Granny Newton: Matriarch of a Family of Adventurers at Suitna Station – the 50s and 60’s

-----In the late 1800’s Susitna Village was an Athabaskan Indian settlement on the Susitna River. Around this time white explorers, adventurers, traders, trappers and prospectors began using the Susitna River to get inland. A large white settlement grew at Susitna and it became known as Susitna Station. By the early 1900’s it had grown into a booming supply town with stores, warehouses, a Post Office, a school, a church, cafes, bars, roadhouses, and a sawmill as well as many homes and a growing population. However, the boom was short-lived. By the 1930’s most of the few remaining Indians, decimated by disease that white men brought with them, moved to Tyonek. The white population began using the newly built railroad to get inland, rather than the river. When the Post Office closed in 1946 the town was virtually abandoned. By the 1950’s when Susitna lots were put up for homesteading there was hardly a sign that a vibrant town once stood there. A new group of pioneering folk moved in at Susitna Station and began their own story here. Granny Newton is part of that story.
-----When I started spending time at Susitna Station in 2012 I began hearing the name Granny Newton. Mostly her name was mentioned in reference to a section of the trail that everyone calls Granny Newton’s clearing. During hunting season someone might say “I’m heading toward Granny Newton’s to take a look for moose”. That way I knew which way they headed in case they didn’t come back. It’s a landmark in the area. However, if you didn’t know where it was you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at it. These days it just looks like a section of woods. There is no sign of the cabin that Granny once lived in and nothing else that might tell you that someone once lived there…at least not at first glance. However, if you walk around and take a closer look, hidden beneath overgrown brush, you will see a few remnants of Granny’s life there…the remainder of her cabin is nothing more than a few rotting boards and disintegrating plywood, a rusted out stove, a few cans and a box of broken glass. I found it interesting and I started wanting to know more. Who was Granny Newton and what did the place look like when she lived there?
-----The story I got was that she was an older woman who lived by herself in a cabin in the woods near the river in the 1950’s and 60’s. It really intrigued me. Granny Newton’s place was so remote, basically in the middle of nowhere. To think of her living there all by herself – it’s not the kind of thing every woman would do. It’s true that in the 50’s and 60’s there were a handful of other people trying their hand at homesteading at Susitna but it doesn’t appear Granny knew any of them before she moved there. I guess it was just her adventurous nature combined with the rare opportunity to get free land in Alaska that convinced her to do it. She seized the opportunity. Because of my curious nature I kept questioning Jeff, my sweetheart, who has owned land at Susitna since 1987, to see if there was anything else he could tell me about Granny. He remembered that a man related to Granny came to Susitna Station one year on the way to visit his family’s old homestead and he left a business card with his name and address and a couple of old photos. Using the business card I was able to contact Randy Lydic who it turns out is the great grandson of Granny Newton, and I began interviewing him and learned the story of Granny as well as the story of the rest of his adventurous family. Not only did Randy have stories and photos of Granny but he also had stories and photos of his own time spent at Susitna Station. He began connecting all the dots for me on how Granny got there and how she started his family of adventurers out at Susitna Station. I am lucky to be able to share the stories and photos with you. Thank you Randy! All his photographs that I share are noted “Lydic Collection”. It has been a real pleasure getting to know him and his family and learn about their family history.
