By Clark Fair
Location, location, location.Sometimes location is everything. At least such was the case in 1961, when Emmett and Betty Karsten of Ridgeway became the first civilian consumers of natural gas in Alaska.
A large natural gas field had been discovered west of Soldotna by Unocal and Marathon Oil Company in 1959, only two years after the discovery of oil in the Swanson River field. Soon, construction of a gas pipeline began, and the residents of Ridgeway and Soldotna were the earliest beneficiaries.
On Aug. 9, 1961, Ed Back, of Ed Appliance Service in Soldotna, and Bill Gross, of the Anchorage Natural Gas Company, completed the installation and hookup at the Karsten home.
The Kalifornsky Beach gas field turned out to be the largest field ever discovered in the Cook Inlet area, and it was soon supplying customers all across the central Kenai Peninsula.
Good luck, bad luckAugust 1961 was a good hunting month for Bob Schmidt. He crept into the woods early on the opening day of moose season, located and shot a bull almost right away, and had his kill cleaned and hauled home well before the day was done.
Nine days later, on Aug. 10, Schmidt, a Kalifornsky Beach homesteader and commercial fisherman, was flown by guide Harold R. “Andy” Anderson into the Tustumena Glacier flats for a Dall sheep hunt. Anderson, Schmidt and the Rev. Paul Weimer, a Baptist minister from Soldotna, then hiked the difficult route into the mountains to establish a camp and search for full-curl rams.
Their search was successful. All three men made a kill, each one at an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet, and they all returned safely.
In the Aug. 25, 1961, edition of The Cheechako News, a photograph shows Anderson kneeling in front of three sets of ram horns displayed on a table. According to the information in the accompanying article, these were the horns from the Aug. 10 hunt, and the largest horns, flaring a prominent one and one-quarter curl, had come from Schmidt’s ram.
Anderson estimated that the ram had been 9 years old, although Schmidt himself said recently he believed it had been 10. A rough estimate of the horn size — a computation involving numerous measurements of horn thickness and length, plus distance between the horns — provided a score of 170, which made the horns a contender for inclusion in the Boone & Crockett record book.
No specific details of the measurements were provided in the article, but ironically the still-standing world record for Dall sheep was also killed in 1961. Harry L. Swank shot his ram in the Wrangell Mountains, and its horns — the right more than 48 inches long, the left more than 47 — scored a 189 6/8 with Boone & Crockett.
Unfortunately for Schmidt, he would never learn the official score for his set of horns. A fire in his home the following year destroyed his trophy, and a second fire sometime later destroyed his only photographs of the horns.
Best-laid plans...The city of Soldotna had watched the city of Kenai try to keep up with a burgeoning student population in the mid-1950s, so city planners in the tiny town hoped they had it right when they constructed a four-classroom schoolhouse called Soldotna Elementary and opened its doors in September 1960.
An arrangement was already in place with Kenai to take all of the high school students, and Kenai also agreed to take all of Soldotna’s seventh- and eighth-graders. So when new Soldotna superintendent Charley Griffin, fresh from Georgia that summer, opened the school, 104 students in grades one through six were enrolled in classes taught by Griffin himself, his wife, Joyce, Maxine Reger and Tommye Jo Corr.
But in the following September, trouble arose: Kenai’s enrollment was still growing. In 1960, Kenai had had 535 students, including those from Soldotna. In 1961, even without Soldotna’s kids, Kenai’s enrollment had jumped to 657. So Soldotna’s seventh- and eighth-grade students would have to stay in Soldotna.
As a result of this change, in addition to a general enrollment increase, the total for Soldotna Elementary on opening day was a staggering 248 students. While residents of Kenai began a years-long argument over whether to build a separate high school, the residents of Soldotna began scrambling for more space.
To assuage the immediate problem, the city rented two rooms from M.L. “Red” Grange, who had recently completed the construction of a new office building behind the local medical clinic. To take care of the longer-range issue, the city began planning an addition to the school.
In 1963, Soldotna more than doubled the size of its school, but that still wasn’t enough. Later in the ’60s, three portable classrooms were set up behind the school, and by the time Griffin transferred in 1969 to become the principal at Kenai Central High School, the enrollment at Soldotna Elementary was 590.
Fortunately for the crowded students and staff, help was on the way: In 1969, a bid was awarded for the construction of Soldotna Junior High School. Unfortunately, the crowding didn’t stop there: KCHS was becoming so full that in 1973 a decision was made to keep all ninth-graders at the junior highs in both Kenai and Soldotna.
By the end of the 1970s, Soldotna was building its own high school, and by the end of the 1980s two more elementary schools — Kalifornsky Beach and Redoubt — were in business, and two new high schools — Skyview and Nikiski — were under construction.
Check out these prices!In the fall and early winter of 1961, The Cheechako News carried advertisements promoting the following products and prices:
Pacific Northern Airlines was offering a round-trip ticket from Kenai to Anchorage for $14.65. Travelers interested in a one-way trip could fly to Anchorage from Soldotna with Cordova Airlines for only $6.
A new two-bedroom house on Linwood Lane, east of Kenai, was selling for $8,750.
For hungry residents of the central peninsula, the choices were improving: A 16-ounce top T-bone dinner was available at the Towne Café in Soldotna for $4.50, while a Deluxe Jumbo Burger could be had for a mere 90 cents at the Inlet Café in Kenai.
The Cottage Bakery in Kenai also advertised a special of 50 cents for a dozen cinnamon rolls, while Lou’s Market in Soldotna promised three “big packages” of “rippin’ good” cookies for a dollar.
As winter settled in, concerned parents might want to rush down to Gibbs Apparel in Soldotna, where children’s snowpants, featuring a quilted lining, were on sale for $5.49.
And to keep their vehicles running, area residents might be pleased to know that regular gasoline was priced at 45 cents a gallon at the Union 76 station in Ridgeway.
Of course, according to statistics based on the Consumer Price Index, area residents in 2009 might be interested to know that $100 in 1961 is the rough equivalent of $700 today.