Life at Jesse Lee Home
Jesse Lee Home, in the late 1940’s and early ’50’s, was a Methodist church sponsored home for Alaskan Native orphan children: Eskimo, Aleut, Tlingit, and so on. It was located several miles outside the town of Seward, Alaska. Seward, in those days, was a very small town known for its port – it serviced container ships from Seattle and other “South 48” ports – and was the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad’s Seward-Anchorage-Fairbanks trans-Alaska rail line. Seward sits on a tiny lip of flat ground between the mountains of the Kenai Fjords National Park and Resurrection Bay.
The bay was extremely deep, as are most bodies of water that butt against mountains, and therefore served well as a port. The highway from Anchorage, known appropriately as the Seward Highway, ran through several mountain passes on its way south, and as it approached its southern terminus it skirted the end of the bay before turning and heading along the narrow spit of land on which the town was built. At the point at which it turned, another smaller road headed away from town. This small road lead directly to Jesse Lee Home.
Named for an early Methodist missionary to the indigenous peoples of this northern territory, the complex itself occupied many acres, including a headmaster’s house that sat facing the mountains, three large buildings, aligned in a straight row perpendicular to the mountains and connected by long hallways, several farm buildings, sheds, and a barn. The Home was as self-sufficient as possible, with a large vegetable garden and the normal edible farm animals – pigs, chicken, beef – that were for the Home’s use as well as for sale in Seward.
Of the three main buildings, the two outer ones served as the dormitories: boys in the dorm closest to the mountain, and girls in the one farthest away. The center building housed the dining room and kitchen. Each building had its own heating plant, and the two dorms each had their own resident houseparents. The Home and all its surrounding farm buildings wore camouflage paint that had been applied in the early days of World War II when the Alaska Army Command feared attack by Japanese carrier-based aircraft. The camouflage was painted all over the exterior walls and roofs to look like pine trees and grass, just like the mountains to which the Home was immediately adjacent.
When I was perhaps eight, in 1949, my parents were active in the Methodist church and accepted positions as houseparents in the boys’ dorm of the Home. Our family moved from Anchorage to Seward, and my two older brothers and I lived with the other boys at the Home. Only my oldest brother, Skip, then eighteen and too old to be a “boy” at the dorm, was exempt from dorm life. My next older brother, Dick, was fifteen and lived as an “A” boy. The brother next to me, Ernie, was eleven and was with the “B” boys. At my age, I was a “C” boy. Younger, preschool, children were not classified as such, and were lumped statistically and grouped physically together as “infants”.
Although our parents were the dorm parents, we lived in the dorms just like the orphan boys, ate at the Home dining room with all the resident boys and girls, rode to church every Sunday in the Home’s yellow school buses and did all the chores done by the other boys in the dorms. I was unaware of any resentment towards me by the other “C” boys (if it existed at all), and was accepted as one of them from the very beginning.
Over the course of the two years we lived there several incidents made such an impression that I shall never forget them.
A group of us children – “C” boys and girls mostly – were playing out near Walter, the bull. We were not supposed to be near the bull because we would taunt him and he “may break through the fence” and harm us. Or so we are told by the older “B” boys. But here we were. And we heard the bell ringing us in for lunch. We had barely minutes to get into the dormitories, wash our hands, and line up for the march down the long hallway to the dining room: girls marching in from the one side and boys marching in from the other. Of course, the girls’ side is the closest to the bull, so we boys must run all the faster to be on time for lunch.
I was a fast runner. Faster than any other boy, and certainly faster than all the girls. As I streaked towards the dormitory’s back door I went across, and not around, the kitchen’s underground boiler room. The room’s roof rises above ground by only inches so it’s an easy step up for a young boy who is the home’s fastest “C” boy! The boiler’s one-inch galvanized steel relief pipe sticks straight up from the center of the roof, and at about forty inches above the rooftop it turns at a ninety degree angle and goes through the kitchen wall seven or eight feet away.
Speeding across the roof I turned to look over my shoulder at the other children – smug in my leading position – and turned back around just in time to SMACK! into the pipe with my upper lip.
BAM! THUMP! Out cold!
Of course I spent a couple of days in bed in the dormitory houseparent’s room while my lip healed. And was treated ever so kindly for my injury.
No one ever asked why I was running from the bull’s pen.
Behind the Home, far behind the farm area, past the deep woods that lay along the base of the mountain, and certainly far beyond the Home’s property fence that marked the limit of our freedom, we boys found a special play area. Partway up the mountainside, possibly three or four thousand feet up, was a rock slide perhaps a thousand feet long. Known to all of us as “Devil’s Slide”, this area was visible only from the corner windows of the “A” boy’s dorm. And since it was so obscure we boys, and some of the braver girls, could sneak up there and play without being seen.
I cannot say why it was called Devil’s Slide, and whether this is its actual name or is only what we at the Home called it. For all I know it may have been named for the abundant Devil’s Club that grew about the area. But it was the devil to reach and was a devil of a slide, this much I knew for certain!
