With the political news has come a renewed interest in Alaska, and I dug through my box of World War II memoirs to find a letter I remembered from my Uncle Frank to his brother, my father, in 1943. Frank had been drafted just before Pearl Harbor, leaving behind a new bride who would have to wait four years to resume her married life. He was the first in our family to go to war and left behind parents, brothers, a sister and nieces who waited anxiously for his letters and news from the front. He wrote good letters. My mother said that his letters to me and my sister were worded as if he knew they would be taken to school and shared with the class….and they were.
The letter I was looking for was dated April 24, 1943, North Ireland. It was part of a letter to his brother Johnny:
“I found out something the other night at one of our Company meetings that I never knew a thing about before. Our old man, that’s the Company Commander, brought it up. Any soldier serving in the Armed Forces during a war and who has an honorable discharge can take up the homestead rights to 160 acres of land that belongs to the Government for $14 filing rights. After three years the land belongs to you. There is some mighty good land to be had in twenty-five states and in Alaska. If you have served overseas for two years, which I have, why all the claim you need then is for one year because I have same as homesteaded any land I choose for two years. I will have to have the land occupied for five months in that year and make one improvement on it before it belongs to me. I forget how many millions of free acres there are to be had. I think I will take up my land in Alaska as that is all virgin land and from what I gather none of it has ever been surveyed or touched by an axe. I would like a hunk of land with lots of timber and a big lake. I would also get the rights to all minerals underground as that is a great country for oil, coal, potash and so forth.”
Frank and my father were sons of divorced parents. The two younger children were sent to other relatives, but Frank and Johnny (ages 7 and 9) stayed with their father and spent their lives on the road traveling from fairground to fairground and racetrack to racetrack where their father made a living shoeing race horses. As the boys got older they worked around the tracks and my father became the youngest harness horse driver in the area. It was a tough life and even as they grew older and married, it was during the Great Depression and home for both of them was an inner city apartment. I’m sure the prospect of a homestead with acreage and an actual house to live in was a special dream for Frank. This picture of Frank and Johnny was taken about the time they set out on the fair circuit with the their father.
“The reason I like Alaska is because it’s new and a coming thing. Land is going to be worth plenty there some day with the Alaska Highway running through there and the big oil pipeline also going through. If this war ends around November like I figure it will, I want to get me a claim staked out there for 160 acres.”
Actually, the war didn’t end for more than two years in 1945.
“Do you want to go partners with me on a claim there and share 50-50 on what we get? I will have enough dough with what I got saved and what the Army is supposed to give me to set us up to raising chickens and turkeys, building perambulators and to build a house, set up a windmill and make an electric plant for electricity. We would get what we wanted in over the Alaska Highway and send out what we wanted. It would be a rugged go for awhile but I believe in time over a period of years a guy would become independently rich. It’s a new country and these are great chances for men who have enough guts to tough it out. There are lots of chances there and I have thought it over for about a week now. So, you think it over and see what you think of it. We would have to set us up a sawmill and have a truck, too. I have everything figured out, I think, and I know how we can get it, too. We can take the old man along with us – that will be to his heart’s delight, him and Helen.”
“The Old Man” was their affectionate term for their father and Helen was their step-mother. The Old Man died in April of 1945, several months before the war was over and Frank was discharged from the Army.
“After the war why you and I will get some rifles and take a hunting trip to Alaska and prowl around till we see the land we like and then have it surveyed to stake it out. We will have to get it near the Alaska Highway, though.”
Frank and Johnny weren’t hunters at all, but I guess it sounded good to Frank to dream that they would take off for a look-around this wonderful place with rifles in hand.
There was talk around our house for awhile about moving to Alaska after the war. I wasn’t too happy about the prospect of leaving my school, friends, the rest of the family, and the Cincinnati Reds, but it did sound exciting and my father was enthusiastic about it. But the months and years passed by and nothing further was said about homesteading in Alaska. Maybe Frank’s new bride vetoed the idea. He came home in the fall of 1945 and went back to his job at the City of Cincinnati where he worked until he retired. He owned a beautiful home and had three children. He passed away in 1977 and my father died in 1978.
I’ve often wondered how many men coming back from World War II did take advantage of land being offered in Alaska and followed through on this young soldier’s dream.