In retrospect, Chugiak-Eagle River residents have much to be thankful for. Today, we live as modern a lifestyle as anyone else. That was not always the case.
In Chugiak’s early days there were no paved roads, homes with attached garages, no television, no internet, no telephones—not even electricity before 1951. It was that year that the community had its first public school, a building designed to house 50 students in grades 1-8.
Settlers who chose the name said to mean “place of many places” were too busy clearing land and building homes to think of entertainment. That was something to fill spare time. Spare time was not a thing most folks could enjoy. The menfolk had daytime jobs, and their wives were busy taking care of the youngsters—while not fashioning furniture out of crates which held five-gallon cans containing gas that fueled their camp stoves and lanterns.
You could buy beef at 59 cents a pound at Carr Brothers’ Quonset hut store on East G St. or Lucky’s Market in Anchorage, but a journeyman carpenter made only $3 an hour. And when “termination dust” showed atop the Chugach, outdoor work was shut down for the winter. After all, plastic sheathing and portable forced air heaters were still things of the future.
Even though Anchorage had its first two television stations in 1954, the signal coming from transmitters on the other side of the mountain didn’t get through to most homes here. The stations went off the air at midnight. Programs were filmed and shipped north by mail, aired two weeks after being viewed by families back home.
As homes began to rise and the rush of summer chores slowed, residents soon found a need to satisfy their appetite for things to distract from the tedium of long winter nights.
On Halloween, houses were too far apart for convenient trick-or-treat forays. Instead, parties were held where games were played and children dressed in costume.
Adults let off steam at Fire Lake Lodge, Bernie’s Piddle Stop or the Halfway House. In anticipation of Thanksgiving, the Izaak Walton League range in Birchwood was the site for an annual turkey shoot. The winner took home a plump turkey as a prize.
In 1953, a “Christmas Lane” project was inaugurated to brighten the 14-mile length of the Palmer Highway from Eagle River to Eklutna.
By then, Matanuska Electric Association had extended lines to most homes in the area. Prizes were awarded for the most attractive outdoor decoration. An entry fee of 50 cents for a residence, $1 for a business and $5 for civic groups was charged. Mrs. George Sehm was in charge of the project.
Businesses and residents enthusiastically joined in the holiday lighting. One of the most notable and longest-lasting residential exhibits was that of Eldon French on North Birchwood Loop. Thousands of colorful bulbs glowed along the rooflines, windows, and trees during the season. Chugiak Coffee Shop, Moosehorn, McCann’s Shopping Center and Spring Creek Lodge were brightly lit to celebrate the season.
According to Cloyce and Justine Parks’ Chugiak Calendar of Nov. 23, 1954, the Chugiak Homemakers Club’s annual Thanksgiving Dinner would be held at the community hall.
It was to be a pot-luck, with each family to bring an amply-filled dish. The charge would be $1.50 for each adult. The paper noted that “These dinners were started to give the strangers in our midst an old-fashioned Thanksgiving meal family style.”
Without the convenience of a movie theater nearby, local thespians looked for people of like mind to put on shows. At the second-ever Chugiak Spring Carnival over Memorial Day weekend, several housewives displayed their talents and their ankles as the Chugiak Belles danced away. The activities not only raised spirits but funds for local causes such as the volunteer fire department.
In November of 1958, the community was treated to a presentation of the popular Broadway play “Harvey” under sponsorship of the Chugiak Parent-Teacher Association. Les Fetrow was cast in the role of Elwood P. Dowd, whose invisible rabbit friend was named Harvey. Fetrow also served as director. Margaret Milliman played Veta Louise Simmons, Dowd’s sister, and Jo Frankfourth had the role of her daughter, Myrtle May. Other cast members were Ann Headlough, Carol Dees, Andy Kirk, Nelson Mayer, Sally Patterson, Tom Slanker, Frank Towne, E. J. Lofgren, Frank Milliman and Ann Newman. Phyllis Stewart was in charge of ticket sales while Bruce and Darlene Robinson, Liz Harriman and Betty Stratton took care of props and Harriett “Rusty” Bellringer was in charge of publicity.
While those performances now are dim memories, the arts are alive and well today in Chugiak-Eagle River.
Among early settlers were cellists Arthur and Eleanor Braendel, who homesteaded in Eagle River and performed in the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra which they helped found. Ruth Briggs was a vocalist and among founders of the Anchorage Community Chorus. Frank Brink was a radio personality and actor.
The Braendels opened the Alaska Fine Arts Academy with the goal of providing quality programming with the vision of “Discovering the Artist Within.” In recognition of six decades of involvement, they received the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award in 2008, the Anchorage Mayor’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 and the Bear Paw Festival Lifetime Achievement Award.
In furtherance of the vision of the Braendels, the academy offers classes in art and music and also sponsors various stage productions throughout the year. They are located upstairs over Alaska Industrial Hardware, 12340 Old Glenn Hwy. Information about their programs can be found on their Website, www.akfinearts.org.
Plans have been drawn for a future performance center on a plot reserved in the Braendel’s homestead in the Braendel Subdivision off Eagle River Loop.
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: [email protected].