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Hugh Q. Smith

Hugh Q. Smith was interviewed on January 20, 2015 by Jan Yaeger at the Seldovia Conference Center in Seldovia, Alaska. In this interview, Hugh talks about his career as a shop and math teacher in Seldovia, as well as his work as a contractor building homes and public buildings around Seldovia. He also talks about the changes he has seen in the community and what he foresees for the future.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2014-17-07

Project: Seldovia
Date of Interview: Jan 20, 2015
Narrator(s): Hugh Q. Smith
Interviewer(s): Jan Yaeger
Transcriber: Jan Yaeger
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Park Service, Seldovia Village Tribe
Alternate Transcripts
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Coming to Seldovia as a teacher

New school building

Swimming pool at the school

Community layout and housing

Construction of buildings around town with help from students

Balancing construction projects with teaching job

Shop at the school

Seldovia community leaders

Canneries and fisheries

Road to Jakolof Bay

Changes in Seldovia

Getting the teaching job, first impressions, and staying in the community

Raising a family

Forecast of Seldovia's future as a retirement community

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JAN YAEGER: It is January 20, 2015. This is Jan Yaeger, talking with Hugh Smith in the Seldovia Conference Center, and this is an interview for the "In Our Own Words Project" of Seldovia Village Tribe.

And Mr. Smith, you have lived in Seldovia how long?

HUGH SMITH: I arrived in the late summer of 1970.

JAN YAEGER: And did you come with your wife then, or did you -- HUGH SMITH: No. JAN YAEGER: -- meet her here?

HUGH SMITH: I was -- I was single.

JAN YAEGER: And you came here to do what?

HUGH SMITH: I had a job teaching at the Susan B. English School. In the vocational shop and high school math.

JAN YAEGER: And how many years did you teach there?

HUGH SMITH: I retired sixteen years later. So I was here teaching for sixteen years.

JAN YAEGER: And what was it like teaching for Susan B. English?

HUGH SMITH: It fluctuated from year to year. A lot depended on the local administrator we had. If we had a administrator that was always looking for new ideas and new approaches, we had very successful years.

But then as we would, say, change administrators and some would have -- be more restrictive, then the overall program kind of deteriorated.

JAN YAEGER: And so you were there right when the transition to the new building was happening, right?

HUGH SMITH: Right. When I arrived, the new building was under construction. And the first year, we were in what we called the old school.

The shop was down in the basement. The present shop was the gymnasium.

JAN YAEGER: And those were right next to each other?


JAN YAEGER: And how about the school classes? You know, right now, they're broken up. Kind of all of the elementary students together, middle school and high school. How was the distribution then?

HUGH SMITH: At that time, the enrollment was two and a half times what it is today, so it was kind of crowded conditions. They had two portables outside.

But the classes were integrated. Say, two classes together in the elementary.

JAN YAEGER: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like in the community when the new school opened?

HUGH SMITH: It was primarily a fishing and logging community. We had the Wakefield Cannery processing king crab, mainly.

And then out at Jakolof there was the logging camp and we had a number of students that lived at the logging camp and they would send school buses out.

At one time, they had so many students that I believe we had two bus runs a day. But then, as the logging deteriorated and the fishing deteriorated, the enrollment started to decrease.

JAN YAEGER: Susan B. English was the first school with a swimming pool, wasn't it? On the peninsula?

HUGH SMITH: Right. We -- or the Susan B. English school was the -- I believe the third school in the state to have a swimming pool. I believe that West High in Anchorage was first, then Homer, I believe, was second, and Seldovia was third.

JAN YAEGER: And was the pool used as a regular part of the class -- class day? Were there swimming lessons taught as part of class or was it more of an after-hours kind of thing?

HUGH SMITH: No, it was quite utilized by the P. E. department, as well as the community. But at that time, we had more students and we actually had a swimming team that would compete with other schools. Mainly Homer.

JAN YAEGER: I was just going to ask, if there's only three schools with pools, it must have been kind of racing against the same students all the time?

HUGH SMITH: Right. Homer and Seldovia, they would compete from time to time.

