John Gruber was interviewed on September 3, 2015 by Jan Yaeger at the Seldovia Museum in Seldovia, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, John talks about his family history in Seldovia. He talks about family members coming to Seldovia, his father's work as a pilot, his mother, Cecelia "Midge" Gruber, and his grandmother Susan English who was postmaster starting around 1925. He also talks about what the community was like when he was growing up and other people who lived there.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Seldovia Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Sep 3, 2015
Narrator(s): John Gruber
Interviewer(s): Jan Yaeger
Transcriber: Sue Beck
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Early family history in Seldovia on his mother's side
Father's personal background and becoming a pilot
His father, Bob Gruber, coming to Alaska and working for Inlet Airways out of Homer and as a fish spotter for a cannery on Kodiak Island
Bob Gruber acquiring Inlet Airways (Cook Inlet Airways), and his love of flying
His father's skill as a pilot
Changes in the business when his dad took it over
Types of airplanes used
A story about flying back to Seldovia in the dark with his father
His father running a sporting goods shop in Seldovia
Cook Inlet Airways' taxi service for passengers
His father's illness and last years of his life
His mother, Cecelia "Midge" English Gruber, and her family background
Origin of his mother's and uncle's nicknames
More Bloch and English family history
His grandmother becoming postmaster in Seldovia around 1925
Family newsstand business operated by his grandfather
Story of his grandfather coming to Alaska from Canada, and ending up in Seldovia
Frank and Winnie Raby and running a store
Story of Frank Raby Spit and fox farming
Stores in Seldovia and the Morris family
His grandfather doing a variety of jobs, including magistrate and marine surveyor
Dancing and ice skating as early forms of entertainment in the community
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
JAN YAEGER: It is Thursday, September 3rd, and this is Jan Yaeger. I’m speaking with John Gruber of Seldovia, and this is an interview for Seldovia Village Tribe’s In Our Own Words project.
And, John, could you just talk a little bit about your history and your family’s history in Seldovia?
JOHN GRUBER: Well, sure. My family history goes back to -- probably to start would be Adam Bloch, of course, late 1800s.
I’m not sure of the exact date he came here, but it was around 1890s -- mid-‘90s, I believe, or somewhere around in there.
And that’s my -- my mother’s side of the family. Her mother was born here. Adam met a lady that was living here by the name of Balashoff -- Eliza Balashoff. And she was quite a bit younger than he was.
He was a Civil War veteran -- ended up in Alaska in the service at Sitka. And at the changeover from the Russians selling the state to United States, he was in the service at that time.
And then he went to work, on retirement, about, oh, the late, I think 1870, roughly in that area to Northern Commercial Company.
And traveled the chain fur buying, married a woman from Sitka who was a Russian. She passed away.
Ended up in Seldovia as part of the NC Company, Northern Commercial Company, fur buying. They had a station here.
And I believe, if I’m not mistaken, they were in competition with Hudson’s Bay and anyway, that’s how my grandmother came around. And my mother was born here.
And we were talking earlier about my dad. I guess to skip to his part of the story, he was born and raised in Montana.
His family were -- his grandfather and grandmother were from Germany originally, ended up in Montana in the late 1870s.
He grew up on a ranch and farm there in Crow Creek Valley area, which is between Radersberg and Townsend, Montana, just -- it’d be southeast of Helena, about twenty-eight miles on the river, which would be the Missouri River.
As a young man, he was fascinated with flying. I’m not sure what -- you know, I can’t imagine a lot of airplanes being around in that era in that particular area of Montana, but there must’ve been.
He -- he was fascinated with flying even when he was just a little guy.
Stories that he told me and other stories that I gathered from relatives back in Montana, some who are still alive today, told me about his dad building him out of a milk crate a little airplane. Put wings and everything on it and he would sit in that and play all day long. So he loved flying.
And he joined the Service in ’49, I believe it was. The Air Force. Wanted to become a pilot, but at that time he didn’t have any college education.
It was pretty unusual to become a pilot in the Air Force without having -- being an officer from -- being a college -- like an ROTC program.
So not being college educated, he ended up being a mechanic in the Service, kept his flying up.
He had learned how to fly before the Service but ended up coming to Alaska kinda by chance. He was out of the Service in Montana kind of kickin’ around, met a guy that was -- had a flying service here in Homer. Paul Choquette was his name.
JAN YAEGER: Choquette?
JOHN GRUBER: Choquette, yeah. Paul Choquette. His son is actually still living in Anchorage area.
Paul’s long gone, of course, but the sons and stuff are still there. They ended up in Seldovia. I believe Paul came up here during the war, settled in Homer, started the service there -- bush service.
JAN YAEGER: Do you know the name of the service?
JOHN GRUBER: I believe it was Inlet Airways, yes.
He ran into Paul in Helena and, if I remember the story correctly, Paul asked him to fly an airplane up for him. This was about 1952.
Dad being out of work at the time jumped at the chance. Anything to fly. Plus go to Alaska.
He did -- he flew the airplane up, delivered it to Homer, Paul didn’t have any work for him at the time, which was kind of disappointing. He was hoping to stay and fly.
But he told my dad that there was a job in Kodiak with a fish company down there. I don’t remember the name of the company. It was on the west side of the island.
And he -- they had an airplane, and so he went down there and flew for them for the summer. It would’ve been the summer of ‘52.
JAN YAEGER: Do you know what? Like spotting fish or -- ?
JOHN GRUBER: Spotting fish, yeah. And just hauling mail or -- The cannery was on the west side of the island, which was kind of on the isolated side of the island.
