Nedra and Jim Evenson homesteaded at Bishop Creek in 1958 and lived on Holt Lamplight Road. They, with their son Thor, had left Iowa in 1955 in search of adventure. Jim had been an art instructor at Cornell College, where they met Mary Joan Thompson, a student, who was from Kenai. After school ended that spring, they invited her to travel with them up the Alaska Highway. They drove in two vehicles, the family sedan and a Jeep station wagon. They hoped to sell the Jeep in Alaska to help finance their summer. Thirteen days later they arrived in Kenai and met Mary Joan's parents, Wilma and Jerry W. Thompson., along with her brother Stan and his wife Donnis.
That summer the Evensons camped in a fishing barn on the creek flat below the bluff of Kenai. In mid-summer they found an abandoned dory on the muddy shore of the Kenai River, containing an old linen gillnet with cedar floats. The owner, they found, was John Boyette of Seldovia. He had leased the boat to a pair of fishermen who had abandoned it after fishing for a couple of weeks, and Mr. Boyette was happy to let Jim and Jerry finish fishing the season and return it to Seldovia in August. In Seldovia, they found that the Seldovia Bay Packing Company was selling some boats, so Jerry bought the Anina Marie, and Jim and Nedra bought the Mable E. They used that boat for 10 years with Nedra and Thor as crew, and in 1965 Thor purchased it and fished with it for another 13 years.
When money ran out in mid-August, the Evensons drove to Anchorage where Jim found work as a gandy dancer for the Alaska Railroad for a few days. Then, leaving Nedra and Thor in Anchorage to sell the Jeep, Jim returned to Kenai and joined a cement crew pouring sidewalks for Wildwood station. That money got them back to Iowa, and they left the Mable E stored for the winter.
Upon their return in June 1956, they fished again for the summer. A trip to the nearest dentist in Seward resulted in Jim's learning that teachers were needed in Alaska. In a short time, Jim was working as an art instructor in Anchorage, where the Evensons lived in a small bungalow in Spenard. Nedra was employed by the Alaska Department of Health on 4th & Eagle streets. For two years they worked in Anchorage and fished summers in Kenai. They had bought a bluff lot from Howard Kraiger with a tiny 2-room house. Les VanDevere, a fellow fisherman and homesteader, helped them locate their 160 acres on Bishop Lake on what is now Holt-Lamplight Road in Nikiski. In those days it was 8 miles of trail from their land to Island Lake Road and another 15 miles of gravel into Kenai.
Ken McGahan on his D-8 Cat put in the trail and cleared the cabin site before breakup of 1958. By fall, a 24x24 foot, 2-story cabin was livable and the Evensons began the required residency for homesteading. That school year, Jim taught 6th grade at the almost-new Kenai Territorial School on the Spur Road, while Thor was in the other 6th grade class taught by Frank Cline. Being a school teacher, Jim would live in their bluff house in town near the Russian Church during weekdays with son Thor, and spend weekends at the homestead to cut firewood for Nedra. According to homesteading rules, where the wife lived was the official residence. When heavy snows made the trail impassable, Nedra lived at the homestead alone. She found much to keep her busy with daily chores as well as reading cartons of paperback books donated by skeptical Anchorage friends. She also hand-sewed a large braided wool rug during the daylight hours of the winter.
.Like many homesteads of the time, the inside of the cabin was unfinished, with exposed studs and joists, fiberglass-foil insulation, and large downstairs windows made of double, clear plastic. They had tried trucking in small glass windows, but all were broken after 23 miles of gravel and forest trail. They did have luxuries like a fuel oil range, a barrel wood stove, a pitcher pump beside the kitchen sink, a gas-powered washing machine purchased from Frost and Casey Jones, army surplus furniture hauled down from Elmendorf, a Coleman table lamp bought from Mandy and Pappy Walker, and double rinse tubs on wheels with drain hoses.
On their first Thanksgiving they purchased their turkey from a grocery store in Kenai, but upon returning home, came to the stark realization they had no turkey roaster, Nedra Evenson said. A pressure cooker had to suffice, she said laughing.
“The poor turkey was stuffed head down in the cooker,” Nedra Evenson said.
The cabin they built for themselves was “comfortable and primitive,” Nedra Evenson said. But they invited all of their neighbors, including the ones that helped them build their home, and it became known as “the party house.”
On Thanksgiving Nedra Evenson would bake pies in their old oven. She gathered wild Lingonberries, which she would grind up with oranges for their “cranberry sauce.”
Nedra's normal routine included washing clothes, baking bread, cleaning the cabin, cooking for the weekend, and snowshoeing along the creek and Rat Lake to the VanDeveres' place on Parsons Lake, a trek of 3 miles each way. Even with a steady income and some modern conveniences, living was rough and every spare penny went to pay for the costly, required 10-acre clearing and planting of land that started out covered by tall birch and spruce. To be on the safe side, they cleared nearly 16 acres. When all the clearing was complete they planted hay.
