Wasilla: A Great Place Among the Lakes
Whenever I visit my home town of Wasilla, what I see is the picture below from the 1950s. Of course, about the only things from this picture that I really see are the railroad depot, built in 1917, and the community hall built in 1930. They still stand in the same places today. I understand there are plans to move the depot in the next couple years. No matter, I will still see things as they were, not as they are.
My dad, Gene Coghlan, had worked for the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) out of Wasilla prior to WWII and he knew many of the local folks. After three years serving as an Army weatherman, mostly at the remote site of Kokrines on the Yukon River, the Army sent him to cryptography school in Illinois. While on leave in Chicago, he met my mother, Violet, and wooed her with stories of Alaska: fur-lined toilet seats and gold nuggets in every backyard. Fifty years later Mother was still looking for the fur-lined toilet seats and the gold nuggets! Anyway, they were married in March 1945, which included me, age 4, in the package deal.
Dad finished his enlistment in October, and hustled us back to Chicago where Mother had two weeks to say goodbye to her family. He had his sights set on Alaska, where he planned to go back to work for the Road Commission and he just knew we’d live happily ever after in the Great Land. They bought my uncle Jimmy’s Model A Ford sedan and we hit the road for Seattle. The Alaska-Canadian Highway (or Alcan) was not yet open to the public.
In Seattle we boarded the SS Yukon, along with about 500 other passengers bound for Alaska. By late November sea travel was getting a little rough. I recall an emergency drill, standing on deck in an old canvas-and-board life preserver, barely able to see over the top edge. A few months after our voyage, on February 4, 1946, the SS Yukon, southbound from Seward, ran aground off Cape Fairfield. Eleven lives were lost. The SS Yukon broke in half and was never recovered.
Mother recalls being struck by the brilliance of the sun and the glistening snow on the mountains as we arrived in Whittier, and how cold she was waiting for the train the morning of December 1st. In Anchorage, the ARC told Dad that there were already a couple hundred returning GI’s on the waitlist for jobs, plus, it being winter, they weren’t hiring now anyway. So, on we went to Wasilla.
Our family arrived at the Wasilla Depot on the evening train, December 5, 1945. May Carter welcomed us and we trudged up snow-covered Main Street to the Carter’s new home. We had dinner while her husband Pat and Dad shared “war stories.” May and Mother began a close friendship, and I got to know their children, Barb, Donny, and Kay. Donny was my age, so we too became good friends. As the evening stretched out, the conversation switched to what were they going to do with us? The plan: we would rent and live in the front rooms of the post office.
May was the postmaster and US commissioner for Wasilla. They had recently purchased their home from Stanley Herning and moved from the front rooms of the new Wasilla Post Office where we would now be living. This building served as the community’s post office until about 1964 and is now preserved in the Wasilla Historic Park. The old post office had been across the street in the Wilmoth home.
Money was tight and there was no employment, so in March, Dad and Pat decided to go beaver trapping. They borrowed traps, a tent, a sled, and a Yukon stove, and bought food and supplies on credit from Mr. Herning’s Knik Trading Company. They sold their six beavers for $288, paid off their bill at Herning’s and split the meager balance—not much to show for four weeks of tough work. Spring arrived and Dad went to work on the local railroad section gang.
Our family moved out of the post office to “the ranch,” previously the Cannon homestead—a great place for a youngster. Empty mink pens on the property were good for exploring. Lake Lucile was great for fishing, especially in the winter. Town was within walking distance, either out the driveway and along the Knik Road, or by taking the short cut along the new Matanuska Electric power line. We still had a hand pump for our water on the porch, which got very cold during the winter. One morning when I was getting a bucket of water, there was beautiful frost on the pump. Yes, I tried to lick the frost and sure enough, my tongue froze to the iron. It hurt like the dickens when I pulled it off.
That fall, I was enrolled in a combined primary class, first and second grades, including 17 students and teacher, Anna Borden. The intermediate class, third, fourth, and fifth, had 21 students, the upper class, sixth, seventh and eighth, included 16 students, and Wasilla’s high school had 15 students using the three remaining classrooms which included the small “library” and “science lab.” A total of three school buses collected kids from north, south, and east of town, but those of us closer to Wasilla walked to school.
