Just seven years after coming up with the name Chugiak, proud citizens organized a carnival to be held over the Memorial Day weekend.
They elected Spring Creek Lodge owner Vernon Haik as mayor, held a contest to elect a queen based on the highest number of raffle tickets sold, and invited entries and participation from around the Territory. Country-Western recording artist Jim Price was the featured entertainer, supplemented by the musical Johnson family and the Chugiak Belles can-can dancers.
Motorcycle races were staged throughout the weekend. A photograph shows a long line of spectators standing six to seven persons deep as they watch the racers roar past.
Guest of honor was Alaska Territorial Gov. B. Frank Heintzleman. Because Chugiak was not a city and had no key to award, “Mayor” Haik presented him with an axe. He told the governor, according to Marjorie Cochrane’s Between Two River history, “It was symbolic of the people of Chugiak who had hewn their homes from raw land.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re giving me the axe, not taking it to me!” the governor responded.
The site chosen for the event was a gravel pit alongside the Palmer Highway that was leveled by Dallon Oberg. Other volunteers erected a stage and installed booths that offered food, local crafts for sale and various games of skill with prizes. The carnival site is now the location of Eagle River Elementary School and Chief Alex Park.
The idea of such an event held by this “upstart” community brought wide attention. It gained a prominent five column inches in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, a complimentary editorial in the Anchorage Daily Times as well as coverage in the Anchorage Daily News and on television.
Of course, the Chugiak Calendar published by Cloyce and Justine Parks went all out with coverage of the event from inception to follow-up.
The hotly-contested but good-natured mayoral campaign featured several candidates. There was even a “fake news” story shortly before the election that Roger Riddell, a captain with the Army Corps of Engineers, was well ahead of Spring Creek Lodge owner Vernon Haik—the actual winner when votes were counted. Riddell was a popular figure who regularly attended public meetings and always had a joke to tell—some a bit off-color designed to embarrass Wayne Hull, pastor at Chugiak Methodist Church.
Television then was new to Alaska, with KTVA Channel 11 making its maiden broadcast just six months before the Chugiak carnival was held. The filmed opening ceremony was broadcast on their channel that evening from its studio in the brand-new 14-story Mt. McKinley Bldg. on 4th Avenue.
Anchorage Fur Rendezvous manager Bill Bittner was hired to manage the first carnival and promised to make it “the biggest attraction ever held in the Greater Anchorage Area.”
Paying a $5 filing fee to run for mayor in addition to Haik and Riddell were Charles Nestle, Johnny Johnson, James Polyefko, Robert Aubrey, Cloyce Parks, J. D. Nichols, Dallon Oberg, Ruth Briggs, Reese Tatro and Jim McDowell. Fourteen girls entered the queen contest, each soliciting votes through the sale of raffle tickets—the prize an all-expense-paid roundtrip to Seattle.
In the Calendar’s pre-event edition, Cloyce Parks boasted of what he called the “Miracle of Chugiak: Never before has the entire community gotten behind a project like it has for this celebration. When the carnival was dreamed up last winter, no one thought it would grow to such proportions . . . We talked in big numbers to fool ourselves into thinking maybe we could put on some kind of a mediocre show. We have fooled ourselves all right, but not the way we expected.”
On Tuesday, June 2, Anchorage Daily Times editor Bob Atwood heaped praise:
“There’s a new town on the map of Alaska today as a result of sensational development . . . It is the town of Chugiak and although it has no official status, the town is well-known now to thousands of local residents who had a good time at the carnival . . . It was the devotion of the people to their community that made the carnival a success. Rural cohesion in Chugiak accomplished what urban confusion makes difficult in larger communities.”
Not all publicity was favorable, however.
The Anchorage Daily News on June 24 lectured Chugiak residents, saying “A tin-can alley” runs through the community, citing “half-finished buildings and ill-kept yards,” suggesting that Chugiak needed to clean itself up.
Parks’ Calendar was quick to respond. “We wonder just where the people come from that litter up roadsides with bottles, cans and garbage. And we remember not so long ago when Anchorage was ‘the city of tarpaper shacks’.”
After the first carnival there were questions about its financial success. While it appeared that some $28,000 had been grossed, the volunteer fire department and other organizations were disappointed at how little actually came to the intended beneficiaries. Apparently, part of the gross came in the way of assets that were not in cash and some expenses were higher than anticipated. An audit was held and it was determined there was no wrong-doing. Nevertheless the disappointment continued.
That did not end the Spring Carnival, however. It resulted in formation of a non-profit corporation, the Chugiak Benefit Association, with bylaws that strictly defined how finances would be handled. Local organizations would continue to benefit from their activities.
Land at the intersection of North Birchwood and the Palmer Highway was obtained and cleared for future carnivals and other activities. A rodeo arena was set up and a large metal building residents termed the “elephant hut” was erected to house performances and meetings. The spring carnival continued there for several years until improved roads enticed people to travel farther away over the weekend, ending the event but not its parent, CBA.
In 1979, when the original Chugiak Elementary School site was no longer tenable due to sanitary sewage concerns, CBA traded the carnival grounds to the school district in exchange for the old school’s two buildings. It named the original building in honor of Chugiak resident Elsie Oberg and leases the concrete block building to a pre-school program.
A measure of vindication came in the fall of 1954 when Superior Court Judge William G. Long of Seattle visited Chugiak. He hosted a radio program called “In a Judge’s Notebook” and was investigating the problem of juvenile delinquency. A journalist in Seattle suggested he contact Riddell.
Here, Long learned that CBA had come up with a unique way to fill the funding gap. An over-population of moose was causing a problem. The animals were trampling gardens and frightening children who were walking to school. A moose derby was staged with hunters signing up for permits and bringing in their trophies in quest of a prize.
The judge told his listeners that it was neither the moose derby nor the carnival that impressed him but that families “had cemented themselves into working partnerships.” In CBA, children 12 and older were “full members of the community organization and have equal voice with the adults.” He quoted Riddell as saying Chugiak teenagers “are too responsible for constructive activities to bother with trouble-making stunts.”
Long ended his broadcast by saying, “At a time when every section of our land is facing an ever-rising tide of juvenile trouble, this little struggling handful of pioneers in a far-off wilderness in Alaska is pointing the way out of our own wilderness at home.”
That’s why this writer considers Chugiak-Eagle River to be the Center of the Universe.
The past can hurt, but the way I see it: you can either run from it or learn from it.— The Lion King
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.