Before moving from Anchorage they had purchased an old Dodge Power Wagon with oversized wheels and chains. It was actually a converted surplus ambulance like those seen on M*A*S*H, and it was reliable transportation over the snow-packed trail to and from the homestead. As winter progressed the snow was so deep that the Power Wagon could run in the ruts of the trail without being steered or driven. Guy Moore, a homestead neighbor, told of his surprise the first time he saw the big green Wagon coming down the trail with no visible driver. Jim liked to set the hand throttle so that it would run by itself, gear it in "grandma low," and get out and run alongside for exercise.
After fulfilling their homestead requirements, Jim and Nedra decided to move back into Kenai. Jim was teaching in the high school and coaching cross-country, basketball, and track, and Nedra was a substitute teacher. Thor was in Junior High School, an excellent student and promising athlete. The acquired a homesite 2 miles east of town on the Spur highway and contracted a larger, modern home. They moved there during the fall of Thor's senior year. Living in town allowed them to participate in community affairs that included attending and holding offices in the Methodist Church and serving on the Board of Directors of the Kenai City Development, Inc. Nedra was secretary-treasurer of the Kalgin Girl Scout Neighborhood Association and a Thursday volunteer at the Kenai Community Library (its only day open then in the old Civic Center). She soon became a member of the board of directors and held the offices of secretary and treasurer, and was president from 1970-76 during the time the present library was constructed. For ever 20 years she was an election precinct judge.
Jim continued for many years to spend summers gillnetting salmon in Cook Inlet, and the winters painting and printmaking in his spacious studio on the homestead. The construction of a state road in 1969 along the section line of their homestead made it feasible for Jim and Nedra to build their final home on the site of their former homestead cabin.
Remembering the 1964 Earthquake
On the March 27, 1964, the day of "The Earthquake," as Alaskans refer to it, Nedra Evenson was making dinner for her family at her home at Mile 3 of the Kenai Spur Highway. Her husband Jim and their son, Thor, were also home.
Nedra had filled the sink with soapy water to clean up grease splatters from the french fries she was making. Then the earth started shaking.
The two cars in the Evensons' driveway bounced in unison. The highway moved like a wave, Nedra said, and the trees bent down to the ground and back up into the air and to the ground again.
The couple went outside when they were able to get the door un-jammed. Thor remained in the house trying to keep his books from falling.
“It really shook,” Jim said. “When we came out of our house, we couldn’t stand up.”
The house rotated like a big box, Nedra recalled, and the couple watched the chandelier hanging over the kitchen table swing and get closer and closer to the window, but it never got close enough to break the window. The ground split open within inches of the Evenson’s home.
“It lasted so long,” she said, “so that you could say, ‘Look at that!’ And you had time to look at that.”
By 5:40 p.m., it was over. It had lasted four minutes. The 9.2 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter at the north edge of Prince William Sound rocked the state and caused $300-400 million in damage in Alaska in 1964 dollars.
The water that had filled the Evenson’s kitchen sink was all over the floor. “We didn’t get dinner that night,” Nedra said.
With the Kenai area being mostly made up of sandy soil, Jim Evenson said the ground just shook, unlike Anchorage. The tsunami that followed the quake came into Cook Inlet at low tide, Nedra said, so it didn’t do as much damage as it would have at a high tide.
The peninsula was cut off from the rest of the state, except for air travel, due to busted roads and bridges.
The Evensons, who, like many, were without power for days, didn’t know what exactly had happened until they picked up a Canadian station on a battery-powered radio. In the days and weeks that followed, they learned not only about buildings sinking in downtown Anchorage, but also Seldovia losing its boardwalk — the town’s main street — and the tsunami dropping boats uptown in Seward.
A Friend off the Library
When the Eversons retired in 2016, the Friends of the Library honored her for her volunteer work.
She had become a volunteer for the library in 1965 and a was continuous Board of Directors member since 1967, “I first visited the library in 1955 and they had bookshelves full of used books that had been donated and it was a nice little place in the civic center that was shared with a church, court system, city council and any civic or town-hall or community business meetings, it was wonderful,” she said.
While Jim became well known for his passion for art, Nedra’s passion was for the library, “I always loved thumbing through books and reading. The library was such a concentrated effort by the citizens of Kenai for everything that you just couldn’t help but love what it was. Then after we homesteaded the board asked me to be a volunteer and I was flattered. They were only open on Thursday’s and for the next 50 years I spent Thursday’s reading to kids. I figure I had three generations of preschoolers because I became known as their Cookie Lady,” she laughed, “It was fun watching these children grow and learn and become good healthy adults.”
(Credit to the Peninsula Clarion and Once Upon the Kenai, with permission from the Kenai Historical Society, for the above information.)
Jim Evensen imitates the ground rolling in the '64 earthquake. (Photo credit: Peninsula Clarion)
Nedra Thorsrud Evenson, 99 years young, passed in her sleep on April 20, 2021 at Horizon House in Anchorage, Alaska. She was graceful to the end of her lively long life.
Nedra was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa on April 4, 1922 to parents C.S. and Marie Thorsrud. She grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa attending Cedar Falls High School and two years at Iowa State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Iowa. She was an outstanding athlete. The US Olympic swimming team attempted to recruit her for the 1936 Olympics, however her family could not imagine moving to California for her to train.
