When Delores (Dee) Steeby, former Birchwood resident and long-time Chugiak Postmaster, passed away earlier this year, a big part of our community’s history also was lost.
What brings that to mind was the question of when we need to put our Christmas cards in the mail this year. In addition, we need to know how late we can send gifts to loved ones Outside and be sure they will arrive in time.
We’ll get to that useful information before this column gets to the “30” slug. But first, let’s go back in time to remember how things used to be.
Back in the “good old days” when the 20th Century reached its halfway point, Chugiak was still a frontier community.
No Internet, no overnight package delivery, not even electricity or telephones. The AlCan was a dirt road barely passable for a sedan. The trip involved nearly a week of bouncing by day with nightly stopovers—pending no blowouts or mechanical failures. A DC-2 airplane took 10 or 12 hours to get you to Seattle, depending on wind direction.
Chugiak (the name back then applied to the whole area from Ft. Richardson north to Goat Creek) gained electricity when Matanuska Electric Association agreed to extend lines in 1951. Immediately, the community celebrated by dedicating the Palmer Highway stretch as “Christmas Lane.” Prizes were given for the best holiday display in various categories, including residences, business establishments and organizations. It was widely participated in and the area gleamed as a result.
In the early days, churches held pageants to celebrate the birth of the founder of the Christian faith. It was a festive holiday that was welcomed by folks who had little entertainment. There were already several congregations. Oldest was the Russian Orthodox Church at Eklutna where the holiday is observed each year on Jan. 7. The Assembly of God’s Chugiak Chapel and Chugiak Methodist were the largest in 1954 and both held celebrations that were widely attended. The first Catholic mass was celebrated in November, 1955. A Latter-Day Saints congregation began meeting in the late 1950s. Eagle River Baptist Church was chartered in 1958 after starting earlier as a mission of an Anchorage church. Our Redeemer Lutheran Church opened in 1960.
Most early families were first-generation Alaskans who settled here after being brought by the military or who came to help build facilities during and after World War II. As such, the holiday was a time to remember friends and family Outside. The exchange of Christmas cards was an annual practice that was . . . well, religiously pursued.
Air mailing a large number of cards was prohibitively expensive for most Alaskans.
First class mail was three cents an ounce. If a letter of more than two sheets was inserted in the average greeting card, it took two stamps. The Liberty Stamp issued in 1954 was designed to bolster patriotism at the height of the Cold War.
Rates for Parcel Post were lower than today by comparison, and there was no reasonable alternative. Air mail was out of the question for most residents. Unfortunately, to take advantage of the most reasonable rate required mailing a package well in advance. The distance between here and hometowns just took a long time for a package to get there by rail, boat, rail again and finally getting it to their door. Seven weeks was pushing it.
That same consideration had to be given to incoming packages. This community was too small for a department store. The Northern Commercial Co. in Anchorage was the closest and by far had the largest selection.
Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogs filled the shopping gap.
That presented problems in several different ways. The girl this writer was lucky enough to win as his bride 66 years ago still grieves over her gift one year. Her mother ordered a nice outfit with a dress, coat and hat, all color coordinated. The picture in the catalog was beautiful. But when the box arrived, Mama Erickson was mortified. The coat was red, matching the picture in the catalog. But the accompanying hat was a horrible orange and the dress a conflicting shade.
Miscues in ordering was one thing. Getting the package in time to go under the tree late on Christmas Eve was another. Remembrances of those days by old-timers bring several stories—more of them sad than happy.
One of the happiest was recounted by Ed Willis, a local civic leader, downright gentleman and good friend to everyone.
Those characteristics were not yet known to his neighbors in 1955, the Willis family’s first year in Eagle River. Joyce Willis had ordered Christmas gifts, believing the order to have been placed in plenty of time to get here. All packages had to be picked up at the post office across from the Territorial School in Chugiak where Paul Swanson was postmaster.
Joyce checked often during the week before Christmas. Each time Paul told her nothing had come in. On Christmas Eve she had to tell Ed that the gifts for their four children were somewhere, but not where they could be put under the tree. They tried to keep the kids from knowing there would not be a merry Christmas as they scraped through closets and hurriedly put a few homemade things together as substitutes.
As they sat down for a late dinner, there was a knock at the door. Swanson stood there, his vehicle filled with boxes.
The Willises were new to the area. The postmaster, who often played Santa in community parties, was at a loss when the mail delivery from Anchorage came in that afternoon. He asked every customer if they knew the newcomers. Finally, he found someone who did. Getting directions to their home on Foothill Drive, as soon as it was time to close up he headed there to make what was a really “special” delivery.
OK, now for the useful information for Christmas 2017 mailing:
The Postal Service’s “Santa Mail” will be available, so look at www.usps.com for information on that service. A special message to your loved one from the jolly old fat guy with the white beard can even be mailed from North Pole, Alaska.
First-class mail, including greeting cards, needs to be mailed by Dec. 20 to be sure it arrives before Christmas. Earlier would be good insurance. There will be no mail delivery on Saturday, Dec. 23, by the way. Parcels should be mailed before Nov. 27. For a price, Priority Mail can be used. Different choices are available, so check with the postal service.
United Parcel Service and FedEx can get packages to their destinations in short order. Their services and deadlines can be found online.
It’s a little early to wish everyone a “Merry Christmas,” but not too early to plan to get that special quilt finished, packaged and off to the post office in order for it to be opened on Dec. 25.
Oh, and by the way: You can help make a needy stranger’s Christmas happier. Look for a Tree of Giving where cards with a description of a family that can use some cheerful news. Gifts can be put under the tree and delivered to children and parents who otherwise would be left in the predicament Ed and Joyce Willis feared they faced so many years ago.
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. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.