Ray Bonnell Sketch: The Old Soldotna Post Office

The old Soldotna Post Office as it looks today. The cabin was built in 1949. Ray Bonnell

Soldotna, located at the junction of the Sterling and Kenai Spur Highways, began as a homesteader community shortly after the end of World War II. The federal government had opened up lands on the western Kenai Peninsula to homesteading, and it offered incentives to veterans returning from WW II to settle there.

In 1948 a Navy veteran, Howard Lee, traveled to Alaska hoping to establish a homestead. He was dismayed to find the available land along the Sterling Highway near Soldotna already claimed. Fortunately, Howard found a couple planning to relinquish their homestead, located about ¾ mile from the Sterling Highway along Kenai Spur Highway, and he claimed that parcel.

Howard’s wife, Maxine, and their 18-month-old daughter, joined him in Alaska and they moved into a Quonset Hut that the previous claimants had moved to the site, spending their first Alaska winter there.

The next year Howard partnered with neighbor, Larry Lancashire (who lived two miles away), to build cabins for both the Lancashire and Lee families. Harvesting timber from his homestead and milling some of it with Larry’s portable sawmill, Howard and Larry erected a 16’ x 18’ 1 3/4-story cabin for the Lees just off the highway along what was to become East Corral Avenue.

The first floor is built from peeled spruce logs with half-lap corners. The second floor is constructed from dimensional lumber, with hand-hewn spruce shingles for siding. The cabin’s front door faces southeast, and the southeastern facade has a full-length shed-roofed porch. The floors on the cabin’s first and second floors are tongue-and-groove spruce planking, and the second floor was reached via a ladder in the southeast corner. The cabin had rolled roofing.

A second-floor shed-roofed dormer was added in 1954, which is also when the ladder leading to the second floor was replaced with stairs.

During its early years Soldotna residents picked up their mail in Kenai, about 10 miles away. Desiring their own post office, residents convinced Maxine Lee to apply for a post office based out of her home, the largest building in Soldotna at that time.

The post office received approval on July 1, 1949. Howard constructed a Dutch door from tongue-and-groove spruce planks so Maxine could hand out mail from inside the cabin, and she set up shop just inside the cabin’s front door, using Blazo boxes (wooden crates used for transporting two 5-gallon cans of white gas) to store supplies in. Mail was delivered once a week from Kenai for the 20-or-so residents of the Soldotna area.

Eleanor Faas became postmaster in 1951 when Maxine Lee returned to the Lower 48 with her children to attend college. Eleanor performed her postmaster duties at various location until 1954, when the Faas purchased part of the Lee homestead, including the cabin, and the post office moved back in. The cabin was electrified in 1955.

The 1957 discovery of oil on the Kenai Peninsula brought increased area development, including construction of a school adjacent to the post office in 1960, and a new post office in 1962.

By the late 1980s the old post office, with several additions, had transitioned into a busy commercial building. In 1989 traffic congestion at the school forced the Kenai Peninsula Borough to buy the building and temporarily relocate the historic old post office (minus the later additions).

The building was donated to the Soldotna Historical Society. Several historical society members saw value in returning the building to its original location and worked with the City of Soldotna, the school district, and the borough to bring that about. With an agreement signed in 1992, the old post office was relocated to its original location and stabilized.

In 2005, with funding from the Rasmussen Foundation and local donations, the building was restored to near-original condition, and furnished with period-authentic items. It was added to the National Register in 2008. It can been seen sitting next door to Soldotna Elementary School.

Sources:

•“Soldotna cabin gets stamp of approval — First post office placed on National Register of Historic Places.” Clair Fair. In Redoubt Reporter. 11-12-2008

•“Soldotna’s first post office gets a new look.” Nan Missner. In Peninsula Clarion. 8-18-2005

•“Soldotna Post Office, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Barbara Jewell. National Park Service. 2008

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.