JAN YAEGER: And so, you also arrived just kind of very shortly after Urban Renewal. Can you talk a little bit about what Seldovia looked like and felt like when you first came and the changes that you saw over the years?

HUGH SMITH: When I arrived, there was very limited housing. The area from, say, the Linwood/Post Office area all the way over the Seldovia House was just one big parking lot.

There were, I think three -- well, I take that back. two structures in the entire area, and they were left over from Urban Renewal. One of them was the city library building, which at one time, I believe, was part of the canneries -- one of the canneries' bunkhouses.

And then there was one small residential house left over from Urban Renewal. But that entire area was basically just one big parking lot. No streets, no utilities, nothing.

It used to be what they call Cap's Hill. They blew Cap's Hill up and used it for fill along the waterfront. And it was just basically a flat, level ground.

JAN YAEGER: So what did you do for housing when you arrived, then?

HUGH SMITH: It was customary that staff members or teachers would find temporary housing with other faculty members or even camp at the school for a period of time.

So I was able to get into a trailer two or three months after I was here.

JAN YAEGER: And you, with some of your high school students, built a lot of the buildings that are around now. Is that right?

HUGH SMITH: I saw the need for housing and there was really nobody, or nobody locally, that was involved in that type of work. So I saw the opportunity of picking up a lot and building.

At that time, Alaska Housing Authority owned the property and you had to basically submit your plans to them to pick up the title to a lot.

One thing you had to do was to show that you had the financial ability to complete the project, and they gave you a two-year timeline to do it.

So you could not just go out and buy some land and speculate on it. You had to actually develop it.

So I was fortunate enough that there was a local party that financed me for my first project. Then once you had established your -- basically, your credit with Alaska Housing, then you could pick up an additional land.

So, yes, I was involved and from time to time I would employ students. Weekends, sometimes after school, summer, to kind of work along with me.

JAN YAEGER: And what were some of those buildings that were done? I think the harbor master's was one, right?

HUGH SMITH: Well, yeah, that was one of the public buildings we did. I was quite intensively involved in the city complex. The library building.

At that time, the public library was an old converted barracks -- or bunkhouse from the cannery. And there's really no central place for city meetings or community meetings other than the school.

So I was asked to put together a committee to look at the big picture as to what would be desirable for Seldovia. And that's where the present city complex originated.

It was basically broken up into three sections. The nucleus, which is presently the library building, and then on one side we had the clinic and on the other side was the fire and police station.

And the intent was to start with the nucleus, which had the heating system and things like that, and then as funds became available, add the clinic and the fire and police station.

So the first section of that was the library building itself, and the library committee and library board obtained a grant from the state to start that original portion.

JAN YAEGER: So it was built in stages?

HUGH SMITH: Yes. JAN YAEGER: Okay. HUGH SMITH: It was laid out so that the nucleus could be built first and then the two wings, or the two ends, could be added later.

JAN YAEGER: And was that one that students were involved in helping build?

HUGH SMITH: No. Ones the students were involved in is on Fulmor Avenue, and that was one of the lots that I picked up in my name and then basically it was a school project.

Working through the Alaska -- or through the Farm Home Administration. A -- that particular building was -- we tried to incorporate as much of the school curriculum as possible.

So the vocational shop people were involved in the actual physical construction. The Home Ec department was responsible for the interior design, layout and specs.

And then the business people were involved to a certain extent in the record-keeping of it. So we tried to spread it over the entire school population.

And at that time, the local administrator was quite flexible and they designed the entire school day around our workday. So we had all the upper high school kids for the entire day every Thursday.

JAN YAEGER: And that's a building that's a private home, now? Or is that a business building?

HUGH SMITH: Right. While we were construction it, or constructing it, then basically everybody in the community knew that it was available to buy and yes, it -- upon completion it was sold to a local party. Local family.

JAN YAEGER: What are some of the other buildings that you worked on?

HUGH SMITH: All the others, probably 25 or 30 in the community that -- JAN YAEGER: Wow.

HUGH SMITH: -- I've had my name on. But everything on Harborview Drive on the east side. Those are projects that I did. And then some of the houses along Main Street I was quite involved with.

At one time, the post office was a one-story building. The Englishes wanted me to put the second story on. So that was one of my projects.

