Stanley Huhndorf was born in Holy Cross, Alaska, October 30, 1922, to Max and Rita (Demientieff) Huhndorf. In World War II Stanley served in the U.S. Army Search and Rescue division, where he met his future wife, Caroline Cashman. Caroline had lived in Owatonna, Minnesota and had come to Alaska in 1942, drawn by the lifestyle and the climate. Stanley was a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps Expedition to the Mount McKinley region in 1944.
The couple married in 1953 and came to Kenai to start their home on a homestead at mile 30-1/2 North Road.
He and Caroline started their family in an Army Quonset hut on their Nikiski homestead in 1953 before constructing their log home, and they had a hand in raising a lot of others. He worked as a trapper and commercial fisherman until 1964. In 1965 he became head custodian at North Kenai Elementary School, and the couple continued to fish commercially and to raise 5 children.
The Huhndorf children are Michael P., Mary E., Thomas P., Gretchen M. and Stanley J. Jr.
Stanley Huhndorf's family said of him, "He worked at the Nikiski Elementary School for 23 years, where he was the friendly face a generation of students saw when they entered through the doors each morning. If he didn’t know your name, he quickly gave you an endearing nickname, and from then on that was what you were called. He and his brothers established their commercial fishing sites in the Northern District. He fished right up until the time his children told him it was time to pass it on to his grandchildren, and with some reluctance, he did. And so it was with his family, he passed on his ways, values and love, for which he will always be remembered. He was a man who earned the respect of intelligent men and the love of his children. He left this world a better place for having lived."
Michael, who wrote the Huhndorf story, was born in 1954 and was graduated from Kenai Central High School in 1973. He worked on the pipeline for 2 years and for Wade's Oilfields a year. He majored in history and political science at college in Gunnison, CO. He and his wife live in North Kenai.
Note: Caroline Cashman Huhndorf, born in 1916, died in 2001. Her cremains are buried on the family homestead marked with a large boulder, family plaque and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. Stanley Joseph Huhndorf Sr. died in 2007 at the age of 84.
What motivates a person to put down roots in an area removed from the conveniences of more sheltered or comfortable environments? Is it adventure, the prospect of "striking it rich," or a general contempt for the close proximity of one's neighbor? Whatever the reason, such an individual feels compelled to "get away from it all." The history of American Frontier life is filled with ambitions, dreams, hardship, and romance. As Horace Greeley beckoned, "Go West, young man," some hapless miner was probably muttering "For What?!" This depiction of homesteading or relocating assumes that one moved from a previous lifestyle. However, that is not always the case; there are those like myself who are born into it. I was blissfully ignorant of any alternate lifestyle and must confess that I prefer electric lights and running water to Coleman lanterns or wood stoves. I doubt such sentiments are unique to myself.
My mother and father were raised in different cultures. Mother was born in Owatonna, Minnesota, moving to Alaska in 1941 after having attained a degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota. From 1942 to 1947 she lived at Elmendorf Air Force base working as an aircraft dispatcher. There she met Dad who was living at the Alaskan Scout camp on the base while serving in the Air Force land rescue. Dad was born in Holy Cross and moved to Nulato when he was 11; both towns are located on the Yukon river. He received his education from the Catholic Mission and was raised in the subsistence tradition as hunting, fishing, trapping, and sled dogs were a way of life. In 1944 he was drafted and subsequently met Mother while in the military. From 1947 to 1952 Mother homesteaded with Rene Nielson at Mile 73 on the Glenn Highway. During the same stretch Dad lived in Anchorage working at Columbia Lumber and also trapped with his brothers and uncle in the interior of Alaska close to Northway.
Dad moved down to the Kenai area in 1953 and lived with his uncle Mike Demientieff at Boulder Point. The hunting, trapping and fishing were good here then so he and Mother were married; thus settling down to raise a family. They located a suitable area on Lake Suneva which is now Mile 31, North Road. Commercial fishing and trapping were their sole sources of income and continued to be so until the early 60s when trapping came to be impractical due to the expanding population. Dad finally had to get a job to supplement his income and in 1964 was employed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough as a custodian at the North Kenai School. Prior to this time life seemed simpler but more demanding of one's time.
Most of our experiences with homesteading are not unique because anyone who settled the Kenai area before about 1965 underwent similar experiences. However for the record it may be important to mention that we as a family went without electricity for 14 years, took our baths in washtubs, cooked and heated with wood, and lived in a log cabin. We were schooled through the Calvert Courses (they were a form of home correspondence courses from Juneau) for the first 3 years before going to a public school. Mother read faithfully to the 5 of us each night. Favorite stories were "Winnie The Pooh," "Grimm's Fairy Tales," in addition to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. I think the love we all have for reading stems from these bedtime stories. Before story-time we would all kneel to say the Rosary. Attending 9 o'clock mass in Kenai was always a big event. The day would start early on with baths and end with a cold dog sled ride home and 5 cranky children. Dad would tie the dogs to trees at the end of the road which was at Daniels Lake then. From there we would all climb into a green 1952 Chevrolet to attend Mass in town. We usually spent the day in Kenai as we did not know how long it would be before we could get back in; therefore anything which had to be done was accomplished in a day.
