Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Soldotna cabin gets stamp of approval — First post office placed on National Register of Historic Places
By Clark Fair
The elegant simplicity of the sign on the front of the building belies its complex history: “1949 Homestead Cabin — Howard Lee — First U.S. Post Office, 1949-1951 — Maxine Lee, Postmaster — Soldotna.”
The building, restored and recently designated as the first Soldotna structure on the National Register of Historic Places, has a history that is anything but simple.
In 1947, Howard and Maxine Lee read a “Saturday Evening Post” article about the homesteading opportunities for military veterans willing to move to the Kenai Peninsula. It sounded simple enough: Go to the Anchorage Land Office, file on a piece of land, build a habitable abode, live on the land at least six months and a day out of the year, and clear one-tenth of the total acreage.
Stationed with the Navy in Florida at the time, the Lees headed north in March 1948. Leaving Maxine and their 16-month-old daughter, Karen, in Seattle, Howard arrived in Anchorage only to discover that all the land abutting the new Sterling Highway had already been claimed.
Dispirited at first, Howard then learned of a couple that had gone to the area the year before, spent the winter and wanted out. The couple had hauled a 60-by-30-foot Quonset hut over the frozen highway, and Howard was told that for $1,000 they would relinquish their site and the Quonset hut to him.
Thus, when Maxine and Karen joined him at their new home in June, the Lees became residents of the fledgling community of Soldotna.
There, the Lees met the Lancashires — Larry and Rusty — and soon Howard was helping Larry to build the Lancashire homestead cabin, with the understanding that Larry would then help Howard build the Lee homestead cabin.
Using Larry’s portable sawmill, they cut and hewed spruce trees from the virgin forest in the vicinity of what is now Corral Street, and they erected a two-story cabin — for several years the largest building in Soldotna. In 1949, Howard and Maxine were able to move out of the old military Quonset and into their own home.
Just prior to this time, however, homesteader Marge Mullen approached Maxine with a proposition, and a petition signed by several prominent residents. Mullen proposed that Soldotna should have a post office, and that Maxine should be the first postmaster.
“Mail was our only line of communication (back then),” Mullen said. “We had no TV. The Anchorage radio — KFQD, I think it was — was only on five hours during the evening — 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., or something like that. You were just hungry for Outside news.”
In her application for the postmaster position, Maxine submitted the town name spelled Soldatna, and when the postal inspector approved her for the job, the spelling became official — and almost immediately a point of contention. It was not until the 1960s that the official spelling became Soldotna.
For her postal labors, Maxine was paid $14 a month.
“It wasn’t a really high-paying job,” she said in a 1998 interview. “But when you’re homesteading, 14 bucks is 14 bucks.”
Prior to the establishment of the new post office, most local residents had traveled to Kenai for their mail. Suddenly, the mail was coming to Soldotna once a week, and some people from as far away as Longmere Lake made the weekly journey to see what they’d received.
At first, the mail was delivered to the homestead cabin and then carried over to the Quonset hut, where Howard had set up a postal station for Maxine.
“When anyone came for the mail or stamps or money orders, we ran over to the Quonset, unlocked the door and took care of their business,” Maxine said. “In winter I learned to keep my ink and fountain pens in the cabin so they wouldn’t freeze.”
Soon, the homestead cabin was the full-time post office, and it remained that way until 1951, when, much to her surprise, Eleanor (“Mickey”) Faa became Soldotna’s second postmaster.
In a 1995 interview, Faa said: “Well, I took care of the post office several times for Maxine Lee when she went to town (Anchorage) and had things to do.”
Faa and her husband, Joe, were operating the Soldotna Inn (later to become the Bear Den Bar) near the Kenai River bridge at the time.
“One day Maxine asked me again if I’d take care of the post office for her. I said, ‘Sure.’ And that evening she came over with some cardboard boxes containing the whole post office. She was leaving Howard, and she wanted me to keep it — take care of it for her. And, of course, I didn’t know anything about it.
“I figured she’d just be going to town for a few days. But that wasn’t so. She left — completely.”
Maxine Lee did not return. With two children now in tow, she headed for the Lower 48, took college courses to improve her education, filed for divorce, eventually got remarried, and now lives in Palo Alto, Calif.
In Mickey Faa’s hands, the post office changed locations three times briefly, and then in 1954 the Faas bought part of the Lee homestead, including the cabin, and the post office returned to its original location.
Joe Faa added on to and remodeled the original cabin, and moved the postal operations into the addition.
“On mail days, I always had something baked,” Mickey said. “When folks came for their mail, I didn’t just let them escape with their mail. They had to come in for pie and coffee. Mail day was special.”
With the oil boom in the late 1950s came a postal boom. Mickey had to buy extra boxes for the mail, and then buy some more. Soon, the homestead cabin could no longer handle the demand, and a new post office with 500 boxes was constructed where Columbia Paints now stands.
The Faas, who installed electricity in the cabin in 1955, continued to live there until 1965, when they sold it and some of the adjoining land to Justin and Zilla Maile. The Mailes also added on to the original structure, creating “Zilla’s Yarn Shop and Bernina Center.” In 1985, Justin, who was color blind, had the building painted olive green as a surprise for his wife.
In 1989, some of the Maile land was purchased by the Kenai Peninsula Borough to ease bus congestion, and in 1991, Zilla gifted the building to the Soldotna Historical Society. Over the last 15 years, the additions have been removed, the olive-green paint has been stripped away, the building has been moved from its original location and then back again, and it has been refurbished and protected by numerous volunteers.
In 2005, Marge Mullen and Barbara Jewell began opening the building to the public during Farmer’s Market Saturdays from June through mid-September.
It was Jewell who completed and sent in the historical society’s successful petition to have the building included in the national register. She mailed her petition in Soldotna’s fully modern post office, on the opposite end of the Soldotna Elementary School grounds from where the original post office still stands.