Those families who settled Chugiak in 1946 had children of school age, but there was no school for them to attend.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Eklutna Industrial School was closed. Pupils had to find a way to get to classes in Anchorage. Some were home-schooled, such as the Erickson, Bergt and Wilson children at the Eklutna power house who were taught by parents using the Calvert Course.
One of those school-age Chugiak children was Darlene Stockhausen whose parents John and Bernice homesteaded at Mile 22 on Palmer Highway after a harrowing trip up the AlCan from Wisconsin. She describes the early days in her book, “The Chosen Place,” which she notes was written, “to the future generations of young people who will never know a world without digital conveniences.” They arrived in July of 1947 having traveled 4,000 miles in convoy with another family. After searching for land, they filed on 160 acres where they farmed and later opened Bernie’s Liquor Store. They later moved to Fiji where they operated a cattle ranch. Darlene married Peter Halverson and continues to live in Chugiak.
In those days families were pretty much limited to one passenger vehicle. Russell Swank’s “Stage Line” ran a bus between Anchorage and Palmer and picked up children from Eklutna and Chugiak. It made for a long day and parents worried over the safety of their offspring. The steep Eagle River Hill was treacherous. At that time, the log bridge over the river was only inches above the stream and the gravel road consisted of only one lane in each direction.
Chugiak was a do-it-yourself community and people took it upon themselves to see that their children had a school closer to home. They also wanted to be able to vote without having to travel a long way to cast their ballots. Justine Parks spearheaded a drive to establish a Chugiak voting precinct and Paul Swanson and Vernon Haik worked to get a school. The precinct came first. In the territorial elections of October 1948, 31 Chugiak voters turned out—many more than officials had expected. It was an indication of things to come. Chugiak-Eagle River was destined to become a political force, making its voice heard and affecting the direction of government.
By 1950 there were only a sprinkling of buildings along the highway in what today is the Eagle River business district.
Glenn and Mary Lou Briggs’ pig farm had been sold to John and Joe Ann Vanover and Walter and Melva Pippel’s farm occupied both sides of the highway at what is now Eagle River Loop. The settlement around Mile 19, dubbed by the Knik Arm Courier as “Old Chugiak,” continued to be the business center.
Parents used their burgeoning political voice to strengthen their plea for a school. The Legislature appropriated money and the Territorial Department of Education approved construction of a school. A site was acquired across the highway from Swanson’s Swannee Slopes and work began in the spring of 1951. Haik, owner of Spring Creek Lodge and acting as school agent, was able to get school supplies from Ft. Richardson. The building, designed for 45 students, was not completed in time for its early September opening but did open its doors a month later. Instead of 45 pupils, 66 turned up. This writer has often said, “We’ve been trying to catch up ever since.”
Growth continued at a rapid pace, with the southern portion of the community attracting many new residents. Some residential tracts were made available from the Bureau of Land Management and a couple of early homesteads were subdivided into small lots. The new residents were every bit as community-minded as the pioneers. A club was organized to plan a carnival as a fundraiser for the volunteer fire department and other community needs. A queen contest, raffles, dime-a-dish dinners, and a “mayoral” race were among ideas used to provide funds.
More than 100 volunteers stepped forward to operate various carnival booths that were set up on a parcel cleared by the Road Commission for use as a gravel source. An estimated 1,400 birch logs were cut and trimmed to make booths. Dallon Oberg used his bulldozer to level the ground. The entire community was involved in preparing for the event, which was heavily publicized.
On Memorial Day weekend of 1955, the carnival opened with welcoming ceremonies.
Guest of honor was Gov. B. Frank Heintzelman. “Mayor” Haik, elected from a field of 10 men and one woman who each paid a $5 entry fee and campaigned on special platforms, welcomed the governor. Explaining that Chugiak was not a city and therefore had no key to present to the guest from the do-it-yourself area, he instead handed over an axe. Heintzelman quipped that he was “Glad you gave me an axe rather than taking one to me.”
