Story last updated at 6:42 p.m. Thursday, December 26, 2002

Homesteader remembers early holidays
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news

"I have a feeling that the real Christmas spirit is a basic loving, compassionate awareness." - Margret Pate  
Today, Christmas in Homer may be a tad less slick and fast-passed than in the big cities, but the hectic hubbub of American holidays has certainly snuck in. Jingles fill the radio airwaves, while advertisements for the latest, greatest toy make it to the Cosmic Hamlet.

Different days, however, were not that long ago, when holidays were filled with more simple pleasures: a play, a stick of candy, carolers.

And always, Homer's exceptional spirit of giving.

Margret Pate, who moved to Homer with her husband, John, and children Patty and Mike in the '50s, remembers these Christmases well.

Pate, now in her 90s, said the first few years after the family moved from Anchorage to Homer were lean times, with John working odd jobs. Even so, Christmas was special.

"None of us had any money to do very much," Pate said. "I remember decorating the cabin and having people in, but we just didn't have the money to splurge."

Even in those challenging early days, Pate said, she remembers wanting to help others who were worse off than her family. The trick, however, was finding out who those people were.

A newcomer to Homer, Pate said she didn't know people all that well at first. And while she knew there were families who needed a helping hand, those who needed the help the most were often the quietest about it.

"It was hard to find someone you could help without treading on toes," she said.

Eventually, a friend told her about a family who needed clothes, and Pate was finally able to help someone else in the community, even though she never knew the family herself.

The early days in Homer were, as Pate put it with a slight tone of sarcasm, "strange and wonderful." The road to Homer left much to be desired, especially the Baycrest Hill area. The family had been relatively settled in Anchorage by the time John became interested in Homer, and Pate remembers being slightly less than enthusiastic initially about the venture south.

"I was quite content where we were," she said.

Pate and her husband first settled in town, not eager to homestead. But within a few years, the urge to own land overcame the family, and they took on the task of homesteading an 80-acre piece of property through which the Sterling Highway now runs outside of town.

Pate said each summer, she and the children would take on the task of making the required improvements to the property, as John often had to work out of town.

"My mother had mentioned that homesteading was not that fun, but I always wanted to have a piece of land," Pate said.

In addition to homesteading, Pate worked various jobs, including office and accounting work for a local oil company. Eventually, the family opened Pate Insurance.

Perhaps the most interesting job she held, however, was as the U.S. commissioner for Homer, a catch-all title for misdemeanor judge, legal secretary, and even a coroner of sorts. Pate said she didn't have much interest in dealing with corpses, but luckily, Homer stayed healthy the year she held the job.

Being the town's commissioner, however, put her in an interesting hear-it-all position. One time, a homesteader from the Diamond Ridge area came to the office in a snit with another fellow who was driving across his property. Pate said the man told her he had stopped by to let her know he was going to shoot the man.

"I told him (the authorities) might take a dim view of that," Pate said, laughing.

The man thought about it a while, then said he would set up a target practice across the area the man was driving. If the man happened to drive across while he was shooting, well that was just too bad.

"Luckily, he never did that," Pate said.

While Homer was a tough place to eke out a living in the early days, with many men working out of town, it still supported what could be considered a lively artistic scene for those days.

"To me, that was the most unexpected part about Homer," Pate said.

A group of people put on skits, often around Christmastime, Pate said. The first time she saw one, she was surprised at the normally proper, businesslike folks who took the stage.

While the arts scene added to the Christmas cheer, Pate said, a community awareness and spirit, which she said she sees in the town today, was present back in the early days as well.

When the mother of two small children who lived across the street became seriously ill and had to go to Anchorage, Pate said she offered to help take care of the children for the family.

"The husband said, 'Margret, these kids have a dozen sets of parents in this town.' The last thing he was worried about was leaving two kids at home. I would have had to stand in line to take care of those kids," she said.

Pate said while the pile of gifts under the tree was certainly smaller in the early days, the children still were excited about the holidays. Schools had Christmas shows, and there was caroling in the streets. Still, the ambience was different than today.

"The kids had no big expectations," she said. "They were not expecting to have a pony or a dirt bike. But there was making candy and popcorn, and I think there was a level of excitement."

Pate's own memories of Christmas as a child are equally simple. While food was plentiful for the farming family, gifts were usually handmade. Her father would carve small trinkets out of wood, and her mother would make clothing. When times were good, a single store-bought gift might appear in their stockings, like a simple ring with her initials on it, or a stick of hard candy.

Pate said she thinks her family, even her young grandchildren, maintain that sense of the true value of the Christmas spirit, volunteering for Share the Spirit and showing compassion for those who have less.

"I am greatly blessed that both families are generous and giving. I have a feeling that the real Christmas spirit is a basic loving, compassionate awareness," Pate said. "To me, that's the most valuable thing that I feel both children (and grandchildren) have."

Carey James can be reached at cjames@homer