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Homesteaders in the Headlights - Book Excerpt
By George Harbeson, Jr.

The Territorial Years: 1954-56

Homestead Subsistence Net in 1962
In late August of 1954, we became part of Wasilla's one hundred or so residents and spent our first night at Ernest Peck's cabin. The next day we moved into Mrs. Bronwen Jones' house in the middle of Wasilla. The house had an oil space heater and a wood kitchen stove, but wasn't insulated -- common in those days. We drew water from a well with a hand pump mounted beside the kitchen sink, and Mom cooked our meals on our Coleman camp stove.

The hand pump was a step up from Papa's early days, when his family used an open hand-dug well with a pail on a rope much of the time. The stone-lined farm well, twenty feet deep, regularly went dry, and they frequently had to drop a ladder into it and clean out the dead toads, frogs, and mice. Papa said they could tell by the taste when such a clean-out was necessary, but his father also used a mirror to reflect light into the well to check for the intruders. I'm glad to say we didn't have rodent/amphibian-flavored water in the Wasilla house -- or at least none I ever noticed.

Because of Papa's new job, the Chevy got a rest; he walked the short distance to the school, which was close enough for Mom to send Lee Anna occasionally to deliver a thermos of coffee and bag lunch to him, after checking for moose in the vicinity. Helen Carter Carney tells me that Papa took the position vacated by Miss Louise Potter, a published author who became a good friend during her annual visits, when she drove solo from Vermont to Wasilla and back. We were next door to the Pat and May Carter family, and across the street from the Community Hall (built in 1931), where Papa coached basketball a year later. Other neighbors were Ed Carney and his family, the Woodwards, and Clara Slumberger. Lee Anna became good friends with Ed's daughter, Roxanne Axtell, and Ed helped us with some of our later homesteading tasks. Many years later he and his brother Doug were my teammates on a city league basketball team when we played in local area games and Anchorage Fur Rendezvous tournaments.

Becky Reading on Logs Bluff in '63
The people of Wasilla and surrounding area welcomed us as if we were newly discovered relatives. It was too late for us to have a garden that first year, so Papa's students brought vegetables from their gardens and farms to help us through the winter. As noted by Louise Potter, people in the area weren't as provincial as one might assume, since many of them, like Papa, had emigrated to Alaska with a broader world experience. As with people anywhere, local families and individuals had their occasional bumps in the road and skeletons in their closets to provide topics of conversation for those so inclined. But our neighbors made us feel at home.

We quickly acquired a brown puppy with a white blaze on its chest and named him Bruce, after our Irish setter that had died of distemper at the Marcella Camp for the Blind. Moose frequented the town and our yard, which added zest to local strolls about town. Lee Anna and I walked to school, a half-block over and one block down. I'd heard tales of the legendary George, a large bull moose with a broad rack in season, who'd made the town his home. He'd been such a common sight that he was considered one of the community. We arrived after George's time, but other moose claimed the town -- irritable moose that didn't take kindly to the high school students who threw snowballs at them from rooftops -- so I kept an eye out, dodging and detouring to my second-grade class, taught by Sybil Woody.

Other entertainment included Hagen's Playland amusement park, an unusual enterprise for the town Wasilla was then. It featured a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, restaurant, and an American LaFrance fire truck. The school leased Hagen's building a year or two for classes. He also ran the Palmer Theater for a time.

The post office was a tiny building a block from our house, with May Carter serving as postmaster and magistrate. It had two short walls of small mail boxes, each box fronted with a combination dial and a pointed clock-like hand. We used Box 87. I remember looking up at May sitting behind the barred window above the counter. I was just tall enough to rest my chin on its shelf. The Wasilla Public Library, which in later years became a favorite hangout of mine, was set back from the road on a lot bordering the post office. Some say it was Wasilla's first house.

The school was an old building containing all twelve grades, but an elementary addition was added in 1955 and opened that fall. Papa and other high school teachers each taught several classes, covering different subjects. He had come to Alaska to make a difference, and Wasilla was where, as car enthusiasts say, "the rubber met the road." He spent countless hours dedicated to students and education, taking on extra-curricular duties on a volunteer basis or for a pittance. During his years of service he reactivated the school newspaper, the Wa Hi War Whoop, using an old mimeograph machine donated by the Matanuska Electric Association. He sponsored and mentored the paper for seventeen years, spending many after-school hours on weekends and holidays instructing and supervising the students involved.

He also started and maintained a literary quarterly, the Wonder, for many years. In his early years he coached boys and/or girls basketball and track, previously having been an assistant track coach in New Jersey, where he ferried the team to meets in my Grandpa Bartholomay's '34 straight-six Buick 2-door sedan. (On June 1, 1955, a runner on the New Jersey team named Tom Skutka set a National High School record of 4.19.5 for the one-mile run at Morris Hills High School in Rockaway, New Jersey. I was impressed when Papa told me that at times Skutka's strides measured as long as fifteen feet each.)

