Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Spenard, Lake Spenard, Spenard Road, Spenard Builders Supply... why are they called Spenard? What is a “Spenard?” As many people know, there was indeed a man named Joe Spenard, a notable figure in the earliest days of Anchorage. But most people don’t know the details, the likely surprising details.
Joseph “Joe” Arthur Spenard was born in 1879 in Ottawa, Ontario, to French Canadian parents. His Canadian life is essentially a mystery, and he doesn’t make a real mark on the historical record until the early 1900s. By 1906, he was living in California, where he married Edith Lewellyn. Together, they journeyed north to Valdez in 1909.
There, Spenard first attempted a career as a securities broker; he listed himself as the vice president of the Alaska Securities Firm. However, Valdez at that time was entirely too small for such an enterprise, and 1909 was entirely too soon for such a trade on the fringy edges of the frontier.
So, the ever-ambitious Spenard sought a new line of work. Far from the heights of securities, he operated a second-hand goods business, rolling a cart up and down the town -- selling, buying and trading anything of value. By 1913, he had branded his operation into City Express, a combination delivery and taxi service. His slogan declared, “Time and Tide will not wait, but City Express is Never Late.” That same year, he became a naturalized American citizen.
In the spring of 1916, Joe and Edith moved to Anchorage, forever in search of that booming edge of society where fortunes could most quickly be acquired. City Express remained his primary business. His REO Speedwagon truck did double duty as a volunteer vehicle for the city fire department. The department was small enough that the rest of their equipment fit within two carts.
In Anchorage, Spenard cemented his reputation as a showman, chomping on cigars and frequently wearing a bright yellow suit. He owned a car, also in bright yellow. And when business was slow, he would don his yellow suit, get into his yellow car and drive around Anchorage. He would pick up children along the way and create a one-car parade. One time, a local wagered a box of cigars that Spenard could not drive his car through the front doors of a pool hall. Spenard likely enjoyed those cigars a great deal.
Still, his enduring local fame came from his desire to develop a country club outside town at what is now called Lake Spenard. Construction began around July 1916, and by August, he had cleared a rough, narrow road out to the lake, to what was essentially a roadhouse with swimming options. The club was short-lived. In May 1917, a fire leveled the resort. Shortly thereafter, Spenard broke a leg. By then, he’d had enough of Alaska. That September, he sold his business and moved to the Lower 48, never to return to Alaska.
Historians have generally treated Joe Spenard kindly, calling him a “character” or “colorful.” The latter was frequently true in a literal sense, most notably with his yellow suit and car. But “colorful” is also a polite way to cover a litany of sins. He was not merely “colorful”; he was a criminal. Joe was a bootlegger, and his lakeside resort was safely miles beyond city limits and thus a place where all manner of illegal goods and acts were traded.
He also illegally blazed a road and cleared the trees around the lake, through and within a national forest. He then sold much of the ill-gotten lumber. Despite his assertions to the contrary, he never filed a claim for a homestead around what became Lake Spenard. He was a squatter. In short, Joe Spenard was the type of guy who never let anything so mundane as social niceties or laws interfere with making a buck.
Thus, the Spenard neighborhood is named after a criminal, a man who only spent around 20 months in Anchorage more than a century ago.
Even the use of Spenard to name the lake was something of a theft. From roughly 1907 through the summer of 1916, what we today call Lake Spenard was instead known as Jeter Lake. Thomas Jeter was the first colonial settler associated with the Spenard area. He lost his stake in the area after its removal as part of the Chugach National Forest in 1907. A few years later, but still before the founding of Anchorage, he showed up with a cabin in what is now Government Hill. By the late 1910s, he had become something of a business leader in Anchorage. He also helped construct some of the original fixtures at the Pioneer School. Spenard stole Jeter’s legacy. Now only a few historians recall Thomas Jeter.
Spenard even lied to his family about the legality of his Anchorage enterprises and supposed lakeside homestead. More than 40 years after he left Anchorage, his niece, Helen Clark, traveled north from California to see the community with the family name. For years, the Spenards had promised to return north, if just for a visit.
Joe Spenard died in 1934. After Edith died in late 1959, Clark felt a need to complete the family promise, to follow in the footsteps of her beloved “Uncle Joe.” Instead of her vision of Anchorage as “all log houses and all the men with beards,” she discovered bustling streets and a thriving neighborhood. She understood her uncle as a legal landowner, holding a proper claim to a “homestead which was bordered by Spenard Road.” Understandably, local officials hesitated to break her illusions.
Today, even the most positive Spenard booster would acknowledge that crime is a part of the neighborhood’s reputation. From Spenard divorces to the bar scene that peaked during pipeline construction, many Spenard legends have an illegal or at least illicit aspect. That the community is named for a criminal is in keeping with that part of the neighborhood identity. At least Spenardians are not alone. At least two other Anchorage neighborhoods — Bootlegger’s Cove and Russian Jack — are named after criminals.
“Daily Doings Around Town.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 26, 1917, 11.
“Daily Doings Around Town.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 19, 1918, 6.
“Daily Doings Around Town.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 17, 1917, 7.
Parham, Bruce. “Spenard, Joseph A. ‘Joe.’” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940. alaskahistory.org/biographies/spenard-joseph-a-joe/.
“Summer Resort on Jeter Lake.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 12, 1916, 2.
Woodman, Betsy. “Niece of Joe Spenard Amazed on First Visit.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 22, 1960, 15.
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