Kenneth and Betty Chatwood had also arrived in Wasilla in 1946. They leased the vacant two-story log building on the southeast corner of Herning and Main Street, originally built by Paddy Marion in 1929 as the Marion Twin Mine headquarters. Here they stocked the Chatwood’s Wasilla Store with general merchandise, yardage, and curios to attract tourists. One summer evening in 1947, I saw a strange cloud over Wasilla. When I called Dad out to look at it, he said it looked like a fire, but we’d know in the morning. Sure enough, the Chatwood’s store, a log structure, had burned completely to the ground. Soon after the Chatwoods moved on and were not seen again. I recall rummaging around the ashes with Donny Carter, looking for coins, of which we did find a few.
In 1947, Mr. Herning became sick and the Knik Trading Company was put on the market. Walter and Vivian Teeland purchased the store and the accompanying house. Renamed Teeland’s Store, they continued to provide groceries, general merchandise, and hardware. It was truly “A Modern Store, Country Style,” as billed on their gift yardsticks and calendars. The family served Wasilla well, contributed to the community, and provided local employment until they retired in 1971. The store was purchased by the Mead family who operated it until 1986 when they donated the building to the Wasilla-Knik Historical Society.
The Wasilla Community Hall was a popular family place. Built by volunteers in 1930, this was the town meeting place for most social events: everything from the Boy Scouts and the annual Grange Follies, to library fund-raising dinners, social group meetings and dances, weddings, and funerals. No event was complete without a few renditions by Shorty Gustafson on his mandolin and singing, “Tis Going To Be A Long Cold Winter” or “Ver Do ‘Dey Come From.” The Community Hall was restored for the Alaska Centennial in 1967 and has served since as Wasilla’s museum. Shorty’s house was also restored in the Wasilla Historic Park.
The Alaska Road Commission completed a gravel road west from Wasilla to Pittman by 1950, providing access to the area for homesteading. My dad homesteaded about three miles from town, along Jacobsen Lake. He erected a small prefab cabin he’d bought from Carl Paulson. This cabin was too small for our family to live in and had no water or electricity. Since we did not have the money to build a larger family home, we moved to the Sager’s house about two and a half miles out the Knik Road and along Cottonwood Creek. This was close enough for me to walk or bike to town or visit the Fleckenstein boys, Dan and Joe. It wasn’t until 1957 that my folks built a house on Jacobsen Lake and we moved to our own homestead.
As more people moved to Wasilla, the school became overcrowded. The original 1917 school building, now the Church of Christ, was leased back for a classroom. I attended the sixth grade (combined with the fifth grade) and the eighth grade (combined with the seventh grade) there. On Saturdays, we would slide the desks to the walls and bring the church benches in from the porch, then after church on Sunday, we took out the benches and the desks were realigned. My most memorable lesson from this time was when our teacher, Anthony Zufich, taught us how to make black gunpowder. With that knowledge, we could make firecrackers and rockets. Pretty neat! We also glued sheets of crepe paper into large 10′ to 12′ diameter hot air balloons. We would move a small airtight stove out into the school yard and hold the open bottom of the balloon over the chimney. The warm smoke filled and lifted the balloons, and off they would float. One balloon drifted to the west toward the airfield and a few of us went running down the railroad tracks looking for it. We met a fellow walking up the tracks with the balloon all bunched up in his arms. When we asked him for our balloon back he said, “No way, this is a weather balloon.” He was going to turn it in to the Weather Service for a reward. Bet the Weather Service got a chuckle out of that!
In 1955, the Territory of Alaska built a large addition onto the Wasilla school—six new classrooms, additional bathrooms, a cafeteria, superintendent’s office and a teacher’s lounge, two Public Health rooms, and an upgrade for the gymnasium. There was nothing they could do about the undersized basketball court and low ceiling of the old gym, but they did add a hardwood floor and tore out the north wall, adding a balcony above and storage space below. In addition to storing folding chairs and the stage in this space, there was now room for basketball teams to sit courtside during games. The storage space had a low ceiling and woe-betide the head of any overly enthusiastic player who jumped up too quickly to enter the game!
There were five of us in the 1958 graduating class, the last class to graduate from the Wasilla “Territorial” High School. By then, the school enrollment had filled the 1955 addition. While there were only five graduates in the 1959 class, after that high school graduation numbers began a steady and dramatic increase. By the time the new high school (now Wasilla Middle School) was completed in 1964, elementary classes were being outplaced not only to the Church of Christ next door, but to the Presbyterian Church, and to the Playland building down by Wasilla Lake. Now, of course, there is a new high school educating over 1,000 students and the City of Wasilla offices fill our old school.
My home town has sure grown, but when I visit, I still sorta see it as it was, along with some great memories.