Chapter 4 – Fairbanks

Delta Junction was the Alaska Highway’s official endpoint, but not the Cameron’s. From there they followed the Richardson Highway on to Fairbanks.

 In 1951 Fairbanks had a population of around 6,000. Established in 1901 when gold was discovered nearby, it was a gold rush town for several years. By World War I the easily available gold had played out, and the town experienced a “bust” as folks left to seek gold and jobs elsewhere. Enlistments for the First World War and the 1919 flu epidemic further depleted the population. By 1923 there were only about 1,000 residents in Fairbanks and the surrounding area from a high of 18,500 during the height of the gold rush.

This was followed by another “boom” when the federal government completed the Alaskan Railroad in 1923. During this time the introduction of dredge mining enabled miners to extract the more difficult-to-reach gold deposits and required large-scale operations rather than the independent prospectors of the earlier boom. The possibility of steady employment for miners brought new growth. With the price of gold rising during the Depression, the town continued to thrive. The establishment of the University of Alaska at nearby College, which opened its doors in 1922, also stabilized the population.

Ladd Field, now Fort Wainwright, brought another increase in population and employment to Fairbanks. Begun in 1939 as a cold weather experimental station, it became an air base when the war began and part of the Northwest Staging Route and Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease operation, moving planes to Russia for use in the war effort against Germany.

By 1951, when the Cameron’s arrived, Ladd Field had transitioned from war-time operations to a training center:

The troops participated in large-scale winter exercises, while at the same time guarding against the Cold War threat of Soviet aggression. The terrain, climate, and over 870,000 acres of available training land make it an ideal location for conducting training from the squad through joint task force level.1

 The first order of business for Oliver was to find work and shelter for his family before winter set in. They immediately set up their tent, and Oliver fell back on his mechanical skills and experience to land a job in a garage as a mechanic. Someone had homesteaded a parcel of land, and then subdivided it into one acre plots. Oliver purchased an acre for $108, paying half down and making payments on the balance. He moved his family into an old farmhouse temporarily while he built a road into the property and relocated the tent onto the acre.

A local doctor, Dr. Fitz, and his wife were leaving to visit the Lower 48 and asked the Camerons to house-sit in their absence. The doctor owned a farm about eleven miles out of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway. Oliver and Rene’s duties included hauling coal dust to spray over the fields. This warmed the fields so planting could be done earlier in the spring. The main crop was potatoes, but other root crops were also grown. By early spring Oliver was able to cut logs and build a small log cabin on his own property.

While work, shelter and food were a main focus, Oliver and Rene were also taking in their new environment, awed by such things as the almost nightly displays of the northern lights, which Rene described as “a multicolored ribbon in the wind.”

The army base in Fairbanks, Ladd Field, was releasing excess material as they demobilized after the war. The base was shifting to Cold War involvement, but in the transition many people were leaving Fairbanks and there was much surplus military equipment available cheap. While staying at the doctor’s place, Oliver purchased a one-and-a-half ton military truck for about $100. 

In partnership with two young men from France, adventurers attempting to travel as far north as possible and then drive to South America, Oliver began cutting and selling firewood, hauling it with the old military truck:

In the winter time when there was the most demand for firewood, there was a lot of snow and drifting. The Steese Highway was open most of the time, but the Chena Hot Springs – they weren’t so good about keeping that open. With that 4X, when I chained up, I could plow through a lot of snow. That’s the way I was making a living.

The family had the beginnings of a cabin on their own land, but they had furnishings and other belongings back in Idaho. By April of 1952 the Fitz’s were returning and Oliver and Rene also realized they needed to make a trip back to Idaho. The Frenchmen, whose plans to travel from the far north to South America were waylaid when they found it necessary to make a trip home to France, also had to drive back down the Alaskan Highway. Oliver did not want to take his car out because he wanted to get a pickup in Idaho to bring his stuff back, so they worked out a deal:  Oliver would pay for gas and Lorene would do the cooking if they could ride along in the Frenchmen’s Jeep station wagon.

On this trip they drove straight through, stopping only to eat, fill the gas tank and other essentials. Lorene cooked quick, simple meals of oatmeal and pancakes tail-gate style.

Oliver and Rene with family in Tamarack, Idaho, June 1952.
Photo from the Cameron Family Collection

Back in Idaho, Oliver spent some time working in a sawmill at Tamarack, Idaho to build up his financial reserves before buying a pickup and trailer and loading up their household goods. Oliver made his second trip up the Alaskan Highway in September of 1952 with his two small children, his sister, Jessie—who was looking for work and hoped her prospects were better in Alaska—and Rene, four months pregnant with their third child.

Getting ready to return to Alaska, 1952. Photo from the Cameron Family Collection.

They again camped along the way or slept in the car with the occasional treat of a stay in a roadhouse along the way. Oliver did all the driving as Rene’s license was expired and she planned to wait to get a new Alaskan license. Much to their amusement they later discovered Oliver drove the whole way on an expired license himself. 

