Recollections
of
Growing Up in Alaska
1938 to 1951

John Linn Ragle recalls: I remember very little of this trip. It started with my father, Richard C. Ragle, who had accepted an Instructorship in Geology at the University of Alaska for the Fall Semester of 1938, and my mother, Jane Hulbert Ragle, who was to have her first taste of frontier living, having grown up in civilization: Chicago, IL. We went by automobile from Colorado Springs, CO and continued by steamship, most likely from Seattle. I recall nothing of the road trip.

On board the ship was another small boy about my age, whose name was Roland. He showed me how to color successfully inside the lines of coloring books by first stroking parallel to the boundaries to cover up the occasional slip. Roland and I also ran around the ship until one of the crew told us to "stop, or I'll throw you overboard." I remember being terribly frightened by this threat, and running for help.

I remember the fact that it was raining hard when we docked in Ketchikan. This is not an unusual circumstance for that area. The remaining part of the trip up the "Inside Passage" is a blank. I also dimly remember being very seasick when we finally hit the rough, open water of the Gulf, and being given some gargantuan white discoidal pills "to make me feel better." I don't remember disembarking in Valdez, nor do I remember much about the drive up the Richardson  Highway. The drive took us 3 days to complete through a morass of corduroy and dirt road. I do remember being allowed to walk ahead of the car on the dirt road; I was not a good traveller, and walking gave me a chance to settle my stomach and my parents a chance to take a cigarette break. My recollection of the road is that it was narrow, somewhat overhung with the small trees that grow in the flats in central Alaska, and very very lonely. I would get worried if the car and my parents didn't come along in a timely fashion. Having since seen grizzlies taking small game along this road, I am doubtful if dad and mom appreciated the danger in which they were placing me. Fortunately the bears were full of berries or salmon and had other things on their minds.

We travelled in our 1938 Studebaker sedan, accompained by a Travel Folder on which Jane made note of our progress. We left Valdez at 2:45 on Sept. 30, 1938, and spent that night at Tonsina Lodge, mile 80 on the Richardson.


Tonsina Lodge as it is today (2006)

The next day we made it to Sourdough Roadhouse (mile 150) by noon, then to Paxson Lodge (mile 191) by 3:30. We had lunch there, then continued on. Rapids Roadhouse is at mile 233 and is notated "6:25" on the next page. This might be our arrival time, PM, but is more likely to have been our departure time, AM, the next morning; the distance between Paxson's and Rapids is not sufficient to account for 6 hours of travel time.

The Rapids Roadhouse figures in my later experiences during my mid-teen years. A friend and I travelled to a point on the southern portion of the Richardson Highway in mid-summer for fishing on at least two occasions, once by motorcycle, and once in his pickup truck. On the former occasion we were overtaken by a mountain snowstorm just north of the Rapids Roadhouse and sought shelter there. I have attached a picture indicating the rustic nature of this place. This picture was taken from a web site, URL http://www.blackrapids.org/index.htm, which gives some detail about this interesting and historical location. Although the picture was taken in 1920, the aspect had changed very little by 1946 or 1947. In the '40's the "Black Rapids International Airport" was a gravel strip running parallel to the highway and to the left background, and the famous "galloping glacier" had its snout across the river facing the front of the lodge. In the '40's this glacier threatened momentarily to overwhelm both the road and lodge. At the present time, the old Roadhouse has fallen in, and when we stopped by car a few years back, we were chased away by the occupant of a nearby house. A modern edifice has been constructed on a site nearby.

I don't remember our arrival in Fairbanks, but it would have been October 2 or 3, 1938. My sister Ann was born not long after our arrival, on Halloween, 1938. The first few months in the town were probably difficult for everyone. I remember our first house very well...510 Eighth Avenue...a whitewashed log cabin with chinking, which was partially sunken into the permafrost, with a dirt basement and some sort of antiquated heating system. During that winter, I remember Dad throwing open the front door and clouds of steam rolling out into the -50 or -60 degree winter weather. The basement had what was for a small boy a fairly fascinating device in one corner: a sump pump with a float, whose occupation was to keep the lowlands free from groundwater. The house itself was close to the school, a walk of a few hundred feet, but my parents had the idea that my little-boy legs would freeze on the walk to school, and insisted that I wear heavy mid-thigh stockings, which I donned by first rolling up, then unrolling "in situ." However, my worry was not about freezing, but about the embarassment which would obtain if my classmates found out that I was wearing these horrors. Fortunately there was no question about the suitability of long pants. At that time there were few paved streets in the town, and the main street, Cushman, was paved from the river to about 5th avenue. The town itself ended to the south, at 12th St. and the old Richardson Highway.

