Don Johnson had been to the Aleutians during the WWII and talked of coming to Alaska even before he and Sylvia were married. He left Mason City, Iowa, in 1947 to try to obtain a homestead and Sylvia followed in 1948. Don was awarded a homestead in a May 1952 land lottery. It is located at Mile 18, Kenai Spur Highway, a half mile from Salamatof Lake.
As told by Sylvia Johnson, c1985:
There is a saying that "Every cloud has a silver lining." The first of March, 1952, I was reclining in a hospital bed in Mason City, Iowa, following an automobile collision which had taken the life of our eldest son on February 12th.
The car I was driving was hit head on by a drunk driver on a curve near Innisfail, Alberta, Canada. I was leading a caravan of 3 vehicles with our family and all our worldly possessions enroute back to Fairbanks to make ourselves permanent Alaskans. Don had made two round trips over the Alaska Highway in the previous five years and we had finally decided that it was Alaska now and forever.
Following the return to Iowa to our families for the funeral and my recuperation, Don went on to Fairbanks to settle into waiting for my recovery so he could fetch me and our daughter Audrey (who was then 3) and our son Warren (1-1/2 years old). Both had been born at Fairbanks.
A neighbor and good friend told Don of homesteads being made available on the Kenai. They decided to make the trip to Kenai and look the country over. Impressed by the timbered country and the moderate temperatures (compared to Fairbanks - since April, 1948, our so-far-Alaska home). They stopped at the Anchorage BLM office and Don filed on the homestead which is today our home. A lottery in early May made Don the lucky winner and we were very excited. In June I had recovered enough that Don made another trip back to Iowa to bring us back to the land we had chosen.
Preparing a home entailed several trips from Fairbanks to Kenai and finally in December a wanigan [shelter] was ready for us. The trip from Fairbanks to Anchorage was in subzero temperatures, but there friends provided us with a warm haven overnight.
Don's friend, Al Bontrager, who had a accompanied him on several of the trips over the Alaska Highway, was driving the big truck with our household goods and tools. Somehow he became separated from us that night in Anchorage. We could not understand how he could disappear so completely. After several hours of anxiety and fruitless driving up and down Anchorage streets searching, we discovered the truck in a garage receiving some much needed attention. After paying the bill we had exactly $13 to see us from Anchorage to the "Homestead" at mile 18, Kenai Spur Highway, then known as the "North Road." I don't remember much about the actual trip except that it took all day, about 10 hours, and that the homes (5 or 6) at what is now Soldotna had their Christmas lights glowing from the windows and the airport runway lights at Kenai (green, red and the blue threshold lights) all looked like Christmas and seemed so full of promise.
We arrived at 6 pm at Fred and Louisa Miller's "Miller House" and had dinner. Louisa took me over to the Kenai Chapel and introduced me to Eldy Covich. It was the Sunday before Christmas. After dinner we drove out the North Road to the homestead. We had beaten the deadline for moving onto the homestead by five days. I don't think that I'll ever forget the damp and chill of the wanigan and even after the fire in the Yukon stove had warmed the cabin, the crawl into the cold clammy beds which would take several days to warm through.
It was so difficult to believe the weather which we encountered on the Kenai. To this day a winter with little or no snow and moderate temperatures just at freezing or no lower than 20 degrees above zero are "my" typical Kenai winter.
That first Christmas was so lonely; instead of turkey, we had a small tinned ham.
As the days went by, Don and Al worked during the daylight hours on a 12 by 16 log cabin which was to be our permanent home. In the meantime I washed clothes on a rub board until our nearest neighbors, Blackie and Rika Doolittle, invited me to use their wonderful washing machine. Washday turned into a social occasion as we all visited and learned to know each other as the clothes swished. They had the wonder of wonders - an electric generator. The dream of every "homesteader."
Blackie and Rika's home seemed to be the logical place for the homesteaders to stop and enjoy the hospitality on their weekly trip to town for supplies. With children of all ages and adults it was a very special time. It seemed that everyone had time to share experiences and teach the Cheechakos where the waterholes were and how to cope with the numerous problems with afflict a community with no electricity or telephone and people with no income, as there were no year-round jobs. The fact that we all survived that winter attests to the community support we all received.
We moved into our log cabin on March 1, 1953. During these first few months several medical emergencies occurred. Probably the most serious was when our 28-month-old Warren fell into the 6-1/2-foot-deep hole which was the beginning of the well. It was April 2nd, so the ground was partially frozen and no snow. His lip was pierced by a twig and dirt filled the multiple scratches and his nose was broken. I jumped into the hole and pushed him up over the rim and clambered and scrambled myself out, all the while screaming at the top of my lungs. Don was across the road getting wood and luckily heard me. The only medically trained person that we knew in the area was Jo Davidson, who lived in a tiny trailer behind Kenai Joe's. We rushed Warren in to her and she cleaned him up and suggested that we had better take him to Seward for x-rays and a checkup. That was to be the first of many trips to Seward or Anchorage for medical care.
Spring breakup in April and May was another adventure. With very few vehicles that first winter belonging to homesteaders beyond us, the noise which would be made by one of the jeeps or army surplus vehicles would announce itself from 2 miles or more away. By this time Don was working so was gone all day and the roads impassible except by 4-wheel drive. Several times I would have time to run the children over to Rika and get to the road to hail a passing vehicle and catch a ride into town for much needed supplies. More than once I've seen vehicles stop on muskeg which seemed solid and within 15 to 30 minutes be sunk to the axles. "Come-alongs" used to be standard equipment, along with the jack and tire wrench.
I remember … our first guests … Galen Gray and Wilho Kuoppola … I was making doughnuts … that winter I honed my top-of-the-stove skills: fried pies, cake batter pancakes, cookies and bread baked in a Coleman oven. A real stove with an oven finally in June … Wanting to see the exact moment the tide turned … the tide book stated a specific time … I would hurry my chores so as to be able to see that exact moment … I must have spent countless hours on the edge of the bluff watching so carefully but it always happened without my being aware of its precise moment … One of the mysteries of the sea!
Just a few of the memories of life on the Kenai! Our chosen home for over thirty years.
The Johnson Homestead
(Photo credit: Once Upon the Kenai)