I have the hardest time getting good shots of my daughter these days. When she sees me coming with the camera, she either hides, makes a face, or she pastes on a fake smile that just doesn’t look like her at all.
I can relate. I have a hard time looking natural in front of a camera as well. I get all self-conscious, and end up looking awkward, or weirdly intense, or both.
My favorite photos are the ones where the subject is going about their business, so caught up in what they are doing that the photographer, whether they’re aware of her or not, is irrelevant to the moment.
Lately, I’ve been going through some old family photos, many from the mid-century and earlier. This is well past those days when every photo looked stoic because the people in them had to freeze for long periods of time, but most of these photos still have a staged formality to them.
Then I stumbled across this photo:
This was my mom’s family, she’s second from the left in the front. This would have been in the 50s, I believe, and probably in Palmer or Anchorage, Alaska. It looks like a celebratory night out, and everyone looks so happy together. Such natural, genuine smiles. I wonder what the story was.
This is the house in which I grew up. It was my grandparents house, but it was my Grandmother who made it a home.
In 1948, my Grandmother packed up her children, and left her beautiful home in Michigan, to join her husband in Alaska where he had moved his dental practice.
She moved from this:
To a 32′ by 32′ log cabin
Her youngest child was 7 months old.
This wasn’t just a house in Alaska. This was a house in an area that was, at the time, the middle of nowhere, Alaska. My grandfather commuted to work in Anchorage by airplane.
Of course, they needed to embiggen the house a bit to accommodate all those kids
And Grandma made sure their newly enlarged home was lovely. Just because they were in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, didn’t mean they were going to live like country bumpkins. Grandma had standards.
This was dinner.
And after dinner
Notice Grandpa’s commuter plane out the left window…
Sure they had chores, a fully operational farm, in fact. But those boys mucked out the pig pen in jeans that were ironed.
Years later I came to live with Grandma and Grandpa, on my own at first so I could attend the local kindergarten, my parents and brothers joined us later. This is the house that comes to mind when I think of my childhood. I think of the wind that blew right through those walls bringing with them the glacial silt from not one, but two nearby glaciers. We dusted every single day. And every week we baked bread, with wheat we ground ourselves in a heavy, loud, wood and metal flour making contraption. Then when the loaves came out of the oven, she’d cut me a thick slice, still steaming, slather it with homemade butter from our cow, and then sprinkle a little brown sugar on top. Heaven.
I think of myself as being busy now, but truly, Grandma got some work done.
Grandma lived to be 99 years old, and she was beautifully pulled together every time I saw her.
Oh, my, I’m glad Grandma can’t see my home right now. I’ve fallen a bit short of her standards.
My grandparents moved to Alaska in the late 1940s. At that time, the state was very much still a rugged frontier, and everyone had an interesting story to tell. Grandma took notes, and shared them with me, asking me to publish them so the rest of the family could have easy access to these stories.
In this post, my grandparents set out into the wilderness on a train trip through central Alaska in 1947. Along the way, they encounter mountain climbers in the process of making history, and even set up a temporary dental clinic in a bathroom to help locals in need. As usual, these stories are presented in my grandmother’s own words with no editing on my part. I did, however, hunt down a few relevant links and images. You can find more of my family’s stories at McKinley Family.
I probably should have split this into two posts because it’s so long, but I felt like the most fascinating part was the second half. Incidentally, I ended up working on this railroad in 1992. One of these days I’ll have to write up my Alaska Railroad stories as well.
Once again, in her own words, Doris McKinley:
Doris McKinley – adventuring with the Lion’s Club
The only Railroad in Alaska is United States Government owned and runs from Seward, the port of entry, thru Anchorage to Fairbanks, a 471 mile life-line to the interior. It was built many years ago of Government Surplus Materials after the construction of the Panama Canal, and is in dire need of major repairs. The schedules are notoriously slow. If an engineer wants to flirt with a reprimand, a sure way to do it is to bring his train in on time! The speed limit for passenger trains on the straight-away is 25 miles per hour.
While awaiting completion of the dental offices in the new Sogn Building, my husband and I took a most interesting trip on the railroad, stopping at Curry, Mt. McKinley Park, and Healy. When we left Anchorage, we left all activity except strictly railroad behind. There are no railroad junctions or highway crossing along the entire route. Just wild hinterland!
As we were passing a rather extended, level, open area I was excited to see a complete rainbow. Both ends touching the ground – we looked but could not find pots of gold!
Several old fishermen boarded the train at Anchorage with all their paraphanalia. Then at various streams 30 to 60 miles out, they signalled the engineer, the train stopped, and they got off. A few days later, when they were ready to return, they would stand by the tracks, flag the train and ride in to Anchorage. – an easy way to get to camp!