And I believe that he flew -- spotting fish, took cannery people out, you know -- you know, to different boats. Did all kinds -- just kind of like an air taxi basically is what it was, it sounded to me like.
It was a float plane. I think it was a Cub.
Came back to Homer that fall. Paul still didn’t have any work for him, but told him if he came back up in the summer of ‘53 that he possibly could put him to work.
Dad went back to Montana. He had an uncle that had a ranch there. Decided after that winter he definitely did not want to be a rancher. That wasn’t the life he wanted to do and he was hoping that Paul had something for him, which he did.
'53 he came up. Paul put him to work.
JAN YAEGER: We probably should mention your dad’s name. JOHN GRUBER: Bob Gruber. So he started flying for Paul in -- out of Homer.
At that time, Paul -- he was a -- like we have today, like Homer Air, Smokey Bay, small airplanes, but he was trying to expand at that time into a -- you know, getting more routes.
He bought a twin Lockheed Electra, I think is what it was. They flew that to Anchorage. They had a service to Kenai amongst the Seldovia, Port Graham, and Nanwalek routes like they do now.
But as time went on, after a few years Paul had some health issues, decided he was going to get out of the business, sold the business to my dad in 1960, I believe.
So Dad just took it and changed the name to Cook Inlet Airways at that time. And, you know, ran the business until 1986 when his health started to fail.
And ended up selling it to a person in Homer. And, of course, it’s gone now, but that’s kind of how he ended up here.
And loved the area. He loved flying. Did a lot of a type of flying.
He was one of the first herring spotters when that industry was just getting started. Spotting herring from the air for the seine boats.
A lot of just -- you know, he just -- he had over twenty thousand hours in the air documented.
He felt that there was probably another ten thousand undocumented hours. That’s a lot of time. Anybody that knows any history of flying or has been a pilot knows that’s a lot of time in the air.
And he just loved what he did.
I think my dad was a little frustrated with -- the business, that type of flying I don’t think he cared for. Just, you know, the back-and-forth, ten- fifteen- twenty-minute flights.
He, I think, would always wanted to get out and explore Alaska and he didn’t have the chance to do that, I think, the way he liked.
You know, running a business pretty much kept him tied down. And you know, as a little -- a little guy, I remember him, especially in the summer, you know, you just never saw my dad. He was gone.
And as he got older and we got a little closer and were able to spend more time together, you know, he just -- I know that was a frustration for him that he wasn’t able to just get in an airplane and take off and go explore Alaska.
He was -- you know, I flew with him all my life, ever since I was born. My first airplane flight with him was at, like, two months old.
And he was a -- not just because he was my dad, but he was a very good pilot. And just felt when you were in an airplane with him, and everybody I’ve talked to said this, it was just -- it was just like he strapped it on. It was part of him.
Everybody, they felt comfortable with him. He was a very calm person in the air. He didn’t ever -- he was never excited.
Never got -- you know, like -- like many bush pilots, he had a few mishaps, you know, landing and takeoffs and different things that happened when you’re landing in areas where airplanes probably aren’t supposed to go.
But he was never an excitable person. I think that showed with his passengers, and as you know, you’ve talked to folks here that have flown with him and his business, and that was the main transportation here then.
Basically, he started before the ferry, you know, the Alaska Marine Highway was set up. There weren’t anything like tour boats or things that we have today.
The transportation to Seldovia at that time was either by, you know, by airplane or by, you know, cannery tenders or things like that, which --
He was the transportation to Seldovia at that point.
JAN YAEGER: And so Paul Choquette’s business was Homer-based, but your dad was based out of Seldovia?
JOHN GRUBER: No, actually no. Dad -- Dad had residence here, I think because Paul wanted somebody on this side of the bay to be able to respond to flights, you know, out of Seldovia in the mornings or just have a pilot based here.
My dad -- the business was based still in Homer. That was the main -- you know, that was the main hub still, and it remained that way even when Dad bought the business, though he always had a residence here.
His pilots that he hired lived in Homer, and he actually was stationed -- always stationed here. But the main hub of the business was over there and stayed that way.
And like I say, he changed the name, kept everything else. As -- the way I understand it, Paul -- when Paul walked away or sold the business to Dad and kinda walked away from everything, I believe everything stayed as it was -- the building, the airplanes, everything stayed.
Dad just, you know, stepped into that ownership role. It was a pretty smooth transition as far as that goes.
Paul -- some of the things that my dad didn’t carry over was they had, like, say they had a scheduled flight to Anchorage at that time, and they were trying to set up that, you know, that -- that world of flying from Homer to Kenai to Anchorage kind of like we know today.
But, you know, you’ve got to remember Homer was quite a bit smaller at that time, and I don’t think that business was able to carry that route financially.
And I know that they didn’t do that after my father ended up with the business.
Paul also had -- that was the beginning of the oil industry up here at that time, in the ‘50s, or the starting of the exploration all over Alaska. You know, the north -- not just the North Slope. They were doing a lot of stuff out in the Bristol Bay area, which I didn’t I know of at that time.
But, Dad said they had rented or bought a helicopter, a French Alouette. And at that time, Dad was flying for Paul and they had hired a helicopter pilot to do some work with -- with the oil companies out in the western part of the state.
And they lost the helicopter in an accident, which financially just about ruined them, I guess. That was a big blow.
And amongst the -- amongst those kinds of incidences with Paul and his health, that’s when he decided to get out of the business.
And I know my dad didn’t take any of that up. That, you know, that -- once he started his portion of Cook Inlet and doing his flying, he kept the -- you know, he kept the business fairly small for a while.
