Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Michael Swisher

Michael Swisher was interviewed by Bill Schneider and David Krupa on October 23, 1993 at his homestead on the Old Edgerton Road in Kenny Lake, Alaska. The timing of the interview with Michael was unfortunate, because his mother had just been medivaced out after a fall and he had been awake much of the night making the arrangements and seeing his wife and mother off. In this recording, he talks about coming to Alaska, homesteading, the various ways he obtained income, living in Kenny Lake, and the National Park Service.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 95-71-19

Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Oct 22, 1993
Narrator(s): Michael Swisher
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, David Krupa
Transcriber: Sue Beck
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.

Sections

Coming to Alaska

Choosing a place to homestead in Alaska

Getting to his homestead, and neighbors

Clearing the homestead, and building a cabin

Sources of income: hay, bees, rental cabins

Sources of income: teaching, weather service; and house description

Markets for products, and description of economic activities in the area

Community affairs and services at Kenny Lake

A brief description of his yearly cycle: spring, summer

Trying to grow a specific type of Russian alfalfa seed

Changes in lake levels and precipitation

A brief description of his yearly cycle: fall, winter

Changes after establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and new people moving into the area

The growth of the community school, and their adopted son

Advice for other homesteaders

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.

Transcript

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay, today is October 22, 1993. I’m Bill Schneider. Dave Krupa’s here, too, and we’re talking with Michael Swisher. On the old Edgerton Road?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And thank you for making time, Michael. I know that this is a difficult day. But thanks for making time and we’ll try to keep this short.

Tell us a little bit about what brought you up to Alaska.

MICHAEL SWISHER: Well, I was working for Boeing, the Boeing Company in Seattle, for eight years and I decided to take a vacation.

And I thought Alaska would be a good place to take a vacation. When I came up here, I just more or less fell in love with it.

And at that time homesteading was still -- still open. I found out later that in 1989 -- (phone rings)

BILL SCHNEIDER: You found out later that in 1989 -- ?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Was the cutoff date.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, okay. So did you pack up the family and head north? Or how did it happen?

MICHAEL SWISHER: I was single at the time and decided that what I saw up here was just the place that I wanted to be. The scenery and whatnot, the -- just the people and the -- just the general critique of the mountains and the whatnot.

The wild things, the animals. And so I had --

went to Metzger Map Company in Seattle and bought a series of maps that covers every square inch of the state.

And I just put YES/NO/MAYBE files on the floor. And I had about four or five areas of YES to look at. And that was the Matanuska Valley, the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks area, and the Copper River Valley.

So I concentrated heavily on those four areas. And the rest of it was either across the bay or North Slope, things like that where you couldn’t grow anything.

And I thought if I was gonna make use of anything, I’d want to do some crop work or something.

And I could have gotten into the more industrial area where they would have been what I was used to, you know, like working at Boeing. But there I was into electronics engineering.

So -- and there wasn’t anything available in the state in that area.

So I looked around at those four areas and the Kenai Peninsula looked just a little bit too busy, too crowded, and the weather just didn’t suit me too well.

Fairbanks is just a little cold, too much variation, although it does have -- even now it’s considered to be a good agricultural area.

And the Matanuska Valley is -- I thought was too crowded. It’s pretty much farmed out there, even out Wasilla and further out that way.

And then I -- last place I stopped was the Copper Valley and I thought, "Oh. Okay. This looks really nice. I’ll try this old dirt road."

And it had not been maintained, this road. Period. It had been officially -- officially abandoned by the State.

I mean, this lake -- I don’t know which way you came in, from that way or the other way. If you’d have come in from that way --

BILL SCHNEIDER: Down the highway way.

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yeah. There’s a great big lake there that was -- completely flooded the road. So I had to just drive through the lake.

And what the beavers had done, they just built up a humongous dam and flooded the road.

So -- so the State eventually had blown out a few dams and lowered some of those lakes after a few people moved in.

And in 1968 then, since that was the last year, we did start getting neighbors in. We have Ed Gerrue up here right next to us. He’s been here since ’68.

And then Rance Gieseker, who has since gone back to Washington. He came in ’68.

And he cleared off almost all his homestead, which didn’t leave any trees or anything.

And I like to have the scenery of the trees and still have the beauty of the mountains and whatnot.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us about that first year. What was it like? Were you clearing trees?

MICHAEL SWISHER: It was total hell. Because I had to have some -- have a guy with a Cat come in and just clear off the ten acres that was required and -- and then just plant a crop on it.