The top of the Linwood is twice as big as it used to be. So there's a number of projects around town like that where we actually put the second story on, as well as some minor additions on some houses and some remodeling.

JAN YAEGER: So when you came into Seldovia as -- you know, to take a position teaching, did you have any idea what a -- literally what a mark you would leave on the community?

HUGH SMITH: No. No, it -- basically at that time, there was just a void in the -- meeting the housing demand.

JAN YAEGER: Was there much development of Seldovia, you know, back behind the boardwalk? I -- What I've read, they refer to just some trails and so on, but I haven't been able to find much information if there was much housing or building back, you know, further away from the waterline.

HUGH SMITH: No, I'm not familiar with that section of the history that much.

JAN YAEGER: I'm just wondering more about what you saw when you came to town. If there was much building in that area, aside from the area where Cap's Hill had been?

HUGH SMITH: There was no recent construction. And basically, there was just this one big parking lot that was available to develop.

I think in the course of development, I was able to pick up probably six lots, one at a time. So it was a period of, you know, six, eight years that I went through putting these in.

JAN YAEGER: Okay. So that was on top of all your teaching and so on?

HUGH SMITH: Right, right. Yes. In fact, it's kind of interesting that the year I retired, the new shop teacher came in, asked me one day, he says, "How many hours a day do you put in?"

So I tried not to let my construction work interfere with my school work. And I told him how many hours I was putting in, and I'd been here for sixteen years.

And his comment was, "It's not worth it." And he resigned the next day.

So, yeah, it was quite common for me to work a couple of hours on construction after school and then on weekends. But I tried not to let it interfere with my main income, or my main source of employment.

JAN YAEGER: And what about the shop at school? You said it -- when you first came, it was down in the basement and you were in the old building. How did the transition of the current shop occur?

HUGH SMITH: When they built the present school, then I had the full gymnasium -- the old gymnasium, and when I -- I spent the first -- well, the second summer basically remodeling and setting up the shop facilities.

At that time, you could still play basketball. The hoops were still up and the floor was still marked and everything like that. So I spent a considerable amount of time that first summer just setting up the shop.

And then gradually over the years, we progressed and made it -- made a few improvements.

JAN YAEGER: What about some of the people that you remember from Seldovia when you were first here? Who are some of the people in town that kind of stand out in your memory?

HUGH SMITH: Well, I think the first or second day I was here, the principal was quite community-oriented. And he would take new staff members around the community and introduce us to the key people in the community.

So he was always making comments that, you're in the public's eye all the time, and it's best to know who you're working with. So yeah, ah, I think one of the first people I was introduced to was Jack and Susan English.

JAN YAEGER: And what was Jack's role in town at that time? I know he did a number of different things over the years.

HUGH SMITH: Jack was basically the city manager, although I don't think he had the title of city manager. But he basically oversaw the running of the community.

JAN YAEGER: And was the -- the new post office was already built at that point?

HUGH SMITH: Right. The post office was presently there and Jack and Susan had the newsstand, which was half of the building.

And they kind of lived in the back section of the post office building. And then later on, they added the upstairs, and then they lived upstairs.

JAN YAEGER: And how about some of the other folks?

HUGH SMITH: Oh, at that time, you had Bob Gruber, who was the owner of Cook Inlet Aviation. Which basically has now been replaced by Smokey Bay and Homer Air.

But then John Colberg was quite active in town. He was on the council and later was the mayor.

Likewise, say, Fred Elvsaas was active in the community at that time. Darlene (Crawford) worked at the cannery.

And Chuck Henrichs (phonetic) was the cannery superintendent. So yeah, those were some of the major players at that time.

JAN YAEGER: And so Wakefield was still active when you were here. Do you remember how -- how long it continued to operate?

HUGH SMITH: Yeah. Wakefield was still extremely active. And once they started processing, say, tanner crab, I know one year they processed crab eleven months continuously.

And then shortly after that, the crab population started decreasing. But at one time, there were so many crab pots in the harbor -- or not in the harbor, but in Kachemak Bay, that there was definite traffic lanes going between here and Homer for the boats to -- to stay in.

