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Alaska Writing Site
Finding home in Kenny Lake
By Kristi Knutson
Many people in life experience drastic changes, whether it be moving, the loss of multiple family members, or going from being financially stable to poor. Most people don’t have to endure all of these stressful events, but Marian Lightwood did.
During Marian’s first year in Alaska she found not only adventure but a husband. And the way she met him involved a car, petunias, and a threat.
In June 1958, Marian and her friend lived in Anchorage. She had recently been offered a job as a teacher, after traveling to Alaska on a whim. “There was this car; this English made car that was out in the driveway,” said Marian, “We were getting really disgusted with it because there was hardly room for our cars. We found out it belonged to our landlord’s brother. So we were threatening to plant petunias in it.” He finally came and moved his car in October and they became acquainted and started to date. Marian taught two years in Anchorage and then she and Samuel Lightwood married.
Sam had been teaching for the state and wanted to relocate to Stoney River, Alaska, and teach there. Marian and Sam went out to see the school, but the school officials said, “I don’t think so. You’re about to have a baby.” The state told Marian and Sam that they had this “neat little school in a place called Kenny Lake. It’s modern.” Sam and Marian agreed to the position.
By the time they reached Kenny Lake in 1961, they had their first son, Samuel John. He was about two weeks old. People boasted that Kenny Lake was a farming area. “I was used to these huge farms in Eastern Washington, crops many of which were well over a thousand acres. They only would plant half of each year, so they would alternate years,” explained Marian. “Anyhow, I was used to that, and we were driving along and we had to go down to lower Tonsina, don’t ask me why, but all the way down I’m looking…farms…farms?...Trees! Farms? No fields…maybe that was one.” There were very few because that’s when the first homesteaders were just beginning to prove up and obtain their fields.”
Kenny Lake School was definitely not what they considered “modern.” It had a path out back to the outhouse. There was a boy side and a girl side. It had a light plant shed which contained a big diesel generator, which allowed them to have electricity every once in a while. They also had to haul the water. “We never did figure out “modern.” Other than it was a flat roof,” Marian chuckled. The building was a one room school. Half of it was the classroom and the other half was the “quarters,” which had a kitchen, living room, pantry and a storage room. The school was located behind the recent, blue DOT equipment shed. Sam was the primary teacher and Marian helped for the 1961-62 school year. Marian taught the first and second graders and took the girls for home economics. When they first started teaching, there were only 20 students, but when the Helkenns arrived, the school increased to about 26 students.
In 1961 Sam signed up for homestead land right next to Kenny Lake, but then they left and traveled down to Caribou Creek. Things weren’t quite working out down there, but Marian had saved $1000 which Sam used to start building their house on the homestead land. They started to build in February or March so it was quite chilly. At this time Marian had two children, Sam John and Juliana.
The first part of their house was the entry and pantry. There was a bed in the pantry section and also a sauna. There was a little wood stove and then some shelves for Sam John and six-month-old Julie to sleep on as well as a place to cook in the front part, which had a little gas stove.
Marian said, “The hardest part of raising a family on the homestead was no money.” By this point she had three children. “There we were with babies and all and trying to get wood. It was impossible for me to do.” They also had to tend to farm animals. So even though they had no money, they had plenty of food. Their milking cow provided butter, milk, ice cream, cream, etc. They also had meat. Marian sewed so she made her children’s clothes. They also had fresh vegetables from their garden. Sam always had a big garden. “As big as he could get it,” Marian sighed. They couldn’t freeze the vegetables, but they could can them. “There’s nothing worse than canned broccoli or canned cauliflower. Eww. But we ate it because we needed vegetables. I don’t know why your mother and uncles will eat vegetables now. It was bad,” chuckled Marian.
After living and raising a family on practically nothing for at least three years they decided to move back to Washington in 1967. Sam worked for Marian’s dad, Perry, driving equipment in the fields, helping seed and harvesting. Then that fall the neighboring town needed a teacher and Sam was offered the job. He taught there for two years and Marian taught a private kindergarten.
Marian and Sam wanted to move back to Alaska. “I have never felt so guilty in my whole life as far as when we left Alaska. It was just like I was being a traitor. It was terrible,” Marian recalled. They finally gathered everything together and came back in 1973.
Sam built more on to their house and started up the farm again. They bought cows right away and started planting hay. Julie, her daughter, remembered that during this time when her dad left for Washington to pick up their truck and cows they ate a rabbit that their cat brought in. Not only that, but they also ate squirrels. “It was surprisingly tasty,” Julie said.
Marian received an offer to teach seventh and eighth grade at Kenny Lake, but that was where Sam John would be. Marian said that she would not teach him anything else, and that she wasn’t a seventh and eighth grade teacher. A couple of days later the school wondered if Marian wanted to teach first and second grade to which she agreed. She ended up teaching 15 years in Kenny Lake and close to 20 years altogether.
Marian Lightwood was born in Spokane, Washington July 30, 1934, to her mother Dorothy and father Royal Potter. She was their only child. Her father passed away when she was three years old. Before Marian was born, Dorothy went to college and received her teaching degree, but from the time she graduated until her husband died, the school had changed their requirements; she had to go back to school two more years. She couldn’t take Marian to college with her, so she left Marian with her parents in Spokane. When Marian’s mom graduated, World War II was in full swing, so she got a job on the coast at Fort Louis, Washington. Marian continued to stay with her grandparents. Her mom went to Almira, 80 miles from Spokane. “I got to see her more often because a Greyhound bus did run between Spokane and Almira.” In Almira, Dorothy met Perry, and married him, giving Marian a stepdad. She moved out to live with them when she was in 7th grade. They lived on a “real” farm. Marian’s grandpa had been a farmer and grew fantastic gardens. Her mom was not the best gardener; they did try, but not too successfully. “We lived on this wheat farm, and you could look out for miles to the horizon and all you saw was wheat fields,” Marian said.
Marian moved her mother up in early 1994. In 2009 Dorothy peacefully passed away at age 101.5. This past summer, Marian’s husband, age 84 and granddaughter, Adrina (21), passed away just eight days apart.
Watching her kids grow up and moving out, Marian always hoped that they would move back to the homestead. When her daughter, Julie, came back with her husband, Tony, and decided to live and raise a family on the homestead, Marian was overjoyed. “I was so happy! I was thrilled!” Marian exclaimed.
Even though Marian went through many hardships she never regrets coming to Kenny Lake, Alaska. “I have had the most blessed life. I really have. I mean my children grew up here and my grandchildren.”
From Chris Taylor: Oh Kristi, this is such a great testament to where your roots! I just love your story. I remember going to the farm in the mid 70's to get fresh milk and we made ice cream this the Lains and Oatmans from it. Thanks for sharing this story. Great photos too!
From Kathleen Hale: Kristi, I loved your story and can't wait to read the next one. Great pictures too!
From Susan Moore: Kristi, great story! What a life your grandma has lived! I'll have you know -she was the absolute BEST 1st grade teacher! She taught so many young people the joy of reading!
“We were getting really disgusted with it because there was hardly room for our cars. We found out it belonged to our landlord’s brother. So we were threatening to plant petunias in it.”