Old Town history survives in its buildings and stories
Editor’s note: In this two-part series, the Homer News looks at the history of Old Town and its roots as a cultural and economic center of historic Homer. Next week we’ll look at the changes planned for Old Town and its challenges.
South of the Sterling Highway between Ohlson Lane and Main Street, the historic neighborhood of Old Town has been going through a steady renaissance that started in the 1990s and has accelerated in the past few years. Pre-World War II buildings like the Old Inlet Trading Post and AJ’s Old Town Steakhouse and Tavern have been renovated. New buildings, including the Old Town Cottages and the Compass Rose Building, have gone up, their lines echoing the historic character of the area.
Businesses like the Old Inlet Bookshop and Two Sister’s Bakery have grown and expanded from their start in the Old Inlet Trading Post building. The Great Company Gallery, started by Kurt Marquardt and Jonni Whitmore, has become Bunnell Street Arts Center, one of Homer’s major arts organizations.
“We collectively became much better than all our parts,” said Bunnell executive director Asia Freeman of the businesses that have grown there. “It’s always been important to incubate that emerging creativity, bubbling up from below.”
More recently, Old Town has become revitalized through the creation of the Old Town Neighborhood Association, an organization of residents and business owners. Projects planned include:
• A Homer City Council appropriation of $98,500 to pave the Bishop’s Beach parking lot, improve pedestrian access and develop the Charles Way Trail;
• Through Bunnell Street Arts Center, Old Town ArtPlace will fund $10,000 in artistic improvements, starting with a fireweed mural on the Driftwood RV Park installed last month by artist Dan Coe.
• The Old Town Artist in Residence program will fund five residencies by artists in 2013 and 2014; and
• A people’s garden next to Bunnell Street Arts Center.
Stroll through Old Town on a pleasant fall evening, and it’s hard not to see the roots of the community. The Driftwood, AJ’s, the Old Inlet Trading Post (the building that houses Bunnell Street Arts Center) and the Old Inlet Bookshop all were built before World War II or earlier. Street names like Bunnell Avenue, Ohlson Lane and Jenny Lane — named after Homer pioneers Maybelle and Lloyd Bunnell, Henry Ohlson and Jenny Blatchford — reflect its history, too.
Blatchford, for example, was an Alaska Native woman from Golovin who moved to Homer after her husband and two sons disappeared while seal hunting.
“She was just a grand lady,” said Steve Walli, born in 1947 and the grandson of Ero and “Ma” Walli.
In Homer’s history, the settlement of Old Town marks a shift from the 19th century Homer Pennock era, when the city’s namesake and 50 others landed on the Spit with the Alaska Gold Company. The Cook Inlet Coal Fields Company also had a small mining town on the Spit from 1900 to 1902, but Spit life declined after that. Two Spit residents, Henry Ohlson and Delphina Woodard, had lived on the Spit in 1914 and later moved to the mainland Homer area.
The focus of Homer became the area near where most people and goods came in by boat, the mouth of Beluga Slough. Ohlson Lane ran from Pioneer Avenue down to the beach, past where it now ends at Main Street. Mail got sorted and delivered out of a small log cabin near the slough.
Bert and Inga Hansen built a store just uphill on Main Street from Bunnell Avenue — now the Old Inlet Book Shop and Mermaid Café. The Hansens later ran Homer’s first taxi company there. Their daughter, Larene “Tepa” Rogers, now 82, sometimes drove a cab for her dad at age 12.
Although construction of the Bypass in 1986 from Pioneer Avenue to Lake Street made an arbitrary border to Old Town, historically it already had a unique identity. The concentration of four pre-World War II buildings in one area — what’s now the Old Inlet Book Shop and Mermaid Café, Bunnell Street Arts Center, AJ’s Old Town Steakhouse and Tavern, and the Driftwood Inn — preserve that identity. Elsewhere, historic buildings are more spread out.
The name “Old Town” came about relatively recently. Freeman credits Marquardt with coining the term “Old Town” as a way to brand the growing artistic neighborhood after he bought the Inlet Trading Post building in 1990.
That building had previously been known as Berry’s, Bunnell’s, and Chamberlain and Watson’s. George and Jane Bishop, who ran the store and owned the building from 1955-1976, named it the Inlet Trading Post. Marquardt added the “old” to the building to distinguish it.
“I think it’s just something that organically grew out of everything that was going on down there,” Marquardt said of the name. “A lot of people, as I recall, referred to it as the older part of Homer.”
Pioneer Homer residents called Old Town “the Front Beach,” said Wilma Williams, now 88, the daughter of Tom Shelford, Homer postmaster from 1934 to 1940.
Walli’s daughter, Adrienne Sweeney, now owns AJ’s and the Driftwood Inn. He said Adrienne asked him once when the area became known as Old Town.
