Socialite to Pioneer in 3500 Miles

My grandmother was born 1/11/11 – 1911, that is – one hundred years ago today. She didn’t live to meet that milestone, she passed away just a few months ago. But in those just shy of 100 years, she led a remarkable life.

I wanted to write a biographical blog post to tell her story today, but it’s too much.  She went from being very active in Detroit’s social scene, to being a pioneer in a (then) remote area of Alaska, active in Territorial, and later, State politics as the wife of a politician, and even running for State Legislature herself  – all this was done while running an active farm, raising her seven children, and managing the office of my Grandfather’s dental practice, as well as the family’s Medical/Dental Supply business.  That deserves more than one blog post.

Instead, I’ll use her 100th birthday to kick off the first of a series of posts about my Grandmother.  In this first one, I’ll let her tell her own story of her first trip to Alaska.  A few years ago, she let me copy some of her personal papers with the idea that I would post them online, making them available to the rest of the family.  It’s taken me until now to do anything about that.

So here she is, Doris McKinley in her own words. I just added a title and a couple photos. It’s a long post, so grab a cup of coffee, kick your feet up, and settle in for a story of the rugged North.

The Alaska Highway is an overland route connecting the United States with Alaska through Canada. During the summer and early Winter of 1942, United States Army Engineers blazed the original road through 1,523 miles of unbroken wilderness. They put over a project of road building in eight months never duplicated in history, and considered by experts impossible in less than two years.

Their record is as glorious as that of any combat unit fighting on the front, for here, too, men suffered and died in a battle of the wilderness so that America might be made safe. These men endured mud, rain, fought hordes of voracious mosquitoes, and lived at times on subsistence rations with the constant threat that their precarious supply lines might be broken and they would be isolated in the wilderness.

On their heels or sometimes in step with them, came the United States Public Roads Administration with its civilian contractors and road workers, using the Army road as a base and making it into a highway as fast as they could. During the next summer the road was made into a permanent wilderness gravel highway, wide enough for two or three vehicles to pass with ease.

The present route was selected from the point of view of military strategy, intended mainly to serve as a link between various airports strung northward across Western Canada to Alaska. A tourist route would have been laid closer to the Canadian Rockies.

It stands as a symbol of friendship between nations unparalleled in history. The name Alcan, an unofficial designation, was subsequently changed to Alaska Highway by agreement of the two governments. It starts at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, a village at the end of the Railroad line 300 miles northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, and terminates at Fairbanks, Alaska, a distance of 1,523 miles.

lee and doris in 1948

Doris and Doc (Lee) McKinley

My husband, Lee, made this trip to Anchorage in October with our 12 year old son, Blake, and Frederick York, a young laboratory technician. They drove a Hudson pickup truck and expected to be able to have certain heavy supplies shipped by boat from Seattle. However, shortly after they arrived there, it became apparent that the West Coast Shipping Strike would not end soon. So, three weeks later, Lee took a plane to Seattle and then East to Detroit. He was most enthusiastic in his first impressions of Alaska and insisted that I drive back with him.

I hurriedly collected clothing for Arctic wear. At Peter’s Sportswear Clothes Shop I found a down-filled jacket, parka and leggings, and fleece lined gloves and stadium boots. The leggings were most comfortable which I wore in place of slacks. They are cool enough in the heated cab of the truck and warm at 40 degrees below zero.

This time we drove a Dodge one-ton express truck. Our neighborhood garage men had put forth great effort to hurriedly build a strong frame of 1″ pipe over the truck  bed. This was covered with large tarpaulin and tied securely. On the running board we carried four, five gallon army gasoline cans, and acetylene torch and new axe.

We left home at 9:30 A.M. Monday, November 18, 1946. Our route was Highway 12 to Chicago. Then Minneapolis and the fourth day we arrived in Fargo, North Dakota. We enjoyed three perfect Autumn days, cool and bright, then ran into sleet and snow.  In Fargo, we placed the truck in a garage where booster springs, airplane tires and fire extinguisher were installed the following day. We now felt we were properly equipped.

Leaving Fargo Saturday morning on our way to Montana, we drove through the wheat prairies with their great elevators in every village. At the Immigration Center in Coutts, Alberta, we spent two hours making arrangements to travel through Canada. Stopped overnight in Calgary, and arrived in Edmonton Tuesday afternoon, November 26th.

Our instructions at the border had been to see Mr. Eveleigh of the Control Board at Edmonton. He looked over our credentials and checked our list of extra supplies – tire irons, jack, air pump, extra tires and tubes, patching supplies, flashlight and extra batteries, extra electric wire and friction tape, fan belts and spark plugs, extra gasoline and oil containers, general repair tools tow chain and numerous other articles.

I was eager to see the shops in Edmonton so took a few minutes while Lee was having the truck serviced. I was certainly surprised to find that stocks of warm winter clothing were as meager at Hudson’s Bay Company as they were here. The stores generally are fine, modern buildings with good merchandise.

It was 4:30 when we slid past the outskirts of Edmonton and into the prairie Northland. We were on concrete until we passed the airports several miles out, where the road became black-top. Then this, too, ended and we settled down to a straight-away grind over typical Canadian prairie road. This was not the endless wheat-field prairie we had traversed south of Edmonton. We were now headed into the flat, bush country of the (more…)

Doris McKinley

Doris McKinley

My Grandmother was born as Doris Blakely in 1911.

Doris McKinley

Doris McKinley

Here she is 14 years old

Doris McKinley

With my Grandfather, Lee L. McKinley, shortly after their wedding.

Lee (Doc) McKinley and Doris McKinley

Lee (Doc) McKinley and Doris McKinley

With my mom (the little one) and my aunt

McKinley ladies

In the living room at the farm in Alaska (Grandma is in the dark dress in the center of the photo)

Lee (Doc) McKinley family, at the farm

My Wedding

Doris McKinley and Judy Schwartz Haley - September 5, 2004

95th Birthday Party

Doris McKinley

Grandma with Gem

Grandma and Gem

Grandma and Gem

Four Generations

4 generations

My brother and his wife had temporary tattoos as party favors at their wedding.  Grandma got in on the action too. Check out the tattoo on her neck.

Doris McKinley

With my daughter

grandma and gem

My Grandmother passed away last week.  She was 99 years old.

Mama's Losin' It

Lunch with Grandma Candy

Lunch with Grandma Candy

Yesterday was Genevieve’s first big day on the town.

The first stop was to see her pediatrician, which went very well.  Her length remains at 20 inches and her head circumference at 13 inches, but her weight is up to 7 lbs 12 oz – that’s 3 oz up from her birth weight.  All the measurements are squarely in the 50th percentile.

The doctors visit went well, the immunizations and the blood draw for all the tests, not so much.

But we’ll get over it.

The big event of the day was lunch with Grandma Candy.  Grandma Candy is 98 years old and she is Genevieve’s great grandmother, my maternal grandmother.  (Grandma Candy got her name when my niece and nephew couldn’t pronounce Grandma McKinley).  My mother was there as well, so we had a ladies lunch with four generations.

Grandma Candy

Notice the green blanket on Grandma Candy’s lap?  She knit that for Genevieve.

Grandma Candy