BLM-Alaska Honors Homesteaders at July 4th Event in Anchorage

On July 4, 2012, the BLM in Alaska both commemorated the State's unique Homestead History during a special event in the State's largest city and honored some of the last homesteaders in the nation. BLM-Alaska participated in Anchorage's July 4th celebrations by creating a special tent with homestead-related exhibits for visitors, and by bringing together several Alaskan homesteaders and their families for special recognition for their roles in helping create today's Alaska.

Those honored were several homesteaders of the 1960s-80s, including Mrs. Elizabeth M. Smith, the last woman in the United States to receive an agricultural homestead under terms of the 1862 Homestead Act. She received a BLM patent to her farm homestead near Big Delta, Alaska in 1984 and today lives with family at Delta Junction, Alaska. Senator Mark Begich presented a special commemorative plaque to her and also to the five other homesteaders or homesteader descendants at the event… 

Senator Mark Begich and BLM-Alaska State Director Bud Cribley present plaque to Elizabeth Smith.

Robert King, BLM-Alaska's homestead historian, who had first contacted all the involved homesteaders and researched their stories, accepted a plaque for Kenneth Deardorff. Mr. Deardorff, America's final homesteader in 1988, was unable to be present at the event.

As part of the festivities, BLM-Alaska arranged for the Alaskan homesteaders and their families to ride in antique cars during the hour-long July 4th parade in downtown Anchorage. The homesteaders were the grand marshals and subsequently signed BLM-designed special homestead posters for the public (and for Senator Begich) at a special BLM tent at the event.

This tent was designed to be reminiscent of an early U.S. Land Office. The many visitors to the tent were able to pick up a variety of six free homestead posters, a booklet of the history of homesteading in Alaska, plus talk to the homesteaders and well as BLM employees at the event. The tent also housed a special 8' tall x 10' wide display on the history of homesteading. Also, visitors able to take home a special souvenir "homestead certificate" modeled on one from the early 1900s when the first homesteads were patented in Alaska. For children, there was an area for coloring pictures.

The BLM's exhibit also commemorated the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the General Land Office in 1812. Until mid-1946, the GLO oversaw homesteading, with BLM shouldering the task after that. In Alaska, more homesteads were patented under the BLM than the GLO since most homesteading in the "Last Frontier" was done after 1946.

This event was one of a series of special actions by BLM-Alaska over the past few months to commemorate the 150th anniversary year of the signing by President Lincoln of the 1862 Homestead Act.

The photo above shows (left to right):

Robert King, BLM-Alaska State Archaeologist and Homestead Historian (and grandson of a homesteader in Washington State);

William ("Bill") Smith, America's youngest living homesteader who still owns his homestead near Big Delta, Alaska; Bill is a son of Elizabeth Smith in the photo and also got his homestead in 1984;

Bill Smith's sister Rose (Smith) Edgren, she grew up in part on her mother Elizabeth Smith's homestead;

George Harbeson, Jr., son of George Harbeson, Sr. who received a homestead in 1964 south of Wasilla, Alaska that the family still owns; George Jr. in part grew up there following his father's settling on the land in 1959; George Jr. has written a book "Homesteaders in the Headlights" telling about the experience;

Harry H. ("Hal") Post, received his homestead in 1965 south of Wasilla; he taught school in the 1950s in the Territory of Alaska, following arrival in Alaska in 1949 over the still-primitive Alaska ("Alcan") Highway;

Elizabeth ("Betty") M. Smith, America's last woman homesteader to receive a farm homestead under the 1862 Homestead Act; as a widow, she applied in 1974 for land west of Big Delta, Alaska and received it in 1984; she came to Alaska by airplane in 1950 to work as a nurse in Fairbanks;

Sherry Smith, wife of homesteader Bill Smith (and daughter-in-law of Betty Smith); and

Mary and Clyde Lovel, husband and wife homesteaders at Sherman, Alaska, a stop on the Alaska Railroad north of Anchorage; Clyde and Mary drove to Alaska from Missouri in 1963 with their young family and filed on a homestead in 1964, which they received in 1974; Mrs. Lovel has written two books about their homesteading experiences: "Suddenly It's Spring" and "Journey to a Dream."