“I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I think it was after the Bypass came in,” Walli said. “I think it was called the Front Beach and then after the Anderson accident it was called the Anderson Beach and then it became Bishop’s Beach.”
Walli referred to a tragedy in 1934 when schoolteacher Marion Anderson drowned with her two daughters in a boat accident at the mouth of Beluga Slough.
Williams first came to the area as a baby in March 1926 with her parents, Tom and Nita Shelford, from Dallas, Ore., but lived in Oregon from about 1928 to 1941, when she returned to Kachemak Bay. Williams remembered her first tour of Homer at age 15 after she arrived on a boat and her dad met her at the Front Beach in his Ford Model A. They drove up Main Street past Berry’s, the name for the Old Inlet Trading Post then, and up the hill to Pioneer Avenue and the Walli’s Homer Cash Store, now the Homer Mercantile. The Shelfords lived in what’s now Kharacters Bar.
“I said to my dad, ‘Can we go to town sometime?’ and he said, ‘You just did,’” Williams said.
Tepa Rogers remembered sledding down Main Street. Called Sawmill Hill — Steve Walli remembers it as Sawmill Road — it ran straight to the beach.
“There wasn’t much traffic to speak of,” Rogers said. “The other part was we’d walk back up and do it again.”
The social life of Homer in the 1930s and 1940s centered around the Homer Women’s Club, which was located in what’s now AJ’s parking lot on Bunnell Avenue.
“The Women’s Club wanted it, and they conned their husbands into building it,” Williams said.
The Women’s Club functioned as the town meeting hall, for Sunday school and for the big Saturday night dances.
“The people would ski down off of the hill with their dance clothes in their backpacks and a baby in one of the backboards,” Williams said.
Men would stick bottles of liquor outside under the edge of the building and slip outside for a nip — something teenagers quickly figured out, Williams said.
“My dad said if he heard about me going outside at the dance hall, I couldn’t go anymore and I especially couldn’t take the truck,” she said. “I did behave myself after that.”
The Driftwood Inn dates back to about 1941, when L. Stock moved an old school house, built about 1930, to the site. A gravel contractor for the airport and Beluga Slough causeway project, Stock added on a bunkhouse for his workers. W.R. Benson, a later owner, added a house to the schoolhouse section, and built a fireplace of beach rock. He later added a third wing. All of the buildings were connected to become the Inlet Inn and then the Driftwood Inn.
The Driftwood Inn RV Park once was a potato field, Walli said, and the parking lot of the Elks Lodge was Sam Bell’s strawberry patch, Walli said.
“Us kids would raid his strawberry garden,” he said.
A little cabin across Ohlson Lane behind the Driftwood has a morbid history. The Ohlson Lane cabin probably was built in the 1930s or earlier, Janet Klein writes in “Celebrating Homer’s Buildings.” Sweeney and Walli said they heard several bodies were stored in the unheated cabin over the winter until graves could be dug after breakup.
Walli also said a World War I veteran was buried near the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
“When they built that new building for the feds, I was afraid they were going to dig him up,” Walli said.
Get people talking to Homer pioneers or their children about Old Town, and stories like that flow.
A reluctant teenager when she came to Homer at 15, Williams swore then she would leave this godforsaken ice box at her first opportunity. The sense of community that the renaissance of Old Town seeks to preserve is what kept Williams in Alaska.
“While I was saying I wasn’t going to stay in Alaska, I was falling in love with the country,” she said. “I may still leave. It’s only been 72 years.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Historic Old Town Buildings
• Hansen House, Bert and Inga Hansen’s store, Main Street and the Sterling Highway, now the Old Inlet Bookshop and Mermaid Café. Barged over from Yukon Island and rebuilt in early 1930s.
• Ohlson Lane Cabin, Ohlson Lane, probably built in 1930s.
• Homer Women’s Club, formerly on Bunnell Avenue in the AJ’s parking lot. Built about 1934 and later moved to Pioneer Avenue, it now houses Café Cups. The Homer News also had offices there.
• Homer Café and Club, Bunnell Avenue, became the Waterfront Bar, Duggan’s, and is now AJ’s Old Town Tavern and Steakhouse.
• Berry’s, Bunnell Avenue, became Bunnell’s, Chamberlain’s and Watson’s, the Inlet Trading Post and Bishop’s, and is now the Old Inlet Trading Post housing Bunnell Street Arts Center. Built in 1937 by Maybelle and Arthur Berry.
• Inlet Inn, now Driftwood Inn, built about 1941 by L. Stock from a relocated 1930s wood frame.
• Homer Post Office, built in 1927 on Tom Shelford’s homestead at what’s now Bishop’s Beach, also known as the Front Beach. Moved in the 1950s by Hazel and Ken Heath to Pioneer Avenue next to Alaska Wild Berry Products. Artist R.W. “Toby” Tyler had a gallery in the cabin, too.
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