The Story of Esther Haakenson
“A Thankful Pioneer”
Story by Dana Jaworski | Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Last Frontier Magazine
She lay in a hospital bed bruised and broken from a nasty fall. Down the hall, in the early hours of the morning, her husband’s battle with cancer ended. She had attended his every need, and loved him for over 64 years. Knowing the inevitable was near, they had said their goodbyes many times over. Her grandson came in to give her the news. With swimming eyes she looked up and responded, “We have a lot to be thankful for.” Esther Haakenson did indeed have a lot to be thankful for, but her journey was not without hardship and struggle as she and her husband carved out a life homesteading on the North Fork of the Anchor River in Anchor Point, Alaska. Her life began, six weeks prematurely, in July of 1920. The middle child of five, she was born in International Falls, Minnesota, a town known as the “icebox of America.” Determined to help Esther survive, her mother made a make-shift incubator in the cooled oven of the wood cook stove and hoped for the best. It was this kind of ingenuity and will to persevere that equipped Esther for a lifetime of overcoming.
Times were lean for Esther’s family, and became even leaner during the Great Depression. Esther remembered her daddy, Fred Larson, working at whatever job he could find, whether it was mending a fence, digging a ditch, fixing someone’s car or butchering meat. The Depression was especially difficult for those in the Midwest, as they endured not only economic decline, but drought as well. This is why President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited 203 hardy families in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to “hitch their wagon to a star” and move to Alaska.
In May of 1935, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) allotted a 40 acre tract to Esther’s family as a part of the Matanuska Colonization Program. The original colonists met a long, muddy spring and summer, living in tents with inadequate supplies. That first winter was so challenging that a little less than half of the first families stayed into the second year. The Larson clan however, farmed their land with supplemental work in Anchorage and nearby Palmer for five years and remained in Alaska for the rest of their lives.
Esther met her future husband, Lionel Haakenson in 1937. Lionel had moved from the farms of North Dakota to seek his fortune prospecting for gold. When the gold didn’t pan out, he stayed in the Matanuska Valley working odd jobs. It was then that he met the love of his life. Their lives changed once again, as Lionel enlisted in the Army Air Corp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Their relationship grew, but their marriage was put on hold until a furlough from his war-time station of Atka in 1943.
In May of 1945, three weeks early, Esther delivered the first of their sons and thus began one of the greatest adventures of her life. James Lionel Haakenson (Jimmy, to his family) was born with Down Syndrome (DS). His diagnosis (known as Mongolism at the time) wasn’t made until age 2, when a tactless consulting physician made a comment to their family doctor in front of Esther and Lionel. During a time when most DS children were institutionalized, the upshot of this tardy diagnosis was the family had already determined that Jimmy was uniquely challenged, but fully capable of learning and thriving in his own way. They were appalled when it was suggested that they weren’t equipped to keep him home. Believing it might help, they tried a specialized boarding school located near a beloved aunt in California for one year. This time away from the family taught them all that Jimmy achieved his fullest potential in the bosom of his family. So, against all odds and societal norms Esther and Lionel faced the challenge of Jimmy’s disability like they did all others: with grace and courage.
They quickly added six more children to their brood, and in 1955 a love for fishing on the Kenai Peninsula prompted Lionel to purchase—sight unseen—a derelict homestead that had been abandoned by a nightclub entertainer. Forty-acre homesteads couldn’t be sold, but rather ownership was proven by living on the land for a certain amount of time. The man sold his “improvements” for the cost of a ticket out of Alaska. Esther agreed to this move on one condition: that she would have an indoor toilet by winter, so she didn’t have to potty train all her babies in an icy outhouse.
After an initial recon trip during the sloppiest part of what Alaskans call “break-up” (that fifth season between spring and summer, when the winter’s frost melts and turns into oceans of mud), the family made their official move on Memorial Day weekend. Their new milieu included a 12 x 16-foot log shack, complete with hand dug well with floating dead mice, a table, a piece of canvas strung between some trees for the toilet facilities, and thankfully a wood-burning cook stove.
They immediately began working on a 12 x 20-foot log addition, drained and cleaned the well, chinked the logs to keep out the mosquitoes and built a real outhouse. Lionel returned to his job as a sheet metal worker in Anchorage each week and came home on the weekends. Esther and the crew of seven children (Jimmy being the oldest at 10 and the youngest a 5 month old baby) each had their daily duties. The older boys (Tim, age 9 and Robert, age 8) trimmed the logs felled by Lionel on the weekend while Jimmy entertained John, age 6, Mary, age 4 and Ken, age 2. Ronny, the baby, stayed in the house with Esther who was keeping the fire going, baking bread, preparing meals and hand washing diapers. The days ended with “meetings” as the kids called them. They would sing a few hymns and recite passages from the Bible as the midnight sun shined in through the windows, and Esther longed for a night’s rest. The first summer passed quickly and their first winter came with the promised indoor bathroom (they were one of the first families in Anchor Point to have this amenity) and even electricity.
The years went by; Lionel continued working away from home on union jobs around the state. Sometimes he had to be gone for months at a time. All the while the family grew up. All the children but Jimmy attended the two room schoolhouse in Anchor Point. Jimmy was a gifted animal caretaker and busied himself with milking and caring for Bossy, the milk cow, as well as the other animals on the homestead. He loved to learn and in his limited way sought to do so every day.
Hoping to spend more time together as a family and quench a long held desire to fish commercially, Lionel purchased a set net fish site 30 miles north of Anchor Point in 1962. The family balanced homestead responsibilities and fishing, for the next two decades, as the fish site turned into a drift-fishing boat operation in the ‘70s.
Esther and Lionel’s children matured and left home. The six younger children chose a variety of careers—police officer, electrical contractor, fisherman, sheet metal worker, telephone lineman, and special educator; all of them contributors to their communities as well as a heritage to their parents. Jimmy remained home and became a pillar of the local elementary school, as a janitor’s helper. Jim lived a remarkably fruitful and fulfilling life, his presence at Chapman School making an impression for generations.
Whether confronted with economic decline, war, separation from loved ones, subsistence living or a disabled child, Esther faced the many challenges of her life with a tenacious smile and a gentle attitude. Just knowing her and being in her presence encourages one to look at life with a fresh perspective. In her later years she struggled with nearly complete blindness, numerous falls resulting in several broken bones, the loss of her beloved and at times loneliness. Still, she always greeted people with a smile and her classic response, “We have a lot to be thankful for.” *
*The author encourages you to read more about the amazing Haakenson family. Esther’s daughter, Mary Perry has written Onward, Crispy Shoulders! An Extraordinary Life with an Extra Chromosome about the life of her brother, Jim. Her second book, A Lot to Be Thankful For, The Story of Esther Haakenson will be released later this year. To find out more about these great books go to www.fireweedtales.com
Eight years ago, Dana Jaworski and her husband moved from West Texas to Anchor Point, Alaska. Dana is a graduate of Abilene Christian University with a degree in Political Science. She, her husband, and their three children enjoy clamming, gardening, fishing and the many outdoor activities of the Kenai Peninsula.
Looking for more past looks at life in Alaska? Check out, “Hope on a Rope – Remembering Hope, Alaska.“