He piled it up in burn piles -- the riffraff, the trash. And the good trees and whatnot I cut up with a chainsaw.

I’d -- some of the tools that I needed I had in Seattle, because I’ve had a landscaping business also in Seattle. And so some of the tools that I needed I already had.

And so I was -- made it quite a bit easier there.

I had an old tractor that I brought up with me. I built a trailer down in Seattle that I hauled it around down there with.

And so I was able to more or less scrap together the fields to grow the hay.

And then, of course, you gotta -- all at the same time you gotta put together a dwelling to live in. So, used some of the logs to build a house and use it to -- for firewood, or oil stove or whatever. And a little bit of each like we do here now.

It’s primarily in this house burn with wood. And when we’re gone for the weekends or when it gets really cold, we have both of them on, because it can --

I think over the years the highest we’ve ever recorded here was 91°F. Plus.

And the coldest was -62°. I don’t remember which years those were.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So that first year you were growing hay?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yeah. Mm-hm.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And then how did you get into the beekeeping?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Okay, that came along later after I started studying some of the flowers. And probably I’d say six, seven years after that, I had just looked around several places in the States to see what they were doing.

And I found a few farmers up in the Fairbanks area that were doing beekeeping, and some of them down the Matanuska were doing beekeeping.

I thought, "Well, let’s give it a try." And I’ve had as many as twenty colonies. Of course, beginning, I’ve had as little as two. And last year I didn’t have any.

This year I intend to have some and go back into full-fledged on the grass farming again.

So I’ve gotten the cabins built and rented. And so I can put my funding back into what I intended to do when I came up here.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So you built those cabins to have some income coming in from them?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And those are long-term rentals of a year or so?

MICHAEL SWISHER: No. There as long as they want to rent ‘em. We’ve had one that’s been rented by the same couple for five years. That’s just about halfway down to the bluff.

The homestead’s -- goes from here about where we are, just to across the road just a little ways, clear to the Copper River bluff. It’s kind of rectangular.

And from the bluff it’s four hundred feet down to the Copper River, almost straight shot down. You fall over and it’s -- that’s too bad. So --

BILL SCHNEIDER: So you’ve been able to make a go of homesteading here?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yes. And from time to time jobs would come up at the school, so I’ve made use of that.

And I started off as a cook, and I’ve worked cook, custodian, and for several years. And then got into special education there.

So I spent several years in special ed and worked with autistic kids and those that needed learning. And so just odd jobs here and there, too, has kept me, and --

BILL SCHNEIDER: And then you also do some work with the weather service? Is that correct?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yes. I also work for National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration taking the weather for them. It doesn’t bring in a lot of money a month, but it does help the income.

Since my wife, she quit -- retired teaching about four years ago, so we’re running pretty low budget now. But you make do on what you got.

And fortunately, we got the house built. This is not the original house we lived in. This one is only about ten years old. But it’s quite comfortable.

And it’s 24 x 28 without the additions. And they’re each 16 x 16, the two additions on the other end there. And a two-story, barn-type roof.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Where do you market your honey?

MICHAEL SWISHER: All -- any of the -- any honey I can produce, the valley itself will take it.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, they will?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yeah, the stores will just glom right onto it. So.

And there’s, of course, there’s any number of stores in the valley here. There’s probably six or eight different stores that would -- glad to have any amount of it.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And what about the hay?

MICHAEL SWISHER: The hay, there’s any number of horse owners, too. Now if you notice -- you said you were up to Sam Lightwood’s. So he doesn’t have any horses, but he’s got a lot of cows still.

And Bill Etchells has quite a few horses.

And throughout the entire valley there are quite a few horses and cows and some goats.

Now, a gentleman named Keith Murray keeps goats. I don’t know if you talked to him or not. But he’s about Mile -- on the New Edgerton.

Now, this is the Old Edgerton. I think they call it the Old Edgerton because it’s considered to be the oldest road in the state. It goes up -- did go up to McCarthy, and it was a pretty rough road.

But it’s -- and they have since built the one that you claimed you got lost on. That’s the New Edgerton.

And the man I was talking about, he has goats. So there’s a variety of animals around. Some people have tried sheep.

And there are quite a few people that do weaving and spinning. I weave myself. The grill cloth on the speaker cabinets I wove. And quite a few placemats and stuff like that. And Christmas gifts and whatnot. And so --

BILL SCHNEIDER: Can you talk for a minute about the community here and what holds you folks together?

MICHAEL SWISHER: We have a community hall up near -- I think that’s about probably where you called from, is the store up there?

The mercantile store? Is that where you called from?

