In July of 2013, I stood in the middle of my family’s old homestead house and marveled at how much it had changed. The doors were wide open, many of the windows were broken out, the ceiling sagged, and there were giant holes in the floor. The concrete basement walls were buckling, letting in the outside gravel. It was the first time I had spent any time looking around since the fall of 1967 when our family moved out of the house forever.
With my two sisters, Barbara and Linda, my 90-year-old mother, Elverda, and my wife, Nancy, standing beside me, memories of my childhood came flooding back. I remembered how the old house, buried in the deep forest, kept us warm during the long, cold, Alaska winters. The metal roof boomed and banged during the winter storms to remind us we were lucky to be inside where the blizzards wouldn’t carry us away. The back porch housed Dad’s meat cutting business; the business that kept us just a few dollars away from hunger and sometimes provided a pair of shoes. The living room was now strewn with broken glass where we played family games during the winter, with light provided by a Coleman gas lantern until electricity came, and after we had electricity when it went off for extended periods during the Matanuska winds. Sometimes we took shelter in our now crumbling basement during those fierce winds.
By modern standards our house was small, a mere 24 by 30 feet. However, it was larger than many other houses in the area and our family felt snug and secure from the dangers outside. When feral dogs, coyotes, and the occasional lone wolf howled in the forest, and the moose and bear wandered through, we always knew the log house would protect us. Now, over 60 years later, the house is falling in, being reclaimed by the earth from where the building materials originated.
My dad, Robert Lincoln, filed on the homestead in 1954. There was a 150 dollar filing fee required in Alaska. The joke at the time was that the government bet you 150 dollars against 160 acres you couldn’t live there for five years. Since my dad was a WWII veteran he was able to take advantage of easier terms than non-veterans. As part of the required proving-up process he began building our house using local spruce trees to make the outside walls and milled studs for the inside walls. The logs were cut on three sides by Dad and his good friend, Jim Kennedy, who owned a sawmill. The sawmill had a big circular blade, unlike the band saws used today. The floor was made of rough cottonwood planks. The circular saw marks on the logs and floor planks still show.
Mom talked about the building process and some of the setbacks that occurred. Dad spent two weeks in the hospital after he accidentally sawed his thumb off in the saw mill. He had to delay building the house while it healed. His thumb was sewed back on and it successfully grew back, although it wouldn’t bend anymore. The work on the homestead still had to be done so he learned how to hammer and perform other duties using his left hand.
The house was built with no modern tools. There was no electricity or generators at the time, so Dad used a level, a hammer, a carpenter’s square and a draw knife. He drove 10-inch spikes, at the cost of $30 dollars a keg, with a sledgehammer. He used a brace and bit to drill through the top log and halfway through the bottom log to countersink the spike, and used a crosscut saw to square off the ends. I was given the opportunity to drill, however it is unlikely a 7 year old made much of a contribution, except that it helped me to stay out of the way. Mom chinked the logs on the inside with oakum to seal any gaps between the green logs. The use of green wood was common among the homesteaders as money was usually tight, and they were in a hurry to get their homes built before the arrival of winter.
I was kept busy gathering loads of sphagnum moss to put between the logs to fill in any holes. Dad also gave me a drawknife to help take the bark off the uncut side of the logs, although I am sure that most of the draw knife work was done by Mom. The mosquitoes were fierce in the damp woods, so Dad gave me a lit cigarette to wave around in hopes of using the smoke to keep the mosquitoes at bay. The success of the cigarette smoke was questionable.
When winter threatened, our house was incomplete. Only the floor and a few courses of logs were finished. Dad built a small 12 by 18 foot shack where the future kitchen would be, as a temporary shelter for us, until the house could be completed.
We moved into the shack in September 1954. My sister Barbara, 4, and I slept in a small travel trailer borrowed from Jim Kennedy that was placed close to the foundation of the house. In the shack was a crib for my baby sister, Linda, a double bed, a table, four chairs, and a combination electric/wood stove. Dad nailed wooden boxes to the walls to serve as cupboards. Toys, food, and clothes were stored under the beds. Other household goods and tools were kept in boxes in other parts of the unfinished house.
A group of friends helped get the house closed in and the roof on. In December when the rest of the house was closed in and electricity was connected, Dad dismantled the shack, board by board. He removed a window from its frame and we threw the boards out the window into a heap outside. Mom remembered the episode as “throwing the house out of the house.” When the window was reinstalled, we could live in the whole 720 square foot house. It was one of the easiest moves ever made.
The living room of our house contained a barrel stove. It was made from an empty 55-gallon gasoline drum laid on its side, set on metal legs, with a hole cut into one end with a specially made door attached. A hole cut in the top of the other end was for the smoke stack. The stove was temperamental! Sometimes it would roar and turn red from the heat of a good fire, and sometimes, no matter what we did, it refused to hold fire.
The house was originally built on skids with future plans to move it onto a basement to give our family more space. It had two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. There was no bathroom as there was no running water. We used an outhouse until water was added four years later in the summer of 1958. Mom was happy to get running water in the kitchen and bathroom. Before then, Dad and I provided the ‘running water’ by running down to Cottonwood Creek to fill milk cans and hauling them back to the house. That same year Mom planted a lilac tree outside the house.
Dad also built the planned basement behind the house in 1958. He used the gravel from the basement hole to make the concrete for the walls. When he was done a house moving company winched the house onto the basement.
The house mover said to us, “Put a glass of water on the kitchen table. Not a drop will spill.”
Being an 11 year old, I accepted his challenge. He was right. Not one drop spilled. In fact, I rode in the house as it was winched over the basement.
Dad added a porch and a stairway downstairs to the two new bedrooms for us kids. The other upstairs bedroom was converted into a bathroom. He also installed a Van-Packer chimney that year. They were extremely heavy, fireproof, and top of the line. It is still there. They were advertised to last forever and so far it has.
About 1960 the outside of the house was stuccoed, covering the logs. This cut down on the cold drafts from the Matanuska winds and the house became warmer and more comfortable. Heat was variously provided over the years by a wood stove, coal furnace, and finally an oil furnace.
Eventually we built a fence around the front yard and planted flowers along it.
One night when Mom and Dad were at a political meeting, one of the speakers said he thought things in the legislature were “utter confusion.” That’s when Mom came up with the idea of a name for our homestead, that was soon to become a dairy farm, “Udder Confusion.” A family friend, June Robinette, painted the sign that stood in front of our house for many years. The sign has been saved and today resides on our garage wall over my workbench.
I showed my wife around the old place and told her more stories of how the house came to be what it is today. We all decided we deserved a souvenir since we expect our little house to be demolished in the near future. Barbara supplied a wrecking bar from her car and we used it to pry up some of the cottonwood flooring. The planks were no longer green, but well aged after nearly 60 years, and I used them to make everyone a box to store keepsakes. We also took pieces of Mom’s lilac bush, now grown into a giant lilac tree, with plans to fashion them into souvenirs as well. Fond memories of our homestead will live on as we enjoy these keepsakes made from its salvaged wood.