the Wing Disposal facility on Ft. Richardson. It was the warehouse where surplus material ended up and was made available for sale. Tremendous bargains could be found there—provided the purchasers were not too particular about their choices. Furniture, appliances, electrical equipment, paint, and other items could be picked up for a song. An example was the large generator acquired by Cloyce Parks and used to power his Chugiak Coffee Shop’s neon sign. His bid of $301 won the generator which he estimated was worth $25,000.
Another popular stop on post was the dump.
There, material deemed unworthy of disposal as surplus property but often still serviceable was routinely discarded. It was free for scavengers who were able to pack it away and put it to use. None of the Chugiak settlers was too proud to be seen dump-diving and proudly showed off their finds.
Today’s supermarkets and huge box stores are in sharp contrast to the conditions faced by those settlers. Selections were few even in the Anchorage stores. Prices were high due to many factors, particularly overhead, high wages and freight.
There was no easy financing available outside the city. Getting a mortgage to cover the cost of building a house was impossible. It was strictly do-it-yourself and for most people, it was a matter of buying another couple of 2x4s whenever they had a spare dollar. The first buildings were small, to be added onto later as the family grew.
Visitors were welcomed into a two- to four-room structure that often had aluminum-covered insulation lining the walls. Eagle River pioneer Louise Long proudly displayed her “silver room” to anyone who stopped by. The end tables were wooden crates that previously held two five-gallon Blazo cans. The same variety of crates served as kitchen cabinets and dressers. Blazo, for the benefit of those who did not know, was the brand of gasoline that fueled the lanterns that provided lights in those pre-Matanuska Electric Association days.
For service members and veterans, groceries were available from the commissary on Ft. Richardson.
Other early residents were able to shop at Allen’s Grocery in Chugiak or McCann’s store in Eagle River. Both were smaller versions of today’s convenience stores with limited selections of goods other than the basics. Prices, of course, were higher than at Lucky’s Grocery, NC Company, C Street Grocery, or the Carr Brothers’ store in a Quonset hut on East G Street in Anchorage.
Fresh produce was available from Palmer farms in the summer but otherwise came in by boat. Milk was in plentiful supply from the Matanuska Co-op, as was some of the world’s best ice cream. Most of the settlers were hunters and fishers and were able to keep the larders full. Before electricity was extended in 1950, meat was canned at home or in winter placed outdoors where it could be frozen.
There was no public school until 1951 and social activities were limited. Churches of various denominations began to be established as the settlers looked to have places of worship. One of the first large congregations was the Chugiak Methodist Church and their building became a community meeting place, large enough to hold the burgeoning population.
The 1950s marked the transition from a frontier settlement to a more formal community. Next week we will look at schools and politics.