He expanded slowly but really didn’t expand the route other than, you know, taking charters maybe out farther, you know, out into -- like say Prince William Sound or going to Anchorage or any other places.
He kept everything pretty much regional as far as his business.
JAN YAEGER: You mentioned flying a Lockheed Electra. What other types of planes did he use?
JOHN GRUBER: Well, the Electra was a twin engine that Paul had. That’s, you know, for years that sat at the end of the runway down there, over there in Homer, and I remember seeing it when I was young. I used to go over and the airplane sat there.
It was kind of -- I don’t know if it was abandoned. Say it ended up -- somebody ended up coming down and getting it because they were kind of valuable airplanes.
But it was never -- my dad didn’t use the airplane.
I remember seeing it, it still had the Inlet Airway logo on it, so I know he didn’t fly it.
He did have a Goose and a Widgeon, and at the time with Seldovia -- the dynamics of Seldovia with the boardwalk and the beaches and everything, he used those airplanes to take cannery crews in and out, a pretty -- a pretty good airplane for that type of work.
You know, he did own those up until oh, I would say probably mid-‘60s or so.
He -- they were very expensive also to run and operate. And I think the dynamics of the expense and the type of work once the canneries -- after the earthquake and the canneries moved out those jobs for that airplane just weren’t there.
And he let -- he either sold those -- well, one I know he sold in California, because we actually flew that down and delivered it down there to California.
And so he pretty much went with the smaller Cessnas. At that time, the 206 was starting to become popular and was being built by Cessna.
And he had one of the first 206s in Alaska. I think he went down and got that in 1965 actually. I’ve got a picture of him on the wall with that airplane.
So at that time he was transitioning over to that. Kind of the airplanes that you know that Homer Air and Smokey Bay fly today.
So that’s how it ended up pretty much. And it was was a lot of economics.
They were cheaper airplanes to fly, more versatile to haul freight and passengers, get in and out of short strips, which you know is what he needed.
So, yeah, that’s -- that’s how -- you know, he was -- he was a hard worker. It was a 24/7 job.
You know, at that time he -- many, many nights would fly down Port Graham, Nanwalek, and pick people up for, you know, medical reasons.
Or even out of Seldovia. We always had that airplane sitting here ready to go at, you know, at a moment’s notice.
Many flights, rescue flights, like that that he flew.
I was coming back one time -- this story I’ve told to different folks, and I was, oh, I had to have been out of high school and I’d flown many hours with him.
And we were in Homer coming back. It was in the late fall, early winter. I think a little snow on the ground.
We were over there doing something, coming back home. It was dark, which wasn’t unusual.
You know, he could fly -- you know, I was a passenger but technically a not-paying passenger, so he flew, you know, after twilight.
And I remember taking off in Homer, and it was one of those nights where, you know, there was no stars. You couldn’t see clouds, no moon. It was dark. It was just --
And I didn’t think too much of it at time because I’ve done many of those things, but as we got to Seldovia -- at that time, Janet, there wasn’t a lot of places built out Jakolof Bay Road so you didn’t have that light, that point of reference to pick up to where you really were.
There wasn’t much on McDonald Spit either. So I’m guessing this was probably like mid-‘70s.
So until you got around the corner by Seldovia Point, you really couldn’t see Seldovia.
I remember flying along thinking, you know, I really can’t see anything. And I wasn’t nervous ’cause I was with my dad, but I was -- you know, I’m looking around for some landmark, you know, something to see where -- where we were.
And I -- I was -- I was thinking, you know, well, obviously Dad knows where we’re going. He’s done this thousands of times.
And I saw as we come around Seldovia Point, which I -- I -- there was only one hangar on the airport out there and that was his. That’s the hangar on the -- the very first one in line out there, the green one.
That was the only -- that was his hangar, the only one out there. And there was one light on the peak of a streetlamp and that’s all you could see. You could see that one light.
And we never -- I never saw the runway until we were probably only 100 to 200 feet away from it.
And that -- I think at that point -- you know, like I say, I’ve flown with my dad all my life and at that time I -- later on I thought about that flight and I thought, you know, there’s -- that’s some skill. Even though he’s my dad, but that’s some skill to fly that, because most people could never have done that.
He didn’t see a thing until he saw one little light and he’d flown in there so many times, so many years, knew exactly what he was doing, where he was.
Today, you probably would never do that.
So I guess I really -- I kinda came to a real realization that, yes, my dad was quite a pilot. And that was something’s always stuck with me.
JAN YAEGER: That is impressive.
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, many people in Seldovia left around, some of older folks, can probably have the same stories of that, that type of flying with him.
JAN YAEGER: Yeah. And that’s not all he did though, right? He had a business in town other than flying and -- ?
JOHN GRUBER: He started a -- at that time we were -- you know, it was after the earthquake. Seldovia was in a transition stage. There wasn’t a lot here.
There was one cannery left and it was working. There was a logging operation going on. So there was some, you know, some industry here.
But he started a sports shop business, sporting goods store basically, I guess is what it was.
And there was a fellow in Homer, and I don’t recall his name right off the top of my head, had kind of a sporting goods store over there also. And suggested to my dad, “Well, maybe, you know, with some of my stock and yours we could get together and you could start something in Seldovia.”
And Dad always had this on the back of his mind, and so they did -- actually the old ice cream store right down the street here.
JAN YAEGER: That’s Perry’s Café?
JOHN GRUBER: Yes. At that time it was just a single-story building and that’s where he had his office, Seldovia office for his -- you know, Cook Inlet Aviation was running out of there.
