Letters From Happy Valley: Memories of an Alaska Homesteader’s Son, by Dan L. Walker. Ember Press, 2018. 230 pages. $17.99.
Several years ago, Seward resident Dan Walker received an unexpected gift in the mail: a shoebox of letters his parents had written to relatives in Ohio in 1958, the year they traveled to Alaska and homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula. “Danny” was 5 years old at the time. Decades later he retained only faint memories of that year and his early life within the cocoon of loving parents and five older siblings. The letters unleashed for him an intense nostalgia along with a quest to better understand his family and the homestead experience they undertook.
In the resulting book, the letters — mailed usually twice a week by one or both parents and sometimes some of the children — alternate with Walker’s reflections on the homestead life as he came to know it in subsequent years, from family stories, and now as a man considerably older than his parents were in their homesteading years. “Letters from Happy Valley” is thus a dual narrative of Alaska homestead experience as it was lived 60 years ago and Walker’s more memoiristic take, with a backwards look. It sheds considerable light on the homestead era and the lives of those who arrived from elsewhere to clear land, build cabins, find work and raise families in what were often difficult circumstances.
Walker lets readers know at the start that his father died (smoking, heart attack, age 44) only a few years after establishing the homestead. In 1965, when the author was 11, the family was devastated. Walker’s mother, then with seven children, moved them all to Anchorage and began a career in hotel hospitality.
His main ambition initially, Walker tells us, was to search the letters for a better understanding of Chet, his father — to try, through the letters, to get to know the man who was taken too soon from his life.
That goal was elusive, as readers will discover along with Walker. The letters, which begin in early June of 1958, as the family leaves the Midwest in a caravan of vehicles shared with another family, simply share the news. For the first month, they tell of traveling into Canada and along the Alcan (now Alaska) Highway, reassuring the folks back home that it’s all a fine adventure. Weather, descriptions of farm country and campsites, the price of soda crackers, a reference to the truck’s oil pump repair, “we had a very good day.”
In between the early letters, Walker begins to lay out the family’s history as Midwestern farmers, the life they came from, his earliest memories, and then descriptions of places then and now. All of this provides an essential background to the letters.
In early July, the family reached Palmer and Wasilla. Chet writes, “Not too bad but we can I believe find nicer locations farther to the south.” Walker ponders why farmers would have turned up their noses at the Mat-Su region and concludes that his parents were looking for more adventure — a “frontier” experience. They had corresponded with someone in Happy Valley (still a very small community between Anchor Point and Ninilchik), and headed there. Some hinted-at drama with the traveling partners occurred at that point, and the other family turned back to the Lower 48.
The Sterling Highway had been completed in 1950, and homesteaders had staked much of the land along its route by 1958. Happy Valley is low and wet — definitely not suited for farming but with easy access to clam beaches, moose bogs, beach coal and trees enough for cabin-building. The Walkers found an empty cabin and moved in while they filed on 40 unoccupied acres and began to build their own cabin.
For the rest of the summer and well into fall, the letters are largely about building that cabin, moose hunting (not always in compliance with the law), and settling into the community. The letters report on bartering services (e.g. coal hauling for log milling), school and church activities, visiting with neighbors, and weather. The letter writers never grouse about overwork or hard times; they are thankful for the letters that come in return, the small gifts of ribbons and barrettes for the girls, and the magazine subscriptions. They were moved into their closed-in but unfinished cabin at the end of October.
While the collection of letters ends in January 1959 with comments about wood cutting and gratitude for a working chain saw, a warm floor, and moose fat, it’s understood that letters kept coming and going for years after and likely filled other shoeboxes, long gone missing.
If the author admits his desire to romanticize both his family’s homestead beginnings and his father as a larger-than-life figure, he also brings into his narrative some of the reality of the time. The homestead life was never easy, he assures us. There was a reason for the abandoned homestead cabins, even in his parents’ day. Making a living was hard. Chet was handy with machines and ran a garage for a time, then finished out his years working away from home, first for an oil exploration crew and then with the State Road Commission.
Walker writes, “A few people came for the farming and made it work, but not many ... In fact, people survived on Alaska homesteads by doing anything but farming. They were trapping, fishing, logging, selling their labor in the infant oil patch, or working some craft. The homesteaders came to Alaska because it was there, because it was remote, because it was wild. And it was away.”
Or, as his mother put it in one of her letters all those years ago, “We really have good neighbors. Some are a little or more ‘queer’ but if they weren’t queer they wouldn’t be up here, us included.”