Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Building on history — Kenai historical site gets new look as old cabins are dusted off

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Swedish sailor Victor Sanders was about 40 years old when he came to Alaska in 1921, married a Native woman, built a one-room log home and proceeded to raise a family. The couple fished for a living, tended a sled dog team, raised a garden and produced 13 children, just seven of whom survived past infancy.

One of those children, the fifth born, they named Elsie, and several decades later she donated her family’s original cabin to the city of Kenai when it was collecting old structures to place on the lot behind the Fort Kenay building. At the time, Fort Kenay — a representative re-creation of the original fort built after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia — housed an upstairs museum, and the cabins were seen as part of the display.

Somehow, however, the history of the Sanders cabin got lost, and for many years a sign at the cabin identified it merely as Cabin No. 3, and added that “little is known” of its origins.

That changed in 2007. In the midst of a large-scale cabin restoration and preservation effort by the Kenai Historical Society, the Sanders cabin history was unearthed by Mary Ford. Then Ford, who publishes the historical society’s monthly newsletter, unfolded more of that history for her readers in the September 2007 issue.

When the restoration project is complete, the cabin will sit on a new lot and will bear a new sign — “Sanders Cabin” — with a more detailed explanation of its history and the lives of its inhabitants.

But the Sanders Cabin is not the only historically significant object being repaired and moved. Also included in the project are four other cabins and a 75 mm howitzer. The cannon and four of the five cabins currently reside within the enclosure behind Fort Kenay, but that residence will change early this summer.

The Fort Kenay building was erected in 1967, 100 years after the Alaska purchase, on land leased by the city from the Russian Orthodox Church. When the city built its visitors and cultural center in 1991, the museum articles were moved to the new facility and the lease on the church-owned lot was allowed to lapse. The cabins and the howitzer also became property of the church.

Finally, in 2007, ownership of the cannon and the structures was transferred back to the city, with the understanding that the cabins would be repaired and relocated. A new lot by the Kenai Art Guild, between Peninsula and Cook avenues, was provided by the city, and when the ground thaws in spring, work will begin on the preparation of gravel pads and concrete pier blocks upon which the cabins will be placed.

When the entire project is complete, the lot will be fenced, and visitor traffic will be directed through the old Civic League building. The project, which is being directed by George Ford, with help from engineer Joe Harris, work foreman Ivan Sjodin and his crew of volunteers, is budgeted at about $287,000, including the $150,000 value of the city land.

“The project has turned out to be more complicated than first thought,” said Ford, who in 2005 started the process of moving the structures back to city hands, with the idea of opening them up once again to viewing by the public.

The moving process has been complicated by a greater need for repair work than first anticipated. Several of the cabins need lower logs replaced, and all but one will have to have new floors put in. Additionally, the structures will need cross-bracing as reinforcement to hold them together during the move.

In one of the cabins, the volunteers were faced with the daunting task of moving a heavy old Emerson grand piano. Even after removing the piano’s legs and placing the instrument on edge, they worried about how to get it through the door without damaging it. The solution turned out to be snow-covered pieces of discarded carpeting, upon which the piano slid successfully.

The move itself will be complicated. Each cabin will have to be jacked up, and then a sling will be placed beneath the structure to allow it to be lifted by a crane onto a lowboy truck. At the new site, the crane will lift each cabin from the lowboy onto the prepared pads.

Besides the Sanders Cabin, the other exhibits include:

The Arness Cabin, built in 1925 on the bluff east of Riverview Road in Kenai. In 1948, Peggy and James Arness bought it to use as their home. They modified and added on to the original structure, and at one time the cabin was used as Kenai’s first kindergarten, and briefly to house services for the Mormon Church.

The Miller Cabin. Pioneer Emil Ness built this structure in Kasilof in 1910. In 1930, its logs were numbered and it was disassembled and barged to Kenai, where it was pieced back together again. In 1937, the family of Emil’s brother, Gust Ness, sold the cabin to Ward Showalter, who sold it to George Miller in the 1940s. After the death of the next owner, Rex Williams, his widow donated the cabin to the city in 1975.

The Dolchok/Juliussen Cabin. This cabin, which is the only structure not currently part of the Fort Kenay complex, was built in Kenai in 1922 by Mike Dolchok. He sold it in the late 1940s to Julius Juliussen, who moved it near the present site of the Peninsula Oilers ballpark and lived in it with his family for many years.

The Three Scandinavians Cabin. This cabin may have been built in the 1920s, but no one is certain. The Kenai Historical Society believes that Swede Foss may have lived in the cabin at one time, but KHS members are seeking confirmation of his occupation, and any other information anyone might have.

The 75 mm howitzer. The date stamped on the combat cannon is 1917. It was given to the city of Kenai by the Wildwood military base.

Ford said that the historical society is looking for volunteers interested in helping to restore and prepare the cabins between now and early May. The KHS crew works Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Anyone wishing to help can just stop by. For more information, call Joe Harris at 283-1946 or George Ford at 283-7700.

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