The elder Ragles had entered their Polar exile armed with the latest information on healthful living in a Polar climate, and I soon learned to love the taste of Cod Liver Oil. We had a sun lamp which was supposed to be used to activate the Vitamin D precursors, and I remember sitting in its glare with goggles on. That sun lamp persisted around the house until the late 1940's, though more as a nuisance than a lamp. I think its power cord finally got cannibalized for something else.

We shortly moved from 8th Avenue to the southeast edge of town, a house at 1203 Noble Street, near the old Richardson Highway. It was a wonderful place at times. In the spring, there was 6 feet of (ice-) water in the ditch alongside the street, and Dad made me a raft to fall off of. Down the street to the south was the Kasantras sawmill, run by a Greek gentleman whose wife and two boys were in Nazi hands. We used to climb the sawdust flume and jump into the sawdust piles. Across the street was another fascinating place, the home of Al (?) Lewis, a radio amateur who provided rare Alaskan DX for hams in the states. Though this hobby later claimed my interest and repaid my devotion in spades, at this point I remember chiefly the antenna farm and my father's scorn for this man who spent most of his spare time pursuing his hobby.

The house on Noble Street afforded enough room for several 'amenities' of living: a woodpile, a backyard for a doghouse, a garage. Wood was brought in au naturel, sawed in place by a one-armed sawyer and his helper using an old car chassis with a belt-driven circular saw blade and cradle mounted on the rear. After the wood was sawn, it was, in principle, split with a wedge and a maul. Dad enjoyed this until a mis-hit drove a piece of shrapnel from the wedge into his thigh. When war broke out, Dad was away, and at age 8 it became my job to toss the wood down the wood chute so that Mom could keep the pipes from freezing during the day. To this day I dislike birch logs...the durn things were so heavy I could barely get them tipped over the edge of the chute. I remember that I was tardy almost every day at school, and that the class tittered when I came in. But the teacher excused all.

Living at the edge of town in a commodious house meant that Squire Ragle could join the hunt to fill the family larder. In the fall of 1940 or 1941 Dad bagged three of the youngest, healthiest, buck Caribou that he could manage. These were brought home and hung in the large outdoor freezer [the garage], where they spent the winter convincing him and all of us of the nature of his tactical error in picking the creme of the crop. 'Tough' was a serious understatement. When mud season came around, Dad quietly buried the remains in the back yard. They took a big hole. Live and learn.

Dad was always a 'dog person.' Living in suburbia on Noble Street gave him his first opportunity to keep a real Alaskan sled dog. They were called, collectively, 'King,' for, you see, Dad was a lifetime skeptic of the medical profession, either canine or otherwise. Distemper is not a pretty disease to watch, but shots were out of the question. The Germans have a word for it: "Abhaertung." A reasonable translation would be "Toughening Up." In this case it was "Survive or Die." By the time I left for UC-Berkeley in 1951, the experiment had run its course and the dogs in the Ragle family were given distemper shots.

By this time, Richard Ragle had put his pilot's training to good use. He occupied sequentially two sites on Weeks Field, the municipal "airport," a gravel strip (summers) running from Gillam Way and ending in the town dump. The first of the sites was at the east end of the runway, off Gillam Way, and the second was about midway along the north edge of the runway at the end of a skid road bulldozed through the brush. In the latter, the installation consisted of a couple of "wanigans" on skids, one of which was arranged so that the nose or engine nacelle of a plane could be brought inside for the necessary, frequent, maintenance required by propeller-driven planes. The other wanigan was used for ground-school operations. The skid road was called Ragle Road until the town filled it with gravel to above the Plimsol line and people started building residences along its banks. It has long since been swallowed up in the surge of recent urban development, perhaps as a part of Lathrop St.