I would say that we really didn't "get modern" until about 1965 or 1966 when electricity was extended out into the rural areas. This changed our basic lifestyle and made life easier. Prior to this time I did not realize the pace at which many people lived their lives. Commercial fishing and wood stoves have continued to linger on but most else has changed in our family life. Three of the 5 of us kids have gone to college. My sister, Mary, has become a veterinarian and now lives in Connecticut. My sister, Gretchen, will soon graduate from a Bible school in Seattle. I majored in history and political science and graduated from Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado. My brother Tom is an electrician in the IBEW. Stan is also in the same union with the telephone company.
Those "old days" seem colorful and romantic but I was happy to see them pass, yet I would never trade them for anything. I am appreciative to my parents for their determination which shaped our childhood. I have been able to travel to many places far from our homestead including New York City, Paris, and Moscow; thus my upbringing is a real asset in trying to appreciate both urban and rural lifestyles. I am sure that anybody who was raised in a rural environment feels the same way. My homestead experiences were not unique because many others were raised like me. However, each has their own way of finding value in them.
- Mike Huhndorf, 1985
by Phil Hermanek
Grandpas always seem to have big, strong hands that kind of swallow up those of their little grandchildren. There’s no limit to the amount of time they have for their kids and grandkids, and no shortage of adventure stories from “back in the old days.” Nikiski’s Stanley Huhndorf Sr. is no exception.
With 22 children calling him grandfather and one great-grandchild, Huhndorf indeed has big, thick hands, weathered by years of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and trapping in Interior Alaska. Beached five years ago by caring daughters and sons, he now stands at the ready when grandkids need a lift to town for school or music lessons. And does he ever have stories from days gone by.
Born at the Catholic mission in Holy Cross in 1922 to an Eskimo mother and Russian father, Huhndorf spent his early childhood there on the Yukon River until he was 11. His stepfather, who was in the Army Signal Corps, was transferred to Anchorage in 1934, and the family moved there for two years before moving back to the Yukon, this time 300 miles farther upriver to Nulato.
Now approaching his 84th birthday, Huhndorf recalls fishing on the Yukon with a fish wheel, getting 10 cents a pound for dried fish. “Every two hours, the box was full (of fish),” he said. “In one week, we caught 10,000 fish.”
Huhndorf and his two brothers then worked to cut and dry all the fish. After slitting them and boning them, the two sides of each fish were scored and the fish were hung on racks for drying. “They used the dried fish to feed the dogs in the winter,” he said. That was the beginning of what would eventually become his main occupation — commercial fishing — but it would be awhile before the fishing actually got under way.
After living in Nulato for about six or seven years, Huhndorf was drafted into military service during World War II in 1943. He was assigned to the 24th Search and Rescue Squadron with the 11th Air Force, though his job was more one of recovery than rescue. Most times, Huhndorf and his crew were sent by dog sled to search for crash sites of downed military aircraft. Having slammed into the sides of mountains, most planes left no survivors.
“One time we spent 30 days on Mount McKinley,” he said. “A C-47 (cargo plane) going from Fairbanks to Anchorage hit the peak and was buried in snow at 18,000 feet.” Teams of rescuers shuttled back and forth with supplies and equipment, hop scotching at 2,000-foot intervals. “I never got all the way to the plane. I got up to 16,000 feet,” he said. His team did the relay segment from 14,000 to 16,000 feet.
He recalled another search mission near Anchorage, again after a plane slammed into a mountain peak. Three crewmen were burned in the wreck and thrown from the plane when a door flew off. “My friend decided to use the door as a toboggan to get one of the guys down off the mountain,” Huhndorf said. “But then as he started, he fell onto the body and he and the dead guy went sliding down.” Huhndorf said he really felt bad for the dead crewman, but did all he could to keep from laughing at his friend sliding down the mountain on top of the body.
He has many more stories of adventures as a member of the search and rescue unit, but perhaps his most important story is the tale he tells of the woman working as an aircraft dispatcher near the Alaskan Scout camp where he lived on Elmendorf Air Force Base. “Caroline wasn’t in the military, but she was working in the same hangar,” he said. “She told me she always wanted to go on a dog sled ride.” Huhndorf obliged, and although it took him 10 years to convince her, Caroline became his wife in 1952.
Caroline came from a different culture than Huhndorf, having been born in Owatonna, Minn.; moving to Alaska in 1941 after completing her degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota.
After being discharged from the military, Huhndorf went back to Nulato for one year to trap, but decided it wasn’t for him. “I went to Bristol Bay to fish, and did that in the summers and drove a lumber truck in Anchorage in winters,” he said.
Then in 1948, he came to Kenai to fish with his uncle, Mike Demientieff, at Boulder Point, near Nikiski. The fishing, hunting and trapping were good on the Kenai Peninsula, and in 1953, Huhndorf married Caroline, moving her into a tent on a 130-acre homestead at what is now Mile 31 of the Kenai Spur Highway.
“My wife told me to take the other 40 acres, but I said we had enough land already,” Huhndorf said. “We would’ve been rich! They used all that gravel to build the (North) road,” he said.