BILL SCHNEIDER: No, but we know where you mean. MICHAEL SWISHER: Oh, okay. Right near there, there’s a community hall. BILL SCHNEIDER: Mm-hm. Saw it.

MICHAEL SWISHER: Okay. And once a month they have community get-together, and they hold the annual fair there and any other get-togethers. The Soil Conservation Service has their meetings there.

And any other special groups make arrangements to have meetings there. They vote there and -- on local issues and national issues. So it has multiple-use service there.

And as far as water goes, we have a fire department here. That’s a little further down the New Edgerton Road.

And it has -- for a fee you can get bulk water. And that’s what we do. We have -- on our second floor up here we have a four hundred gallon tank.

So if the power should ever go off, which it does occasionally in this area. Copper Valley Electric is quite reliable, but not all so much. It occasionally does go off.

We still have running water because of this -- the gravity flow. I don’t think I’d like to take a shower under just dribbly water, but --

BILL SCHNEIDER: So you have a well here, too? MICHAEL SWISHER: No, we do not have a well.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, I see. You rely exclusively on water that you buy?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yeah. Right. No, there -- now just across the street from the fire hall is a community well, which is strictly owned by the community. And that’s usually people fill up their fifty-gallon drums or ten-gallon gallon buckets and stuff like that.

And that’s -- you just bring your hose, hook it up to your fifty gallon drum, turn on the handle, and that’s it. And that’s all free water. And it’s good water.

Both sources are very good tasting water. It’s not -- there is no bad taste to either -- either one.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What’s your yearly cycle like? Like what are you doing in the summer, the fall, and the spring?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Summer, fall, and spring, I either getting -- like spring I’m getting set up for farming. Getting the machinery ready and getting the materials ready. The fertilizer, seed, and what I’m going to need getting into summer.

And getting the -- also spring getting the fields harrowed up and spread the fertilizer out.

In summer, of course, just let it grow. And there are -- if we have good summers we can get two cuttings of hay during a good summer. And you can expect two tons an acre I would say on a good summer, which is pretty good.

And prices range from homestead to homestead up to $75–$125 a ton. I mean, it’s -- it ranges all over the place depending on what it is.

Now, I mentioned before or maybe I didn’t yet, the alfalfa. I have tried raising alfalfa for feed crops. And that that I’ve cut, I’ve literally given away to bovine and horse owners, and they say they go for it in a good way.

And so I have tried to get some more of that particular seed with no luck whatsoever. I’ve even -- I haven’t tried writing to Siberia, or the Ukraine either.

I should probably just write a letter to their -- since their whole policy has changed over there, just write to the -- to the governments of each area. Or write to the Moscow University.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Why don’t you give us the name of that again. It’s Ukrainian -- ?

MICHAEL SWISHER: It’s yellow blossom -- yellow flowered blossom Siberian alfalfa.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And you think that that would grow pretty well?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yes, I believe it would. It is -- there hasn’t been -- even when we’ve had sixty below outside, it hasn’t killed it at all.

And it blooms profusely, and the bees, of course, just go after it like crazy. I mean, they love it. They just practically eat it down to the ground.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, maybe that will be the crop of the future here?

MICHAEL SWISHER: It would be if I could get some.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What weather changes have you seen over time?

MICHAEL SWISHER: It just seems to vary with your normal eleven-year cycle.

But I think I discussed with you off-mic that the lakes have been drying up around here. Our own lake and the main lake up at Kenny Lake has dried up considerably. And a lot of the small lakes have dried up considerably.

So where that water is going I’m not sure, whether it’s -- it’s finding streams underground that it’s leaking into. I don’t know. Or if it's just natural evaporation.

But we -- our climate here is -- at this weather station is about ten inches a year and that’s melted snow and rain, which is almost -- you might say it’s almost desertous area.

It’d be like -- almost like Eastern Washington. Of course, Eastern Washington they grow good crops, too, so --

BILL SCHNEIDER: So you don’t see the lack of rain as -- as a deterrent to --

MICHAEL SWISHER: No, I don’t. I haven’t seen any real deterrent. It seems to be kind of a mystery to me.

We’ve never gotten together as a group to -- to determine what we all think of what’s been a deterrent on this. Some of the other people you’ve interviewed might have had some ideas on this, but I’ve never given it a whole lot of thought.

I’ve got a pile of material over there that I should probably go through and see if there’s been any major changes, but I haven’t noticed any major changes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So as we were going through the yearly cycle, summer you’d be growing, and then in the fall harvesting?

MICHAEL SWISHER: How is that again now?

