Homesteader’s Season in the 1950s
Everybody has to eat. For poor homesteaders in the Matanuska Valley and other areas in Alaska, prior to plentiful jobs and modern stores, moose meat provided much needed food. The problem was moose meat could only be acquired during hunting season. As legal hunting did not go year round, up until the late 1960s it was unofficially extended by many. This period was called “homesteader’s season” or simply, illegal moose hunting. Few spent money for the required license, even during the legal season. If the illegally shot moose was not wasted, not shot in obvious sight, and not talked about, the game warden turned a blind eye and simply failed to see what was going on. However, being discovered was always a risk because there were people around who would report these activities.
My father, Robert “Bob” Lincoln, had his first experience shooting an illegal moose in the winter of 1951. Like most of the new arrivals to Wasilla, he was short of money for food and needed to supplement the family larder. Early one morning, he looked out the cabin window and noticed a moose just wandering into the nearby woods. He grabbed his old 30.06, headed into the woods and hit the moose on his first shot. Perfect. No one could see what he had done. He was pleased that the kill site was surrounded by trees, giving protection from possible sightings by some blabber-mouth. To his horror, the moose staggered out of the woods and fell dead, right next to Fairview Loop Road.
What to do? He knew the school bus was due by any minute. Quickly he ran into the house and found an old tarp, raced out to the road, and covered the moose. Frantically, he shoveled snow over the tarp. Just in time. The school bus came by and no one saw the moose. But someone did see. The neighbor across the road noticed him cleaning the moose. He came over with his tractor and helped my dad pull the moose into a place where they could clean it without being seen. Safe.
Judy and I were always admonished to
never speak of any of the jobs we did.
To this day few of our friends know about it.
Two other neighbors were involved in a co-operative moose kill. They agreed that if one of them saw a moose he would shoot it and then contact the other. It was a good idea, but there can be unintended consequences to any plan. The first neighbor looked out his door early in the morning and saw two moose. Perfect! One moose for each of them. He took out his rifle and shot both of them. As he was walking back to the house, his partner drove up.
All excited, his partner shouted, “Great news, I just shot two moose!”
Between them they had just shot four moose. Now what? Bad timing and bad math. Discretely, they notified other trusted neighbors who might be interested. The moose were distributed throughout the neighborhood. No meat was wasted.
Looking out the window early one morning, another neighbor saw a moose in the trees across a snowy field. He carefully lined up his sights and pulled the trigger, but the moose never even flinched. A clear miss. He shot again. Another miss. The third time he was extra careful. This time the moose dropped. He went up to the moose and, to his shock, found he had shot three moose. They were all lined up side by side. He had shot the first one and it had dropped, exposing the second moose. Thinking he had missed, he shot again and the second moose dropped, exposing the third moose. After the third moose dropped he discovered what had happened. Again, the neighborhood had moose to eat.
Moose were plentiful in the years just before the territory moved into statehood. Several homesteaders organized themselves to harvest the moose available in late winter. They divided themselves into teams. One team drove the moose into a waiting ambush manned by the others.
So what does this have to do with my dad, Bob? My dad was the expert butcher and didn’t participate in the organized hunting and shooting. As the moose were felled he quickly dressed and cut them into quarters. The meat was moved into our barn and hung up to age before cutting. After cutting, the meat was equally divided among the partners. That season, six men working together were able to provide meat for their families the rest of the winter. Co-operation at its best.
Dad bought an old Cleveland Kleen Kut meat saw and butcher block from the Matanuska Valley Farmer’s Cooperative Association (MVFCA) in Palmer for twenty-one dollars. The saw had already seen many years of service when it arrived in Alaska with the Colonists in 1935.
Dad’s friend, Ray Bergman, also lived in Wasilla. Ray was a journeyman meat cutter and owned a pickup truck. He suggested the two of them go into business. They acquired a few more tools and a hamburger grinder, set the saw up in a lean-to attached to the side of our house, and went into a part-time meat cutting business.
In the evenings and during the weekends, Ray would stop by a customer’s house, pick up the meat to be cut, and deliver it to our house. They charged ten dollars for pickup and delivery and six cents a pound to cut, wrap and grind meat. Ray provided the most skill, taught Dad how to cut meat, and did the deliveries. Dad provided most of the tools, a place to work and cleaned up the mess. It worked out to be a fair balance. An 800 pound moose provided the two of them with about twenty dollars profit each. Not a bad sum of money for an evening’s work in 1950’s Wasilla.
Ray and my dad were both expert butchers so they added custom butchering to their enterprise. They took me and Ray’s daughter, Judy, along as helpers. For some reason Ray would always get sick after killing an animal. He stepped away, threw up, and went back to work. Apparently, this is a common malady with butchers.
My mom, Elverda, and Ray’s wife, Mary, did the grinding and wrapping. Judy also helped grind and wrap, all the while keeping her 9-year-old fingers out of the grinder. She did huge amounts of wrapping, learned how to use just enough paper and only one piece of tape. I learned to bone meat and cut it into long strips without slashing my 9-year-old fingers. Usually. Judy and I both still remember these skills.
Most of the work was during hunting season, with plenty of illegal moose thrown in during the rest of the winter. At least once, a prominent Wasilla resident brought over an illegal buffalo. Because of possible legal problems for the hunters and possibly the meat cutters, Judy and I were always admonished to never speak of any of the jobs we did. To this day few of our friends know about it.
Our family was not connected to the telephone line then, so it was always a surprise when Ray, Mary, and Judy drove up in the winter darkness. It took two to three hours to cut up a moose. Sometimes there would be more than one moose to cut, but these were often done on weekends. After the project was over the parents sat and visited for a time. Judy and I collapsed onto the couch and the next day we went to school exhausted. Interestingly, in those days our school used road kill moose for the hot lunch program. Ilah Senske, the school cook, let nothing go to waste. What would happen if they tried that now?
Local beef and pork provided the rest of the work for Ray and my dad. When they processed beef or pork there were plenty of fat trimmings left over. Fat was considered healthy in those days, so it was saved and added to moose hamburger. Usually there was enough added to make it 20% fat. Can you imagine doing that today?
One late fall evening, while Ray and Dad were processing a moose, a loud commotion came from the pig pen behind the house. Dad ran out into the rainy darkness to see what was happening. He discovered a bear was in the pen trying to eat the pigs. He raced back to the house to get his rifle shouting, “There’s a bear in the pig house!”
He seized his trusty old 30.06 and raced back outside, falling into a mud hole on his way to the pig pen. He sighted as best he could in the darkness and shot the bear. The bear was wounded and turned from the pig he was eating to my dad. As he was furiously trying to get off another shot before the bear got him, Ray arrived with a flashlight and shined the light into the bear’s eyes, just in time to keep Dad from being attacked. Dad shot again and the bear fell dead.
The two partners often discussed going into a permanent business together.
One day Dad got some terrible news. His partner, Ray, had died in his sleep during the night. He was only in his early forties.
Dad bought Ray’s share of the meat cutting equipment from his widow and continued the business. It often brought in extra money for our family and helped make expenses when we didn’t know where the next dollar was coming from. As I grew older I helped more and more. Usually it was my job to bone meat and grind hamburger, while Dad did the cutting and Mom did the wrapping. I never did master the art of meat cutting like Dad and Ray did.
Until Dad died, he mourned the loss of his friend who had taught him his new trade. Whenever Judy and I talk, our conversation eventually goes back to when we were kids 60 years ago, cutting meat to make ends “meat.”