The couple spent one summer in the tent until Huhndorf built them a 20-by-16-foot hut where they spent the next four years while he started work on a log cabin. That first year also brought the birth of their first son, Mike, now an Anchorage teacher.
After Mike came Mary, now a veterinarian in Connecticut; Thomas, who works for Alyeska in Anchorage; Gretchen Bogard, who home schools her five children in Nikiski; and Stan Jr., a telephone technician for ACS in Nikiski. Stanley and Caroline also adopted one daughter, Eva, in 1968. She currently serves as acting secretary of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.
The elder Huhndorf moved to Nikiski to trap mink, otter, beaver and muskrat, and established a setnet fishing site in the Bishop Creek area of Cook Inlet. “We fished for kings, reds and silvers,” he said, recalling that one day he pulled in 400 king salmon. “We were fishing with 12 king nets with 8-inch mesh. We had three or four boats. My sons and the neighbor kids were helping,” he said.
The fishermen worked their nets from 18-foot wooden dories, several of which Huhndorf built. “They gave us $5 each for a king back in 1952. Then they changed to paying by the pound,” he said. “Now you don’t see any kings in the north district.”
In the early days, he would be paid $1.25 per red salmon, and said last year they were fetching 90 cents a pound. “Fish farming ruined it,” he said of the low prices paid for salmon. “Now they say they’re coming back to pure oil fish,” he said, explaining market preference returning to wild salmon versus farm-raised.
“I really quit fishing five years ago,” Huhndorf said. “They beached me.” However, over the years, he said he has trained hundreds of kids to fish.
The Huhndorf family continues fishing, now working from five 20-foot aluminum boats. Eight grandchildren carry on the tradition with 20-year-old Josh in charge when he comes, according to Huhndorf. The Huhndorf sons also have a commercial drift boat, “but they don’t go because the prices are too low,” he said.
Besides fish stories, Huhndorf likes to tell his tale of being on Suneva Lake when the Good Friday earthquake hit in 1964. The family was returning from Good Friday church services at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church in Kenai.
Trips to town customarily were made by dog sled for about a mile from the cabin up to the highway, where the family piled into their Volkswagen for the rest of the journey. On the way back, Huhndorf was shuttling Gretchen, Mary and little Stan by sled while Caroline and the others waited in the car.
“All of a sudden we heard these big booming sounds, the ice started bouncing up and down and the water was splashing up all around us. The water was black. We were all getting wet. I remember the trees laying down flat — there must have been a wind or something — and the dogs just laid down. We were about 100 feet from shore and it seemed like it shook forever, but it was only three minutes,” he said.
Huhndorf managed to get the children to shore and to their cabin, where he was sure he would find the drum stove tipped over and starting a fire. It hadn’t. Walking on snowshoes in front of the sled dogs, he made another trip to the highway where he retrieved his wife and the two boys, bringing everyone home to safety.
Trapping and commercial fishing were the only sources of income for the Huhndorfs until 1965. Huhndorf had to quit trapping when the Kenai Peninsula’s expanding population encroached on his trapping grounds.
“A homesteader built a house right on my trap line,” he said. “My wife said she was ready to leave me if I didn’t get a job,” he said with a laugh. “She said I was a couch potato.”
He went to work as a custodian at the North Kenai Elementary School (later Nikiski Elementary), thinking he would work for a year or so. The temporary job lasted 25 years. “I got there and really liked the kids. They really liked me,” he said. Eventually he became the head custodian for the school.
“I never did stop fishing, though. At first I got summers off, and then, when I became head custodian, I worked 12 months, but got one month off (every year) with pay,” Huhndorf said.
His wife of 50 years died in October 2001, and Huhndorf says he really misses her, but today his cabin on Suneva Lake is filled with grandchildren on a daily basis. “I have 22 grandchildren and one great-grandchild,” he said. “Gretchen’s kids and Stan’s kids are here everyday, and Mary comes back every year since Caroline died,” he said.
What Huhndorf didn’t learn until many years later was that Caroline had written to a friend before ever meeting him saying she dreamed of someday marrying an Eskimo and having five kids. Her dream came true. When asked if he has a favorite grandchild, Huhndorf wisely said, “All of them.”
Pointing to 11-year-old Minna, he says, “This one makes me cheese toast every day. This one is the sour one,” he says teasingly to Hillary, 13. ... And Samuel — my little Sambo — he has a girlfriend now,” he said, sending the embarrassed 7-year-old scurrying from the room.
These days Huhndorf says he loves to spend his time living on the recliner, reading newspapers and watching television.
Daughter Gretchen said he is also on call to take the kids to music lessons.
“My grandkids are all musical,” said Huhndorf, who played mandolin, violin, concertina and harmonica when his fingers were nimble enough. He no longer likes going to town. “It’s grown too big,” he said.
And, although he has no plans for Father’s Day, Gretchen said he’ll be coming to her home for dinner.
“I like steak the best, and Gretchen’s clam chowder,” he said.
“I guess that’s what I’ll make,” said his daughter.
-- Peninsula Clarion, Sunday, June 18, 2006