Memories of my childhood
From the May 2015 issue of Last Frontier Magazine
Some might think growing up as the only child in a remote lodge in the Talkeetna Mountains would be a lonely experience—for me, it certainly was not. My childhood home was in the middle of one of Southcentral Alaska’s favorite playgrounds, Hatcher Pass, at the Little Susitna Lodge. I lived there with my mother and stepfather from 1945 to 1958.
My family’s road to Alaska began in Montana, in the midst of the Great Depression. My mother, Edith Donisthorpe, met my father, Harold Gershmel, when she took a job working on his family farm in Montana. She was 19 and he was several years older. Times were hard for farmers dealing with the severe drought, especially in the northern states. Franklin D. Roosevelt had offered hope to some of the hurting farmers in the form of the New Deal. The Matanuska Colony project in the Territory of Alaska was a part of this plan to help some farmers get back on their feet. Several of the original colonist families chose to leave the experimental farm colony when they found conditions were not as promised. This opened up opportunities for replacement colonists, including my parents. So in 1936 they left their home in Montana and moved to Alaska.
Despite the beauty of their new surroundings in the Matanuska Valley, life was rougher than expected for my mom. The newlyweds were living in a wall tent and mom was pregnant with her first child. While their land was being cleared and homes built the colonists lived in a “tent city” alongside a muddy and dusty road in Palmer. Even after my mom and dad moved onto their homestead, they had no electricity and their walls were insulated with newspaper. It was backbreaking work creating a life from scratch with a growing young family. Before long my mom and dad had four children—two sons, Robert and Allan, and two daughters, June and me, all born in Alaska.
I was born on Christmas Day, seven years after my parents arrived in Alaska. I was the youngest child, and by the time I was born my mom had more than enough of the homesteader’s life and decided to leave. Since I was so young, Mom took me with her to Anchorage, but my older brothers and sister stayed with my dad on the farm. Even though my family was separated, we were able to see each other and we always kept in touch over the years. In Anchorage Mom found a job in a restaurant. She also met and fell in love with Vic Cottini who was working as a cab driver at the time. After her divorce was final Mom and Vic were married, and that is when, at 2 years old, I began my life in Hatcher Pass at the Little Susitna Lodge.
The Lodge was the original roadhouse built where the Mother Lode Lodge now stands, boarded up and vacant, near the Gold Mint Trailhead. Many Hatcher Pass visitors over the past 70 plus years have fond memories involving this historical landmark. My hope is that someone can figure out how to make a successful lodge and restaurant in this well-loved place again—and perhaps resurrect a downhill ski area nearby.
Some early memories of my new home involve our pets Leo, the dog, and Pete, a young black bear. Leo and Pete loved to play together, just like two puppies would. Pete was especially popular with the bus loads of tourists who visited. I was too young to be allowed to play with Pete, but I enjoyed many happy times hiking the hills and playing with my dog, Leo.
As winter approached, Vic knew Pete needed to go into hibernation so he took him over to the more remote Willow side of Hatcher Pass. The next spring a black bear was spotted on the mountain across from the lodge. My mom liked using rendered bear fat for making her pie crusts, so she asked one of the men to go shoot the bear. Sadly, they found out too late that this bear was our Pete.
I remember some of our regular visitors, including a rather famous woman who delivered our supplies. Her name was “Rusty” Dow and she owned her own trucking service. She also worked for the military. Rusty was the first woman to drive the Alcan Highway in 1944, delivering concrete and other supplies for the army during WWII. She was 50 years old at the time and a great role model. I always looked forward to seeing Rusty and hearing her adventure stories.
As I got older I helped my mom and stepdad by doing chores at the lodge. Even as a young child I could help with washing dishes and changing bedding. My parents managed a few cabins, a bar, a restaurant, and a liquor store. Running and expanding the Little Susitna Lodge was a lot of work, but there was also time to play. Vic even built a small rope tow for skiing near the Lodge. From the time I was 6, my favorite winter activity was downhill skiing, using old wooden skis. Years later, I enjoyed taking my children skiing in Hatcher Pass. The rope tow my stepdad made was no longer in use, but there was a ski area operating at Independence Mine in the mid 1960s into the 1970s.
The Independence Mine is part of a state park and a historical landmark now, but it was an active gold mine when my family and I first moved to Hatcher Pass. It is situated further into the pass at a higher elevation. While mining operations were active there was a small area next to the mine called Boomtown where the miners with families lived. Over 20 families once lived there before WWII. If you look closely you can see the remains of a few homes next to the road near Independence Mine.
I first time I went to school was in Boomtown. Sometimes kids, such as myself, were sent to school when they were not quite old enough because the small Boomtown school needed all the students it could get in order to justify a teacher supplied by the territorial government. The distance from our lodge and Boomtown was too far for my mom or stepdad to take me every day, so during the week I stayed with my friends, Linda and Judith Bergman, who lived in the small town.
Vic would drive me up the mountain at the beginning of the week and pick me up after school on Friday. Most of the time the road was kept clear and it was easy to travel, even in the winter … but not always. I remember one day when he was driving me up to Boomtown in a heavy snow storm. Even with chains on, the truck got hopelessly stuck about halfway up the mountain. Vic was always prepared though. He had a pair of snowshoes with him and packed a trail for me to walk on. Following Vic, I made it to school—no snow day for me!
We spent a lot of time outside during the winter months. Mrs. Bergman would chase us girls outside to play in the snow. We played games like duck duck goose and made snow angels, built snowmen, and did a lot of sledding. We would slide from Boomtown down to the main part of the mining area. In the evenings, even the parents from Boomtown would join in on the fun.
I attended the school in Hatcher Pass for only one year. When the mine closed down so did the Boomtown school, but my mom and stepdad continued to operate the Little Susitna Lodge until 1958. The Bergmans moved to Wasilla, so when the school year started I continued to live with them during the weekdays. To this day I consider Linda and Judith my sisters. One of my fondest memories, which I still remember well, is of Mrs. Bergman listening to our prayers at night that always began with, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”
Was I lonely as a child growing up in Hatcher Pass? Absolutely not! I love Alaska and I will always feel blessed to be an Alaskan.
Carole Gershmel Wegner married her high school sweetheart, Donavon Wegner. They had three children, two sons, Todd and Mitchell, and a daughter, Donale. After living and working in Valdez for 20 years they retired to Willow and enjoyed many happy years together before Donavon lost his battle with diabetes. Today, from her home in Wasilla, she enjoys keeping up with her 13 grandchildren and is an avid quilter. She has also remained close with Vic Cottini’s son, Jim and daughter-in-law, Pia who still live near Hatcher Pass.