The mountains on the peninsula were covered with tall pine and Sitka spruce trees that grew up the steep mountainsides to about four thousand feet. Above the tree line was rock and some hardy shrubbery. But the ground cover on the mountainside below the tree line was a jungle of fireweed mixed with skunk cabbage and a particular broadleaf briar bush, the Devil’s Club. Climbing through this took courage and tough skin; the briars grew well over the heads of us smaller boys, and both the Devil’s Club and skunk cabbage had thorns, thistles and prickly burrs that were sharp as needles and just as long. It was torturous climbing in forbidden territory.
And that made it all the more alluring.
On many occasions a group of us “C” boys would accompany some of the “B” boys in a climb up Devil’s Slide. Most of us just enjoyed the thrill of climbing where were knew we weren’t supposed to. But one day one of the older boys decided to climb to the top of the Slide, then slide down. The rest of us dug our feet into the loose shale and watched him slowly climb on all fours, like a human goat, up the rocky, nearly vertical, slide. Several times he would slip, sending sharp rock fragments raining down on those of us below him. But finally he reached the top of the Slide; he was so far above us we could hardly see him. Looking up at him made me dizzy.
Then, with a confident wave, he started to slide. He slid feet first, body tilted back, almost sitting down in the rough rock. But he quickly gained too much speed: The loose shale was creating a small avalanche that was taking him with it. He tried to dig his elbows and hands in, along with his feet, to slow his descent. But to no avail. He, and the shale, were sliding quickly down the steep mountainside.
The Slide area had some small clumps of shrubbery and an occasional large boulder sticking out, and he tried to guide himself into these rocks or bushes. But alas, he could not control his path, and continued his erratic course down the stony slope.
In desperation he tried turning onto his stomach, but in doing so he completely lost control and began tumbling. We watched in horror as he rolled and thrashed towards us. Scared as we were – both for him and for our own hides when we got back to the Home and had to tell what happened – we scrambled up the rocks as he had done just minutes before. We managed to dodge the falling stones and grab onto his clothing as he tumbled past.
He was filthy, cut, and bruised; his clothing was ripped and torn; he had lost one shoe; blood and tears covered his face.
We helped him the rest of the way down the Slide and into the woods. By now we were all crying – for him and for us! Too soon we emerged from the trees and started across the farm area towards the dorm. We wanted this trip to never end, because we all knew what that would mean.
But we didn’t have to wait for the trip to end – for coming across the farmyard were several of the “A” boys who had seen our friend’s tumble down the slide, and the dorm houseparents: My parents! If there were a God he would have granted my wish for a lightning bolt at that moment, but it didn’t happen. Instead, I, and all the other boys, were given a good switching across our butts with one of those long alder branches that snaps at the end like a whip. I said all the other boys: the “B” boy who was all banged up from the fall got the switching too. Then, as the rest of us were running back to the dorm, trying to stifle our sobs so the other children would not see us crying, my father picked up the bruised “B” boy and carried him back to the dorm.
I don’t know about any of the other children in the group that day, but I know that I, for one, never ventured back to Devil’s Slide.
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I do not remember the first time I went up to the old sawmill: It must have been early in my stay at the Home. But it soon became one of my favorite playgrounds.
Old and run down even then, the sawmill was quite some hike up an overgrown trail perhaps a half mile from the boys’ dorm. The trail had been a road when the mill was in operation, but now it had small spruce growing in it, and thousands – millions – of the omnipresent Devil’s Club briar bushes and skunk cabbage.
While I always called this particular plant “skunk cabbage”, I do not know what its actual name is. As I recall, it was broad leafed and had a thick, round tubular stalk. The stalk had very long, very fine needles sticking out. They were almost invisible they were so thin; but they stuck and pricked like sewing needles. The stalk, when broken, gave off a strong, pungent smell that was repulsive, yet somehow pleasant.
To us young boys, the smell was reminiscent of the wet toe jam one would find between his toes after a hard day at play: Repulsive, yet somehow pleasant.
The mill was surrounded by very dense brush and trees. Its main building was wooden and nearly rotted. But next to it was the ultimate toy for small Jesse Lee Homers: Sitting on a rusted steel framework was a long conveyer belt. The low end sat up about two feet, and the high end faced down the mountainside and was most likely twenty-five or thirty feet above ground. At its end was a huge pile of sawdust. The top of the sawdust pile was perhaps ten feet below the end of the belt. We boys would walk out the length of the belt, then jump down into the soft shavings and tumble down to the ground. Then, just like other children would do on a school slide, we would scramble up the hill, climb onto the belt and do it all over again.
The sawmill, with its damp, piquant smell of skunk cabbage, was my favorite area all during my stay at Jesse Lee Home.
I don’t miss the life there, nor do I frankly remember all that much about it.
But I cannot forget the smell and the good times I had playing at the old sawmill.
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Being fully self sufficient, as it was, Jesse Lee Home afforded the residents with the opportunity to learn many skills to which they otherwise would not have had exposure. All the children, regardless of age or sex (and to which I most likely must now add race, religion or national origin) were required to do various chores around the Home. These included weekly cleanup, daily farm chores, periodic laundry and so on.
