Ex-lodge owner was 'reluctant pioneer'

Book evolved from oral history project of University of Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2003

PALMER - At 85, Cecile Betts doesn't mince words.

"If I could have left Alaska the day I arrived, I would have," the author said during a book signing Aug. 11 at King Mountain Lodge.

Betts recently published a memoir entitled "Reluctant Pioneer," chronicling the years she and her husband, Jack, owned and operated the landmark lodge, located alongside the Glenn Highway about 30 miles north of Palmer.

Barbecuing black bears, stringing a ferry cable across the untamed Matanuska River, fending off hordes of mosquitos. All in a day's work five decades ago "in the middle of nowhere," she said.

She now lives in California, and Betts said it took her awhile to sit down and create her work.

"During the time after I left Alaska, I was always being asked to speak about my experiences," Betts said. "When I spoke to them, people would say, 'Cecile, you should write a book.'

"And my answer to them was kind of flippant. I would say, those who can, do. Those who can't just talk about it. But I guess I was afraid of failure."

She said professors at the University of Alaska asked her to relate an oral history, so she recorded a two-hour tape, and the book evolved from there.

The manuscript describes a time and way of life that doesn't exist any more, Betts said.

"I flew up to Merrill Field with Arnold's Air Service in a freightliner with deep bucket seats," she said.

Just prior to touching down after a daylong flight from Seattle, her son spilled a scalding hot cup of coffee on her lap and then got airsick. "I got baptized," Betts said.

"We got here on April Fool's Day in 1947," she said. "We were standing on the side of the field and my husband did not meet the plane. And there was nothing in that part of town then.

"Living in Alaska forced me to become stronger, more capable and more independent - capable of shooting a moose," Betts said.

Beginning in 1954, Betts and her husband leased King Mountain Lodge from Ray Grasser, who built the original structure in the late 1940s. They purchased the property in 1959.

In her book, she relates how they learned to live off the land.

"Aside from flower beds, Jack planted a garden of all kinds of vegetables. During the summer months, we used those in the cafe. In the fall, I put them up to serve as side dishes on our meals, and made vegetable soup all winter," Betts wrote.

"'What chemical does Jack use to keep his garden so weed-free?' a friend asked.

"None. Just backbreaking labor and sweat as he pulls the weeds by hand."

Betts said she focused the book on three central themes.

"The way, during those years, that Alaska changed from being a wilderness into a state, and how we developed an oil-rich economy, that's the first theme," she said. "The second theme is how living in Alaska changed me."

With a bit of a grin, she said the third theme of the book details the changes she made in Alaska, through her commitment to the community.

"I helped bring about the first hot-lunch programs for elementary schools in Anchorage," she said. "I helped lobby for a dog control law, and I also helped form the first road improvement area at Nancy Lake. I was the first road commissioner."

Betts also was a longtime member of the Alaska Press Club, and hosted the organization's awards banquet in 1958, she said.

Looking back, Betts said she has no particular regrets.

"It was an interesting life," she said. "I won't say it was wholly pleasurable, but it was interesting."

The tale may be coming soon to a theater near you.

"I have an agent in New York," Betts said. "And he wants to develop a movie script."

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