Article - Make-A-Scene Newspaper
Journey To A Dream
Written by Local Author Mary Lovel
Hunting, clearing land by hand, planting, and building the shelters vital to the family's survival...This IS the Lovel Family story. 
 Before ATV's snow machines or cell phones were common conveniences to ease the hardships of homesteading, the Lovel family-Clyde, his wife Mary and their four children-embarked upon the biggest challenge of their lives.  Mary Lovel tells their incredible story in Journey To A Dream.
 The mystique of the north lured the Lovel clan to test its mettle and tame the rugged wilderness.  The prize would be an almost unbelievable reward:  their own plot of land in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Mary plunges right into the meat of the chronicle as she details the journey up the Alcan Highway-that is, after a rough sstart of bogging down in the soft driveway, then wedging the trailer between two trees.  Eventually, though, the intrepid travelers reach the highway and head north to Alaska.
 It's 1963.  The six are crammed into a 1949 Ford 3/4 ton truck fitted with Clyde's homemade plywood camper shell, hauling a 41-foot house trailer with all their possessions inside.  This conglomeration would be their home all the way from Missouri as the family endures the bumpy, dusty ride to Alaska.
 Even in the best of times, bolstered with plenty of money and top equipment, homesteading in Alaska was an undertaking fraught with peril and discouragement.  For the Lovels, hardworking but poor, the barriers seemed impossible to overcome.  However, Clyde and Mary took each day as it came, working through problems, bad luck, and bad weather.  They were tough.  Even the great Alaska Earthquake did not deter them from their goal.
 Reading the passages praising Alaska's beauty makes us realize that the hardship was worth the reward.  spectacular northern lights, blankets of pristine, fluffy snow, endless summer days, and steadfast friends-especially the ever-dependable Alaska Railroad--added the necessary sweetening so the family could carry on.  While Clyde worked hard in town to make enough to support them, Mary tirelessly performed the duties needed to eke out a home in the woods:  seamstress, mechanic, home schooling teacher, farmer, fisherwoman, protector, cook, and cheerleader-all the while maintaining an optimism and dogged determination that encouraged the team to keep going.  Clyde, too, worked constantly and had his hands full whenever he was able to come to the homestead:  hunting, clearing land by hand, planting and building the shelters vital to the family's survival.
The amazing fulfillment of this family's dream inspires and uplifts the soul.  Mary Lovel's story is testament to the pioneering spirit that still endures today in Alaska.
Article written by Teresa Ascone, author of art instruction books and most recently, a fairy tale.  
Book Review - Make A Scene Newspaper

   Suddenly…It’s Spring! 

  Author Mary T. Lovel

  Contributed to Make A Scene Magazine by Teresa Ascone

  March 3, 2010

Mary Lovel’s delightful memoir of life in Alaska continues with her new book, Suddenly…It’s Spring! Author Lovel draws the reader in with rich detail. She expresses heartfelt emotion as she details her “cabin fever” of 1970-71 in the beginning of the book when she’s cooped up all day in a tiny cabin with four small children – in the middle of winter, no less. Snow is piled up to the second story window and there are many hours of darkness typical of midwinter in Alaska to endure. She waits long months before getting on an airplane to take advantage of the “triangle” fares just beginning then – a welcome respite and visit with family: a wise decision, Mary.

Readers will become engrossed in each mishap and adventure, from the serious accident suffered by her daughter and the resulting “Christmas to Remember,” to the nail biting account of a massive forest fire threat to home, property and their very lives. The Alaska Railroad is a constant and unwavering support to the Lovel family and all who live along the line.

 Mary proves an intrepid soul, steeped in the courage and steadfast determination needed to thrive on a homestead in Alaska. Encounters with wolves, bear, moose and other wildlife are routine occurrences for Mary and her family.  They handle everything with aplomb.

Clyde, her husband, deserves mention as a tireless provider, protector, and brave soul who supports his family and realizes his dream of a homestead in Alaska. Other dreams of a sailboat and selling Mary’s cherished home are derailed, resulting in a more permanent connection to the Lovel homestead and these wonderful books for us, her devoted readers.

Stories of canning moose, fish, all manner of vegetables, berries and rhubarb bring back memories for us Alaskans. She even includes her favorite recipes for us, including Cinnabarb Pie, Rhubarb Custard Pie, and Cabbage and Sparerib Soup. Who wouldn’t want to sit at Mary’s table to feast on this fare?

If I’m drawn into a particularly interesting book, I sometimes like to play Hollywood producer and cast the main characters I’m reading about. Recently in the news, I was saddened to read of Jane Russell’s passing at the age of 89.  I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate this legendary actressl of the 1960s would have been to portray Mary  Lovel:  a tall, dark-haired, beautiful, no-nonsense woman.

Although it isn’t required that one read book one, Journey to a Dream, to understand and enjoy this new book, one wants more and more details of Lovel’s fascinating story. This is a classic true account, one that I could not put down; I read long into the night, eagerly turning the pages to see what would happen next to Mary and her family. This book is highly recommended to all who have either experienced life in Alaska, or who want to.

Teresa Ascone, author of art instruction books and the Alaska Berry Fairy Tales,

The Berry Fairies of Alaska and Alaska Berry Fairies ~ Lizzie Scarlet

maintains a studio in the Matanuska Valley where she writes, paints and makes

pottery. See her work at Pandemonium Bookstore and Café, or go online to her

website at

The Flag-Stop Train

Published in "Portrait of the Alaska Railroad" - by Kaylene Johnson - Alaska Northwest Books

     THE FLAG-STOP TRAIN IS THE ONLY ONE OF ITS KIND STILL RUNNING IN NORTH AMERICA.  It serves as a supply line and transportation for the two dozen or so people who live along the rails in the fifty-eight miles between Talkeetna and Hurricane.  There are no roads in the area - just snowmachine and four-wheeler trails.  Only the train travels through this wilderness, takings homesteaders to and from civilization, hauling their provisions, as well as taking adventurers into the backcountry.