Back in Fairbanks, their log house was not quite ready for occupancy, so they again stayed with the doctor for a couple of weeks until the floor was laid and the walls were chinked.

Dorene and Richard Cameron 1952, Fairbanks, AK. 

By October, before it got really cold, the little house was ready for occupancy with rugs on the bedroom floors and a good heating stove. The cabin measured 20 by 24 feet with a living room-kitchen and two bedrooms.

Sister Jessie found work at the Fairbanks hospital, where Gerald Jon, third and youngest of the Cameron children, made his appearance on February 27, 1953. Jessie worked long enough to save up some money before returning to Idaho.

Oliver, Rene, Dorene, Gerald and Richard Cameron, Fairbanks, 1953.

They raised a big garden, and had plenty of potatoes from their job with the doctor. Oliver dug a cellar for the vegetables they grew which included cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, radishes, lettuce, turnips and rutabagas. Lorene made sauerkraut. They harvested local high-bush cranberries, free for the picking. Meat included everything from rabbits Oliver shot, to caribou and occasionally even black bear.

Cameron family, Fairbanks, circa 1953.

Their neighborhood in Fairbanks was close-knit and friendly, with frequent birthday parties and other social occasions. Neighbors were ready to help one another as needed. Oliver once took a hive of bees as payment for work done for a neighbor. One morning the hive split and swarmed, and Oliver was able to capture the second swarm in a homemade hive box. They got other needed equipment, such as honey jars, from a family cutting back on their honey business and borrowed an extractor when the time came to harvest. That year, with their two hives, they got about 90 pounds of honey. 

Oliver built a dug-out garage behind the house to shelter their car and pickup. He built a workbench inside and replaced the tarp with tight wooden doors. A kerosene heater helped keep the cold at bay, but the combination of unventilated workshop, tight doors and heater nearly led to disaster.

One afternoon Oliver came into the house staggering, and collapsed on the couch, telling Rene that his head was spinning and he had rubbery arms and legs. When she offered to get a neighbor to take him to the doctor, he told her he didn’t feel up to the trip. While sleeping made him feel a bit better, he was not able to do much for the next three days.

When their friend Dr. Fitz dropped by, he listened to their story and informed them that Oliver had nearly killed himself with the fumes from the kerosene heater in the garage. Those tight wooden doors did not allow for enough ventilation.

He recovered, however, and continued to find work where he could. When hard physical labor and heavy lifting began to bother his back, Oliver turned to watch and clock repair for a time, but found the income insufficient.

While food was plentiful in their neighborhood, water had to be imported from a local spring at a place called Fox. Oliver’s ingenuity provided a workable means of hauling and storing the water for his family, using two fifty-five gallon barrels.

While we were there I cut the 5 gallon can off about in the middle, set it down on that 55 gallon barrel…the barrel had two bung holes. I bought a gate valve spout for the bottom bung hole, the top (smaller) bung whole I would open a little to let the air in when draining water out. The drum sat on its side in the back of the coup and we drove to the public spring at Fox to fill it up.

The family attended the Nazarene Church in Fairbanks where Dr. and Mrs. Fitz also attended. Rene was active in church affairs, singing in the choir and playing piano.

Dr. and Mrs. Fitz, Lorene and Oliver, Richard, Dorene and Gerald circa 1955.

In 1955 when baby Gerald was about two years old, Dr. Fitz offered Oliver part ownership of the farm. He had put in a lot of hours helping Dr. Fitz and had been instrumental in several farm improvements. Oliver, to Rene’s disappointment, hesitated. He was hearing a different call:

I was reading the Bible one morning before going to work. The pages just faded out. Instead there was a map there in the Bible, and there was a bright light shining right from where we were to Kotzebue. I’m not especially superstitious. I knew at that time and still know that there are two sources of influence. They can be God or can be Satan. I wanted more evidence before I took that too seriously. It was completely out of the realm of possibility as far as I was concerned.

While not initially convinced, Oliver began to see signs that it might, after all, be possible to move. In the summer of 1955 a friend offered to buy their house, if they ever wanted to sell. 

Then, with the military still downsizing Ladd Field a lot of military people were leaving good pieces of equipment behind, which Oliver took off their hands. Also, a place Oliver worked as a mechanic for a time went “belly up” and paid him in equipment instead of cash. From these sources he had acquired a big electric welder, a generator, a buzz saw and other useful items. Even though he was not advertising things for sale, people began showing up on his doorstep offering to buy various pieces of equipment.

They pared down to bare necessities, since all would have to be flown into Kotzebue, giving away household items – and wedding gifts, to Rene’s dismay – they had brought up the Alaska Highway. After selling their house, car and pickup, they purchased a tent and moved onto the Fitz’s farm for a few weeks. While camped there they took time out for Dorene to have her tonsils removed, a short stay in the local hospital, and then they were ready to go. 

“So we bought tickets and went to Kotzebue, just barely taking what I thought we had to have.”

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1 “FortWainwright” http://fairbanks-alaska.com/fort-wainwright.htm

Chapter 4 – Fairbanks
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