And if you took, say, the Tustamena, across, you know, they'd have to stay in these definite traffic lanes just so that they would not interfere with the crab pots. But then as the crab population decreased, why, the cannery decreased also.

JAN YAEGER: And about what year did they pull out, finally?

HUGH SMITH: I think the last year the cannery operated -- it had been sold a couple of times before this, but it was the year of the Exxon (Valdez Oil) spill. When they had the Exxon spill, why, basically, that closed the cannery.

But at that time, it was involved in fish processing, as well as crab. I don't think the crab was even being harvested at that time. I think it was strictly fish.

JAN YAEGER: But it was in that same building the whole time? HUGH SMITH: Yes. JAN YAEGER: Okay.

HUGH SMITH: And then back in the early '70s, the Native Association were involved in processing shrimp. And that's where this present building started.

JAN YAEGER: And so that -- this building was built to be a shrimp-processing plant?

HUGH SMITH: Right. Right. And if you notice the downstairs section, up towards the main street, that was the original part of the building.

JAN YAEGER: So this section here is an addition? HUGH SMITH: Right.

JAN YAEGER: What about the boat harbor and kind of the traffic. What changes did you see as the fisheries kind of waxed and waned?

HUGH SMITH: Well, the boat harbor used to be full of fishing boats. And Seldovia was basically a day fish -- a day fishery-type.

Where the boats would go out in the morning, check the crab pots, you know, harvest the crab, come back in the evening. And so yeah, it was a day fisheries.

And since then, there's fewer and fewer fishing boats, and more and more pleasure boats.

JAN YAEGER: Yeah, it seems like the commercial fishing boats we have now don't come and go by the day. They tend to come and go by a month or two.

HUGH SMITH: Right. And, you know, the larger boats, they may be out for several weeks. The medium-sized boats, three or four days.

JAN YAEGER: So you were probably here, also, when the road out to Jakolof went in, weren't you?

HUGH SMITH: No. That was already there. JAN YAEGER: Oh, okay.

HUGH SMITH: But it was being maintained by the logging company, I believe. And then gradually the state took over the maintenance on it.

But at one time, yes, you could drive out to Jakolof, then over to the Gulf Coast. And I think there was probably about thirty miles of road from Seldovia out that you could drive.

JAN YAEGER: So down to the -- the southern side of the --

HUGH SMITH: Right. On the southern side of the peninsula. You could go out to Jakolof, up over the hump to the Pacific side, and then off to the west, on the logging roads.

JAN YAEGER: And what -- was it fairly easy to navigate those roads? Were they in pretty good shape?

HUGH SMITH: Oh, yes. The roads were in good shape. Because they were trucking, you know, all their logs that they were harvesting back to the sawmill at Jakolof. So yes, the roads were in good shape.

JAN YAEGER: And they were wide enough that you could pass a vehicle on them? HUGH SMITH: Yes, yes. You could pass.

JAN YAEGER: Okay. Yeah, I would think it would rather intimidating otherwise, to have a logging truck coming your way. And so did people do that very much? Did people head down to the Pacific coast?

HUGH SMITH: Oh, yeah, it was -- you know, where else could you go for a Sunday drive? Yes, and you could go over to the other side and go silver salmon fishing in the fall.

Drive out and go goat hunting. So yes, the road was utilized quite a bit.

JAN YAEGER: And so, how long was that passable, would you say, after the logging finished?

HUGH SMITH: We had some heavy rains, oh, in the fall, probably -- early '80s, that washed out some of the bridges and they were just never replaced.

The state was not involved in maintaining the road, so there was just -- no particular body, you might say, to maintain the roads. And some of the roads are on private property, or Native property, I believe.

JAN YAEGER: How about just kind of the culture of Seldovia in general? What did -- what changes have you seen since you first came here?

HUGH SMITH: Well, at that time, there was more employment, I think, for the entire age group. High school boys, they would work unloading boats at the cannery, evenings.

The cannery was processing, so there was employment for the women in town. The men were out fishing. So yeah, there was more privately-employed people than presently.

JAN YAEGER: And I didn't even ask you where you -- where you were before you came to Seldovia. Were you a new teacher or had you been teaching awhile? Had you been to Alaska before?