George Sr. Teaching in Vermont in 1957
In the 1954-56 years, Papa volunteered to be basketball coach. He enjoyed coaching and it gave him an opportunity to work with students outside the classroom environment. As a second-grader I watched their practices and chased basketballs in the old Community Hall, now the Wasilla museum. Sometimes Papa and other adults took part in the practice scrimmages to get enough for five-on-five. Skip Coghlan, a freshman in '54 and a member of the last Wasilla High School class to graduate under Alaska's territorial status, in May of 1958, remembers those times:

In the spring of '55 they broke ground for the elementary school addition, which included remodeling the gym and adding the health center. The gym improvements included the dug-outs, balcony, and replacing the tile floor with a hardwood one. By fall, the grade school was ready for use, but the gym was not. I was a sophomore and your dad was the basketball coach, like he'd been the previous year. I was the tenth player on the squad -- not because of my talent, but because of the small school numbers -- there just weren't any more guys interested in being on the team.

We'd suit up for practice in the school, then jog over to the Community Hall for the actual practice. This went on for a month or two, until the gym was finished, in time for the first game.

Unlike Bill Lambert, hired to coach a few years later, I don't think your dad was "formally" hired to be coach. I had the impression that he did it on a volunteer basis. He worked hard at coaching and did a good job, although he didn't have much to work with. He had played ball when younger, and had a book on basketball that included plays, some of which your dad had us practice and use. We concentrated on basic fundamentals, setting picks, give-and-go stuff. The kind of things I see good players do mostly by instinct, but we struggled at times.

Team members I remember were freshmen Wally Teeland, Gilbert Hjellen, Jack Devlin, Donnie Carter, and myself. Frank Devlin, Bob Gershmel, and Jimmy Vickaryous were upperclassmen. Others possibly taking part were the Knutsen boys and the Johnson brothers. During a routine physical Frank was diagnosed with a heart murmur, not debilitating, so he had the choice of playing or not. He was a very good player, but he elected not to play. Jack was a very good, but short, player, too. The Gershmel family were colonists and lived five miles out of town, down on Trunk Road, above the Carsons. Every night after practice Bob had to run home for the evening milking of the family's cows!

Papa also started a teen club, and he sponsored and helped with student fund-raising activities. Students remember his classroom creation of J. Chauncey Spivis and the "Yeah, But" Club, complete with membership cards that Papa handed out whenever a student, faced with an inquiry such as "Did you do the homework?" prefaced the answering excuse with "Yeah, but my Mom cleaned out my room and threw it away," or "Yeah, but I left it on the bus." He helped establish and supervise a regular organized cheerleading program at a student's suggestion, and held two annual art contests. He functioned for years as an officer in the PTA.

Lil' Pete with Jeep in 1961
Papa and other local educators were instrumental in establishing the Wasilla and Matanuska-Susitna Borough education associations. He served for many years as an officer in both, and actively contributed much to the Alaska Education Association, later re-named N.E.A.-Alaska. He was active in the Alaska Democratic Party. His father had voted Republican for many years, had a Hoover sticker on his car and supported Hoover in the 1928 election before the Depression. But in 1932 Grandpa became a Democrat and stayed one for the rest of his life, and Papa followed that lead, as have I. Our ancestor, Benjamin Harbeson, served on the Committee of Safety in Boston with Benjamin Franklin, and was responsible for seeing that the boycott resulting from the passage of the Stamp Act was enforced. Papa had a high respect for Franklin, and our Benjamin also may have been something of a time-misted role model.

As noted, my grandfather Harbeson had a used book store on 23rd Street in New York City for a time and was a rare book dealer for many years. His avocation of translating the classics into several languages was certainly a source of Papa's high regard and devotion to reading and books. The small Wasilla Library held a special place in the hearts of all the Wasilla community, Papa's included. Enhanced by his program of regular student and class visitations, the library was one of the top five in circulation in territorial Alaska in the '50s, according to an article by Robert L. Tucker in Alaska Ruralite ("Making Do," November 1983, Vol. 30, No. 11). The library thrived over time. In later years, Papa, Mom, Bea Turner, Sue Goodwin, Bill Lorentzen, and others operated the Matanuska-Susitna Valley Bookmobile. His thirty-one-year involvement with the Library Association, including his last several years as its president, lasted right up to his passing in 1985.

By this time, Papa's love of books was shared by Mom. Besides helping with the Bookmobile, from our first days on the homestead she volunteered with Bea Turner and others in the library on Fridays. The reading fever in our and our friends' homes was contagious, and the library's books were a treasure trove for me.

Local history commanded an important part of Papa's interests, and he was active for many years in the Matanuska-Susitna Historical Preservation and Restoration Society and the Wasilla-Knik-Willow Historical Society.

About the Author: George Harbeson Jr. attended school in Wasilla, Alaska, and later graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and UA Anchorage with B.A. and M.F.A. degrees in English and creative writing. His short story “Simeon’s Anipaq” won the 1990 Grand Prize in the Anchorage Daily News/UAA Creative Writing Contest and was also published in the North Dakota Quarterly. George taught in the rural Alaskan communities of Selawik, Kivalina, Noorvik, Emmonak, Alakanuk, and Anchor Point, and is now retired and living on the Kenai Peninsula.

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