One of the reasons Keith and I are so impressed by Gwin’s Lodge is its history. It is one of Alaska’s oldest log roadhouse lodges. I am also awed by the stories of Helen Gwin, who built the lodge with her husband Pat.
According to a March 1, 2001 article in the Peninsula Clarion, it all began in 1946, when Pat and Helen Gwin arrived in Cooper Landing from Colorado. The tiny town had about 100 residents. The Gwins eked out a living by operating a small packaged goods store out of a tent. (A tent! In Alaska! Where there are bears in the Summer and frigid cold in the Winter!) That same year, construction began on the highway from Cooper Landing to Homer. The Sterling Highway, the road that is the artery of the Kenai Peninsula, opened in 1950 and subsequently the Seward Highway opened in 1951. The main lodge building was built from spruce logs harvested from the surrounding Chugach National Forest. Cutting, hauling and hand-peeling the logs in true pioneer fashion, Pat and Helen Gwin completed and opened the lodge on January 1, 1952 (according to another article it opened on New Year’s Eve in 1952) to wary travelers and fishermen eager to hook the big one on the nearby Kenai and Russian Rivers. The kitchen was put in during 1953, and the restaurant-bar opened July 4, 1954. Helen did the cooking and cleaning. Pat and Helen parted ways in 1959, but Helen stayed to run the lodge.
Helen was not only a tough woman, successfully running the business by herself for many years, she was also an animal lover. Mayme Ohnemus, who was an employee that eventually became a close friend, met Helen in 1969. Mayme gave an eye-witness account of Helen’s no-backing down attitude when a brown bear pawed at her back door: “I saw her fly out that back door with a broom in hand and her apron strings flapping in the wind. She ran right up the trail behind the bear swatting at it the whole way. After that, I started to think she was as tough as everyone was saying.” Helen apparently befriended many animals. One of them was “Minnie the Moocher,” a moose that began frequenting the lodge as a yearling. “She would stand in the windows and look at the customers, and she would eat food put out for the birds, until we finally had to start putting out moose food,” Helen said in a 1982 Clarion article. When the cow eventually got old enough to give birth, the moose “brought her first calf to the lodge, a baby bull, which eventually became so tame it would eat out of people’s hands,” she said.
“She even had an ermine that lived in the house that she fed. She made pets out of every animal she came in contact with,” Ohnemus said. Did I mention that I am an animal lover? So glad to find out that Gwin’s Lodge has this endearing story behind it.
Helen was also a beloved member of the community. She hosted weekly pinochle parties and invited everyone to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas at Gwin's. All the area lodges and businesses would close and come to Gwin’s Lodge for the holiday meals. Helen retired in 1976 but continued to be an active participant in Cooper Landing’s activities and organizations. She donated many items to the local museum, including Gwin’s Lodge records and menus from 1949 on, an old-time sewing table, clothing and accessories shipped to Alaska from the Gwins’ former home in Colorado, records of the first Cooper Landing Chamber of Commerce from more than 40 years ago, a burl table made by Arne Sundby, fur pelts, and Native-made baskets and toys. Helen died in her sleep in 2007 in Cooper Landing at age 92.
One of the earliest decisions for us after we bought Gwin's Lodge is whether to retain the original name. After learning about its history, there is no question that we would. Although its reputation had been somewhat tarnished prior to our purchase with bad customer reviews, there is no doubt that there is a lot of goodwill built up in this valuable and venerable name. We feel that in the past six years, we have been able to re-establish Gwin’s Lodge as the must-visit must-see landmark on the Kenai Peninsula.
Copyright 2018 Wei Wei Jeang. All rights reserved.