A few thoughts are in order about flying in Alaska at that time. Snow happens. Flying when there is snow on the ground is not a problem, but the landing and taking-off operations require skis. Skis don't have brakes. In the pre-mud season, skis may freeze down. In the mud season, skis work better than wheels, but their characteristics are altered somewhat. I remember at some point in late grade-school when a sizeable fraction of the town gathered to cheer on one of the local bush pilots, perhaps one of the Dodsons or Gillam or Reeves, as he brought in a plane from the north country (where there was snow) to Fairbanks, where there was just mud. He landed on skis on a portion of the strip set aside specifically for that purpose: no gravel, just grass and willow that had been mowed. Successfully. By then, WW II was nearly over, and so we have gotten ahead of ourselves in this story.

The Ragle flying school and Air Service on Weeks Field continued during 1940 and early 1941 with a Federal Grant through the University of Alaska for pilot training, and some 50 pilots graduated via this effort. At some point during this interval, the Ragle family moved from 1203 Noble St. on the southeast edge of town to 910 Cowles St. on the southwest side, mid-way along the air field. Pictures of the new abode are shown at the end of this article. On December 7, 1941 I was playing with Greimann children Malcolm and Willis in the basement of their house, probably with Reynold Johnson. We were playing war games. Paul Jr., the oldest Greimann son, was patiently making "weapons" for us out of discarded shiplap or 1x6 stock. The elders of the family were sitting upstairs around the console radio in the living room, listening to the news. In those days, KFAR, a local AM station, had just come into existence, so the Greimanns might have been listening to shortwave from the states. As the bad news became apparent, the kids downstairs were gently told to go home. I can remember going home in the deepening twilight and finding mom and dad listening to shortwave by candlelight in the dining nook of our new house. In those days we still received fresh bottled milk from either Bentley's or Creamer's dairy, and I clearly recall having frozen milk for dinner. I don't recall much about the disposition of the Ragle flying school at that time. I do remember in 1943 or 1944 a session at the fireplace at which my father burned all non-essential records of the operation. The dream of a family-owned air service died with the Japanese attack, though dad flew commercially in the summers after the war's end.

Some time in 1942, probably after early June, it became apparent to the US Military that if the Japanese counterpart knew the true state of our northern defenses, they would occupy Alaska and most of the intervening Canadian coast-line from their toe-hold on Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian chain. Fortunately the Japanese were in complete ignorance of the state of affairs, but the threat led to the evacuation of military dependents from Alaska, and my sister Ann and I were sent to live with Grandma Ragle in Colorado Springs. I remember little of the trip. From Fairbanks down through Whitehorse, Prince Rupert (?), Seattle by DC-3 or Lockheed Electra, thence to Portland where we stayed with relatives for one or more nights. I would very much like to know who these relatives were -- my thought is that it might have been someone in the Keck family, or in the Toon family. At that time our Keck relatives ran a lumber business in Portland -- but I have not been able to learn more. Grandma Ragle met us in Portland, and we went by train to Cheyenne and thence to Denver and Colorado Springs. In this trip, there was also another Ragle relative helping Grandma Ragle, perhaps someone from the Buss or Cleese family, but again I have not been able to learn more.

I attended 5th grade at Steele Elementary School, a few blocks from the home of Horace and Carrie Ragle. This is the same school attended by my father, Richard. My sister Ann presumably also attended school in the Springs, but I have no information or recollection of that. I remember little vignettes from this stay: Rocky Mountain thunderstorms filling the streets with hail and rain in a few minutes, summer's heat making the asphalt soft, the smell of the air after a storm, the ubiquitous presence of horned lizards, picking up fossils in the crushed limestone fill in the alley behind the house, picnics in the Austin Bluffs area, now a prime residential area, waving to the locomotive engineers at the railroad crossing down the street, the furtive presence of Aunt Minnie (Minnie Belle Davis, Grandma Ragle's older sister, a "dishonored woman") in the house, and the bright spots -- the neighbors: Fred and Elizabeth next door, and the Giddings family two houses down. The prime attraction in the Giddings' yard was their apple tree orchard, but cousin Freddie's wife Elizabeth in particular provided a missing mother, and our relationship continued strong and close to her death in January, 2004.

My aunt Mildred Ragle (my father's sister)and her son Richard visited during this stay. They had lived in Kuala-Lumpur, in what was then Malaya, while husband Stew (William Dempsey Stewart) worked in the rubber industry, but the Japanese occupation of that area moved them to Akron, Ohio. Stew was a Ph.D. organic chemist much involved in the development of synthetic rubber, while Mildred had taken a Master's degree in Botany.