JAN YAEGER: And so that building was built after the earthquake?
JOHN GRUBER: After the earthquake. Yeah. And he started a sporting goods store and kind of combined the two businesses together. Yeah.
And it just -- you know, we ran it after he passed away, me and Diane, my wife Diane, ran that until we closed it in, oh, probably the mid-‘90, I guess. Yeah.
And he had outboard motors and, you know, just kind of everything out of there.
And, yeah, it was -- it was -- he -- he -- I don’t know how he did it all, right? To tell you the truth. I think back on it now. He was trying to run both businesses. Of course, he had help. He had hired folks to help him do it and we worked there.
My wife, that was one of -- that was Diane’s first job when she came up here in 1980 was working there for him in the sports shop and for Cook Inlet doing their bookkeeping and their ticketing and I drove the cab.
That was the other thing, Cook Inlet provided quite a service when we think about how we have it now.
At that time, Cook Inlet provided -- had a cab service here, which was basically a van, hauled -- you were able to -- you could call Cook Inlet and get a flight.
I would come and pick you up at your door, take you out to the airport. We didn’t have an office at the airport at that time. The office was down here in, you know -- like, the ice cream store is where he had his place.
And I would take you out to the airport, all your gear, put you in the airplane.
And then if any passengers were coming in, I would pick them up and bring them into town if they needed a ride, if they didn’t have their own vehicles, and we would deliver them to their doors along with their freight and their groceries.
Many times people call over, get groceries flown. We would go out, pick them up, take ‘em right to their home.
A service that’s just not provided anymore. But that was common. I mean, he had that service.
JAN YAEGER: Before the earthquake that was one of the few vehicles in town, wasn’t it?
JOHN GRUBER: One of the few, yeah. Well, you talk to -- Andy Anderson, for instance, came up here as a young man. It was one of his first jobs.
Dad, at that time, had a Volkswagen bus that they ran on the boardwalk, basically doing the same things that I just described. Going in, back and forth to the airport.
And so he -- yeah, that service was there. I don’t -- I don’t know if Paul Choquette had that service or this was something my dad started.
There was a time in town that there was a Seldovia taxi and George Cook, I think, ran that if I remember. And when that started I don’t know. I’m thinking in the ’50s.
So there was a point in time that there was a separate entity, but at some point after George Cook left or retired or whatever happened to that operation, I think Dad probably picked up that end of it to provide --
You know, at that time there wasn’t a lot of vehicles in town, so people getting from the town itself out to the airport, which isn’t a long ways but still, when you’re dealing with freight or luggage yourself, it was convenient.
You had to have transportation, and that’s kind of how it, I think, started.
But, you know, it was -- and that service stayed with Cook Inlet all the way up until about the time my dad sold the business.
And then, I think, it was one of those cost-cutting victims, where it just eventually went away.
And now it’s, you know, really we have a cab service now again. But -- so it’s not as needed, you know, for the bush pilots and the stuff -- you know, they don’t need that service now.
Yeah. But it was interesting and fun. We just -- we did a lot and we provided a lot of service here along with just the flying.
He -- his health was failing unbeknownst to him and myself and the family. We didn’t realize at the time he was suffering from ALS.
He was having neck and back problems, and he always had back problems. It’s the nature of his flying, I think, and lifting freight and the different things that they did. So we didn’t think too much of it.
And he retired in Hawaii about ’87. My mother had passed away in ‘83, so he ended down in Hawaii, was living there, was -- had come back up in ‘89 to help close the business after --
The fella that he sold the business to just walked away, just didn’t show up one day.
And, unfortunately, my dad -- he hadn’t paid Dad off, so Dad technically had a lot of that stuff in his name.
It was a sad way to end Cook Inlet, but that’s what happened to it.
I think between that and the stress of that and -- I don’t know. I don’t know that much about ALS. I’ve studied a little bit, but I’m just guessing the stress didn’t help it.
And in ‘89, he left here, sold his last airplane, got rid of everything, left Seldovia, and about a year later he called me on the phone and said that he’d gone to Honolulu to have his neck looked at.
They discovered through blood tests or however that discovery is made that he had ALS.
And he lived 'til summer of ’94. And it took him down pretty quickly, as it does, and --
But he -- he was in incredible, incredible spirits all the way. People that went to visit him saw him, said they were just amazed on his attitude and his outlook on life.
And, you know, he’d done everything, I think, that he wanted to do. He came to Alaska, lived his life up here.
He was happy and he loved where he was towards the end of his life. And I don’t think he had any regrets, other than, I think, that if my dad would’ve had to do it all over again, he would’ve had just liked to get in an airplane and just fly, just be a pilot and just fly.
So, you know, it was -- he had a wonderful life. And he was here in a time of Seldovia and Alaska where, you know, things were starting to really change.
And, you know, he was here at a good time, I think. And I think he felt that, too. So --
JAN YAEGER: And how about your mom? Can you talk a bit about her? Obviously, you know, born and raised here.
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah, she was. Like I say, her grandfather was Adam Bloch. Her mother, Susan B. English, who the school’s named after, was born here in Seldovia in 1904.
My mother was born in 1929. Lived here in Seldovia until the last two years of high school.
Her uncle was living in Billings, Montana. She went Outside for two years to live in Billings and graduated from high school there.
Came back to Seldovia, met my father here in 1953. Bob Gruber. He had just arrived, of course, and they --
At that time, my mother was helping my grandmother in the post office kind of as a part-time work, not full-time, but working part time for my grandmother, her mother.
