Important to the development of early Chugiak was Paul Swanson – school agent, bus driver, landlord, businessman, postmaster and quiet counselor.
Swanson was working on a dairy farm in Cambridge, Minnesota, in 1940 when he saw a movie short advertising opportunities in Alaska. Five years earlier many of the Matanuska colonists had come here from that state. The Great Depression was nearing an end, but the Midwest had not yet fully recovered. Convinced that he should go north to make a lot of money, then return to Minnesota, Swanson scraped together enough money to get to Seattle. There, with a remaining bankroll of $50, he plunked down $44 to buy steerage passage to Seward. Finding few opportunities at the seaport, he spent $5.40 for a railroad ticket to Anchorage. Learning that Palmer was the agricultural center, he set out on foot to walk the 50 miles to get there. Legendary Anchorage grocer “Lucky” Marek allowed him to store his steamer trunk in the grocery’s warehouse, then refused to accept payment offered when Swanson picked it up months later.
Swanson told Marjorie Cochrane during an interview for her book “Between Two Rivers” that on arrival in Palmer he spent his last 60 cents for a hamburger. While munching on that, he struck up a conversation with a man who hired him for 50 cents an hour to help clear brush from his newly-purchased farm. Swanson was happy with the pay because it was 20 cents an hour more than he had been getting. He was also happy to have a room at the farm where he met the 19-year-old daughter of his employer.
Paul and Margaret Swanson were married in early November of 1941.
A month later, Pearl Harbor was bombed. Paul enlisted in the Navy, signing up for the Seabees. After a short training period, he shipped out for the South Pacific to build airfields and other facilities on naval bases.
Out of the Navy after five years or wartime service, he and Margaret decided to return to Alaska where they planned to homestead. Veterans were given preferential treatment. He staked out 40 acres of land about halfway between Anchorage and Palmer, part of the property flat and the rest on a hillside. His first post-war job was with The Alaska Railroad, pumping a hand-cart between Potter and Willow. A “fire-watcher,” he followed the train to look for fires that might have been started by embers from the coal-fired engine.
Later, with construction of expanded facilities on Fort Richardson going full-bore, Swanson found employment on the Army post. After hours, he began construction on his own property, relying heavily on salvaged material from the post dump – something done in company with many other Chugiak settlers. He estimated that his house cost roughly $60 to build, with neighbors and co-workers helping in the construction.
Not long after he returned to Alaska, Swanson was joined by his sister, Henrietta “Penny” Swanson. The sister shipped her car and was accompanied by two of her friends, all looking for opportunities in the young Alaska Territory. Penny was to take up residence in Chugiak and found employment in the Chugiak High School cafeteria. She was best known for her baked goods. The aroma filled the halls and brought students and faculty rushing there as soon as the lunch bell rang.
Swanson was among those who wanted to develop a community of which residents could be proud.
He joined in the push for a school and for utilities. Showing their appreciation for his dedication, his neighbors elected him as president of Chugiak Community Club.
When it was learned that the Territorial Legislature had agreed to build an elementary school in the fast-growing community north of the military installation, Swanson jumped in to organize families to help. The school was to be built across the Palmer Highway from his homestead. He had built a store and some small houses, naming the collection “Swanee Slopes.” He was named as school agent and offered to house teachers. He also was engaged as school bus driver. When the school quickly outgrew its space, Swanson arranged to get Quonset huts set up to handle the overflow, renting them to territorial school officials.
The combination of his involvement as school agent, bus driver, landlord and operator of the closest store brought complaints of conflict of interest. The complaints soon died down, however, as parents saw the benefits of Swanson’s efforts and the limited return going to him.
In 1955 Swanson was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower as postmaster at Chugiak.
The post office was established in Swanson’s former store. The postmaster was always at the counter to wait on customers and usually had a pot of coffee and cookies or cake available.
Ed Willis remembered Swanson’s kindness in the Willis family’s first Christmas in Eagle River. Joyce Willis had ordered gifts for their children from a catalog. Come Christmas Eve morning, they had not yet arrived. Ed was working at the power plant on post and, as did most families in those days, had driven their only vehicle to work. Joyce was alone at home with the children as Santa time approached, wondering what she could possibly do to avoid disappointing the young ones.
“Suddenly there was a knock on the door,” Ed recounted. “There stood Paul Swanson, his arms loaded with packages that had arrived late in the day.”
New to the area, the Willis family had not yet established a mailing address and were complete strangers to Swanson and most of the neighbors. The postmaster had gone out of his way to find someone who knew the family and get directions to their home in order to make their Christmas a merry one.
“It was something you wouldn’t expect, and something I’ll never forget,” Willis said many years after the event.
Swanson continued as Chugiak postmaster for many years, a familiar face to all and someone to whom people could turn for advice or help. And enjoy a sweet and a cup of post office coffee.
So far we have looked at a few of the movers and shakers of Chugiak-Eagle River’s past. There are so many who have played important roles that it would be impossible to list them all. Still, some should have their stories made known in order to give some insight into the people who made this the “Center of the Universe.”
Upcoming are a look at Joe Kapella, “the community’s greatest hustler,” and Bill Lowe, a man who took pride in being labeled in the Anchorage Daily News as “a reasonable man.” Not to be overlooked is Nora Collett, the “sweet grandmother-looking type toting a shotgun” whose language was salty but her wild-berry candy was delicious.