-----With stories I got from Randy, his mother Audie, and his cousin Darlene, along with some ancestry and other research I did, this is what I found out about Granny. First of all, I was told that she actually preferred that the kids call her Grandma, not Granny, although for the purposes of this story I still call her Granny because that’s what Jeff has always called her. Granny Newton was born Eva Stella Helvey in 1895. She married Alfred Alvin Newton on July 31, 1913 in Colorado. They had 8 children and were married for 38 years. 4 of their 8 children were boys and 4 were girls. Of the 4 boys, one of them, Robert Gale, died as an infant in Oregon in 1921. The other 3 boys grew up to be adventurous types and all 3 of them ended up in Alaska. Charles Newton, the eldest son, came up first in 1946. He arrived by ship at Seward. He started his own company in Palmer called Matanuska Plumbing and Heating. The second eldest son, Alvin Royce came up to Alaska in 1952 to work for Charles at Matanuska Plumbing and Heating and then eventually started his own company in 1970, R & R Plumbing. Their younger brother Richard Ray came to Alaska, about 1948 as a teenager, still in high school, to stay with Charles and also ended up working for Charles at his company. Richard Ray sadly died December 31, 1959 in Alaska, in a plane crash near Dillingham. Richard Ray is mentioned in the book “Between Breaths: A Teacher in the Alaska Bush” by Sandra K Matthews. The book tells the story of Richard’s girlfriend Donna Joy McGladrey (Sandra Matthew’s cousin) who was a teacher in Dillingham and who also died in the plane crash with Richard Ray. All the boys knew how to fly and Richard was flying Donna in the family’s company airplane to Dillingham when they were killed.
-----Granny Newton also had 4 daughters. Of the 4 girls 2 of them also lived in Alaska at one time. One of Granny’s daughters, Grace, also ended up in Alaska living at Susitna Station. Grace has an adventure story of her own. Granny’s other daughter Alice Montgomery of Cedaridge, Colorado came up to Alaska around 1971-72 and also bought property in Alaska on the trail from Susitna Station to Flathorn Lake. Her other 2 daughters, Enid (Landon) of Salem, Oregon and Maryanne (Matson) of Salem, Oregon are still alive. Although they may have visited Alaska, neither of them ever lived in Alaska.
-----It appears that a few years after being widowed when her husband Alfred died March 11, 1951 in Portland, Oregon Granny, at 56 years old, decided to come to Alaska to homestead and live off the land. By this time her 3 sons were already grown and living in Alaska and she may have heard about the homesteading program being offered in Alaska through them. From what I’m told other family members originally wanted her to get land closer to town near Big Lake, but Granny decided she wanted to live at Susitna Station and eventually other family members followed. Records show that she applied for a 4.93 acre homestead lot at Susitna Station on June 14, 1956 and then headed out there to start her new life in this remote section of Alaska. If her husband had not died maybe she never would have ended up in Alaska and maybe she would have been content where she was but that’s not the way the story went. She apparently didn’t mind being alone and I am told she was always a very independent, strong woman. In order to homestead you must be strong. There are a lot of requirements to be met when you homestead. You have to clear a certain percentage of the land and build a permanent structure within a certain amount of time. These years were a lot of hard work for Granny but it was also a labor of love and a true adventure that lasted into her 60’s. She was the first of her family to move to Susitna Station but not the last. She had an adventurous spirit that she then passed on to her children and grandchildren who followed in her footsteps to Susitna.
-----The first summer Granny had the property she put up a wall tent and moved in. Since a tent did not qualify as a permanent home in the homesteading program it would be necessary for her to build a house but in the meantime she shored up the tent with wood around its perimeter, added a door, windows and eventually a wood floor and stayed in it while her house was being built. All three of her boys, who were very good with their hands helped her. Richard had taken Donna there once to visit Granny. There is a photo in the book “Between Breaths” of Richard and Donna in a boat near the point at Susitna Station that was taken while they were visiting Granny. In the book Donna recalls Granny as “a rough and tough woman”. She also talks about what Granny’s living arrangement was like and her own experience there. Donna visited while Granny was still living in the shored up tent. At that time construction of her house there was still going on. Donna described Granny’s home as a tent with windows and a door and a dirt floor with a wood burning stove for heat and cooking. While they were there Richard helped his mom cut firewood, put in the plywood floor in the tent and collect wood from an old cabin at Su Station to use on the new cabin she was building.
Granny, Charles and Alvin in front of the tent - photo from the Lydic Collection