And she helped my dad. When my dad bought the business, it was just him and one other pilot, I believe. So it was fairly small.
My mother was the dispatcher, the radio operator, took all the phone calls at the house for, you know, scheduling, and did all that.
She worked also for a cannery here, Sutterlin and Wendt, I believe the name of the cannery was -- as a bookkeeper. Had a little skill in bookkeeping. I think she took some of that, had studied a little bit of that in high school.
And was -- worked -- so she worked in the post office part time, worked in the summertime for the cannery, and then full time for my dad basically.
And then as my dad and as, oh, time went on maybe, say, mid-‘60s or so, Dad opened -- you know, had an office and everything kind of went out of the house down to the office, which -- I think my mother was pretty happy to have the phone and the business down somewhere out of the house at that point of her life.
But, yeah, she was -- lived here all her life, and, unfortunately, died fairly young from breast cancer.
And as my grandmother retired -- actually my -- that was another story. That’s kind of a -- was a forced retirement from the -- from the postal department.
She started it in 1926. No, I take that back, ’25 -- 1925, she started as postmaster here.
They told her that she could no longer work when she turned seventy, so my mother took the job over at that point and was postmaster until her illness forced her out of the job in 1983 --
She passed away in ’83, so she worked up almost, you know, within six months of her passing as postmaster here.
JAN YAEGER: And I’ve always heard her referred to as Midge. Was that her given name?
JOHN GRUBER: Her name was Cecelia. Midge came -- was a shortened version of Midget. She was very short.
And I think it was a nickname that somebody had given her here in Seldovia, and that -- Yeah, everybody called her Midge. Her name was Cecelia.
And my uncle, her brother, also -- his name was Art English, but they called him Oscar.
It was very common, I think, at that time. They both had nicknames given to ‘em by old-timers here in town. Yeah, that’s -- that’s why she went by Midge, but --
JAN YAEGER: Do you know where “Oscar” came from?
JOHN GRUBER: No, Oscar -- I would’ve loved to have you -- have him sit here because he was also born and raised here.
He was in town, just in for the Fourth (of July). We got him down for almost a week.
In fact, if we ever get him back here, I’m gonna make him come in here and talk to you, because he’s got history that goes back even, of course, much farther than my memories of Seldovia.
A lot of Scandinavian people here at that time. And I think being that’s a Scandinavian name. And I don’t know how they -- that came about that they nicknamed him that, but that --
Yeah, we always called him that. Everybody from Seldovia knows him as Oscar.
JAN YAEGER: I suppose it was probably Arthur. Arthur and Oscar, maybe the similarity or something.
JOHN GRUBER: Maybe. It could be. But everybody in Anchorage --
Of course, he spent most of his life in Anchorage. He was a state trooper and Commissioner of Public Safety and worked for a security outfit on the (North) Slope.
But nobody knows him by Art English in Seldovia. All the oldtimers called him Oscar down here.
And he -- him and my mother, were the only -- were the two siblings in Jack and Susan English’s side. And my grandmother, she had a brother and a sister.
That Bloch family was quite large. They -- he had a whole -- he had another family from his first marriage.
Like I say, in Sitka he married a woman, that was Russian extract, down there and they had a large family.
And then he had a second marriage. My grandmother’s mother, my great-grandmother, here. There were four of them, actually.
There was -- my grandmother being the oldest. She had a sister by the name of Fredrica. Then there was Adam, and there was another sister, Mary.
Were all born -- and they were all born here in Seldovia and raised here.
And Mary contracted tuberculosis at a young age and probably late 20s died of that out in Michigan. TB, I guess, was pretty common up here and, you know, a deadly disease at that time.
So that was probably -- that hurt. That -- that was a tough one on my grandmother.
My grandmother, when she was fif -- fourteen years old, her father died and he was quite a bit older than her mother. He passed away.
At that time, Janet, there wasn’t a lot of support. You know, there wasn’t welfare and things, you know, and the government entities to take care of folks at that time.
Her mother being fairly young met a fellow that was here in town, remarried, and then she passed away two years later in childbirth. A devastating blow to the family.
At that point, for whatever reason, which I am not sure even today -- Grandmother didn’t talk about it much, but at that point he took a child that was born -- the stepfather had a child, a half-sister. They went back to California where he was from.
So my grandmother at sixteen was left here in Seldovia with three other younger siblings, and was taken in at some point by some relatives in Cordova that were from the other marriage that Adam Bloch had had before.
So, basically, half-sisters, half-brothers over in Cordova area. The Johanssons and the Simmons family kind of took them in.
And she spent about a year or two in Cordova finishing high school. And at the time, this would’ve been about 1920. She was born in ‘04 --
1921, I think, actually. She got a letter from Juanita Anderson, who was a teacher here. Juanita Anderson and her mother were famous in the peninsula. You might’ve heard of them.
And her mother was, you know, a teacher at Ninilchik, quite famous over there.
She knew my grandmother, was here when my grandmother was going through, you know, the trials and tribulation of losing her mother and dad, and actually helped out a lot in that side of it.
Told my grandmother that there would be a possibility of a postmaster’s job opening up here since her father had it.
And the building -- in the structure that my grandmother grew up in, the post office was still part of that structure, And you’ve seen old photos of that.
But that side building was where their home was, so she said there would be a chance of you getting back into your home.
At that point, the government had taken that building over as post office and the people that were running the post office at the time were living in the house. So basically, she had lost everything. She had lost her mother and her father and her home and --
JAN YAEGER: The federal government actually assumed ownership of the building?
