Aug 2, 2020 • 10M

Anchorage Pioneer Joe Spenard

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Michael R Dougherty
Enjoy nostalgic Anchorage, Alaska stories as we look back at the Anchorage you remember.
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In 1916, during his first year in Anchorage, the Anchorage Daily Times wrote the following.

“Joe Spenard caused considerable excitement Saturday afternoon when he attempted to drive his yellow car through the doors of Robarts Pool Hall. He made the attempt for a box of cigars promised him by Jack Robarts if he accomplished the feat: otherwise he was to pay the damages. Joe is still smoking his pipe.”

Joseph “Joe” Arthur Spenard was born in 1879 in Ottawa, Canada. Around 1906, he married Edith Lewellyn.

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Alaska Here We Come

In 1909, Spenard and his wife arrived in Valdez where he opened a second hand business. When things were slow, he pushed a hand cart filled with merchandise through the streets.

The pushcart developed into a transfer business in 1913 which he advertised as City Express, a delivery and taxi service.

The Tent City Days

Joe and his wife moved to Anchorage in 1916 when it was still a tent city where Joe continued his City Express service.

He used an REO truck and attached a sign to his radiator with yellow letters.

“Time and Tide will Not Wait,

But City Express is Never Late”

Always a showman, Spenard would run ads like the following that appeared in the Anchorage Daily Times on June 26, 1916.

“Of all the cars both big and small

The Yellow car just beats them all

Complete satisfaction, nothing less

Is given by the City Express”

Joe Spenard bought a yellow suit with a matching plug hat and wore the rather gaudy outfit on special occasions and as often as he could.

On May, 1916, the Cook Inlet Pioneer (later, the Anchorage Daily News) reported the following.

“The genial, fun-loving Joe Spenard played the part of Santa Clause to about a hundred school children yesterday. Joe dressed in his famous suit of yellow with top hat to match, took the youngsters in relays for an auto ride through the streets of Anchorage, and judging from the smile Joe wore and the singing and laughter of the children, the pleasure was mutual.”

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The Tale of Lake Spenard

About 5 miles out of town was a lake. Known as Jeter Lake (an unofficial title) named after a homesteader named Thomas Jeter.

But the lake was in the Chugach National Forest and closed to homesteading. Thomas Jeter had to move.

Not long after, the land was opened to homesteading and Joe Spenard took up a 160 acre homestead that included the lake.

Spenard set out to develop the lake and surrounding land into a full-scale resort, complete with a roadhouse, bathhouses and a bathing beach.

The Creation of Spenard Road

Needing access to his resort, Joe Spenard persuaded members of the local Anchorage Elks Club to help him cut trees and build a trail from 9th Avenue and L Street across Chester and Fish Creek valleys to the lake. That trail is now Spenard road.

Spenard Lake Resort

Joe’s Spenard Lake and dance pavilion became very popular with Anchorage residents.

But on the night of May 24, 1917, a fire thought to be set by careless hunters, completely destroyed Joe Spenard’s houses, dance pavilion, picnic area and other improvements.

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The End of Their Time in Anchorage

Health problems caused Joe to sell his yellow car and business ventures.

The Spenards left for the lower 48 in 1917 for the winter, with plans to return in the spring. But they never did.

To Learn more, check out the story of Joe Spenard right now.

Spenard Lake Came Back from the Ashes

The lake continued to be a popular summer and winter place for recreation for Anchorage residents.

In the winter, Spenard Beach Park was a popular place to ice skate. And in the summer, as many as 8 hundred residents and visitors would swim there on weekends.

The First U.S. President Visits

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding became the first U.S. President to visit Alaska.

President Harding came to dedicate the Alaska Railroad.

While he was in Anchorage, he spent part of an afternoon at Spenard Lake.

Anchorage’s Largest Suburb

In 1975, Spenard was a separate city and Anchorage’s largest suburb.

Between 1935 and 1950, Spenard’s population went from 3,000 to 47,000 residents.

In 1949, the first Post Office was established in Spenard.

That story follows.

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The Spenard Post Office

Photos and memories courtesy of John Parker

1949, the sign on the Quonset building reads “Post Office Spenard, Alaska”.

This was the first building on the corner of Spenard Road and Fireweed. A second building was added later on and a building that is now home to Chilkoot Charlie’s.

The Story

The Quonset buildings were purchased from Army Surplus in Seward.

John Parker’s father, Ken Parker, went to Seward by train in 1947 to purchase the Quonset building which was then erected on the site above in Spenard in 1948. The building served as the Post Office and Parker’s Store, the first department store in Spenard.

1950, John Parker, his brothers Dave and Don and Grandmother Carrie in front of the Post Office and Parker’s Store.

The second Quonset building was purchased in 1949 to accommodate rapid growth. At that time, one building was the Post Office and the other was the store.

The buildings had to be brought from Seward to Spenard by the Alaska Railroad because the Seward Highway had not yet been built.

The Quonset buildings were replaced by a new brick building in 1952.

It is still there today.

The Only Postmaster Spenard Ever Had

John Parker’s mother, Nancy Parker was appointed Postmaster in 1948. She was the only Postmaster Spenard ever had,

In 47, a new Post Office was built on Fireweed Lane by Bid Irwin.

In an article dated August 9, 1949 in the Spenard Advertiser, a newsletter distributed to local residents and businesses, Nancy Parker wrote:

“Spenard Business Boom Continues

A recent survey listed 21 home owned businesses and 4 Anchorage owned businesses in Spenard… Spenard is rapidly becoming self sufficient”

What Would Joe Spenard Think?

Today, Spenard is considered one of Anchorage’s more “colorful” communities with more than it’s share of characters.

It occurs to me that Joe Spenard had a lot in common with modern day Doug Haggar, also known as “Mr. Whitekeys”. And I suspect that Joe Spenard would have enjoyed Mr. Whitkey’s Spenard show “The Whale Fat Follies”. You know, “the show the Spenard Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want you to see.”

Did You Ever Live in Spenard?

Mary and I lived there for many years. Three of the great things about living in Spenard was being close to Mike’s work at KTVA channel 11 when it was in Spenard, and being close to Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant… and Nikko Garden.

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Until next time

Mike & Mary