Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Housing a wild past — Riverside House booked with stories in turbulent boom years

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

The crimes were odd, to say the least, even for the crazy mid-1960s when oil-boom activities dominated the central Kenai Peninsula.

Each victim reported returning to his first-floor room in the two-story Riverside House hotel to discover that one of his shirts was missing and to find hanging in his closet a stranger’s shirt. Later, another victim reported that his leather jacket was missing, and someone else’s shirt was in its place.

Allen and Joanne Odom, the original caretakers of the hotel, said that they and law-enforcement officers were puzzled initially.

“We couldn’t figure out how it was happening because the doors were always locked,” Joanne said. And then they realized that the culprit was entering all of the rooms via ground-floor windows that had been cracked open for better air circulation.

Someone, they realized, was aware when patrons were absent from their rooms and was slipping in through the rollout windows to do mischief.

“He seemed to really like to be able to get in your room when you weren’t there,” Allen said. “Just to know he could do it,” Joanne added. “And move things around,” continued Allen. “He must’ve been a kleptomaniac,” said Joanne.

In the end, he was apprehended, not because he got careless in his break-ins, but because he branched out in his criminal activity.

“He went peeping-tomming in the (nearby) Riverside Terrace trailer park,” said Allen. “That’s where he got caught.”

When authorities ascertained his base of operations, the Odoms learned that he was a customer of the hotel and working in the same company as his other victims.

“When (Officer) Russ Anderson caught him, they went in his room,” Allen said. “These guys could identify their shirts and their leather jacket or what-not that he had in the closet. He liked to go in your place and get away with it, and go out.”

Over the many months the Odoms ran the hotel, they saw hundreds of other patrons — some bad, some good. There were exhibitionists, who liked to leave open the doors to their rooms so they could be easily seen in their natural splendor. But there were also men such as Red Adair, the renowned oilfield firefighter from Texas, whose team in 1991 would extinguish 117 wells set on fire in Kuwait by retreating Iraqi troops. Adair stayed at the Riverside for several days while helping to shut off a blown Beaver Creek wellhead.

The clientele matched the times, and a frontier type of mentality tended to dominate an era filled with transient workers, burgeoning populations, bursting schools and big capital projects.

Usually, though, life was fairly quiet at the Riverside House — which opened in April 1966 as a hotel/restaurant, easily the largest and most luxurious on the central peninsula. Generally, the Odoms, who lived with their three young daughters in an apartment behind the front desk, were on call 24 hours a day.

“There was a lot of work to do,” said Joanne, sister to Jesse Robinson, namesake of Robinson Loop in Sterling. “We were busy all the time. Complete room changes, over and over.”

“Joanne and I had to get up out of bed if someone came in and banged on the bell at the desk,” added Allen.

Each day began with Joanne and her main housekeeper stripping beds, cleaning the hotel’s 22 rooms, and laundering all the linens and towels. Fortunately for the Odoms, the restaurant, although attached, was owned and run separately from the hotel, so they could focus solely on their own patrons.

While Burton Carver owned the hotel, the restaurant was operated by the head chef, Bud Bennington, who was known to offer some of the area’s finest dining. The restaurant had been completed first, in 1963, transformed from the Carver family home, which sat along the banks of the Kenai River on a piece of property that Carver had purchased from homesteader Howard Binkley.

Allen had begun working for Carver a few months after he and Joanne arrived from their home state of Colorado in 1960, and when Carver completed the hotel he asked the Odoms to run it. They appreciated the full-time employment.

As fate would have it, however, 1966 was to be unkind to Carver himself. His wife, Joyce, was murdered in Anchorage in July, he lost a primary election bid for the state Senate and he suffered a heart attack later in the year. He had also gotten in over his head financially on the hotel-building project and was forced to sell the business the following year.

When Carver left the business, the Odoms also left. Allen, who is now 72, went on to work for Texaco, while Joanne, now 69, began driving a school bus for Carver. But until Carver sold out, the Odoms were in charge. Although most days were perfectly normal, they experienced their share of unusual behavior.

There were the philanderers.

“One of those guys from Anchorage, I remember him coming in one time when I was out sweeping the entry,” Allen said. “He gets out of a car and comes over and starts going, ‘Hey, Mr. Odom! Mr. Odom, how you doing? Got the wife with me today.’ He introduced me to her and everything.

“He’d been down there a week or so before with this beautiful blonde about 6 foot tall.”

Joanne remembered “a fellow from out Funny River way who used to come in with a lot of (other women). And I knew his wife.”

Her knowledge didn’t halt his behavior.

Sometimes even more unseemly activities invaded the Riverside.

“Down at the far end (of the hotel), we start seeing guys coming and going. So one day this beautiful woman comes out and left with somebody in the car. We come to find out, this (one) guy was working something with her and having guys come in here. She was a prostitute.”

“Then I heard that she was dancing someplace else,” Joanne added. “And I asked him about it. And he got really smart with me, and I told him to get out.”

And then there were the hard-core drunks, who might suffer through delirium tremens if they ran out of money and couldn’t keep drinking.

“This one guy was the worst we had,” Joanne said. “And Allen thought, ‘I’ve gotta get him something (to drink).’ And I said, ‘I’ll take care of that guy.’”

“He couldn’t even get out of bed,” continued Allen. “I took him a drink,” said Joanne, who added that she was acting on orders from Carver.

Allen called long distance to the man’s son in the Lower 48. According to Allen, the son said, “I told him not to go off up there. My dad’s got a drinking problem. I said, ‘Don’t go to Alaska.’”

Back in the hotel room, the man was “in there smoking, curtains all drawn, hands shaking,” Allen said. Finally, Carver gave the man enough money for a plane ticket home.

Fortunately for the Odoms, all these odd occurrences were the exception, not the rule. Normally, life behind the front desk was fairly routine: The rooms filled with businessmen, fishermen and families on vacation, and shirt-stealing peeping-toms didn’t come along every day.

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