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Homesteader, 90, reflects on years in Kenai

Posted: August 11, 2011 - 10:38pm
In this Aug. 5, 2011, photo, Bill Field stands in the doorway of the Nikiski, Alaska, homestead cabin he built with his wife in 1952. The couple live now in a house about a stone’s throw away from the original one-room building. Field recently celebrated his 90th birthday. (AP Photo/Peninsula Clarion, M. Scott Moon) MAGS OUT, NO SALES   M. SCOTT MOON
M. SCOTT MOON
In this Aug. 5, 2011, photo, Bill Field stands in the doorway of the Nikiski, Alaska, homestead cabin he built with his wife in 1952. The couple live now in a house about a stone’s throw away from the original one-room building. Field recently celebrated his 90th birthday. (AP Photo/Peninsula Clarion, M. Scott Moon) MAGS OUT, NO SALES

KENAI — There was a time when planes would land on Soldotna’s streets, the only grocery store in Kenai was Archer’s and neighbors were separated by quarter and half miles. Bill Field was in the middle of it all.

He homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula in 1952, and he has lived in Nikiski full-time since 1967.

He is a veteran, entrepreneur and commercial fisherman. Monday marked his 90th birthday, and he would have been fishing if the setnet fishery had not closed early.

“If I would have known I was going to live so long, I would have treated my body a little better,” he said.

Field was born in 1921 and raised in Napa Valley, Calif.

After he was done with high school in 1940, he worked at a Navy yard for about a year until World War II came and he volunteered to work at the recently attacked Navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

“I worked over there for two years, then I went into the service for two and a half years,” Field said.

During his service, Field was injured on the last week of his company’s operation in Japan.

“This guy buddied up with me, he was from the artillery, and here comes this grenade from the other side of him, I hollered at him to get out of there, and he didn’t move,” Field said. “So I was getting ready to go, and he lay there, so he took the grunt of the grenade, and I got some of it.

“I saw him afterwards, they were giving him plasma so he probably survived, but he got a lot of shrapnel.”

When Field finally got to the hospital, the medics were not able to give him anesthetic to ease the pain while they removed the shrapnel from his hip.

“That hurt a helluva lot worse that getting hit, I’ll tell ya that,” he said. “They never did find it.”

Field said he was playing volleyball, when he fell backward on his hip, which may have sprung the shrapnel free.

“About a week later I picked some shrapnel out of my shorts,” he said. “I didn’t have to go back to the hospital to have them dig it out.”

Field was lucky.

“We got relieved by the Marines, when we come walking back, the guys walking in said, ‘What platoon is this you’re in?’” Field said. “We said, ‘This is not a platoon, this is A company.’ Then the Marines asked, ‘What’d you get in to out there?’ ‘Well it’s not too nice.”

Out of 210 soldiers in his company, 45 were able to walk back to be relieved.

After his time in the service, Field returned to California but he wasn’t there very long.

“I left there, and I went to Oregon, Washington and Idaho,” he said.

Idaho would be his last stop before coming north.

Field was working at a sign company in Lewiston, Idaho, making about $300 a month. A friend of his came up to Alaska to bend glass.

“He called me and said, ‘Hey, there’s a job opening up here for a service man, it’s $600 a month, do you want it?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll be right up,’” Field said.

He promptly gave his employer his two weeks notice and arrived in Alaska on April 7, 1950, with his wife, Lola May.

Field worked in Anchorage at Northern Neon, which would lead to Field becoming a homesteader on the Kenai Peninsula. He was sent to the Peninsula with a truckload of signs to hang. He said the company sent him all the way to Homer.

On the way back, however, the gravel road started to take its toll on the tires.

“I kept getting flats,” Field said. “So the last tire that was fixable, I blew out, and I said, ‘That’s it, I can’t go any farther.’”

Field was in Sterling with his truck parked out by an airstrip. He walked up to the road to start hitchhiking.

“A guy comes along after 45 minutes to an hour, there was no traffic,” he said. “He stopped and yelled, ‘Where you goin’?’ I said, ‘Anchorage,’ He replied, ‘You get in here with me ‘cuz I’m the only one that’s going,’ and he was,” Field said.

The man’s name was Quentin R. Smith, Field said. Smith proceeded to tell Field about homesteading on the Peninsula.

“So he says, ‘I’m homesteading down there, the place is open right next to me, better come down and take a look at it,’” Field said. “The next week we rode down with him and looked it, and it was high and dry.

“I said, ‘As long as it’s not in a flood plain, I’ll accept it, I’ll homestead. It was high and dry here, so we homesteaded.”

Field and his wife settled about a mile past what is now Poolside Avenue in Nikiski.

Field recalls the Peninsula as being somewhat empty, featuring a population of 2,500 people.

“There wasn’t anything in Kenai when we first came here,” he said. “There was a grocery store by the name of Archer’s, there was one school, the one right in the middle of town, one service station.”

Field said there were two service stations in Soldotna, one of them being a 76 gas station.

“They used to land airplanes in the street there in Soldotna,” he said. “They’d park ‘em down by the bridge down there.”

The Fields finished their cabin in the fall of 1953. Still working in Anchorage, Field would drive to Anchorage and work during the week, and would come home on the weekends while Lola would stay at the cabin. The trek was much more substantial in those days. The pavement would end at Hope Junction.

“The road was a dirt road from Hope Junction to here, all gravel,” Field said.

The road through Kenai and on to Nikiski stopped at the Nikiski Dock, he said.

“We had to park there because it was so muddy, just a mud road,” he said.

In 1955, Field, Lola, and their oldest daughter, Debbie, moved back to the states.

“That was a mistake,” he said. “Should’ve just stayed here. We came back in ‘67. Took us awhile to get back here, and we built another house.”

With his background in signs, Field opened Kenai Neon Sign Company in 1968, which has been the only neon plant on the Peninsula ever since. Along with his sign business, Field purchased a setnet site two and a half miles north of Captain Cook State Recreation Area in 1970.

The purchase of the site, Field said, came about when a friend wanted to attend aircraft school in Los Angeles, and offered up his site to Field.

“We bought his fish site so he had money to go to school,” he said.

Field retired about 20 years ago; his son, Doug, bought Kenai Neon, so Bill and Lola could spend time traveling in their motor home that was originally a Greyhound bus.

“The time we enjoyed the most was running around with the motor home. I liked that time the best,” he said.Homesteader, 90, reflects on years in Kenai

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