HUGH SMITH: I taught one year in New York State, and then I spent four years in Kodiak. I left the year before the earthquake. And then I was in the states for six or seven years.

And then I got a phone call one evening, wanted to know if I was interested in a teaching job in Seldovia. And the superintendent, I believe he said it was his second day on the job.

He said he had to hire two or three people and give me -- said 72 hours, I'll call you back. And that was basically the interview.

JAN YAEGER: Was that kind of through some connections you had made in Kodiak? That he got your name?

HUGH SMITH: Well, I had kept my credentials on file in the borough, so they apparently were looking for somebody that could be a vocational teacher as well as a math teacher.

JAN YAEGER: And where were you at that time?

HUGH SMITH: I was in New York State.

JAN YAEGER: You had gone back to New York State. HUGH SMITH: Yes.

JAN YAEGER: Is that where you grew up? HUGH SMITH: Right.

JAN YAEGER: And what did you think of Seldovia when you first -- when -- I assume you maybe came over on the Tustamena or -- ?

HUGH SMITH: No, I flew up -- flew down to Homer, and came across with, at that time it was Cook Inlet Aviation.

JAN YAEGER: And when you first kind of saw the town, do you remember what your impression was?

HUGH SMITH: Well, I -- at that time, it was hard to research just what actually was here, but I was born and raised in a small community. A rural area of upstate New York, so --

And I spent four years in Kodiak and so I was fairly familiar with what the conditions were gonna be. So, yeah, it was not a -- not a big surprise.

JAN YAEGER: Did you get the chance to go back to Kodiak and visit that after the earthquake?

HUGH SMITH: No, I haven't.

JAN YAEGER: You've never been back? HUGH SMITH: No.

JAN YAEGER: And what do you think has kept you in Seldovia all these years?

HUGH SMITH: I've -- have purchased some property so that I am pretty much committed. I've got a subdivision I'm presently working on, so I'm pretty much committed to the area until I get that finalized.

JAN YAEGER: And you raised a daughter here, too? HUGH SMITH: Right.

JAN YAEGER: Who has -- who has followed in your footsteps and has become a teacher in a rural community. What was it like as a community for raising a kid?

HUGH SMITH: Ah, about half of her schooling was home schooling. But we tried to expose her, you know, to as many activities and areas as we could.

But, yeah, she was always interested in working with kids and the schools. So yes, she did go on to the University of Alaska in Anchorage and presently is out at King Cove teaching in the elementary school there.

JAN YAEGER: And one thing I thought was interesting as I was kind of doing a little bit of research was that you and your wife have both been given the honor of being named Citizen of the Year for Seldovia. And your daughter has been the Outstanding Young Person of the Year for Seldovia, which I think says a lot about your family.

And I don't know if that's really a question, but it's just kind of an observation of really how much the community, I think, has recognized your input.

HUGH SMITH: Well, yeah, I think that, you know, any community, you do have some people that wanna become part of the community and, you know, progress. And I think that a lot goes back to how you were brought up.

If you were brought up in the community or family that participates in community activities, then your offspring is more inclined to follow those footsteps.

JAN YAEGER: And as you kind of look at -- at Seldovia now, with all the changes, you know, the road into Homer and the lack of canneries and the -- some of the challenges with the fishery and so on, do you have any forecast of what you see, maybe, in Seldovia's future?

HUGH SMITH: Back in the '70s, there was a state calendar came out, I believe, with the various areas of the state listed on the front, kind of in a map form. And it had Seldovia: the condo city. And this was back in the early '70s.

And even at that time, people apparently were thinking of Seldovia as a retirement community. And I -- I look at it that way, too. That Seldovia is becoming more and more a summer retreat. A second home.

With majority of the employment in the community related to summer activities. So I look at it as more and more becoming a retirement community. A senior citizen area.

JAN YAEGER: Is there anything else you'd like to add, or any things I didn't ask you about that you'd like to --

HUGH SMITH: Can't think of anything off hand.

JAN YAEGER: Well, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you coming in.

HUGH SMITH: Okay. And I've enjoyed it. Thank you.