Underneath the Cottonwood Tree – Part 2

Continuing last month’s story, in 1948 our family moved to Wasilla from Anchorage and my parents, with us six kids, were living comfortably in our three room cabin at the edge of town. That’s when our first crisis hit. But remember, problems are just opportunities to develop character.

After being released from the army, my dad, Al Hjellen, worked as an assistant station manager for the railroad in Palmer, which at the time had a busy railroad station taking Matanuska Maid products to Anchorage and servicing the coal and passenger trains that went to Sutton, an active coal mining area. Matanuska Maid was the farming cooperative that was formed by the colonists that were brought to the valley to develop farming during the Great Depression. Coal was the main fuel used to heat Alaskan homes in those days before oil and natural gas became widely available. And coal was an export product for Alaska. Another principal product shipped via railroad was valley potatoes which had a long shelf life and were an important food staple in Alaska. Dad had a long drive to work from our home in Wasilla. In those days the Palmer-Wasilla Highway was a curvy, narrow dirt road.

One very cold winter day Dad told me he was hemorrhaging and was going to get help in Palmer. I did not know what hemorrhaging was, but I knew it was serious by the stricken look on his face. He left in the car and I ran as fast as my short legs would take me to my Aunt and Uncle Betts’ home. My Uncle Bill, with my mom, left and found my father passed out on the side of the road. My dad sometime later was diagnosed with a terrible disease called multiple sclerosis. He was soon unable to work and it was a tough time for our family.

Gil Hjellen (far right) and his five siblings with their mother, Pat Hjellen.

Gil Hjellen (far right) and his five siblings with their mother, Pat Hjellen.

My parents decided the best plan for us would be farming since there were six kids to help and my dad could do the financial part. We were able to buy a 160 acre colonist’s farm on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway between the Children’s Home, where Nugen’s Ranch was until recently, and the Vickaryous’, a successful colonist dairy farming family. We named our farm Mooseburger Farm because our main source of protein was ground up moose meat mixed with cow fat. To this day I find it hard to believe that people pay more for meat with the fat taken out when we worked so hard putting fat into our lean moose meat.

Most of the farming in the valley was dairy farming but that took a lot of capital investment so we went into chicken farming-buying boxes of little chicks and raising layers and fryers. This worked quite well as eggs, arriving by boat, were old and expensive prior to container ships which did not arrive until the 1960s. My mom went to work at Teeland’s Store, my dad wrote a column for the weekly paper and, even considering the hard times we were going through, things went well as our farmhouse had indoor plumbing, an oil stove, hot water, and a real bathtub. The girls had their own bedroom downstairs and us three boys slept upstairs-in the unfinished and unheated attic.

“As we ran back to the house
we heard this blood curdling scream.
Gary, my brother, was so scared
he tried to run into the house without using a door.” 

We had several cows for eating but unfortunately the bears liked to eat them too, so we soon learned that we better keep a close eye out and lock the cows in the barn at night. One night my family returned from Palmer where we had watched “The Thing,” a movie about an alien that killed people and drank their blood. Even though we kids were scared, we had to go out in the dark to lock the animals in the barn. As we ran back to the house we heard this blood curdling scream. Gary, my brother, was so scared he tried to run into the house without using a door. My mom had snuck out of the house to scare us and she was very successful.

To supplement our family’s food supply we would go with the Vickaryous family fishing for salmon at the mouth of Fish Creek on Cook Inlet. Tony, the dad, and his hired hand would take their two boys, Jim and Sonny, and Gary and I in a flat bed truck. We passed through the town of Knik which was an area very important to the development of the valley, being the northernmost port in Cook Inlet and thus the closest to the gold fields. A number of trails, including the Iditarod, ran out of Knik to provide supplies for the gold seekers and it was a flourishing town until the advent of the railroad in 1917. The town still looks much like it did in the fifties and if you stand there today, you can still feel the strength and perseverance of those intrepid pioneers who came before us. There is a museum in Knik today and if you are out on a Sunday drive it is a nice stop.

We used a set net to catch the Fish Creek salmon. We would anchor the far end of the net during low tide and anchor the other end on shore and wait for the incoming tide carrying the fish heading up the creek to spawn. In one tide we could get hundreds of fish. The main danger was getting stuck in the glacial silt which over the years had killed a number of people who were unable to free themselves before the incoming tide swallowed them up. We were light as kids so other than getting a bit dirty we had no problems. Catching the fish was fun but cleaning and cutting them the next day in preparation for canning was smelly, boring, and tedious. I soon learned that if you had a cut you were relieved of your duties due to fish poisoning. To this day you can see the scars on my thumb.

In the fall, picking potatoes was a great way to make money. Potatoes were the primary cash crop due to the fact that they had a long shelf life and grew well in the valley. Most of the picking was by hand using a belt around your waist with two hooks on it to attach the potato sack. You drug the sack between your legs as you bent over and filled it going along the dug up potato row.

Gil Hjellen (front left) with his grandfather, Ben (back left) holding his sister, Alice, his father, Al (back right), his brother, Gary (front right), and his sister, Sue (front middle).

Gil Hjellen (front left) with his grandfather, Ben (back left) holding his sister, Alice, his father, Al (back right), his brother, Gary (front right), and his sister, Sue (front middle).

Almost everyone picked during the very short season, including my little sister, Ida, who started when she was five years old at fifteen cents a sack. I loved earning money so I was a great picker until I met Clyda Thomas. She was a beauty and I was a goner. From then on I only picked in the row next to her and at the same pace. We became good friends over the years and I would have married her except after our senior year she ran away with some singer in a band.

Sometimes the potato picking day would be interrupted by Wild Bill Nelson buzzing us in his little airplane. If you have been in the valley in the last thirty years you would remember Bill pulling his signboards around, making statements about attorneys that you would not want your children to see. One day Wild Bill was so low in his plane I was able to hit it with a potato and I was glad to know he wouldn’t be coming back to get at me for awhile.

Another backbreaking way to make money was clearing new fields of stones and wood left by the breaking plow when they were first cleared. This had to be done by hand and was indeed tedious and boring. It’s hard to imagine how grueling it was to clear fields as the first settlers had to do before bulldozers were available. Even in the early fifties some clearing was still done by hand by homesteaders who could not afford to rent a bulldozer. I was friends with two boys, Mau Mau and Wild One, who were new to the valley and cleared their field by hand. That was not their family’s main problem-it was their cabin which had been made from green logs. Their dad was not very good at construction and the cracks in the walls were enormous, making it difficult to heat.

Many families in the valley were better off than we were, but we knew other families in much worse shape than ours. Perhaps we were the middle class of that place and time. Even though my father became ill with multiple sclerosis we kids did not feel we were deprived in any way. After all, we had electricity and indoor plumbing, we didn’t have to clear our land or build our own homes, we usually had plenty of food to eat, we had a family dog, and we had a mom and dad who loved us.

Things were going well for us with the chickens laying eggs, us kids doing the farm work and my Mom working at Teelend’s store. My dad was now wheelchair bound and getting weaker. And then the big storm hit-with 100 mile per hour winds and 40 below zero temperatures. Soon the roads were drifted in, the power lines were down, and without oil to heat with, our water froze up. We did have a wood stove in the kitchen to melt snow for water but it was difficult because we also needed water for the animals. That’s when the scariest thing in my life happened.

To be continued next month …


Story by Gil Hjellen

Categories: History

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