JOHN GRUBER: I think -- I believe that’s what happened. Yeah.
And again I’m not positive, but I -- this is as I remember it being told to me.
So she went -- she -- I don’t believe she ever ended up in Seattle, but she wanted to go to business college down there.
She was trying to find money working in Cordova and doing what she could in restaurants and in grocery stores and everything, and trying to keep the family together at that point.
She ended up coming back to Seldovia about 1923 in hopes of this job would open up.
Again Juanita had written letters to her saying, you know, come back to Seldovia. I think, you know, you have a good chance of getting this.
So she did move the family back. Where they stayed at that time I’m not sure, because the -- the -- the main house that she lived in still was occupied by another family.
Juanita, I believe, was instrumental in trying to get her -- getting her some place to stay. She worked in a restaurant here waiting for the job, applied for it, the job did come up, and I believe 1925 is when she got the official position as postmaster back.
And so she was back in her own home again. Met my grandfather, who came up to Alaska at that point. Ended up in Seldovia from Snug Harbor. He was working over there in a -- in a clamming operation.
They had closed down in the wintertime. He was the winter watchmen the year before, but decided he didn’t want to spend another winter in Tuxedni Bay so ended up in Seldovia.
He knew Frank Raby, who was another oldtimer that you probably heard about. He’d met Frank over in Tuxedni, originally.
And again, Frank came -- was from Canada like my grandfather, Jack. Had some mutual, you know, friendship from that.
Ended up in Seldovia that winter. So, it would’ve been the winter of ’23, ‘24. And met my grandmother. And then they were married in December of 1925.
And so that’s, you know, kinda how he ended up and then, of course, she being postmaster all the way until 1970 --
I think ‘75 is when they had her retire. When she wasn’t ready to retire, but --
JAN YAEGER: So, fifty years.
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah, fifty years.
JAN YAEGER: That’s incredible. JOHN GRUBER: Yeah.
And she wasn’t ready to go, but she didn’t have a choice.
That’s when my mother stepped into the job and -- and she, you know, kept her hand in it, helped out.
Of course, the post office building today was -- you know, the side of it was their newsstand. They opened up a newsstand. A post office/newsstand combination.
JAN YAEGER: So kind of replicating what they had before the earthquake, right, with the post office and the newsstand next door?
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah, they had the same -- yeah. And that newsstand was interesting, too. I asked my grandfather one time, you know, why -- how that got started.
He said -- well, he said, he wanted some place for the kids to be able to sit down and read comic books, and at that time with it just being popular, you know.
So he started that newsstand, I think, in the late ‘30s or ‘40s. My uncle again would know, because he was there.
But I remember it always being there. And then, of course, when -- after the earthquake when they built the new building, you know, it was part of their -- that was part of what they did.
My grandfather’d kind of run the newsstand part of it, basically. And they had, you know, as time went by it became more than just, you know, softcover books and magazines.
There was, you know, they called it sundries, which -- everything from, you know, aspirin to toothpaste to knickknack items, jewelry.
They handled quite a bit of jewelry. Ivory, gold and ivory there. And so it was, yeah, it was just part of them. They were -- they were always there.
Open, you know, at ten o’clock in the morning and closed at five for dinner, and they were open back at seven at night.
My grandfather’d sit there until ten every day, seven days a week, plus running the newsstand and post office.
They lived in the same building until the apartment that you see today above it wasn’t built until ’85. They essentially lived in the back of that for years and -- ‘Til we convinced them that they should build an apartment.
So that was finally done.
Unfortunately, my grandmother didn’t live too long after that to really enjoy it, but they had it for a while.
Then my grandfather passed away in ‘89. So he left Canada in 1920 and again -- again a story of families losing a breadwinner.
I think today how -- how much support is out there for folks, the welfare support or just, you know, financial support for families that are down on their luck.
In those days, there just wasn’t that. His dad got ill and was in a hospital. The mother -- this was in Strathroy, Canada.
The mother was living with some aunts. The aunts became too ill to stay home. They couldn’t afford the house.
She ended up moving to Detroit, which is just across the river, to live with an uncle.
And at that time my uncle -- my grandfather, being, oh, about fifteen years old, I think, at that time decided he didn’t like Detroit and didn’t like the uncle.
And he was a pretty independent guy anyway, so him and a friend -- he went back to Strathroy, met up with a friend, and they just started going West.
They jumped on trains and they traveled and walked, hitchhiked, whatever they did. In about 1921, he ended up in Seattle, Washington.
Again, just really didn’t have any place in mind. They just ended up in Seattle because that’s was as far as they could go, I guess, at the time.
The friend, I don’t know what happened to him. My grandfather ended up on a boat heading for Tuxedni Bay up here in the Inlet (Cook Inlet), and there was a clamming -- a commercial clamming and salmon cannery there at that time.
So he hired on to go work in the cannery. Again, going to Alaska was fascinating so that didn’t -- you know, wasn’t too hard for him to make that decision to come up here.
Ended up at Tuxedni the summer, met Frank Raby, who was a -- was hired on at that time to dig clams.
And my grandfather told me the story that his introduction to Frank -- he said, “I was watching this fella” -- in his words -- “go out at low tide with a -- and they dug -- "
And they had wooden boxes, I think, that they towed. And they might have had skegs on ‘em or something. And they would tow these wooden boxes down, fill ‘em with clams, and then other people would tow the wooden boxes back up the beach, and then they would process ‘em.
But the fella that dug the clams, that’s all he dug -- did, was dig the clam.
