• As a “migration” tale, an Alaska homesteading story takes on new significance
By Naomi Klouda
In the spring of 1954, George Harbeson Sr. applied for an Alaska teaching post and found one in Wasilla. The salary was $4,940 a year. The Harbeson family, composed of George, mother Katherine, aunt Louise, sister Lee Anna and brothers, Richard and George Jr., set off across country and then Canada in a new 1954 Chevy Carryall.
And so sets the journey of George Harbeson Jr.’s book, “Homesteaders in the Headlights,” a non-fiction book about an Alaska family who endured the challenges and reaped the rewards of a rural life. One doesn’t tend to think of a move from the Lower 48 to the territory of Alaska as a “migration,” but that is exactly what intrigued the judges who named Harbeson’s book, “Best Migration Memoir.” The award was recently announced by the Bay Area Independent Publisher Association.
And it makes sense, Harbeson reasons. “I guess we did migrate because we never went back to New Jersey to live.”
Jackie Pels of Hardscratch Press, which published Harbeson’s book, said the Migration Memoir Award recognizes the power and uniqueness of Harbeson’s recounting.
“I’m personally obsessed with the importance of getting what I call real people’s history set down before the stories are gone, in whatever format,” Pels said. “But George Harbeson isn’t just a recorder — he’s a writer. Working with him was such a pleasure for me as editor. He and designer David Johnson and I all had the same aim, and the BAIPA award tells us that we reached our goal: a setting worthy of George’s father’s own powerful story as well as the family tales, from poignant to hilarious, that George Jr. tells so affectionately and well.”
Like is dad, Harbeson became a teacher, working 15 years in the villages of Selawik, Kivalina, Norvik, Emmonak and Alukanuk, prior to moving to Ninilchik where he commuted to Chapman Elementary. He completed a Master of Fine Arts Degree in creative writing, fiction, from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1990. While considering writing a story about his school-teacher father, a civic minded intellectual homesteader, he came across more than 100 pages of handwritten notes from his dad that recounted his youth on a New Jersey farm and other remembrances.
“A lot of what he detailed was about everyday life while he was growing up in the Great Depression. I was surprised that some of his experiences matched what we went through in Alaska,” Harbeson said. He incorporated his dad’s notes into his own work, and “it was like he was writing it with me.”
The family homestead is still there for George, Richard and Lee Anna, a 32-acre spread on hayflats at Knik, around which grew a burgeoning section of Wasilla in the expansion of infrastructure at MacKenzie, such as a new ferry system and prison recently complete. But at the time Harbeson depicts in the 1950s-1960s, Wasilla consisted of Main Street and its railroad tracks, a tight-knit community of families and a lot of wildlife that walk across the landscape of his memoir.
Understanding the homesteading story in light of a migration adds a new dimension to what Alaska readers perceive in such stories: it anchors the tale in an explanation for why they form an important piece of understanding Alaska stories as strangers in a new land where they literally had to adapt to new tools and language. Katherine and George Sr.’s experiences, from living in their first home and its gaps in the logs that let cold into the building of their own homestead house depict how life depended on their individual and collective efforts. Invention was the key.
After the 1964 earthquake, the family sets to building a log home atop their basement at the homestead. “We hauled cottonwood logs from a mill located on the hill out of Palmer. We used Hal Post’s ‘47 Ford flatbed, which we owned, for the job. In raising the logs, we used a brace and bit to sink holes into the log below to help steady the wall. One nasty job Mom took on was to strip the bark off the raw logs with a draw knife and chisel, and she scrubbed the mildew off them after they had sat for a time awaiting installation. She used rubber gloves, Clorox bleach, and brushes, and I imagine the bleach wasn’t healthy for her skin or lungs.”
It was with relief when they finally moved into a “real house.” “No more piles of wood stacked in our kitchen or curtained-off rooms. No more leaky flat roof, frosty block walls and cold dim interiors. And the view from the higher, larger windows of the house was spectacular.”
Katherine is rewarded for her hardships that summer in an added amenity. As an artist, she wanted a place of her own. Dad and George Jr. were given a cabin-shed which they sawed in half and towed to the homestead. They poured concrete pilings and “stitched” the cabin together atop the foundation. This was mom’s retreat, becoming a place for her to paint and host tea parties for her friends.
Harbeson’s book is loaded with hundreds of these little stories that form, all together, a richly detailed record of innovative lives. He tells them with respect and filial reverence, and the result is a peaceful meditative read of an age that seems far more innocent than today.
The book also contains a lengthy index section of names of people who lived in the valley, including other pioneers, which should prove useful for historians.
“Homesteader in the Headlights” is available at the Homer Bookstore.
Harbeson gives a book signing at the Pratt Museum June 18 from 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
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