Nedra married her high school beau Harland Riebe in 1941. While her husband was in the US Navy in the Mediterranean Sea on a destroyer, Nedra lived and worked first in Norfolk, Virginia in a hospital and then in NYC for several years at the Pathe News. She thoroughly enjoyed her work, dressed in style with seamed nylons and stylish hairdos, and on days off gathered with girlfriends on the beach. Following the war, the couple lived in Storm Lake, Iowa where son Thor was born in 1947. Later the family resided in Boulder, Colorado and Charleston, Illinois where Harland was a professor. When the couple divorced in 1952, Nedra and Thor moved to Des Moines, Iowa where she worked at the Register and Tribune. Nedra recognized young Thor's artistic talents and nurtured him with visits to museums.
Harland's mother Gladys Riebe suggested to Jim Evenson, her nephew and Harland's first cousin, that he visit Nedra. Romance bloomed and Jim and Nedra married August 19, 1954. After living in Mt. Vernon for a year, Nedra said to Jim, a voracious reader, "You are always reading and talking about [Alaska], let's go!" They did and a student from Alaska, Mary Joanne Thompson, rode along in May of 1955 to Kenai where her family lived. Jim, Nedra, and Thor lived in the Thompson's set net cabin on the beach below Kenai that summer. Jim observed the salmon drift fleet on the river and mused how he'd like to do that someday. So once again Nedra suggested, "Well, why don't you?" They bought a salmon drift boat in Seldovia in August. Nedra was the adventuresome and dynamic woman behind the successful man.
The family returned to Iowa for one more winter and then stayed in Alaska when they returned to fish in 1956. Jim taught school and the family fished together in the summers. In fall of 1956 Nedra flew back to Iowa to return with a load of family possessions to Alaska. She bought and outfitted a Chevy panel truck with extra tires and gas cans to drive the Alaska highway. Iowa locals were eager to assist and curious about this young woman on this solo adventure. On her trip Nedra slept in the truck nights.
A friend Les Vandeveer, a trapper and homesteader in N. Kenai, suggested a great homestead site on unclaimed land on Bishop Lake. The family snowshoed there with Les in February of 1957. Jim and Nedra loved the site between two lakes and filed in 1958. In 1959-60 a cabin was built on the isthmus and Nedra stayed there for 7 months; home is where the wife is according to homestead law. Meanwhile Jim taught 6th grade in Kenai and Jim and Thor traveled an 8 mile trail every weekend to be with Nedra and cut firewood. Alone on the homestead during the week, Nedra had a chore assigned for each day: Monday was for filling the oil lanterns, Tuesday for cleaning, Wednesday for laundry, Thursday for snowshoeing a distance to check on a pregnant friend alone in a cabin, and Friday for baking bread. Nedra enjoyed ice skating on the smaller lake that she named after her mother Marie.
After that winter, the family lived in town Kenai spending weekends at the homestead until the 1964 earthquake took down the cabin. In 1971, the Holt-Lamplight loop road was constructed and the family built a beautiful home on the same site and lived there until 2015 when health concerns led them to live at Providence Horizon House in Anchorage- Nedra desired to be near Thor and grandson Taylor.
Well-traveled Nedra brought the broader world to their Bishop Lake home and studio. Twice on her own, Nedra traveled to Africa on safari with a Methodist women's group. She was very interested in the arts, performing arts, and sports. She kept yearly records of all the waterfowl on the two lakes, their comings, goings and young. As a very active volunteer in Kenai for many years, Nedra was a shaker, mover, and an innovative force at the Kenai Community Library and wherever she worked. She gave many hours of service to the Kenai Art League, at the Kenai schools monitoring spelling bees, as an elections volunteer, and at the Methodist Church. Ultra-capable and intelligent, Nedra could have successfully run any business or organization. Nedra was Jim's right hand partner in his art studio assisting with the lithographic printing process, framing all the works, and keeping detailed records of each piece. She was in her own right a designer, an artist, and multi-skilled with her wonderful large hands. She was a superb cook, known for her mossberry pies, Limoncello, and huge feasts for an array of dinner guests. She had a great warmth toward people and her appreciative extended family. A gracious hostess, Nedra welcomed many locals and those from around the world into her home, serving many delicious meals, and giving many haircuts! Many people mention how kind she was to them.
Nedra was very involved in the community, enjoyed and loved so many so much. Right now, the F/V Nedra E named after a great lady and skippered by her adored and adoring grandson, is cruising Bristol Bay harvesting salmon. Nedra will be well-remembered and is greatly missed.
Nedra is survived by her son Thor Evenson and grandson Taylor Evenson of Anchorage; her nephew Chuck Thorsrud of Homer and his family; her nieces Teri Weiderman of Minnesota, Chris Williams of Utah, and Marie Wessely of Texas and their families. Nedra's husband Jim preceded her in death on September 19, 2020.
Nedra Evenson (Photo credit: Peninsula Clarion)