My grandfather said Frank would bend over and start diggin’, and he wouldn’t straighten back up until the tide came back in. In other words, he was a pretty good clam digger.
And I believe they got paid by the amount of clams they dug, so the harder you worked, the more you got paid. So there was an incentive to -- but it’s hard work.
And my grandfather was impressed with that and, of course, they introduced -- they got introduced to each other, being a fairly, you know, small area. There was just the cannery there at that time.
And Frank, that winter when the cannery was going to close, Frank came to Seldovia.
What brought Frank to Seldovia originally, I don’t know. If he knew somebody here or just -- Seldovia at that point, you know, other than Kenai and Seldovia, they were two biggest points on, you know, on the map on the Kenai Peninsula at that time other than Seward.
But he ended up here in Seldovia. Grandfather stayed in Tuxedni like I said before and volunteered to become -- I don’t think it was a volunteer.
I think it was a paid position. It was him and another guy. They decided to stay in Tuxedni and watch the cannery as winter watchmen, which he did.
He trapped and built himself a little cabin somewhere, you know, up the bay. I don’t know exactly where it was.
I’ve got a picture of him standing in front of it though. A little trapper’s cabin. And they spent the winter there.
That spring he went back to work for the cannery, when everything’s opened up.
And did -- he was a machinist and was kind of a self-taught guy. And worked that summer, but decided that, eh, one winter was enough and ended up in Seldovia, knowing Frank was here.
At that time, Frank had gone to work for a guy by the name of H. S. Young, I think.
H. S. Young had the store that we had pointed out. Prominent building in the community.
Was married -- him and a lady by the name of Winnie -- Winifred Young.
Originally, I think, came out of Canada during the gold rush. They were up in the Interior during the gold rush era, and had businesses up there, probably mercantile businesses, sounded like.
Ended up in Seldovia because of the, you know, the time. Seldovia was kind of a booming little place at that point.
And at some point, H. S. Young either was -- took ill and passed away.
So I’m not sure of those dates that he did, but Frank ended up marrying Winnie and running the store for many, many years.
And so Frank and my grandfather were friends and my grandmother, close friends for, you know, until they both, you know, until death.
And I don’t know a lot of history of Frank, unfortunately. I wish we did.
We always called him Uncle Frank, because he was always there all the Christmases and Thanksgivings. He -- other than -- women -- Winnie was quite a bit older than Frank. They didn’t have any kids, didn’t have anything.
Frank had no other marriages, or no children. He did have brothers and sisters in Canada. Sounds to me like in eastern Canada is where he grew up.
And he’s, you know, passed away and buried here also. And quite a large land owner around here at one time, too.
JAN YAEGER: I’ve heard stories about that. And one thing I’ve been curious about is I always hear about him living in town. But of course, there’s Frank Raby Spit, which is over on the other side of the bay. Do you know the story behind that?
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah, a little bit. That -- and that’s funny because only the real oldtimers will call that Raby Spit anymore. But that was what it was always known.
Him and a guy by the name of Bert Simpson had a fox farm up there and quite -- a couple large structures.
And at that time, if -- I’ve got pictures of that spit. If you look at the pictures then, there was -- it was fairly cleared of any trees, brush, or anything and there were fox pens built on it.
There was, like, it was like heavy chicken wire pens built with a small -- like a small doghouse in it. And they were raising fox.
Looks like blue fox to me, I think is what they were.
And they lived up there. I don’t think they lived there year round. But maybe one, because Frank was still technically running the store at that point.
Bert Simpson, again, I’m not sure much about his history, but he was married to a woman that ended up after Bert had drowned in a boating accident -- and she married a fellow by the name of Steve Zawistowski, which you might’ve heard that name.
And their place is still down here off of Main Street. And, anyway, that was Bert’s widow that married Steve.
And at -- at some point, I think after Bert passed away, it was -- yeah, I don’t know if it was the death, the accident, that -- that the fox farming went away or if it was just -- there was a time, I think, where that industry just kind of phased out because of -- it might’ve been money.
You know, the furs, you know, weren’t bringing the money. It was -- it was probably a pretty labor-intensive operation to do that.
But fox farming was pretty common around here. There was -- I know there was a fox farm up on Yukon Island. In different places in the general area it was, you know, it was pretty common.
It was a way to make money. And I think a lot -- you know, like these guys did what they could to make a living.
Again, I don’t remember quite how long Frank had that, but at some point, you know, that all -- that all quit and went away and he pretty much stayed, you know, in the business here in town running the store.
You know, it was a fairly -- it was a fairly large store, too. It was, you know, they had everything there, and they had a large warehouse next to it.
You know, it was one of the -- other than, you know, the competition was Inglima -- or actually, no, Morris. It was Morris’s first, and Inglima came later. But those were the two -- the two entities in store -- in town.
JAN YAEGER: Okay, ‘cause now wasn’t the Morris’s -- wasn’t -- Dick Inglima married the Morris’s daughter?
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. JAN YAEGER: Okay. That was Luned, I think.
JOHN GRUBER: Hm-mm. And their family’s still over in Homer.
JAN YAEGER: Hm-mm. Yeah. Did they go to Homer after the earthquake, or was it -- ?
JOHN GRUBER: Yes. And I don’t remember how -- I remember they were here. The original structure, like we were talking earlier, basically where we’re at now.
And then they built a -- they had a small metal -- we call ‘em Butler buildings right next to it, and that’s where they ended up after the earthquake. They ended up in that building.
There was a house right behind here where Frankie Kash has his -- kind of his driveway there. There was the main -- the Morris’s house.