The spring carnival was continued for a few years, moved from its Eagle River location to a tract obtained by Chugiak Benefit Association located at the North Birchwood intersection with the Palmer Highway. A large metal building was added and the log booths rebuilt there.
The Eagle River carnival site was to become the location of Eagle River Elementary School which opened in 1960. That school was planned by the Territory of Alaska but opened under the State Department of Education, Alaska Statehood having become effective Jan. 3, 1959. It, too, had tremendous community support with local fund drives to raise money for supplies. It, as did Chugiak Elementary, served grades 1 through 8.
A noteworthy controversy came with the Eagle River Elementary PTA’s authorization of $2,000 to purchase an electric scoreboard for the multi-purpose room. Parent Billie Moore was outraged, calling it foolhardy when the school did not even have any library books. She campaigned long and hard and before the year was out had a library with a good stock of books for the children’s use—as well as a scoreboard. Moore later was to become a librarian at the Chugiak-Eagle River Public Library. The children’s section there is named in her memory.
In the early 1960s, children of high school age were being bussed to Anchorage.
The same problems faced before there was any school were made even worse because the older youth were deprived of opportunities for extra-curricular activities. Their school day began at 5 a.m. and ended when the bus returned them at suppertime.
Demanding an end to this practice, parents enlisted the support of all 27 local civic organizations to form Operation Chugiak High School (OCHS). Ed Willis and Louise Long were named co-chairs to lead the fight. Willis and Dale Pierson traveled to Juneau to lobby the Legislature and were successful in gaining an appropriation to build the school. Recognizing potential opposition from rural areas of the state to the idea of something else in Anchorage being funded, when asked where Chugiak was located, the quick-thinking Pierson replied, “We’re 25 miles south of Palmer.”
Ground-breaking for the high school was held Saturday, Aug. 31, with Gov. William A. Egan the guest of honor. The school opened the following September with Egan speaking at the dedication ceremony at a packed multi-purpose room. The school was designed for 400 students; it soon became overcrowded and has been added onto many times since.
The third Elementary School, Homestead, was added in 1972. Located on Baronoff Road in Eagle River, it was built in the “open” format with folding walls dividing classrooms. Birchwood Elementary was soon added, offering an “ABC” back-to-basics curriculum, built on a site adjacent to the high school. Next was Fire Lake Elementary, serving children from the downtown Eagle River area. With the new Eaglewood Subdivision adding many homes, Ravenwood Elementary was built nearby. The last elementary school built was Alpenglow, also in Eagle River Valley.
Chugiak Elementary, the community’s first public school, was on a small site with a hillside close to the building’s rear.
In later years, the septic system no longer was suitable because the ground was saturated. The well also showed signs of being in danger of contamination. Now under the jurisdiction of the Anchorage School District, a trade was worked out. The school was swapped with the Chugiak Benefit Association in exchange for the Carnival site a mile away. A modern building on the larger new parcel replaced the two on the former site. Both of those buildings are still in use, the original school building used for community meetings and housing the Chugiak-Eagle River Historical Society and the newer concrete-block structure now the home of a pre-school organization.
From “a handful of pioneers” in 1950, Chugiak-Eagle River grew to more than 30,000 by the end of the Twentieth Century. To accommodate the growth, Chugiak High School for a time became a junior-senior complex and later a separate school, Mirror Lake, was built in Peters Creek to house grades 7-8. To accommodate pupils in those grades, another middle school opened in Eagle River and was named for Ernest Gruening, governor during World War II and later elected to the United States Senate. A second high school became necessary when the Chugiak building grew beyond acceptable numbers. Eagle River High School opened on the south side of the river. It was designed for 800 students and its students currently include some Ft. Richardson residents.
As in their politics, residents’ differing opinions on education resulted in the opening of several private schools. In addition, a number of families opted to home-school their students through a state-recognized program.
Next week we look at Chugiak-Eagle River’s brief fling at independence.