Friday, October 30, 2009

Alaska Homesteading in the 1950s

The following is the story and pictures of my husband's experience in homesteading land in Alaska.  We’ve really enjoyed going over old memories through this process. We hope that this will be of some interest to your readers and followers of the Homesteading stories.

Anne Paquette

I  served in the Army during the Korean War, discharged in April of 1955 and returned to my hometown of Concordia, Ks.  I worked as an electrician and carpenter for Hood Construction.   In the spring of 1958, my Uncle Jack LaBarge from Anchorage, Alaska returned to visit family and in the course of our conversations, he asked what I had planned for the future.  "I don't know yet", I replied.   He suggested that I go back to Alaska with him.  He offered me a job working with him cleaning soot out of oil burning furnaces and a place to stay at his house.  Together, he said we could homestead a 160 acre tract of land and once it was proven up on each of us would have 80 acres and divide the land down the center, sharing a small lake located in the center of the larger plot.  As a young fellow of 25 years and a future ahead of me, I thought the whole idea would be a great adventure, so I made the decision to head north!

Alaska homestead and cow moose in a November 1958.

 Once I got to Alaska, some of the excitement began to change as I realized the cost of living was almost three times higher in Anchorage as it was in Kansas.  A bowl of soup, at the time in Kansas would have cost me 40 cents, while in Anchorage I paid close to $1.40.

Alaska Homestead Far North Furnace Cleaners

 Another factor I hadn't considered was the difference in night and day.  The night time darkness was only about 4 hours long.  The sun would go below the horizon about 11:30 pm and come up again around 3:30 am.  Despite the short  nights, the Northern Lights were beautiful.

Fishing Katchemak Bay Saldovia, AK, August 1958 

 Once I was there, we selected our Homestead site on a map.  The site was located about 15 miles north of Palmer, Alaska: about 50 miles north of Anchorage according to my recollection.  (It's been 50 years).  We hired a Bush pilot to fly us out to the site and landed on the lake.  We stepped off the measurements and drove stakes into the ground as markers.  The stakes had our name, date and description of the land stamped in a piece of galvanized sheet metal.  The plane came back to get us about four or five hours later.   We each carried a 44 magnum side arm just in case a bear or cow moose decided to attack us.

 Our next task was to acquire or build a livable shack on the plot of land and to actually live in it for two our of the five years it would take to complete the homestead requirements.  We bought a shack at an auction and had it hauled out to the site.  However, the road was soft dirt and it started to rain and the truck sunk to it's axils in mud.  We slid the shack off the truck on planks and had to leave it by beside the road until the ground froze up later. That would put us several months behind.  Our dream was slowly turning into a nightmare.  Another requirement was to clear 5 to 10 acres of land by a caterpillar and have a crop sown and show a product of food from it.  This seemed impossible from where we stood that day - up to our knees in mud and thick tundra all around us.  I also found out later that the government retained all mineral rights, so any gold, oil, uranium, etc. that you found on your land would not belong to the landowner, but would be given back to the government.  There was a 5000 lb. copper "nugget" sitting on a corner in Anchorage about four feet in diameter.  It was so pure it was green from all the copper in it.

 My uncle was a super nice guy when he wasn't drinking, but he also lived a more dangerous and rugged life style from living in the untamed territory than I cared to.  With the homesteading looking bleaker and bleaker, and the differences I was experiencing in everyday life, I started to question my previous decisions.  None the less, I stayed for a while longer.

 We had planned our application of the homestead so as to get in before Alaska became as state, as that had been the talk for quite awhile.  I was glad I stayed for the celebration that followed the announcement.  It was a very happy time in Anchorage and all of Alaska.  Anchorage had a huge celebration and a bon fire near the middle of the city.  They burned 49 tons of wood.  Almost every tavern along 4th and 5th Avenue served free drinks.

 Despite the adventure, the beauty of the state and the opportunity of owning land, when I evaluated all the facts in front of me:  winter weather, life styles, economy, etc.  I decided that if I had enough money to do what it would take to prove up on this land, I could go back to Kansa and buy 50 acres with a house on it.  So, I relinquished my claim, bought a plane ticket and flew back to Tacoma, Washington and took the next bus back to Kansas where I did just that.


Anonymous said...


I spent the first few years of my childhood in Alaska. I have been researching my history there. It was fun to read your tale. My family moved from Fairbanks to Denver in 1954. I turned 4 on the Alcan Hiway. Great to read your story, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your story . After our son moved to Alaska in 2002 to finish school, we flew up many time to visit him. Being from Louisiana Alaska was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I had only seen clear water once and had never seen a mountain sunrise in my life. After living in Louisiana all of my life, I love Alaska's weather even the cold, snowy winters. Louisiana is Hot or hotter with rain all the time. We built a home in the Mat-Su valley and we love living here. BUT, as you wrote, “ winter weather, life styles, economy, etc,” with the exception of the winter weather I agree with you 100%. For me it has been the “life styles” here in Alaska even over the high economy., even today in 2010. You know what I am talking about. I do believe Alaska is changing, slowly. You have more people living here now that are here because they love Alaska and not just to make big money and leave it. Once the older “Alaskans” die out and new younger people, who love the state of Alaska start running the state I believe Alaska will be a better place to live.. I may not live to see the change but I believe it is coming.

Homestead Congress said...

Regretfully, Dr. Ernest Paquette passed at his home on December 18, 2010. His obituary in The Beatrice Daily Sun mentions Ernie's 1958 Alaska adventure of homesteading an 80 acre tract of land.