Nancy and Darlene Stockhausen (at left) performed on their homestead was feeding and caring for the family's 300 chickens. This photo was taken in 1949.
When Darlene Halverson opened her newly published memoir, "The Chosen Place: Growing up on a 1940s Homestead in Old Chugiak, Alaska," in late October, a sense of disbelief overcame her.
"It felt good to actually take it in my hands and see the cover that my sister and I worked so hard on," the longtime Chugiak resident said. "And then as I flipped through the pages, I thought, 'Wow, I did this.'"
The book represents a long-ago promise she made to her mother, Bernice Stockhausen, who asked her to write a memoir after one of their many conversations about the family's homesteading years, Halverson said.
"I was glad I could do it for my mother," she said. "I just wish my father was alive now to read it, too."
The book tells of how Bernice and John Stockhausen moved with 7-year-old Darlene and 6-year-old Nancy from Wauwatosa, Wis., to Chugiak in July 1947. Land was still available for homesteading three or four miles south of Eklutna Village, and the Stockhausen family ultimately ended up with a 40-acre parcel surrounding what is now the Peters Creek American Legion post.
Today it would be hard to recognize Chugiak as the Stockhausen family found it in 1947. Widely scattered homesteads provided occasional clearings in the birch and spruce. The unpaved Palmer Highway connected Chugiak to Anchorage and Palmer. Chugiak's first school was still four years off, so children took a 1.5-hour bus ride to the Anchorage School in the heart of the city.
Darlene Stockhausen stands in front of the family cabin in 1950. One of the main chores
In her memoir, Halverson described those bus trips as alternating between monotonous and frightening.
"It seemed that [bus driver] George was continuously twisting and turning the steering wheel in order to avoid the hundreds of potholes that made up the road," she wrote.
Eagle River hill, she said, was known as the most dangerous spot on the Palmer Highway, accruing more accidents than anywhere else. The weight of the bus made the wooden bridge groan, and the young Halverson worried it might collapse.
Back at the homestead, the seldom-traveled road was actually a source of fun. The girls often harnessed their dog, Queenie, to a sled and encouraged her to pull them up and down the highway, which saw little traffic. The girls spent part of their first summer walking a mile to and from the home of a neighbor who was caring for two black bear cubs.
Chores ate up much of their time outside of school, Halverson said, including the endless job of weeding the potato patch. The girls looked after the family's 300 Rhode Island Red chickens, collecting eggs to sell from home or at the Piggly Wiggly in Anchorage. The rooster terrorized them inside the coop, and Halverson referred to it in the book as "an ornery red vampire that pecked violently at my legs."
Nancy and Darlene Stockhausen cuddle new dolls they received for Christmas in 1947. The girls grew up on a 40-acre homestead surrounding what is now the Peters Creek American Legion Post.
Photo courtesy Darlene Halverson
Most visits among homesteaders took place at McDowell's Moose Horn Trading Post, at Mile 18.5 of the Palmer Highway, Halverson said. One of the most important topics of conversation was the U.S. Army dump, which provided lumber, blankets, clothing, furniture, food and various other treasures for anyone willing to forage there.
"Anytime there was a new homesteader, all the other homesteaders would direct them to the dump," she said. "That was the first thing they told them about."
The girls once discovered crates upon crates of berries, Halverson said, which the family shared with other homesteaders before eating and preserving their own haul. "We lived off the Army dump," Halverson said with a laugh.
The Stockhausen family left their cabin in 1952, after building a business and more modern home nearby, Halverson said. They subdivided and sold the property in 1958.
Likewise, the '50s brought major changes to Chugiakelectricity, regular telephone service, highway improvements (including a sturdy steel bridge over the Eagle River), a grocery store, and a new elementary school that eliminated the children's long commute.
"Life was changing for the better with all the progress that the community worked so hard for and achieved in the 1950s," she said. "(Yet) there was still that small-town feel to the area."
Halversonwho these days lives about a mile and a half from the original homesteadcontinues to savor the camaraderie of old-time Chugiak. Each Friday at 2 p.m. she facilitates a memoir-writing class at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center, where she shares her writing experience and coaxes stories out of others.
"Everybody's working on their life history," she said. "When somebody reads part of theirs, it brings up memories for everybody else. It works really well."
The class is open to all Senior Center members, she said.
Chris Lundgren is an Eagle River freelance writer.
The Chosen Place: Growing up on a 1940s Homestead in Old Chugiak, Alaska
Is available in Chugiak at the Forget-Me-Not Cottage Gift Shop and in Eagle River at AppleTree Books and Gifts, and the Book Shelf. In the Valley, it can be purchased at Learning Essentials at the Creekside Plaza in Wasilla, Annabel's Bargain Books at the Meta Rose Square in Wasilla and Alaskana Books in Palmer.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 5, 2011.