BILL SCHNEIDER: We were talking about a yearly cycle of activities. And you were talking about in the spring getting ready, summer growing, and then harvest in the fall.

MICHAEL SWISHER: Right.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And then would you be marketing?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yes. Mm-hm. Storing it -- store it in the barn. The barn is down at the far end of the homestead. Store the hay in there and then people come by, and either I deliver it or they’ll come by and pick it up.

And, of course, I have all the necessary machinery. The baler and the discs and mowing machine and all that kind of stuff. Tractor.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Those are major investments, aren’t they?

MICHAEL SWISHER: They're quite major investments.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And then in winter what are you involved in?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Winter you enjoy. It’s just kind of sit back and enjoy.

You -- like I say, I have quite an eclectic assortment of discs there that -- I enjoy music, and we have a dish so that we can watch various channels and --

And I’ve got the amateur radio service that I -- that I use extensively. And so I can talk around the world to various other amateurs.

And I like to talk for long periods of time with these people in -- especially the Australians and whatnot. See, they’re down south of the equator. They’re just the opposite, just the opposite as we are. If we’re summer, they’re winter, so --

BILL SCHNEIDER: Are you -- do you do any hunting?

MICHAEL SWISHER: No, I’m not a game hunter.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Have you noticed any changes since the park was established?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Not a great deal. In fact, I’m not against it at all. In fact, to me, it’s preservation of the animals that are in it.

And the buffalo that they planted on the other side of the river, sometimes when it -- a good hard freeze on the river, they’ll come over on this side and we’ll have buffalo roaming on this side through some of the people’s fields. And then they’ll just wander back across the river.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How about new people coming in? Have you noticed a lot of new people?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Yes, since we moved here there’s been quite a number of people coming into the area over the past, oh, ten to fifteen years.

Not so much homesteading, because homesteading was locked off. But people that had homesteads sold them off to other people, and so they have small parcels anywhere from five to complete homesteads. And they’ve either gone into agriculture or just enjoy it as it is.

A lot of -- a lot of people just buy up ten-acre, fifteen-acre parcels and then just enjoy it. Enjoy the woods and whatnot.

I’ve sold myself. My wife and I have sold, I think, three separate parcels of just a couple of acres each. And so that brought in some more people there. And, of course, that brings in more kids for the school.

So I’ve seen over the years quite a growth in the school. Because each family you bring in can bring in up to three, four kids.

And so since she started teaching up here at school -- so we got married sixteen years ago, be seventeen years coming December. And she’s seen quite a growth in the school.

And I was working custodian and cooking long before that, and I’ve seen even a further growth, so --

In fact, they’ve built a entirely new school up there since it first started. You’ve seen the school, I probably take it.

We also have a community library here right there near the school and that’s well used by the community members.

And -- and we’ve had to hire quite a few new teachers because of the school growth. And where we didn’t have a school bus running down this road, we do now daily. And so the State -- Don’t mind the dog, she snores.

BILL SCHNEIDER: That’s what we’re picking up here is Michael’s ten-year-old dog.

MICHAEL SWISHER: It’s not me! But so that’s been some of the changes there.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Let me ask you one other question. What about your family? You say your wife, Helen, came and worked in the school, and then you have one child?

MICHAEL SWISHER: We adopted a child. At age fifteen, we adopted him. And he’s twenty-seven now, I think, and he works in Minneapolis-St. Paul driving truck.

And we hear from him from time to time. He doesn’t call as often as we wished he would, but he does check in occasionally. So, far as I know he’s behaving himself. So --

BILL SCHNEIDER: Any advice for homesteaders who want to get into the beekeeping business or the hay business?

MICHAEL SWISHER: Well, it -- you know, I can just say that it does work and any people that have new ideas, I would just say try 'em. Who knows? It might work.

And there’s people down toward Chitina that have gotten into the logging business because the bark beetle has taken over -- such a toll down there.

And if you’re familiar with that at all, the bark beetle has -- they’ve destroyed vast amounts of forest, even down towards Tiekel, down towards Valdez.

And so they’ve -- that’s another industry that’s started up is the sawmill business. And I guess they turn out some fantastic logs out of those, because some of these trees around here are well over a hundred years old.

I mean, you can get a good three-foot logs. And this house alone is sitting on fifteen pilings, and I didn’t have a sawmill so I used a chainsaw to square off the sides. So --

And the wife and I dug the holes to put the concrete in and put the pilings in.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, thank you very much. I think that gives people a taste of your life here. MICHAEL SWISHER: Mm-hm.