I had a question from a reader, Sarah S., about the photo of my homestead on this blog. We moved to Sherman in September, 1964. Sherman is located at Mile 258.3 on the Alaska Railroad. The original house was two rooms with a flat (and very leaky!) roof. When we got off the train that first day, Wally and Dixie Rudder greeted us. They were the couple who had originally filed on the land (under the 1862 Homestead Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln). Wally and Dixie were from Tennessee, and Wally wasn’t exactly what one could describe as industrious, hence the leaky roof…and the lack of a back door. The Rudders waited until the southbound passenger train came through that day before they left us to our somewhat dubious fate. In the time between trains my poor mother was instructed by Dixie in the fine art of cooking and baking in a wood stove, and how to maintain a fire in the holey sheepherder’s stove that was the only other source of heat in the uninsulated house. That first day was quite the adventure…
|This is our flat-roofed house, around 1964-1966.|
My mother was born in California, and up until we moved to Alaska, she had never been farther north than San Francisco. Neither had she ever used a woodstove, let alone tried to cook or bake on one. The result was that when she made biscuits, they were burnt on the bottom, barely cooked on the top and raw in the middle. A kitchen woodstove is a fickle thing on which to cook and until one learns the fine art of regulating heat by stoking the firebox and adjusting the dampers, serving uncooked food is generally preferable.
It is worthy of note that my California born and bred mother got off the train that day with four – yes, FOUR – children, all under the age of ten. The youngest, my sister Lisa, was barely two. I was just 6, my brother was ten (in fact his birthday was that week) and my oldest sister Michele was 11. The grass in the front yard was six feet tall and lush. My little sister disappeared into it and my mother was afraid that we would all be eaten by bears, so the first thing she did after the Rudders left was to have all of us kids take a couple of empty 55 gallon drums and roll them around the front yard as far as we could go, so that she could see where we were. Next order of business was to find something – anything – that would serve as a door for the night. If memory serves, we slept with a blanket over the doorway and a chest dragged in front of that with empty tin cans piled on top. This was the best bear alarm we could come up with. Wally and Dixie had, prior to their departure, regaled us with stories of bears that would climb the cottonwood trees just out the back door and hang out there, so we were more than a little nervous that first night.
However, nothing stopped our appetites. Not even the burnt biscuits. We ate everything in sight. My mother had to send a message to my dad, who was working on Elmendorf AFB, to send us a lot more food…and a back door. There was no telephone. There were no roads. We didn’t even have a radio at first. As a small child, it was a grand adventure. We were, for the first time in our lives, encouraged to make as much noise as we wanted. Mom thought this would at least discourage the bears. For a small child, what can be better than that? Make all the noise you want and play outside all day? After spending nearly a year in Anchorage, living in a small trailer park off Arctic Boulevard and having Snoopy Suzy as our next door neighbor, it was heaven…
We did have a dog who was left to us by the Rudders. He was a beauty…a McKenzie River husky with a thick red coat and a black muzzle, black ears and a black puzzle mark over each eye. He was a great dog. We called him Johnny Teddy Bear because he was so fuzzy. I think it was the first time in his life that he’d ever received any affection, and he loved the four of us. He had a tendency to knock my little sister Lisa over and sit there, licking her face. He adored her. The only adult male he would tolerate, however, was my father. Wally Rudder was never the smartest of people and his way of training dogs was to beat them, usually with the butt of a pistol. Wally shot himself in the leg once whilst beating Johnny, which I have always felt to be poetic justice at its finest.
Anyway…back to that first day and week…what an adventure! We were completely free, although we worked hard. We constantly had to find wood for that kitchen cookstove and the crappy, holey sheepherder’s stove. I used to lie on my mattress on the floor and watch the flames flicker through the holes. My mother finally got the hang of the cookstove. It didn’t matter if the food was burned or undercooked, though….we ate everything, even if we didn’t like it. It was a lot of hard work, especially the first few weeks. We had no running water, no flush toilets, and we were always looking for wood for both stoves.
That first week, my mother was alone with the four of us kids until my father could come up on the weekend train from Anchorage. I can’t remember if we got to know our neighbors within the first week, but word does travel fast out in the Bush. Our nearest neighbors were five miles north at Gold Creek. There was Louie Hammond, the section foreman, his wife Mabel, and their boys. Gold Creek was a little community of sorts. There was Alice and Leon Erickson and their kids – Sandy, Melody and John, who were all teens when we moved to Sherman. Bill Thompson was another Gold Creek resident. He was a gandy dancer, which was what we called the track laborers. Bill was a confirmed bachelor and a terrific cook. There was the Wilson family – Nancy, Noel and their three kids – Noelle, John and Buddy (Noel Jr.). Nellie Callahan and her son Danny lived at Gold Creek as well. Nellie was Noel Wilson’s mother. She was Athabaskan and was a fantastic bead artist who could tan her own moosehide. I’ve often wished over the years that I could have spent more time visiting with Nellie and learned from her.
Anyway…I could go on and on and on…after 51 years as an Alaskan, I think there’s a book in me somewhere. That first week alone….