We “C” boys and girls were not too involved in farm duties and, in fact, were prohibited from being around most of the farm equipment and machinery. While we would have enjoyed nothing more than playing all day long on these contrivances there was justifiable fear that we would seriously injure ourselves. And the Home had the obligation to keep us healthy in body as well as in mind and spirit.
Cleaning equipment, however, was a different story. Every Saturday morning, after breakfast, the routine was the same: Read the posted cleaning assignment list outside the dorm door, grab your cleaning tool and get to work. We smaller boys usually had to dust with brushes and rags; older boys would sweep and damp mop; the oldest boys ran the electric buffer on the Army-green linoleum floors. All three groups had a share in the bathroom cleanup details, too. And with a large number of children working as quickly as possible on the cleaning it never took too long until we were done and on our way outside to play.
For the older boys and girls, the large laundry tubs and clothes dryers housed in an old shed out near the farm area were anything but playthings. Laundry was done frequently, and always under the watchful eye of one of the dorm houseparents. The washing was done by hand in any number of deep sinks, and then placed in one of the two immense dryers.
The dryers had been made by Mr. McKinley, the Home’s engineering superintendent. Each drum had a diameter at least as large as I was tall, and was easily five feet long. They were made of wooden slats that were spaced an inch or so apart so the air could circulate but the clothes would not fall out. In the middle was a latched door that could be opened for the loading and retrieval of the clothing. A gasoline motor was attached to each dryer by means of a rubber belt and, by use of gear reduction, the drums turned ever so slowly even with the motors running at full speed.
There were times, though, when the dryers needed to be turned without the motors. For those occasions each dryer also had attached a huge crank. We smaller children were never allowed near the dryers when they were in operation because the cranks always turned with the dryers, and we could easily be conked on the head as the crank turned. In fact, we were not even supposed to be in the laundry sheds at all, at any time. This was not a play area and the “C” children were not involved in the laundry work.
But this didn’t stop us young children from sneaking into the shed when no one else was around and playing in the dryers. What more fun could there be for a seven or eight year old than to clamber through the loading door into the huge chamber, have a playmate close the latch, then tumble inside while several of the children turned the crank! As the drum turned we would lie flat on the slats and be carried partway up the circle until gravity pulled us down and we would tumble down the side, to be carried back up again as the drum continued turning.
Did we ever think that we might get hurt inside the dryer? Of course not! And some of the braver boys shouted for the cranking crew to turn the crank as fast as possible. Inside the drum the boy would tumble head over heels, laughing and squealing the whole time. How we loved our secret play area. And how we would have been switched with those unforgettable alder branches had the houseparents ever found out where we played so much!
Most of the children at the Home were orphans. They came from all around Alaska; their hometowns were the fishing villages in Southeastern Alaska, or Eskimo villages on the slopes of the Brooks Range, or the Aleut villages along the Aleutian Islands. Who can now remember them all? But the children, while having a materially better life at the Home than they could have ever had alone in the world, were social misfits in Seward, and many of the older boys, in particular, could not bear to grow up away from their clans, their families, and their customs.
Many of them ran away.
I remember one Sunday after we had all returned to the Home in the rickety old yellow buses with “Jesse Lee Children’s Home” painted in black on the sides and back door, one of the Aleut “A” boys was reported missing from his table at lunch.
Customarily we would go directly from the buses to our dorms, leave our Sunday School papers on our beds, wash our hands and line up for the walk down the long hallway to the dining hall. We each had an assigned seat: The boys sat on the side of the room nearest their hallway and the girls on the other. The service area was in the center, and that is where the staff tables were set up. They could easily see the whole dining area and take corrective action whenever one of their charges committed a breach of table etiquette.
This “A” boy didn’t go to the dorm, and wasn’t at his seat at lunch. After a quick search of the buildings, the male members of the staff – my father, Mr. McKinley, some of the other adult men, and several of the other “A” boys, plus my two older brothers – armed themselves with rifles, and set out to track him down. The rifles, we were always told, were in case the group encountered any black bear or moose along the way.
There was only one way off the peninsula: Follow the highway and railroad tracks through the mountain passes towards Anchorage. Many of the boys who ran away tried to hitch rides along the highway, and some were successful. Others would lie in wait alongside the tracks for a slow moving freight train to pass by. They would then jump aboard and head for freedom.
After the men left, none of us younger children could finish eating, we were so excited. Despite the frequency of its occurrence, a runaway was still cause for great excitement and consternation at the Home: excitement amongst the children and consternation amongst the houseparents.
Later that evening the men returned with the “A” boy, handcuffed and walking with his head down, held firmly by two of them.
I do not know what happened to him, or to any of the others who ran away. I only know that they felt they were imprisoned at Jesse Lee Home, and their talk was constantly of their escape and eventual return to their own people.
I hope they all made it.
About Gene Brown
Gene Brown is a 1960 AHS graduate who played trumpet in the Navy for seven years before going into banking. During his Navy years he began writing short stories and continues to write for the pleasure of friends and family. Having retired from ‘real’ work in 2006 and a widower since 2008, Gene now plays trumpet in several local swing and jazz bands and is working on an historical novel about Japan, his wife’s homeland. His family owned the flying school at Merrill Field in the late ’40s, where he was a frequent passenger in a Super Cub.