The Seldovia of today is a quiet, remote Alaska community of fewer than 300 residents.There was a time, however, when Seldovia was anything but quiet.
The Seldovia Village Tribe Museum and Visitor Center is filled with reminders of a time that Alaska’s Native people from Kodiak, Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet used the area as a meeting and trading place. Exhibits call to mind Seldovia’s booming salmon, crab, clam, shrimp and herring industry offering employment for hundreds of people and drawing fishermen and their families to the area. Steamship arrivals and departures made it a crossroads for freight, mail and passengers. People in need of medical attention came by sea and air for treatment at Seldovia’s hospital. For those outside of Seldovia, it was a must-make visit for supplies needed to survive winter.
Seldovia was the place to be, the hub of activity, the center of attention.
Current residents including Fred Elvsaas remember the town’s heyday. Elvsaas was born in Seldovia in 1933, “about 200 feet from where I live now,” he said. Differences between today’s world and the era in which Elvsaas grew up are evident in his stories. It 1986 the state of Alaska issued him a birth registration card to make up for the birth certificate he never had. He was raised in a subsistence lifestyle that has become increasingly harder to maintain.
“If we were hungry, we went out and got food,” said Elvsaas, a board member of the Seldovia Native Association, of what was once acceptable and now a target of criticism.
“I was on the fish and game board … and guys were ranting and raving about Natives and subsistence. They said if we were going to really have subsistence, we should be out hunting with spears and bows and arrows, but there was an old guy from up north that said, ‘Well, I’ll be happy if I can see you going to town in a covered wagon,’” said Elvsaas, laughing.
“Self-sufficient” was how Elvsaas described Seldovia’s earlier residents. “They didn’t need government jobs, didn’t need welfare, all that stuff. There was none. There was credit in the store and that was it.”
In 1945, then 4-year-old Mike Miller moved to Seldovia with his family.
“My dad was a bush pilot and the first one to fly out of here, to establish an airline between here and Port Graham and English Bay,” said Miller. “He flew all on floats in those days because there was no air strip — not even in Homer.”
That pioneering business opportunity drew competition.
“He was charging $8 roundtrip between here and Homer and another company cut it down to $6 and he couldn’t make it at $6,” said Miller.
After the death of his father, the family moved out of state, but Miller returned to Seldovia in 1975.
About the time the Miller family was settling in Seldovia, Lois Allen wrote “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” considered the first tour guide to the area.
“Seldovia is the second largest town on (the) Kenai Peninsula,” wrote Allen of the “busy, thriving town with numerous stores, a modern hospital, good schools, two churches — Russian and Methodist — a moving picture house, hotels, public water system and electricity.” The largest community was Seward.
Records from the Kenai Peninsula Borough indicate the Seldovia area had a population of 378 in 1930. Ten years later, the number had grown to 980. By 1950, it was recorded at 701.
Into this busy community came brothers Pierre and Tuggle Int-Hout in 1946.
“I had an uncle that was up here in 1917, during World War I, and he used to tell us some wild stories,” said Pierre Int-Hout. “My brother and I came up to see if it was true.”
In 1952, Tuggle Int-Hout’s bride-to-be, Ester, followed him to Seldovia. Her plane ride from Anchorage to Homer left a lasting impression.
“We were flying along and it was snowing and nasty. He (the pilot) said, ‘Can you see anything?’ and I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Don’t feel bad, I can’t either,’” she said.
Marrying a fisherman proved challenging.
“He had four boats that he built,” she said. “A mistress would have been easier to handle than those boats.”
After Tuggle Int-Hout died, Ester Int-Hout remained in Seldovia. “I think I’m blessed to be here,” she said.
Christine Kashevarof moved to Seldovia with her parents in 1947.
“My mother was born and raised here,” said Kashevarof. “Her family came here in the early 1900s from Kenai.”
She married her husband, Frank, a fisherman, in 1963. They lived in Anchorage for a time, “but this is home. Grandma left me some property and we built a little place. You always come back to your roots,” Kashevarof said.
Originally from Port Graham, Lillian Elvsaas, her siblings and parents would temporarily relocate to Seldovia every year beginning in the 1950s, after the Port Graham cannery burned down. The family moved to Seldovia in the spring for fishing season — her father was a commercial fisherman and her mother worked in the canneries — and returned to Port Graham in the fall.
She and her brother, Richard Moonin, have fond memories of those summers, especially the time they lived in a tent because there was no place to rent. With their mom working and their dad fishing, the youngsters were “by ourselves all the time. We were everywhere. Those days, you mingled with everybody. It was such a great experience for us village kids. We were in heaven,” said Lillian Elvsaas.
Darlene Crawford, who first came to Seldovia in 1957, remembered how important fishing was to the community and at least one heated argument over fish prices.
“The fishermen almost came to blows whether to have king crab at 8 cents or 10 cents a pound,” she said.
There were elements of the fishing industry that weren’t so pleasant.
“When the season started it wasn’t bad, but when you got into the season and the machinery was all coated, there was a terrible smell, so bad it would almost knock you off your feet,” said Miller.
Add to that the lack of a septic system, and there were certain times of the tide that weren’t so pleasant.
“Also, we didn’t have a dump and we threw garbage into the slough and the tide would take it out,” said Crawford, who was surprised when someone gave her a Time Life book about ecology. “I looked in it and people were saving the world, and here we were throwing garbage in the slough. We’d never heard of ecology.”
Fishing was Seldovia’s principal industry, but the sea otter fur trade also made its mark on the area, a fox farm was in operation and the Hill Crest Fur Farm raised mink. The Alaska Commercial and the Northern Commercial trading companies had a presence. The docks were busy with arrivals and departures of the Alaska Steamship Company. There was chrome mining in the Red Mountain area. And there was logging.
In the 1930s, an eight-foot-wide boardwalk was constructed as Seldovia’s main thoroughfare, an improvement over the previous four-foot-wide boardwalk.
In 1945, Seldovia incorporated as a second-class city. In 1956, it re-incorporated as a first-class city.
Frequent get-togethers among residents were a cause to put on your finest. Lillian Elvsaas recalled the suits and ties, fancy dresses and hairdos that such events inspired. Seldovia’s close-knit side was evident whenever someone needed help. In fact, that’s what gave rise to a certain Olympia beer bottle’s fame.
“Many, many years ago they were raising money for the fire hall or something, and someone said, ‘What am I bid for this bottle?’ and that started it,” said Miller of what has become a repeated performance with the same bottle being used year after year. “I think the highest it ever went for was $7,000 for someone’s leg operation.”
Behind the scenes, however, forces were gathering that could drastically change the community. Construction of the Sterling Highway and the 1964 Alaska earthquake to name two. The impact of those changes were summed up by Fred Elvsaas.
“The only thing you can point out in Seldovia that’s from the old days is the church,” he said, referring to the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church that was originally built in 1891. “That’s about it. There’s not much of the old town left. And there’s nothing left of the old ways.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.