Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Not so fast food — Moose meat was important but often off-limits to early homesteaders

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Fresh red meat could be difficult to come by in the late 1940s and early 1950s on the Kenai Peninsula, particularly in the winter. Heavily salted canned meats were available but were far from fresh and often far from tasty.

On the other hand, fresh meat on the hoof was ambling all over through the mixed coniferous-deciduous woods, and many homesteaders were not reluctant to take advantage of this good fortune.

“Illegal moose meat was a main source of food for us,” said Maxine Lee, Soldotna’s first postmaster, in a personal history written in 2003. “We were all law-abiding citizens, but in 1948, to get a hunting license, you had to have been a resident of Alaska for a year or else buy a $50 non-resident license and hire a guide at $50 a day — even on your own land.

“We had little money. We needed meat. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife controlled hunting — the Feds. They knew that we were eating moose, but they also knew we needed food. We were circumspect, hiding the meat tied up in spruce trees.”

Lee also said that many folks in those days believed they would receive lighter punishment for killing another human being than they would for killing a moose. Still, she said, the authorities were occasionally known to look the other way, particularly if it was understood that a homesteader’s survival might depend upon the infraction.

Once, she and her husband, Howard, were visited by the game warden shortly after Howard had brought a frozen haunch into the house to thaw and carve it. Although they hastily covered the meat, its shape was difficult to disguise, even in the lantern-lit gloom of their home. In the end, when the warden departed, Lee said, “He knew that we knew that he knew.”

Howard Lee also wrote about those days, in a paper entitled “Reminiscent Ramblings of Early Soldotna.” He wrote: “The taking of moose legally, with license and in season, didn’t quite coincide with homesteaders’ needs or the most practical weather period to avoid waste.

“The risk of taking an animal was made most hazardous and detectable on the site of the butchering. Being spotted by our flying friendly game warden (Dave) Spencer kept us alert. Once the site was located either by bloody snow or the ravens having a feast on remains, it only took the effort of following one’s snowshoe trail to the culprit.

“Most moose were shot when it appeared a good storm was setting in to cover the tracks.”

Such was the case in February 1951 when Larry Lancashire thought the weather was about to change in his favor. He shot and killed a moose, butchered it quickly, and then dragged it home on a sled to his family’s cozy cabin atop Pickle Hill. Unfortunately for Lancashire, the forecast for heavy snow was incorrect.

Al Hershberger, who was stationed at the time at the Alaska Road Commission shop in Kenai, remembers the rest of the story: “Larry left word for me to stop on the way home from work and fix a magneto on a tractor that was giving him problems. I knocked on the door, and I opened it up, and there was a big kitchen table there just covered with moose meat, blood all over the place.”

Hershberger was invited inside, and later, when he had the magneto in hand and had promised to fix it and return after work the next day, Larry’s wife, Rusty said, “Why don’t you plan on stopping for dinner tomorrow night? We’ll have fresh moose steak and french-fried potatoes out of our patch.” Al readily accepted the invitation, salivating at the thought of fresh moose and potatoes, which the Lancashires were beginning to farm commercially.

The next day, Hershberger was in the parts room at the ARC when he happened to glance out the window and notice a small gathering of men: Allan Peterson, the local marshal; Dave Spencer, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service; and Jimmy Peterson, Spencer’s assistant and son of the marshal.

“They were all standing there talking. So I went out, and I said hi to ’em. Everybody knew everybody in those days, and I said to Allan, ‘What’s going on here? You plottin’ against somebody?’ He said, ‘Oh, that Larry Lancashire shot a moose, and we gotta go arrest him.’

“I thought, ‘Oh, there goes my dinner.’”

Hershberger said he was conflicted about what to do next: “I could run out and warn him, but it wouldn’t really work because they couldn’t get all that meat out of the way in time. So I didn’t.”

On the way home, he stopped again at the Lancashire home. Larry was still there, having been formally charged and instructed to appear later in court, and the moose and Larry’s rifle had been confiscated. Rusty was there, too, at work at the stove. When Hershberger said it was too bad that they wouldn’t be having moose meat that night, Rusty said, “Oh, no, no. I told ’em that I invited Al Hershberger to dinner tonight, and so they left us enough for dinner.”

Turns out that Sergei “Pete” Peteroff, a good friend of the marshal’s who lived down by Eagle Rock, was the one responsible for Lancashire’s arrest. Peteroff, according to Hershberger, “didn’t have any idea who shot the moose,” but he came across the kill site and reported it to Peterson, who likely followed the sled tracks right to Lancashire’s front door.

Hershberger said Lancashire was fined and later had to go to Anchorage for several weeks to get a job and earn enough money to cover the cost. Hershberger added that, a year or two later, when Sonny Miller was nabbed for poaching a moose, he was so destitute that the local community held a dance to raise money to pay the fine.

Dolly Farnsworth, who also has lived in the area since the late 1940s, added a coda to this moose-poaching tale: Her husband, Jack, and Frank Mullen shot an illegal moose near Jack and Margaret Irons’ cabin, where the Farnsworths were living at the time.

“They shot it out behind the burn pile,” she said. “And so they skinned it out and took it down to (Mullens’) cabin and hung it up.”

Marge Mullen and her children were visiting in Anchorage at the time, Dolly recalled, so the family cabin was temporarily available.

“And the thing is that the damn squirrels got in there,” she said. “It was hung right over the bed arch, and so you have all of these droppings from the squirrels right on (the Mullens’) bed. They were getting at that darned moose.”

The next day, Jack and Frank were back at the Irons’ place trying to cover their tracks. They were cleaning up everything that could implicate them, and pouring motor oil over everything that might attract hungry dogs.

While they were tidying up, a car loaded with men went by out on the highway, headed for Kenai.

“It was the trial for Larry Lancashire, for his poached moose,” Dolly said.

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