One of the more colorful characters in Nikiski's pioneering days was Ethel Henderson, better known as Eadie, owner of Eadie's Frontier Club on the North Road. Her story is told in her own words below, but first we offer a brief biography.
Ethel "Eadie" Sutton Henderson was born Eitha Chinlikas, daughter of a Russian-Jewish mother and illegal immigrant Greek father, about 1926 in Youngstown, Ohio. Quitting school after 5th grade, she left home to escape her father, who she said drank and beat her. She was on the streets of Youngstown alone at 13 and by the age of 14 was dancing and stripping in bars under the name Eadie Sutton. Eadie came to Alaska in 1947 and danced at the South Seas in Anchorage. In 1951 she moved to Kenai and built a bar, hotel and liquor store on the North Road. The establishment opened in May 1952 and she called it Eadie's Frontier Club in honor of the "frontier spirit" she found among the people of Nikiski. She filed for a homestead in 1957, north of the Nikishka Mall.
The bar was within walking distance of an Air Force communications station. Business boomed. She employed at least four topless dancers; she didn't allow them to go bottomless. She didn't allow drugs or pills, and she insisted on some "rough decorum." She told one journalist that in the bar's heyday she would confiscate 15 guns per night. It was said that she helped out men who were down on their luck, giving them jobs around the club. She allowed people to fill water jugs, use her freezer, and leave messages for friends at the establishment, and sometimes would deliver messages or packages herself.
There was nothing subtle about Eadie. A short, buxom woman with heavy makeup, she wore gold necklaces, diamond and gold rings on each finger, and was often seen in her leopard coat as she moved about town. She saw herself as an international hostess.
It was well known among the residents of Kenai and Nikiski that Eadie's club offered more than dances and drinks. Yet she moved among the people of the area sociably, never treated by locals as anything other than a business woman and neighbor. Several times she was charged with keeping a bawdy house or promoting prostitution, and twice the charges were dropped. The third time, 1975, she plead no contest and paid a $500 fine, but nothing apparently changed. The local police attested that her place didn't cause much trouble - not as much as some other bars in town, they said. The mayor said no one was complaining about the bar or wanting it closed. When the state gave her notice that they were revoking her liquor license in 1986, more than 5,000 people signed a petition in support of her keeping the license long enough to sell it - among them Kenai Mayor Tom Wagoner and Archpriest Macarius Targonsky, pastor of the Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai. Mainly, they felt she had been singled out by the ABC board and entrapped, as they had sent undercover men to the club to see if the girls would offer sex for money. This didn't go over well with the locals. In the end she was given six months to sell the license, and the Last Frontier Club finally closed.
Eadie Henderson did her last strip dance at the age of 73 at the Vagabond Inn on December 11, 1999, a month before she died. It was said that she still had a beautiful body and moved lithely.
Eadie Henderson sits at the bar at Kenai Joe's in the 1960s wearing her leopard coat.
I was Eadie Sutton, a dancer. I came from the concrete jungle of Youngstown, Ohio, to the vast wilderness, the wonderful land of the Midnight Sun and opportunities, the Territory of Alaska.
I arrived in Anchorage in 1936*. I moved to Kenai in 1951, and in May of 1952, I opened Eadie's Frontier Club. I named my place after the frontier spirit of the people who came here. This was a place where freedom for all prevailed, regardless of race, color, or religion. Alaska's doors were open to those less fortunate, if they were willing to work and build a future for themselves and their posterity. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were mine in those days. It was happiness to indulge in the activities suitable to the seasons. Winters I would hunt, ice fish, and trap. My trapline furnished pelts (lynx, beaver and rabbit) to trade for other supplies. I stored moose meat, furs, fish, wild berries, and food of all kinds in my cache.
Alaska's gifts of life were here for the taking. The gold was in the sun that made our hearts loving. The land was rich in natural resources and there was potential for greatness in this land of opportunities. Food from land and sea, gold, oil, wood, trapping, hunting, fishing - all to make men rich.
In 1957 Charlie Gagnon and Mac McCarthy began urging me to take a homestead. Other friends and customers, such as Art Lee and Lou Masik, were also considering homesteading north of Kenai (in the area now called Nikishka). Based on a dare made by Lou Masik, and because I thought it would be quite a challenge for a city girl, I decided to have a go at it. I had very little money to help me achieve my dream; but I was gifted with youth, spirit, ambition, and hope for the future.
To homestead was exciting and full of many new experiences. I felt I had the courage to cope with any situation that might arise. I applied for the 160 acres of land located 2-1/2 miles behind what is now the airstrip just north of the Nikishka Mall. Lou Masik's homestead bordered my land on the south side, and Art Lee's homestead was on the north. The road that is now called Masik Drive led into my homestead at a distance of about 1-1/2 miles from the main highway. Later I had another access road built through the land that is now the airstrip. It was a distance of 3 miles from the main road. I would drive in 2 miles to Art Lee's, park the vehicle there, and walk on to my place.
A bit of an on-going feud developed between Lou and myself. He became determined that I would not have easy access to my homestead. From then on, he would frequently erect barriers to prevent my using the road.
My dream was to carve a home out of the wilderness, to ride the wind while mushing dogs, and to snowshoe across a moon-lit frozen lake. I brought in a 12 x 30-foot Quonset hut with 20 feet of windows to use as a cabin, setting it up to overlook a lake, I named "Eadie's Lake." Later, to increase the living space, I brought in a 30-foot trailer and attached it to the Quonset hut.
