I inherited my taste for good wine and my love for photography from my grandfather, David Butcher. I was also lucky enough to inherit his stories and his history.
Over a year and a half ago I moved in with my grandparents, into the house he built, next to my great-grandparents homestead and into the neighborhood I had lived in and out of for so many years.
Last week my grandpa passed away from cancer. He was a kind and funny grandpa. Every time I came upstairs to say hi, he always looked genuinely excited to see me. I’ll always be thankful for the time I was able to spend with him, especially while living here. I’d like to remember and honor him in the best way I know how – by sharing his story.
David met his wife, Sylvia Cowdrey, in Southern California.
Together they had three children: Bryan, Stacy and Clay.
I was enchanted with stories from my grandpa’s past. He told me about Anchorage’s wild history, about when West High was two-stories tall and all about the origin of my beloved neighborhood, Spenard.
My grandpa came to Alaska when he was small boy in the early 1940s. Accompanied by his mom, Hazel Butcher, and his brother, Darwin, he first got to Alaska by steamship from Washington. Dropping them off in Seward they took the train to Anchorage. It was a memorable ride to say the least. The railroad was being operated by the military during World War II, and the soldiers were mad they had to miss Christmas. The engineers decided to get drunk and accelerate the speed of the train, only to bring it to a screeching halt. This went on until the crew finally passed out at Kenai Lake, a lake my great-grandparents would eventually build their summer cabin on.
Fights broke out and the train cars were in chaos, as my great-grandma would later describe the scene. A man who claimed to have experience operating locomotives walked around with a petition that would allow him to control the train. My great-grandma signed it and they eventually made their way to Anchorage.
The train they were on used a steam locomotive and it passed over one of the most incredible fixtures on the railroad at the time: the loop. Steam engines don’t have enough power to travel large grades, so a large, winding trestle was built in the steep, mountainous valley known as Grandview. My grandpa said riding it was exciting, but that his mother was so scared she couldn’t even look out the window.
It was nearly midnight on Christmas day when they finally arrived in Anchorage. A woman was supposed to meet them to help the family find housing, but she never showed up. Taking her small children, Hazel Butcher slept in the lobby of a nearby hotel. When she tried to reach her husband, Harold Butcher, in Juneau she was disappointed to find out that phone access to Juneau from Anchorage was not set up. Harold Butcher was in Juneau with their youngest child, Paula, taking the BAR exam. The family eventually found each other in Anchorage.
As the family settled into Anchorage, my grandpa was baptized into the Mormon church at Lake Spenard. What most recognize today as the largest seaplane base in the world, Lake Spenard was quiet and serene when my grandpa was eight years old.
The family bought a car and drove it up to Alaska. Harold Butcher, who was a purchasing agent for the highway, at the time, got special permission to drive the ALCAN in the summer of 1945, three years before the road was open to the public. That was the first of over 22 times my grandpa got to travel over the ALCAN.
Grandpa drove the highway many times with his wife, Sylvia Butcher. Typically in a Volkswagen bug or bus. The first time my grandma saw Alaska was in 1962, driving the highway with grandpa in a Volkswagen bug. The couple endured six bridge washouts. They had to drive north and through Dawson City where they were forced to ferry their car across the Yukon River on a makeshift log raft. Their Alaska adventure didn’t stop there.
Grandma and grandpa lived on W. 25th Avenue when the world shook around them. It was 5:36 p.m., Good Friday, 1964 when my grandparents finished off their dinner of burgers and steak fries, with coffee. The 9.2 magnitude earthquake shook the basement apartment, tossing their wedding china to the floor and shifting the door frame. The two ran outside and eventually made it down the street to grandpa’s parent’s house, where they found great-grandma cooking dinner, holding the cabinets shut as the earth shook for nearly five minutes.
Grandpa attended Anchorage High School and was one of the first graduating classes to graduate in the brand new building in 1955. The school was built on Romig Hill and technically wasn’t a part of Anchorage, but was a part of Spenard, a town all its own at the time. Eventually the name of the high school was changed to West Anchorage High School. Where my mom, Stacy Butcher, and then later I would graduate.
Later, in the 1980s, my grandpa was given some land near his parents homestead. He built his home, that still stands here today.
This house is where my parents were married, I learned how to read and so many other events took place. Luckily, my grandpa was able to spend the rest of his life in his house.
David was born Sept. 9, 1937 and passed away Oct. 24, 2017.