The Morrises were originally from Wales. They came over from Wales.
And again, what time -- it would be nice if you could get an interview maybe with the Inglimas in Homer. There’s Lynn and Dick both living over there. They’re the children of Luned and Dick.
Diane’s the oldest daughter. I don’t know if she lives in Anchorage, but they -- that would be interesting ‘cause they were, you know, they were important to the community here at that time, the Morrises were.
You know, one of the -- it was the one main store on this end of town.
And, originally, I know they were from Wales. They were good friends with my grandparents. We have many pictures of them and again, different dinners and meetings together.
How or when they ended up in Seldovia, I don’t know. And really how they ended up here, what brought them here you know, like, I don’t know.
You know, they, like a lot of people, you know, Seldovia was probably, you know, the place to be on this end of the peninsula.
Opportunity was here with the fishing and -- and, basically, the fishing, because there really wasn’t any logging operation at that era. That didn’t start until the late ‘60s.
But it was all fishing. And again, seasonal.
Seldovia got pretty quiet in the wintertime, kind of like it does now.
But you did what you, you know, you did what you had to do. I remember my grandfather -- of course, my grandmother being the postmaster, you know, he did what he could do to make a living. He did many things.
He worked for the canneries. Again, he was kind of a self-taught machinist.
He started a tinsmith business which, you know, was kind of important to have with, you know, making stovepipe and doing anything with that, you know, tinsmithing, welding, machinist work.
He was, you know, a magistrate for a while, marine surveyor, the volunteer policeman, the mayor, then city manager. I mean, all kinds of different things in his time here.
JAN YAEGER: And his office is still standing? Is that correct?
JOHN GRUBER: The office that you see on -- behind my place on the piling? Basically that came later.
His original office is actually right next to my house. I don’t know if you’ve been up to my place or not, but --
JAN YAEGER: I haven’t.
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah, that’s the original. His original office was on the boardwalk that -- after the earthquake that was brought up to where I’m living now.
And, of course, it’s got a roof on and stuff on it, kind of surrounded right now, but the original structure is still there, yeah. Yeah, yeah, and he had that right across the boardwalk from the post office. At that time, he --
And how he got involved with the magistrate and doing that type of work, I’m not sure. I think it was one of those things that was just needed.
I believe a fellow by the name of Alan Peterson was doing it first. And Alan Peterson, again, old family here.
He was the marshal here, I think, for a while. And again, it was just one of those things, well, you know, they left and this was a need. You know, the state -- or the territory, I guess it was. It wasn’t a state then. Needed somebody here.
And, you know, he had no formal law training or anything. But I got all his law books, and he’s got stacks of ‘em so, again, he was a self-taught person.
You just -- you did what you had to do to get by here and survive, and that was one of the things he did.
JAN YAEGER: And do you know was the chronology of -- of mayor and city manager and magistrate?
JOHN GRUBER: I don’t. You know, I don’t know, and I hesitate to say because I don’t think I would get it right.
I just know that the magistrate lasted -- that was -- that was an ongoing thing for him until --
Christine Kash could tell you, because she did that job for a while, too. She could probably give you that information.
Darlene Crawford worked for him as a kind of a secretary and a helper in his office, too. And so I don’t know those dates for sure.
The marine surveying, again one of those positions probably that needed, you know, there was -- being a lot of boats here, there was a need for that.
How he started in that I don’t know. But he did that and traveled, actually, all over the state doing that.
I remember as a little -- as a young guy going with him on some of his trips, you know, to Kenai, you know, Homer, and going to Anchorage or something to survey a barge or do something.
He was an independent agent so he wasn’t attached to any particular, you know, entity. He was -- worked -- somebody needed a boat surveyed, needed some insurance, he would go down and do it -- the paperwork -- get it sent in.
I think he enjoyed that work because he loved boats, loved sailing ships, and loved the ocean. And so I think it was an enjoyable. Out of all the jobs, in fact, he probably enjoyed that the most. So yeah.
JAN YAEGER: Okay. Another thing I’ve heard a lot of people talking about with him is connected with dancing. Teaching people to dance and leading dances and so on.
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah, I remember -- I remember the old -- would be the old schoolhouse that was still around, you know, before the earthquake. It was kinda -- sat right about where, oh, the clinic sits now today, kind of in that general area.
At that time, the school up on the hill next to the old school shop that was -- that was the school. Would be the old school to me, but there was actually three schools. That was the one in between, I guess.
So the one on the boardwalk down here was kinda just used as a community center it sounded like. In one end of it, they had an open -- big, open classroom.
That’s probably what it was at one time. The library was in one side. My grandmother was instrumental in getting that going.
And on the other side was a big, open room and I think they had dance -- dances in there on the weekends or in the evenings. That was pretty common.
People -- folks just gathered, you know. It was before TV and anything like that, so that was part of the -- part of the community.
And I guess he was a pretty good dancer, I was told. And he loved to dance, yeah. And ice skate. He was a pretty good ice skater.
JAN YAEGER: Really? JOHN GRUBER: Yeah.
JAN YAEGER: And so would people skate on the lake?
JOHN GRUBER: Yeah. Skate on Su -- the lake. You don’t see too much of that today, but even when I was growing up here that was something we all did.
Get a fire started out there and somebody would, you know, start testing the lake and find out if it was safe.
Of course, we had winters kinda like we do now, where some winters are good and some winters were bad, but everybody got out and skated. We all did.
It was kind of a community gathering. Yeah, he was a good -- he was a good skater. Yep. And loved to dance. Yeah.