Eventually it was realized that the Japanese thrust in the Aleutians was diversionary in nature and was going nowhere, and time came for us to return to Fairbanks. Dad picked us up in a car specifically bought for the trip from Colorado Springs to Edmonton, and we drove due north through a very interesting countryside. By that time I had become very aware of externals and soaked up the sights: the active oil wells and the countryside. It was a long trip, and the one negative aspect of it turned on Wrigley's Spearmint Gum. Somehow Dad had obtained a whole carton of packs for us, a treasure trove in the war years, and this treasure reposed in the glove compartment of the car. It lived there in the company of several tins of lighter fluid, one or more of which leaked, and so to this day I associate spearmint gum with the taste of lighter fluid.

We arrived in Edmonton and stayed in a real hotel while Dad sold the car. I can remember visiting the Hudson's Bay Company store with him, and the red carpeting of the hotel, but not much else. Eventually, we caught a MATS flight headed for Ladd Field, now Fort Wainwright, in Fairbanks. Comfort was not an item on this flight, as the "passenger" cabin was neither pressurized, soundproofed, nor heated. We made the trip either sitting or lying on the fold-down bucket seats meant for troop transport, with heavy machinery tied down in the center of the fuselage. One of my recollections is of the fact that the pilot flew for what seemed like several hours with his engines out of synch. This really 'beat' us up, and I was airsick most of the way. In those days, such flight was below or in the tropopause.

Arrival in Fairbanks brought special experiences: a renewal of special friendships with Reynold Johnson, Jim Moody, and a few others, and meeting my new sister Margaret. A picture of the house is given below:

910 Cowles Street, Fairbanks, Late Spring 1949

This is the final Ragle family residence in Fairbanks, at 910 Cowles St. The house was built by Al Grabb and was a magnificent realization of the log cabin, with 4 bedrooms, a bath, a large living room with a heroic fireplace, a dining nook, and a kitchen, all in log/knotty pine/hammered wrought iron. It still stands, but is now hemmed in by high-density urban growth. At the time, it stood on the north edge of the municipal airport, and one could easily walk to the forest primeval and the swamps in the meander plain of the Tanana River south of town.

The house had a full basement, a terrace outside for sledding in the winter, a commanding view of the Pan American Airways hanger and apron across a little slough with a quaint bridge. This slough filled alarmingly with water in the mud season, and if the Chena River suffered an ice dam at breakup time, the water rose quite high. In the flood of Spring 1949, water was prevented from entering the basement by the large TVA project at the mouth of the below-grade part of the driveway. This dam was about 40 feet long and broad enough on the top so that two wheelbarrows could pass (and frequently did). It was constructed in a frenzy in about 8 hours time, with important contributions from kids passing on their way to school (Tom Sawyer's fence?)...but the dam thing took a summer to remove. It is visible in both pictures but is more obvious in the first one.

"Mud Season" Early Spring 1949.

The object in the right lower foreground is the tip of a paddle, and the picture is taken from an 8-man rubber liferaft outfitted with a small trolling motor. Ragle scions and friends toured the canal system in lower Fairbanks to see how others were coping with the humidity.

With the completion of High School in Fairbanks, my part of this story runs out. After a successful freshman year at the University of Alaska, I left home in late August of 1951 to attend UC Berkeley. I saw Mom briefly in 1954, Dad in 1956, and then visited in 1963 and 1967. When Mom and Dad moved to Hawaii, I visited them, and then visited Dad once more in Walnut Creek, California just after Mom died.

Details of the period after about 1948 should be filled in by one or another of my siblings. The family moved from Fairbanks to Anchorage in the dead of winter 1955/1956, and eventually settled in a house overlooking one of the small lakes in the Anchorage area. This lake was just large enough, when the wind was right, to permit the landing and take-off of a small float plane, a Luscombe Model 8E, S/N 6537.

The lake also provided endless hours of water-skiing and other aquatic recreation for family and friends, and was so much envied by the populace of the area that it was finally taken from our family by Right of Eminent Domain. The Borough of Anchorage bulldozed the house and built a squalid 5-car dirt parking lot on the space gained by razing the property, so that the populace could use the sandy beach that my father built, trailer after trailer load, on the lake shore.

6200 Jewel Lake Road, Anchorage





The author, on a windy summer day,
Hadley, MA, 2001