Granny, Charles and Alvin in front of the tent - photo from the Lydic Collection

-----It was shortly after that in 1959 when Richard and Donna went missing in the plane on their way to Dillingham and the family’s lives were put in turmoil. The plane crashed at the end of December but it was not found until the following year in June and during the six months before they were found Charles and Alvin spent most of their time in Dillingham looking for Richard and Donna. Their lives were taken over in a need to find their brother. By the time they found Richard and Donna they had not only lost their brother, but they had gone bankrupt, losing the plane, spending so much on the search and being away from work that they also lost their business. They had given up everything but their dedication to the search showed their close family ties. Granny I’m sure was relieved knowing that Charles and Alvin never quit looking for Richard. I’m sure it was a very hard time for her being alone at Susitna worrying about her son. I’m not sure exactly when but sometime before 1960 amid all the turmoil Granny did finish her permanent cabin and moved in.
Granny with Darlene in front of her cabin - photo from the Lydic Collection

Granny with Darlene in front of her cabin - photo from the Lydic Collection

-----Since Alaska is mostly a cold, snowy climate and the house was heated with wood it took a lot of effort to keep enough wood supplied to have a fire burning all year long. I personally know the effort it takes to keep a cabin heated with wood in the winter in Alaska. Cutting down trees, hauling the trees, chopping them up into burnable logs and making kindling is a tremendous amount of work. In the book “Between Breaths” Granny said she had to cut 3 trees a day to heat her cabin in the wintertime. Jeff estimates it takes about 3 birch trees a month to heat a cabin during a winter. Birch is the preferred wood to burn. It’s a hard wood that burns slowly. However, being a large tree with hard wood it’s much more difficult to cut up than some of the softer woods. Considering Granny was cutting wood herself she probably had to cut smaller trees like spruce and spruce wood burns more quickly so it makes sense that she had to cut a lot more of them. It’s pretty impressive to think of Granny cutting that much firewood being that it’s such a difficult job and she was getting on in age. I am in awe of her ability to live out in the woods alone keeping herself warm and surviving the harsh elements and the isolation. Although her sons helped her build her cabin, they did not ever live with her at Susitna Station. They lived in town and she lived out at Susitna alone.
-----Susitna Station is about 20 miles air miles into the wilderness. These days we take boats out there in the summer and snowmachines out there in the winter. It appears Granny usually took a plane in and out of Susitna. Her sons were all pilots and until Richard was killed in 1960 and they lost the plane one of her sons usually gave her a ride. After the plane crash she still probably found a ride on other people’s planes. Her son in law Bill went in and out of Susitna weekly on a plane, she made friends that were pilots and there were a lot of plane companies available for hire. Going by boat meant crossing the Cook Inlet which was a dangerous venture in the summers and since snowmachines weren’t around yet the only other wintertime travel other than by plane was by dogsled and Granny didn’t have a dogsled.
-----Not only did Granny live in a remote area which was difficult to get to but it had no stores, no electricity, and no running water. Granny had no phone or any form of communication so if she had an emergency she had no way to contact her family. Shortwave was the preferred form of communication but she didn't have one. However, after the Lydics moved there they had short -wave so during Granny's later years communication with the outside world became available. During the 50's and 60's there were about 8 to 10 other cabins at Susitna Station. The people that owned these cabins were also living at Susitna Station at least part-time when Granny got there but there were only trails through the woods between cabins and it would be q uite a walk to get to any of them. Granny did become friends with the few residents that were there. Nick Barbul, the last Dena’ina living at Susitna Station would visit 2 or 3 times a week and some of the trappers living there also became friends with Granny. Granny apparently wasn’t very sociable, and especially didn’t care for prissy women. She got along better with men. That probably worked out well for her because in these days there were mostly men living this hardy lifestyle. One of the few exceptions was Nick Barbul’s wife who was still around in the 1950’s. Not only were the trails hard to walk but they could be dangerous. Susitna Station is in the middle of bear, moose and wolf country, all animals that you have to be wary of. It was prudent to always carry a gun.
-----She was basically alone fending for herself in a remote area of Alaska. She was a tough lady and choosing this lifestyle proves it. She lived at Susitna Station until she was in her 60’s. The first few years she was the only one of her family living there but then other family applied for homesteads at Susitna Station and moved out there and built cabins also. Granny Newton was the matriarch of a whole family of adventurers at Susitna Station and its outskirts. Granny’s family eventually built two other cabins down the trail from hers during the 1960’s. Her daughter Grace’s son, Bill, and his family moved out there first - building a cabin about a half mile down the trail from Granny. Then a few years after that her daughter, Grace and Grace’s husband Joe, built a cabin about a mile down the trail from her. It was a shared family experience at Susitna Station for awhile in the early 1960’s. The years that Granny and her family spent out at the Susitna were very memorable to the kids and grandkids. They remember it as a great family adventure. The grandchiIdren had many summer adventures staying with Granny. I talked to Granny Newton’s granddaughter, Darlene, who remembers spending summers with Granny Newton at her cabin on the Susitna when she was a child. She remembers her Grandma had a shot of brandy every night before bed and they would read detective magazines - blood and guts stuff - that her mom probably wouldn't have approved of! She remembers that Granny had a dog named Honey. Granny loved that dog and was devastated when Honey was shot and killed by someone. Granny had kept one of Honey’s puppies so she had another Honey after the first one died. Darlene also remembers that Granny had a refrigerator she made out of a wooden box nailed to the north side of the cabin which she put a piece of canvas over that she kept wet to keep the butter cold. Also, Alaska has a short but productive growing season during the summer. Granny had a garden where she grew potatoes, radishes and cabbage. One year a moose got in her garden eating her cabbage and she shot it between the eyes with a 22. It took 2 shots to kill it. They used to call Granny “Dead Eye” because she was such a good shot. She also remembers that Granny and her husband and their 8 kids lived in a cave in New Mexico when the kids were little. That’s where Richard was born. So it appears her experience in self-sufficiency and living off the land started well before she came to Alaska.
-----Granny did meet all the requirements necessary in the homestead program and she received the patent to her property there on January 19, 1966. Granny left Alaska sometime in the 60’s and she moved back to Oregon and lived out the rest of her life with more of the comforts of life. She certainly must have had a lot of stories to tell her friends and family on story night. I wish I could have met her. She died in Portland at the age of 83 on December 19, 1978 having lived a long and adventurous life! It appears when Granny moved she sold her property but I can find no record of anyone else ever living there and as far as I can tell no one has been to the property in decades. We still call it Granny Newton’s as we drive by it in honor and remembrance of her – an elderly lady who used to live there and whose spirit still remains there.
Granny Newton on the trail at Susitna Station - photo from the Lydic Collection

Granny Newton on the trail at Susitna Station - photo from the Lydic Collection

-----The adventure of Granny’s family continues in the story of the Lydics next.