     Mary Lovel wasn't quite sure what she'd gotten herself into back in 1964, when she arrived by train in Sherman with four young children in tow.  Sherman was nothing more than a flag-stop 144 miles north of Anchorage.  Mary and her husband, Clyde, had agreed to finish making improvements to a homestead just a stone's throw from the tracks.  The homestead belonged to an older couple who were anxious to move back to town.  Clyde worked in Anchorage except for  weekends, so Mary and the kids went on ahead.  The old couple had agreed to give Mary a primer on wilderness living until Clyde could join them, but it turned out that the ex-homesteaders couldn't wait to leave.  They hopped the afternoon train back to Anchorage, leaving Mary and the children to fend for themselves.  Before the train pulled away, they warned her about a bear that kept coming around to pester the dog.  Best keep an eye on the kids.


     With that, the Lovel family adventure began.  The two-room shack had no door, so Mary hung a blanket.  She lined the children up and they held hands as they trekked through shoulder-high grass to get to the creek, their only source of water.  She found some empty fifty-five gallon fuel barrels and had the kids roll them around the meadow surrounding the house.  By flattening the grass, Mary would be able to see the children-and any marauding bears.

     "I was sure if the kids stepped outside they'd be eaten," she remembers.  

     The beds they brought on the train lay disassembled with the rest of their things next to the tracks.  The kids worked like troupers hauling gear and helping set up the beds.  They ate like a small army-even the smoky concoctions that came off a dilapidated wood stove.  Mary was a novice, after all.  They had arrived on a Tuesday, and by the weekend, three weeks of groceries had been consumed.  When they went to bed, Mary stacked empty tin cans on a pile of trunks in front of the doorless entry - just in case wildlife tried to step in for a nighttime visit.  She slept with a gun.

     The closest cabin was five miles north along the tracks, so the railroad quickly became their best neighbor.  A section foreman from Gold Creek offered the family the use of a railroad phone to get a message back to Clyde in Anchorage.  And while some women might have sent an urgent plea to get out, Mary's messages was this:  "Bring a door - and more groceries".

     "The railroad was our lifeline," Mary says, referring not only to their early days on the homestead, but all of the  forty years they have spent there.

     The train still offers not only personal transportation for scores of people traveling in these remote areas, but a vital supply line for fuel, lumber, groceries, and other sundries.  The railroad delivers everything from dogsleds to doorknobs, dropping off pallets at trailheads that lead to people's cabins.  Conductors of nonpassenger trains know how to stop when they see an empty propane tank set to the side of the tracks.  It's a signal for the conductor to pick up the empty tank, take it to Anchorage, and return it full.  Conductors have even delivered moose killed on the tracks, knowing that any salvageable meat will provide a family with welcome food for the winter.  Folks who live along the rails are on a first-name basis with railroad crews.  Train workers often deliver the newspaper and the news from along the tracks in exchange for a cup of coffee or a plate of fresh-baked cookies.

     All of which adds up to one thing-the flag-stop train is rarely on time.  But usually no one's in much of a hurry.  The train is a moving community center, people who live along the rails get on board just to visit with neighbors, who do the same.  The train travels from Talkeetna as far as Hurricane and then turns around, giving friends a chance to visit before being dropped off at the trails that lead back home.

     Deborah Lovel-Bryner, Mary and Clyde's daughter, says growing up along the rails was great fun.  She especially remembers the generosity of railroad workers.  Her dad worked first in Anchorage and later as an extra crew for the railroad - a job that sometimes kept him away from home for weeks at a time.  Johnny, a track patrolman from Curry, regularly checked in on the family.  As a gift one year, he brought the kids heavy-duty snowsuits, hats, mittens and boots.

     "Johnny never talked about his family, and we didn't ask him a lot of questions.  In those days, Alaska was a place people came to escape their past," Deborah says.  "But we knew he'd had a sweetheart once.  He was the most alone person I'd ever met."

     When she was married, Deborah enjoyed a homestead honeymoon while the rest of the family stayed in Anchorage.  She jokingly warned the family that if anyone decided to stop by for a visit, they'd be shot.  That gave Clyde an idea.  As Deborah and her new husband pulled around the curve on the train toward the homestead, they were greeted by a big white sign with red letters:  "Honeymoon in progress, Trespassers will be shot"  At first the newlyweds were mortified, but then they decided to play the part.  Throughout the week, passenger trains slowed to a crawl as Deborah and Paul stood in front of the house, a rifle draped convincingly over Paul's arm.

     When the Lovel's and the other families along the route say that the railroad has been a lifeline over the years, they sometimes mean it literally.  Just add medical taxi to the list of services the train provides.  More than once the Lovels and other families have counted on the train to get them back to civilization and medical care.