Underneath the Cottonwood Tree – Part 1

Cottonwood Tree

It was an exciting time in Alaska. The war was over, my dad, Al, had been released from the army, and we were moving to Wasilla where my mom, Pat Hjellen, had grown up-the eldest daughter of Heinie and Alice Snider. Us six kids were stuffed into the back of our English Ford and out of Anchorage we headed. We bounced around, choking on the dust coming through the floorboards, as we traveled through Fort Richardson. The Glenn Highway was still a two-lane dirt road in 1948. We passed Eagle River and Eklutna, staying along the Chugach Mountains on what is now known as the Old Glenn Highway. We crossed the Knik and Matanuska Rivers coming into Palmer from the north. Just twelve more miles of dirt and at last we came down the hill into Wasilla. We passed Smith’s Garage and the railroad station, turned right, crossed over the tracks and we were on Main Street. The first thing I noticed was the most magnificent cottonwood tree I had ever seen, and underneath it a small group of boys hanging about on their bicycles.

Next to the giant tree was Teeland’s General Store and across from it the Wasilla Bar, both fixtures in most small Alaska towns. Next to Teeland’s was the Wasilla Roadhouse followed by the post office, the log cabin library and then my Uncle Bill Bett’s restaurant. Across the street were the homes of the Cadwalladers, Thorpes, Carters and Sawbys. Thorpe’s log cabin and Teeland’s General Store had been moved from the town of Knik with the coming of the railroad in 1917. The Community Hall, which is still there (currently the Wasilla Museum), was next and then, at the end of town, our new home.

It was a log house with three rooms, a water pump outside, and a good distance from that our one hole outhouse. There was one bedroom where our parents would sleep, the living room where my older brother, Gary, slept on the sofa. Sue, Alice, Pete and Ida were on benches against two walls in the kitchen. I got a fold up cot next to the stove so I was a happy camper.

We did have electricity which a number of people outside of town, particularly homesteaders, did not have. Our heat was provided by a pot belly coal stove in the living room and another coal stove for cooking and heating water in the kitchen. We had to carefully add the coal every few hours because this coal was a little unstable and it would sometimes blow the lids off the stoves. Teeland’s General Store was also heated by coal and we thought it was so cool because all you had to do with their heating setup was shovel the coal into the hamper where a little belt took it into the boiler.

Gil, second from left, as a young boy in Wasilla with a few of his friends.

Gil, second from left, as a young boy in Wasilla with a few of his friends.

Our once a week baths in the wash tub were interesting. Since we heated the water in pots on the stove and had to hand pump and carry the water in buckets, we used the water for more than one person. I don’t remember but I am sure there were big fights about who got to go first. Also, if you ever wondered where the saying “don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” came from, well, baby Ida’s water was pretty dirty by the time she got her turn.

After we unloaded the car and checked out our new home, Gary and I decided to explore town and had started to walk down the street when the boys we saw by the tree earlier started to chase us. We ran home as fast as our 3rd and 4th grade legs would take us and hid out for a time. Finally, we decided that was not going to work, so at high noon we went out on the street to get the fight over with. The gang of boys approached and we stood face to face. Then, to my surprise, one of them, I believe it was Wally Teeland, said that it was not fair so he was going to join our side. One by one the boys switched sides until soon we were all on the same side and could hang out under the cottonwood tree together, watching the town go by.

Another hangout was the railroad depot when the passenger train came in. Our favorite place was actually under the platform where we boys tried to check out the latest in underwear fashion. Our family had the contract to take the mail from the station to the post office. I could never understand why they didn’t just pick up the mail themselves since the post office was less than 200 yards away, and except for the Christmas season there was only one bag of mail a day.

In the fall school started. All the students, elementary through high school, were in the same building that is currently Wasilla’s City Hall. “Eagle Eye” Dorothy Nelson, my friend Erling Nelson’s mother, was our teacher and she was called “Eagle Eye” for good reason. I did not like school in part because the year before my Anchorage teacher had locked me in a closet, and I thought that was a bit harsh for a 2nd grade student. I did enjoy reading. My favorite book was Huckleberry Finn and my favorite comic book character was Donald Duck’s Uncle Scrooge because I loved money. I had the job of helping with the lunch program, which took place in the attic of the school, and Ilah Senske, the cook, let me cut the hot fresh bread so no one except me ever got the yummy end pieces.

I also liked the activities outside the classroom. One day Dan Fleckenstein brought some bullets to school and we decided to form a new organization. The initiation rite to join was exploding a bullet by smashing it between two rocks. I got to go first and when the bullet went off it took off part of my knuckle, so that ended that. It did not end our playing with gunpowder because my cousin, Jimmy Rogers, had learned how to make it. We would blow stuff up until one day he was packing it a little too hard and almost lost two fingers. Our dad gently took the remaining powder to the middle of Wasilla Lake.

Homesteading was having a revival as the Federal Government had finally released the thousands of acres of land they had set aside for the 1935 Colony project. Sturdy people had been homesteading in the area since the early 1900s, but due to the two wars, lack of roads, and the government programs it did not take off until after World War II. Homesteaders were required to build a home, live in it, clear 10 acres, and grow a crop to gain title to the land. With the valley covered in thick forests it was a Herculean task and I greatly admire those intrepid souls who ventured forth to build a new life.


I remember one day when our mom had us gather up some old clothes to give to a new family that was starting a homestead north of town up Fishhook Road. We gathered the clothes and a few other things and rattled down the road to their cabin which was one room and did not have electricity. They had three kids and soon we were having a great time sledding down their hill with kerosine lamps set out to show us the way. I remember being confused because to me they did not seem poor at all with a warm house, moose meat, and a great sledding hill. In fact, several years later I spent time working for them.

Things went pretty well that first year, except that my mom kept complaining about all the yellow snow in front of our house since we kids did not want to hike through the bitter cold to the outhouse. Besides, since the outhouse was only one hole, a giant stalagmite was growing inside up towards the seat. Another problem was our well froze up that winter and we had to carry water from the neighbors. This idyllic life would soon encounter some serious problems.

To be continued next month …


Story by Gil Hjellen

Categories: History

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