In the early years, Chugiak was known for colorful characters. One of the most colorful was Nora Collett, owner of Chugiak Candy Kitchen.
Small in stature, bespectacled, dark-haired, her hair tied back in a bun, of slender build and wearing a white smock often covered by an apron, she had a warm smile for people who visited her shop. Tour buses en route to the Matanuska Valley made regular stops at her Eagle River location-the final one in many moves over a career of nearly four decades. Despite her grandmotherly appearance, she was as apt to shock customers with an unexpected cussword as a comment on the weather-perhaps even both in the same breath.
Nora came to Alaska in 1947, the same year Chugiak got its name. She hailed from Texas, boasting of experience as a trucker, cook, and jill of all trades. She worked for a catering firm that served contractors, then got a job with an Anchorage firm that turned out chocolates. When that company went out of business, she stopped in at Cloyce and Justine Parks’ Chugiak Coffee Shop. Striking up a conversation with the owners, she and they made a snap decision. If she wanted to open her own candy shop, they would provide a spot next to theirs where she could build.
She soon opened the Chugiak Candy Kitchen next door to the Chugiak Coffee Shop. The structure was one Nora erected and equipped by herself. It served for some time until a fire at the Parkses’ resulted in her moving to Eagle River and making her building available to the fire victims.
Her first Eagle River store was set up in an Army surplus barracks building moved onto Tom Slanker’s Far North Service Station site, co-located with Far North Fuel and Far North Real Estate. That corner now houses the Eagle Center building where the Chugiak-Eagle River campus of UAA, Key Bank and several other firms are located.
As one can surmise, the corner was a valuable one. Alongside the candy store was Alaska Woodcraft, where Tony and Betty Bochstahler manufactured and sold furniture and knick-knacks crafted from Alaska birch. It was a regular stop for tour buses hauling passengers on sightseeing jaunts to the Matanuska Valley. While the furniture shop was always open, the tour bus drivers routinely cautioned the tourists that they might find the candy shop closed. The “gone fishing” sign frequently proved the drivers’ cautions to be correct.
While Nora’s dedication to regular hours might fall short of one’s expectations, the quality of her candies never did. She specialized in covering a variety of berries with different chocolates. She boasted that she was the only manufacturer who could successfully conjure up lingonberry candies, utilizing that variety of cranberry which could be found nearby. Glass showcases in the store held displays with tray after tray of candies covered in many varieties of chocolate, most of them also decorated with a dribble of frosting.
Nora often boasted of the many tourists who had sampled her confections and later sent orders from Outside year after year, seeking to purchase boxes either for themselves or as gifts.
That a wide variety of berries could be found in the vicinity was beneficial to the candy-maker. It also was beneficial to many teenage boys and girls who picked and sold berries to Nora. That experience is still recalled by many of those who youngsters, with nearly every single one flinching at the memory of the scolding, replete with cusswords, they received when the berries were bruised or not properly cleaned.
While her language was salty, Nora was a woman who thought deeply and who spoke her mind freely. Always slipping through in even the most heated topics was her dry wit.
Marjorie Cochrane, in her “Between Two Rivers” history of Chugiak-Eagle River, wrote of the time a tourist noticed the young son of a neighbor helping at the store. By that time she had moved to her two-story building located on Old Glenn Highway near Coronado Road.
“Is that your grandson?” the tourist asked.
“Hell no, that’s my husband,” Nora was said to have responded to the wide-eyed woman.
A hard-working business person, Nora Collett held bureaucrats in low esteem.
She once told this writer of the time an Alaska Department of Revenue official asked where her business license was, stating that it was supposed to be prominently displayed for the public. She moved something aside to disclose a framed business license on the wall. It was dated 1953.
“The poor man almost had apoplexy,” Nora said with a sly grin. She strung out her explanation, pulling his leg every step of the way, saying it was the one she got when she first went in business and asking if that was not good enough. Finally, she opened the frame and showed that she had a license for each year in ascending order, the most recent on the bottom of the stack.
A woman of conviction, she readily joined a citizen’s patrol after her shop was broken into.
An Anchorage newspaper covered the activities of what they described as a “vigilante group” patrolling Eagle River. Nora was depicted as “a sweet grandmotherly type, wearing tennis shoes and toting a shotgun.” That observation rankled Nora’s sensitivities. She wore tennis shoes, she said, “because they were comfortable.”
Chugiak-Eagle River at that time had no police protection other than a state trooper who lived in the area and patrolled the Glenn Highway. When some young vandals one night broke into several Eagle River businesses, including Nora’s Candy Kitchen and the North Slope Restaurant next door, a demand went out to gain more police presence in the area. When that request went unheeded, George Malekos, owner of the popular eating place, and others formed the citizen’s patrol. Collett was among the volunteers who toured the business district during nighttime hours, keeping an eye out for anyone with a bent toward mischief. Armed, they were prepared to apprehend a miscreant and hold him until a trooper arrived. Fortunately, the threat itself was sufficient and the crime wave and its aftermath quickly cooled off.
It was some time later that Chugiak-Eagle River opted to annex to the Anchorage Police Service Area, extending the city’s law enforcement to this area.
Wanting to be involved in decision-making, Nora ran for the Alaska House of Representatives in 1980, filing as a Libertarian. Still a firebrand, she was ready to wage war with the politicians.
History does indeed repeat itself. The current furor in Wasilla, the worry over refusal by troopers to respond to calls in the Turnagain Arm portion of Anchorage, and Girdwood’s decision to contract with Whittier for police protection, are highly reminiscent of the situation in Chugiak-Eagle River in 1973. In the absence of adequate law enforcement, citizens were found filling the void. The difference back then was that citizens were willing to value protecting their property greater than the risk of liability-something that has drastically changed over the years. The risk for individual activists is even greater now.
Nora closed her shop and sold her building in 1985, moving to Wasilla. The unique candy maker died in 1997, leaving an empty spot in the hearts-and a longing sweet tooth-of many who knew her.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.