When my Grandparents moved to Alaska in the 1940s, it was still very much a frontier. It was both the wild, wild west, and the frigid north.
Grandma took notes. By compiling and transcribing her notes, and sharing them on my blog, I’m fulfilling a promise to her to make these stories available and accessible to the rest of the family. I have created an archive to which I am slowly transcribing and adding these documents: McKinley Family Archives.
I’ve left these stories exactly as she wrote them, although I have been hunting down photos for illustration.
Here she is again, Doris McKinley, in her own words.
Steve, Karen, and Rodger with the family plane
The Last Frontier, Alaska 1947
Anchorage, a thriving business community, is the nerve center of western Alaska. In 1939 it had a population of 3000, now with the post-war influx, it boasts of nearly 15,000 – causing a serious housing shortage. Building in all classes is progress, but far too short of its needs.
Ft. Richardson, located only five miles from Anchorage is a combined Military, Naval, and Air Command with a personnel of about 12,000. The United States Government is pouring tremendous sums of money into the development of Ft. Richardson as the permanent headquarters of all Alaska Defenses.
Thus, there are some 25,000 local people served by Anchorage business. This is exclusive of the “bush.” The term “bush” is used to identify outlying terretory. “Bush pilots” are very efficient airmen, piloting their own planes. Their business consists of scheduled and unscheduled hops to almost any point within a radius of 400 to 500 miles. Residents of these remote localities, traders, trappers, and miners rely on the bush pilot and his light plane as readily as persons in the States use the bus or train. For in all Alaska there are only about 2000 miles of automobile roads.
The Alaskan economy is dependent on the various phases of aviation.
One day we saw a shy native boy carrying a baby seal. Walking along the street, he was drawing considerable attention. He had found the seal on the shore, it apparently had become lost from its mother. It lay quite content and quietly in the boy’s arms. The face seemed much like a dog’s, tho larger, with a rather pointed nose. The heavy brown body and flippers were interesting.
When my Father was in Anchorage last March, he saw several native Indian women carrying babies on their backs. As he was talking with one, he noticed severe sores along the baby’s jaw. Inquiring of the Mother what caused the sore, she replied, “Just rubbing.”
On a motor trip to Valdez, a distance of 300 miles by highway, which I am sure is not more than 75 by air, we saw a fish wheel in operation. This wheel was similar to a conventional water wheel, excep that each peddle had a wire screen which built up the side and end. The inside was left open so that as the river current turned the wheel, a fish was caught and held until that section reached the top and the fish dropped out onto a slide thence into a tank of water. The native then picked up the fish, split and cleaned it, then hung it by the tail on a nail with rows of other fish. Drying frames were built in a square and a fire smoldered in the center. Smoked, dried fish are a staple diet of the seld dogs and natives in winter. The use of these wheels are limited to the native population.
McKinley Family log home
Salmon fishing is most popular and during the season it is very common to see men, women or children on the streets with their fishing tackle going to Fish Creek near the Railroad. One day an old-time showed us the procedure. We bought stought fish line, heavy sinkers and large three pronged hooks. The idea is to throw the hook into the stream and jerk it back. Really, we snag salmon as they do not bite. Some time passed and we had no luck, our friend insisted, however, that the salmon would be at that spot about 15 minutes after the tide came in.
Shortly afterward a little boy, possibly 8 years old said, “If you’ll throw your hook right over there, Doc, you’ll catch a fish!” Sure enough, Lee brought in a nice four or five pound salmon, and brought in several more in a short time. The youngster caught two, pulled them onto the shore, but before he could get a good hold on them they flopped back into the water. He went on fishing as tho nothing had happened. When we were ready to leave, he handed two other fish to my husband, saying “Here, Doc, you take these. My mother wont let me bring any more fish home!” Lee skinned and filleted them, and we cooked in a friend’s kitchen that evening. They were truly delicious.
These were the silver salmon and were about 18″ long, later in July the big king salmon appear which may weigh 10, 15, or 20 pounds.
The famed Matanuska Valley farming project which was publicized a few years ago is located about 50 miles from Anchorage on the only highway which joins Fairbanks and Anchorage. The project is managed on a cooperative basis, is successful, and is developing into a real asset to Alaska. These farms, many only ten or fifteen years removed from the wilderness, are remarkably fertile. Farmers are farm owners as tenant farming is frowned upon. The valley produces vegetables of unusual size due to the very long days during the growing season. Dairying is being rather slowly developed because of the difficulties of carrying the herds thru the long winters. Farm buildings, built with Government assistance follow identical plans and are built of logs. Most farm work is, however, carried on with tractors and modern machinery.