In Chugiak’s early days there were no local government agencies to provide for needs of residents. It was a frontier community with dirt roads, no television, no telephones, no public water, no sewer, not even electricity or a school until 1951—four years after the place was given a name.
Stepping up were the people who were settling the community. A community club met to discuss needs such as fire protection and a volunteer fire department came forth. Its name was more substantial than was its equipment, but the people soon added to that.
Visions for the future were many. The ones who first began converting those visions into reality were the wives who stayed at home to look after things while the husbands went to work. Lest we be accused of sexist bias, let’s take a look at how things were.
There were no subdivisions, and only a few roads branched off from the Palmer Highway. A couple filed on a home site available from the Bureau of Land Management. They were required to build a habitable dwelling and live on the property. A second vehicle was a rarity and the family car was driven to work by the husband. The wife was left home to care for the children and do household chores all by hand—plus clear the lot, chop and gather firewood, take out the ashes, and even do some of the carpentry work involved in expanding their quarters.
The wives, bless them, saw needs beyond providing basic necessities. At the dinner table, at church and during visits with neighbors they discussed those needs.
Thus sprang up the Chugiak Ladies Club, a group made up of visionaries whose strength grew from meeting the challenges of frontier life. They saw the need for a library. They formed a parent-teacher organization. They saw the need to raise money for civic purposes and came up with “dime a dish” potluck dinners attended by the whole community. Dimes contributed while filling a plate with donated food added up to dollars that funded projects. In the spring they held a fashion show and conducted raffles. They even added their talents as the “Chugiak Belles” performed during the Spring Carnival and took part in plays in the metal building on the Carnival Grounds.
While the ladies club has faded into history, one of their projects lives on. Each year after Chugiak High School was built, a highlight was presenting a piece of art to the school. Much of the art was either purchased from or donated by the many acclaimed artists who called Chugiak home—including Harvey Goodale and his wife, Ellen Henne, and Merice Richner.
Veterans’ groups join in support
With a large part of this community population made up of veterans, their organizations quickly came into prominence.
Since its founding in 1958, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9785 has had a major role in aiding their neighbors. Their post home in Eagle River gained national fame when it served as Checkpoint No. 1 in the first runnings of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Mushers arriving after the ceremonial start in Anchorage were fed a hot meal before loading dogs and gear to head north to the re-start.
For many years, the VFW entry in annual parades was a horse-drawn covered wagon driven by Sam Sumrall. It was a popular feature during a long history of service.
The VFW Auxiliary also played an active part in helping with community events.
The American Legion, too, is represented among veteran groups and is noted for its annual national oratorical scholarship contest. High school contestants speak on patriotic subjects and compete in local and statewide contests to determine those who will take part in the national event.
Another major involvement is participation in Boys State events where students are able to travel to the nation’s capital and learn first-hand the workings of government.
Prominent among Legion activity is participation in the national American Legion Baseball League. Operated as part of the Legion’s Americanism department, the program for players up to age 18 is recognized as one of the country’s premier baseball programs. Teams are chosen from high school enrollment areas. The first Chugiak Post 33 baseball team was formed in 1966.
The Alaska Veterans Museum in Anchorage got its start in Chugiak-Eagle River. The founding effort has grown into a storefront space on 4th Avenue and houses a wide variety of exhibits of military history. Eagle River resident Suellyn Wright Novak, a retired Air Force colonel, heads the organization. It is located at 333 West 4th Avenue, Suite 227. It is open from 10-5 Wednesday through Saturday. School tours are offered by appointment.
Eagle River Lions have long history of service
One morning in 1962, a couple of men sat down for breakfast and pondered the woes of a family that lost everything when their house burned the previous night. Their thoughts were passed on to others and soon a group was busy gathering money, clothing and household needs for their devastated neighbors.
By the end of that summer, a plan was launched to form a club affiliated with Lions International. Eagle River Lions Club was chartered in November of that year.
From that small beginning, the club has grown to be a mainstay among Eagle River service organizations. Its clubhouse is situated on Lions Park, a 40-acre plot of land leased from the Bureau of Land Management, located at the intersection of Eagle River Road and Eagle River Loop. The two-story building was initially built to feed a large contingent of Special Olympics participants in games being held at the park. It now hosts a multitude of community-based events.
The acreage at first housed a single Little League field built by members of the club.
A volleyball net was added, then horseshoe pits. Today, Eagle River Lions Park boasts of a baseball/softball complex of fields, a basketball court, and a Pop Warner football field. In addition there are barbecue pits, children’s playground and picnic pavilions. It is not a public facility funded by tax dollars, but completely paid for by volunteer donations.
Each year on Easter Sunday hundreds of children turn out to hunt for thousands of eggs that have been colored and hidden. The annual egg hunt is divided into age groups and the Lions make sure plenty of prizes are awarded. The grand event is sponsored by the Eagle River Lions, Sleeping Lady Mountain Lions, Chugiak Lions, Bear Mountain Leos, VFW Post 9785 and its auxiliaries, Elks Club, Masons and Knights of Columbus.
In addition to providing eyeglasses and vision health assistance, which is a major focus of Lions International, Eagle River Lions each year hosts Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, holds food drives for the Food Pantry and provides help for needy residents.
Eagle River Lions Club in its early years raised money to purchase an ambulance for the fledgling Eagle River Volunteer Fire Department, and helped to build a small lending library.
Eagle River Lions members were instrumental in establishing Knik Little League. Lion Del Spellman was elected as the league’s first president in 1963. Two local teams, one sponsored by Bill Stephens’ Peters Creek Fuel and the other by Tom Slanker’s Far North Fuel, had been part of the Katmai League in Mountain View. They were asked to withdraw when that league needed to add new teams. Glenn Briggs’ Eagle River Shopping Center and Jim Wilken’s Eagle River Pharmacy, both of whom were owned by members of the Lions Club, sponsored the two new teams to form the four-team league.
In the beginning, local businesses contributed funds, with Briggs being a major benefactor. Lions such as Slanker and Joe Kapella were indefatigable in raising money, with Kapella even earning the title of “the community’s greatest hustler.”
Slanker was arrested in 1972 on charges of operating an illegal gambling establishment in a benefit. He confided to the editor of the local newspaper that he had approached the head of the State Troopers to ask if a Monte Carlo night could be held to raise money for the charity. Told that permission could not be given to do something that might be against the law, he also was advised with a wink that on that particular night the law enforcement agency would be occupied in the Girdwood area.
Since it was for a good cause, Slanker gambled on going ahead. Shortly after the event began, Troopers showed up with warrants in hand. True to form, Kapella refused to let them go upstairs to where the activity was underway until they bought tickets. Only after forking over the ticket price did the guardian of the gate allow them to proceed. Slanker successfully pled that he be the only one arrested and was hauled off to jail. There were plenty of people standing ready to pay his bail. The defendant declined to offer the excuse that implied consent had been given. This writer understands, but has not verified, that charges were dropped.
Sleepy Lady Mountain Lions Club and Chugiak Lions Club are also active in the community. The former presents scholarships to high school seniors and conducts a Tree of Giving event each Christmas season to provide gifts for needy children. All three clubs meet regularly and all welcome new members to help with their many projects.
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.