I did most of my homesteading during the winter when I could walk in on snowshoes. I would close up the club, drive north and park my vehicle at Charlie and Clara Gagnon's place, then snowshoe home. I had 2 small dogs which I called my "protectors" (a chihuahua and a Pomeranian) and they would hitch a ride on the tips of my snowshoes during part of the hike.
Spring was a welcome season with its sunshine. But it also melted the snow, created mud, and made it impossible to get to the homestead until the middle of May. During the summer, when things dried out, I would bring my supplies in. I had my own garden, and the produce was important to me in the winter months. Electricity was not available, so I had battery or kerosene lights and oil heat. The lake served as a refrigerator for fresh food. In later years, when I no longer lived on the place, and until it burned in the 1969 forest fire, I used it as an "R and R" spot for the recuperation of employees and friends when they needed to sober up. I also let people stay there when they were down on their luck and had no place to live. Though I no longer live on that homestead, I still visit it in my mini-motorhome. And, I marvel at how much easier it is to drive on the paved and graveled roads to its entrance. It is nice to go there to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet.
"Ornery Lou Masik," as I came to call him, continued to harass my homesteading efforts. In addition to felling trees across the road, he spread nails along the road, turned off the oil to my house, and tried everything else he could think of. Once, when I had been ill and had not visited the place for awhile, Lou dropped still another tree across the road. When I visited the homestead and found the barrier, I borrowed a chainsaw to cut up the tree. What I didn't know was that Lou had laid a cable under the tree, so when the saw reached it, the cable destroyed the saw. This rivalry between us was semi-friendly, but occasionally his actions would infuriate me, and I was not without retaliatory ideas of my own.
Once, when Lou was inside his house, I put an iron rod across his door, preventing him from opening it from the inside. Another time, I gave his brand new car a "little breakfast" by putting a dose of eggs mixed with sawdust in the gas tank. Lou didn't learn about my trick, and couldn't understand why the car quit running so often. He had to keep cleaning out the sediment bulb, but the amounts of debris coming through from the tank were so small that they were not identifiable. Eventually, he sold the car to Charlie Gagnon, so I had to confess to Charlie what I had done to Lou.
My club, in addition to being the social center of north Kenai, was also a place to leave messages, fill water jugs, and because I had the only freezer around, a place to keep frozen goods. Mail packages and other items were left at "Eadie's" to be picked up by their owners. Often, I would deliver these items when I drove to my homestead. I devised an ingenious and popular method of proving that I spent the required amount of time living on the homestead. When I would drive out to the place after work, I would stop at the mailboxes of my fellow homesteaders along the route and leave a surprise package and a note of greeting. The surprises were often small bottles of booze or a beer. The recipients were quite willing to attest to the times I visited the homestead and "proved up" on it.
One of the homestead requirements was clearing a certain amount of land and planting crops. Many of the homesteaders planted rye timothy clover because it would come up year after year and not have to be replanted. They called this crop the "homestead special." I cleared 10 acres of the requirement one year by throwing a party for other homesteaders - with the catch that those attending would have to help sow the crop. Fresh air was beneficial in helping put them in the spirit for the large party of food and drink that I offered. There were lots of parties in those days, many of them "home-brew" parties. A certain member of the McGahan family used to stop by the club to ask for any empty dark green bottles. I would tell him he could have them as long as I was invited to the party.
The barter system was well used in those days and was the reason I started a pawn shop in my club. Times were hard and people didn't often have much cash, so there was lots of trading. I would trade liquor for other things, and people frequently paid off bar tabs with what they had that I could use. I remember one fisherman/homesteader who had a tab and no cash, so he paid with a huge load of fresh salmon, delivered to the club and dumped. I had to do some fast work to take care of it all. People cared for each other and looked out for their welfare. I did a lot to help my neighbors and was, in turn, accepted and treated as one of them. Many of us are still close friends today.
Thanks to a lot of help from my neighbors, despite "Ornery Lou's" games and because of sheer determination for 5 years, I completed my homesteading requirements in 1964. The motto I adopted, which helped me get through those years was, "If men can do it, I can too, and I can do it better." I may have been a city girl, but I also had self-reliance, a spirit of adventure, and enough sense to cope with the hard times. It was a lifestyle which appealed to me - being part of an adventure with people who could be counted on. The spirit of give and take made it work for all of us.
I've been happy here, and proved I could be a pioneer and a homesteader in Alaska. My memories of the past are enjoyable and I hold dear to my heart all the wonderful, trusting, soul-loving people with compassion. I wish to express my appreciation to my many friends who helped me in the past. A tribute should be extended to all the men and women who created homes out of the wilderness. To those homesteaders we owe a debt of gratitude that can only be repaid by loyalty to Alaska and the ideals up which it was founded. Our children now and in the future should be proud of the homesteaders who had the courage, fortitude, and spirit to carry on, and leave for future generations a new easier lifestyle in this beautiful "Land of the Midnight Sun."
- Eadie Henderson
* It is likely that this was a typo and was meant to be 1946.
In 2004, the Last Frontier Club's building found new ownership, after having fallen into disrepair and been boarded up for years. (Photo from website: kenaifriendshipmission.com)
After undergoing partial demolition and a significant remodel, the Friendship Mission helps homeless men and those in need.
(Photo from Google Maps)