Story last updated at 11:16 a.m. Thursday, July 11, 2002

Homesteaders keep holiday tradition alive
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Four generations of the Effler family pose in front of the family homestead during their annual Fourth of July reunion.  
While many in the Homer area celebrated the Fourth of July by waving flags and watching the parade, members of the Effler family celebrated with some traditions of their own, like hand-cranked peach ice cream, homemade root beer, a monstrous barbecue and their annual family reunion, held in the yard of Mim and Gene Effler's homestead cabin.

After all, to the Efflers, it's not just Independence Day, but the wedding anniversary of the couple that started it all back in 1947, when they eloped and moved to Alaska from Missouri.

Even 55 years later, Gene Effler said he can still remember his first glimpse of Kachemak Bay. A pilot, he first saw Homer when the DC-3 he was on couldn't touch down in Anchorage because of a massive wildfire burning on the Kenai Peninsula that had smoked out the airport. Instead, they flew into Homer.

"As we landed down in Homer, I saw the hillside with all the fireweed," Gene Effler said. "I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. I said, 'I've got to get a piece of that land.'"

It was two years before Effler, his wife and their first daughter, Linda, moved into the tiny one-room cabin off Fireweed Lane. Of course, back then, Fireweed Lane, not to mention East Hill Road, did not exist.

Getting to and from town meant a long walk down and up the hill until Gene created a rough trail big enough for his open-topped Jeep to pass through. The Jeep eventually proved particularly useful the second winter the family homesteaded on the land.

On Dec. 26, 1950, Mim Effler, pregnant with her third child, began having labor pains. Gene Effler said his wife woke him around 7 a.m. and said she was in labor, so he went up the hill to get the Jeep running. It was a cold morning for a ride in an open-topped Jeep with two small children, but with no one around, Gene said he was anxious to get his wife to Seldovia, where the nearest hospital was located.

As they got near their destination, Gene Effler remembers his wife's water broke.

"I said, 'Well, this is happening pretty fast,' and went and beat on the door (of pilot Tex Hickerson). I said, 'You've got to help me. My wife's having a baby.' As we walked down the stairs and rounded the corner, we could hear a baby crying. I just leaned up against the side of a building and said, 'Now where do we go?'"

Luckily, several women, including a local nurse, came to help Mim Effler and her premature son, Roy, who was born weighing only 4 pounds, 9 ounces. A few days later, mother and son were flown to an Anchorage hospital for care.

Around the same time, Gene Effler was offered a job flying for Alaska Airlines out of Anchorage, so the family moved home base to the big city. At that time, even Anchorage was a small town, Mim Effler said.

Each summer, however, they returned to their homestead in Homer. Since Gene Effler was away much of the time flying and guiding, Mim literally shouldered the burden of homesteading much on her own.

"It wasn't a big deal," Mim Effler, a slight woman with a quick smile, said modestly, adding that she preferred the hard work to working in an office, as she had in Anchorage. "When you are young, you can do a lot of work. I had big muscles back then."

Life wasn't easy, though. The family had to haul coal from the nearby ravine, carry water down the hill from the spring and with all the small children, Mim said she did an endless pile of laundry, by hand.

The hardest part about homesteading wasn't the physical labor, Mim said, but the loneliness she suffered when her husband was away. After flying in for a visit, Mim said she would sit at a spot on the hill with her children and watch her husband's plane ready for departure, sometimes for hours.

One day, she decided to give her husband a way to pinpoint their land from the air. She went down the hill with the oldest daughter, Linda, and dug up a bunch of young trees. She then planted them to spell out "Effler" on the hillside.

"I would say, 'That's my homestead' to the pilot as we flew over the land."

Gene Effler said he was proud to point out his homestead, but was also proud of the whole town. Among the first people he said he met when he came to town were the Kilchers, who traded him labor for the use of their horse to haul logs when they added on an addition to their home.

Linda Drummond, the Effler's eldest daughter, said her earliest memories are from the homestead cabin, picking berries with her mother, watching bears and moose ramble through the yard, and helping with the day-to-day chores.

"I remember my first Christmas here," she said, recalling the Christmas tree in the corner of the small cabin. "Oh, I thought it was so beautiful."

Both daughters said they are constantly amazed by the strength their parents had while homesteading on their land. The family crest has a wheel in the center of it, and, appropriately, their motto stands for "always on the go."

"They are such hard workers," she said. "They've always run circles around all of us."

Mim and Gene Effler said they had hoped their children, four in all, would settle someplace warm where they could visit on vacations. Gene Effler said he always offered his children tickets anywhere they wanted to go to see different parts of the world. But three of the four still live in Alaska, and that's not counting a mass of 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

"They all came back to Alaska," he said. "We couldn't get them to leave home."

Today, the Fourth of July barbecue is a massive reunion of family and friends, food and fun, with babies playing on the same lawn that Mim and Gene Effler's children rambled on in their youth.

Some things have changed, however. The one tree that was standing in the homestead yard, home to a long-lasting tire swing, was killed by spruce bark beetles recently, and other large trees now stand where there was only fireweed originally. A barn that used to house geese and goats is gone now. And, of course, there is a road lined with houses running to the cabin.

But Gene and Mim say they have ensured that their family can meet here for hundreds of years to come each Fourth of July by putting several acres of the homestead site in a land trust. The cabin stands today much as it did when Gene and Mim first called it home, with a wood stove in the center.

For Carolyn Gene Carfrae, the second oldest, who now lives in Seattle, coming home for the annual reunion always brings back sweet reminders of her childhood.

"Every time I come back, I see the beauty all over again. This is home, although I've lived in Seattle longer than I lived here. It brings back such wonderful memories," she said.