The Behnke’s, Valley Homesteaders, Celebrate 70th Wedding Anniversary

Contributed by Steve Behnke

Mel and Peggy Behnke, of Wasilla, are celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary and their 63rd year of residence in the Meadow Lakes and Wasilla area. There will be a celebration of their life together on Wednesday, November 21, 1-3 pm, in the Gardenside Cafe, Primrose Retirement Community of Wasilla, 889 N. Elkhorn, Wasilla. Well-wishers are welcome to drop by, or to send a card to 889 N. Elkhorn #109, Wasilla, 99654.

The Behnkes both grew up in San Diego, and were married there on November 21, 1948. They built a house, with a big garden and goats, and had 3 children. Peggy says she expected to spend the rest of her life there, near relatives and friends. But in 1955, when Mel was laid off from his job, he suggested they go visit Alaska. A week later, packing up children (ages 9 months to 4 years) and essentials, they pulled an 18-foot trailer up the Alaska Highway with their 1953 Jeep station wagon. Peggy always says that they only stopped to eat when it was time to fix a flat. After visiting Fairbanks, they drove south and fell in love with the Matanuska Valley.

When the Jeep needed engine work, they camped near what is now the Big Lake turnoff, and learned about nearby land still available for homesteading. In the fall of 1955, they hiked a half-mile in from the road to a small lake, through yellow birch leaves, saw a moose, and decided to stay. They asked their parents in San Diego to sell their house and ship tools and household goods north.

A neighbor used his Cat to help rough out a road, and pulled the trailer in to the lake for them. Mel added an entry and wood stove to the trailer, and they spent the winter there. The winter of 1955 had the deepest snow the area has ever seen, and snow was up to the trailer’s roof. They kept a hole through lake ice open for water.

Mel cut spruce logs from the property, and used sled dogs acquired from Joe Redington of Knik to haul them. In summer 1956, they cleared 15 acres and planted it in oats and peas to begin proving up on their 80-acre homestead claim. They also started building a house and by the next winter they had closed in the attic and moved into it.

Peggy wrote long letters home to her mother in San Diego, from 1955 until the early 1960s, describing life on the homestead. Her mother kept them all, and the family has compiled them into a 230-page manuscript. Another family treasure are the home movies that were sent back to San Diego relatives. Peggy also wrote a series of articles about homesteading that were published in the Christian Science Monitor beginning in 1956: “Alaskan Christmas Shopping Trip,” “How do you like pancakes,” “Life on an Alaskan Homestead,” “This is the way we wash our clothes,” “Cook versus Stove: Pioneering Adventure,” and “Apple pie- without apples”.

Mel and Peggy’s lives in the Mat-Su Valley are also mentioned in George Harbeson Jr’s book, “Homesteaders in the Headlights” (2004), and in Skip Coghlan’s “Wasilla: A Great Place Among the Lakes” (2017).