GUSTAVUS, Alaska — On a June day one hundred years ago, three honeymooning couples arrived on the shores of the Salmon River in Gustavus, then known as Strawberry Point. They put up tents and got to work building a four-room cabin - one room for each couple, and one for everyone together.
"Their parents thought they were crazy," said Judy Wackerbarth, the last living child of one of the couples, Verne and Janet "Janie" Henry. "They lived in a tent. They cooked pancakes over a fire. It sizzled in the rain."
But one hundred years later, Gustavus residents - both descendants of later homesteaders and those who arrived on their own decades ago or more recently - still feel its allure. What it comes down to, whether Gustavus has a population of six or six hundred, is the people, they said.
Saturday, June 28 was the recent of that first arrival, Wackerbarth said. Residents and visitors gathered for a Centennial celebration that included some never-before-seen-in-Gustavus activities like chainsaw tossing, watermelon seed spitting and log rolling. The weekend also included the dedication of a memorial to the victims of a 1957 plane crash and the residents who helped the survivors, the dedication of a monument and bell tower to the community, tours of old homesteads, a pancake breakfast and more.
Lee Parker, the Director of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities, along with his wife, Linda, the historical archives' "everything-doer," hosted much of the celebration at their property on the Salmon River, right around where those three honeymooning couples landed. They planned the event for more than a year. In between ice-cream sundaes and beard contest watching, the Capital City Weekly spoke to long-time and short-time residents, as well as homesteaders' descendants, about how the town has changed - or not.
The three couples - Verne and Janet "Janie" Henry, Bill and Margaret Taggert and John and Bernice Davis - didn't stay at Strawberry Point long. All three women got pregnant quickly, which complicated matters.
It wasn't children, however, that led Verne and Janet "Janie" Henry, the last remaining couple of the three, to leave Strawberry Point, said Wackerbarth, who arrived in Gustavus with her daughter Susan especially for the Centennial.
Her father had heard about Strawberry Point while a student in Washington. He convinced two friends to come with him, and they scouted out a location for a settlement, she said. Then they convinced their significant others to come with them.
Her parents traveled from Seattle to Alaska and were married in Juneau in a Presbyterian minister's living room on June 26, 1914, she said. Two days later, they, the Davis' and the Taggerts arrived in Strawberry Point.
"They needed more courage than they ever thought they had," she said.
None of the couples had any experience building, but they worked out a system. The men chopped down the trees. The women chinked them and stuffed them with moss. After they finished the cabin in time for winter, they'd have parties on Saturday nights, Wackerbarth said. They'd play music and dance. One of their favorite songs was "When you're all dressed up and no place to go."
Times were different then in more ways than one: eagles were seen as threatening pests, and there was a bounty on them. Verne Henry shot one, and after Janie plucked off the feathers and removed the talons, she was struck by how much it looked like a turkey. So she put it in the oven.
She cooked it for three days, but every time she tried, she couldn't puncture it with a fork. So after three days in the oven, she decided to boil it. Apparently, this unconventional cooking method worked.
"She said it tasted just like chicken," Wackerbarth said.
The Henrys built a house for themselves and filed for a homestead. A surveyor came from Juneau and stayed for a month surveying the property.
But in 1918, when they tried to complete the process, they got two pieces of bad news, Wackerbarth said. The first was that the surveyor had made a mistake, and their homestead application had not been approved.
The second was that the ship carrying their rutabaga crop, which was what the couple was counting on to sustain them, had sunk.
"That was the end of their homestead dream," Wackerbarth said. "They couldn't afford to come back. It was heartbreaking."
The Parkers arrived soon after the honeymooning couples, in 1917, said descendants Lee and Rex Parker.
The Parkers' grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Parker, homesteaded. Once they came of age, each of his four sons was expected to homestead. Lee and Rex grew up hearing stories about it.
Part of the land his father, Leslie Franklin Parker, homesteaded now belongs to the historical archives. It's where the cemetery, monument and bell tower, and plane crash memorial are now located.
"My uncles and my dad were big storytellers," Lee Parker said. "That's something we've tried to recreate on the (Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities) website."
Rex, who, with his wife, Bernie, was in Gustavus from Arizona to play music at the celebration, said the family mostly went to school in Seattle but would go to their father's cabin in Gustavus during the summer. The biggest entertainment, he said, was once a week when Alaska Coastal brought a movie.
"The fun of it was community," he said. "Everybody knows everybody."
"Mostly who was living here at that time was just family," Lee Parker said. "Now, it's expanded. It's not just family ... it's made it more interesting, in many ways."
Early days to modern-day
Though modern-day residents may not have cause to know what a bald eagle tastes like, one thing has remained constant over the years. The people, said Gustavus old-timers, newcomers and visitors, are what makes the place what it is.
Jim Martell, who was the photographer for Gustavus' monthly newspaper when it printed, originally came to Gustavus as part of an excursion. He returned, eventually moving there.
"Some places just feel right," he said. "It's the beauty, and the people. Folks that live here are just so friendly. (When I first met them, it felt) like I knew them. Like they were lifelong friends. I love it here."
Don Bryant came for the summer 42 years ago.
"You get stuck," he joked.
In those 42 years, electricity and paved roads are the biggest changes, he said.
Doc Pederson came for a weekend 30 years ago and stayed, marrying a local girl and "into the whole town," he said.
"I was born in Ketchikan and raised in Craig ... and this was the first place I'd seen that was completely different," Pederson said. "It was so quiet and peaceful ... it's still a nice place to come and relax."
Newcomers feel it, too. Deborah Lloyd, a fashion designer from England who is living in New York, came to Gustavus for the week.
"There's such a community spirit here that you don't really feel anymore, in other places," she said.
Things have changed over the past few decades, though.
Before the roads were paved, people drove old, beat-up cars.
"(Everybody used to have) busted everything," Bryant said.
Ferries changed a lot, Martell said. More freight arrived. More cars. More people. So did electricity, and the new dock.
Even the surroundings once looked different.
"We didn't used to have trees like this," Lee Parker said, gesturing at the tall spruce and hemlock around the Salmon River. "It was wide open territory everywhere you looked."
Glacial rebound has allowed more trees to grow.
In spite of electricity, the new dock, the ferry and paved roads, Gustavus' population has stayed small, with a little more than 400 people in the winter, and between 800 and 1,000 in the summer, residents estimate. Several hundred came out to celebrate the Centennial.
"We billed it as the biggest party Gustavus has ever seen," Linda Parker said. "It's true. We've never logrolled. We've never (had a watermelon seed spitting contest,) or a chainsaw toss ... We can disagree politically, but when it comes to getting together, we're all together. We're in it to win it, as they say."
Molly Kelly, who moved to Gustavus when she was 13 years old and is now raising her four children there, agrees. More people may come and go, but Gustavus is "still the quaint town that it has been ... It's like a family. Everybody has their differences, but in times of crisis, or times like this, everybody pulls together," she said.