Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Growing pains for Gruening — Plans to found new community in present-day Nikiski foundered

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Dreams of a better life have urged many people northward. Big dreams have urged people to take chances — to seek gold, invest in land or start businesses. In the North Kenai area, particularly in the burgeoning 1950s and ’60s, some of those dreamers envisioned whole communities and believed they were the ones to give impetus to making those visions into reality.

There was the dream of Radar, Alaska, near Wildwood in the early 1950s. There was the dream of Petroleum City, Alaska, on Holt Road in the late 1960s.

And there was the dream of homesteader Paul Costa and surveyor F.J. “Francis” Malone of a community called Gruening, which they hoped would become the centerpiece of North Road development, the nexus of North Road activity.

The dream of Gruening germinated in the brain of Costa in the mid-1960s, according to Ron Mika, one of the main investors in the project and the current owner of Nikiski Building Supply and the Lamplight Bar and Liquor Store.
Mika, now 71, said that when he homesteaded in North Kenai in 1962, Costa was already living in the area. They had been acquainted previously when both worked on the White Alice early warning system — Costa as a bull cook and Mika as a radio technician.

Costa had been in the bar and entertainment businesses before coming to Alaska, and he wanted to build such a venture along the North Road. He purchased a few acres from homesteaders Ken and Margaret McGahan and constructed the Lamplight Bar at the junction of the North Road and Lamplight Road. After that, in 1966, Costa “wanted to build a town,” Mika said.

First, Costa involved Malone in his dream. Malone, the father of former Alaska Speaker of the House of Representatives Hugh Malone, made drawings of the prospective community.

“He laid out a circle in the middle and a regular town site,” Mika said.

When it came time to name their town, staunch Democrats Malone and Costa thought of Ernest Gruening, who had served as Alaska territorial governor from 1939 to 1953, and was in his second term representing Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

“F.J. wrote him a letter asking if we could name a town after him,” Mika said. “And he wrote back and said he would be very pleased.”

Mika’s involvement in the project began with an injection of his own cash.
“I was working, so I had the money,” said Mika. “And he had the ideas. He had lots of good ideas.”

From the McGahans they purchased 10 acres just across the North Road from the Lamplight Bar. Then they “spent a bunch of money for a guy in a Cat to come in and strip the trees off it and level it out,” Mika said.

Afterward, they hired log cabin builder Johnny Parks to erect a small building in the middle of the clearing to become Gruening’s first post office.

“That was going to be the center of the community,” according to Mika.

In those days, he said, North Kenai had no defined center, while today many people consider the center to be in the area of the old Mac and Dolores McGahan homestead, the current site of Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, the fire station and the cluster of businesses around M&M Grocery.

To the west of Gruening in 1966 were several new subdivisions, a community hall, a trailer court, the Arness Terminal and the Shell Oil storage bulk plant. The land to the south and east was dotted with lakes, which were perceived as ideal locations for future residential and recreational development.

In The Cheechako News on April 15, 1966, Costa’s attempts at promoting his new community earned this headline: “Community of Gruening Begins Building Spurt.”
The article stated that clearing for the Gruening town site was beginning that week, and that construction plans were in the works for a restaurant, grocery store and two-stall Chevron filling station.

According to the paper, these businesses would bring the total in the greater Gruening area to five, including the Lamplight Bar and Home Realty, owned and operated by licensed broker G.J. Spracher. Additionally, said the Cheechako, more than 70 percent of the North Kenai population at the time lived within a three-mile radius of Gruening.

Joe Ross, a primary contractor, had been selected, and two more investors were being brought on board for the building phase — Hank and Mattie Bartos, longtime residents who had recently sold Salamatof Beach land to the Union-Marathon oil companies, who used the land to build Rig Tenders Dock. The Bartoses, the paper said, would own and operate the grocery store, while the filling station and restaurant would be leased.

In light of these plans, the Cheechako offered up this view: “Among the many newly beginning business areas in Alaska, the community of Gruening is unique in one respect. It is strictly a local development. There has been no ‘big money,’ no federal or state funds, no ‘help from the top’ of any kind — and none such has been sought.”

The only bump in the road to success so far, the newspaper said, had been the failure of Gruening’s promoters to land a post office license. According to the article, a proposal and a petition containing more than 100 signatures had been sent to the Post Office Department, but their proposal was termed “premature” and rejected.

Mika said that the rejection stemmed from the community’s name. It was apparently against post office policy to name its structures after individuals who were still alive.

In the end, despite the hype — Costa even had matchbooks made up with covers that said “Lamplight Bar, Gruening, Alaska” — the community of Gruening never materialized.

Malone submitted their proposal for the town site to the fledgling Kenai Peninsula Borough, but it was never officially recorded.

“It was just on paper,” Mika said. And, beyond that, creating an actual town proved to be too much.

“We just didn’t know how to do it, I guess,” Mika said. “We ran out of ideas and steam and money. And everything.”

In 1967, Costa allowed some people to stay in the post office cabin, and on the Fourth of July that year it burned to the ground. Eventually, Costa wanted out of the project and deeded the land over to Mika. Costa also sold the Lamplight Bar, and then it was destroyed in a fire in 1971. Mika and his wife, Louise, purchased the bar site and rebuilt the business.

The Mikas still own the town site, and still refer to it privately as Gruening, although it is empty except for the returning natural growth. The trees were allowed to refill the site, and now it is difficult to distinguish from other surrounding woods.

“I used to think of an antique-type town,” Mika said of his dreams for Gruening. “Steep roofs, a ‘North Pole, Alaska’ type thing. You know, snow on the roofs, sidewalks out front. Decorations out there. A little quaint mountain-village type thing.”

Like many dreams — like the site itself — Gruening is fading away.

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