When Jack Lesh and his family moved to Gustavus in 1965, it was quite a different place from today’s community. Though we are still a small town, the modern world has made its way here, and changed this little place a great deal.
The family got to Juneau in 1960. In 1961, Jack and Sally came to Gustavus for the first time, and spent a night at the Gustavus Inn. Later that same year, they came back with the whole family and camped near the river. They came back every summer after that, until their move. They wanted to move here, but at that time didn’t know how they would make a living. Then, in 1965 the owners of the Gustavus Inn decided they wanted to leave, so the Leshes bought the property.
Before they purchased the inn, the family spent four summers visiting Gustavus, and they needed a place to stay while they were here. In Juneau,they bought a wannigan that sat on a log float on a beach there. They brought it to Gustavus and got permission from a resident to put it next to the river. Thus, when they came over in summer after that first year, they had a place to live. Later they acquired the land where Jack’s present house stands, and moved the wannigan to higher ground. When they bought the inn, they moved there, to an upstairs apartment with three bedrooms and a bath. However, the wannigan, fixed as living quarters, furnished a temporary home to a number of people over the years. The wannigan did not have running water or a bath. There was an outhouse close by. They had to haul all their water, but a sink inside allowed them to dump grey water, which ran outside through a pipe.
(Note: Out of curiosity, I looked up “wannigan.” Outside of Alaska, it refers to a wooden box for carrying supplies, such as that carried on a canoeing trip. In Alaska, it means a small house or bunkhouse mounted on skids, and then towed to where it was needed.)
The Gustavus Inn started because it became a solution to a problem. After World War II, commercial airlines flew between Juneau and Seattle. At times the weather would be bad, and incoming flights would divert to Gustavus until the weather cleared. During their wait, passengers walked around to see the community. They would walk to the inn, which was at the time a private home, and ask for a cup of coffee. At times the plane would be forced to stay the night. Then the passengers would stay at the residence. To accommodate these guests, the owners moved a Quonset to the inn site and attached it to the house. The Quonset had four rooms on each side of a central hallway. Each room had two cots and two bureaus. There was no bath. Guests could walk into the main part of the house to visit a lady’s or men’s rest room. Later, a shower room was built. The accommodations remained that way until Dave Lesh bought the inn in 1980. Then the Quonset was moved away and Dave added a new section. He also enlarged the second floor and added a third. Each room had a private bath.
In 1965, one had to charter a plane to fly to Gustavus. The original dock was there, now replaced by the modern state-built dock. A freight boat arrived weekly. It carried no passengers. The freight boat in operation when the Leshes first moved here was called “The Forester.” A later boat, called the “Betty R,” took over the freight hauling duties. Groceries, fuel and heating oil came on the small freighter. As the inn was one of a few places in Gustavus with full-time power, they used a great deal of fuel oil. There was a fuel outlet in Elfin Cove on Chichagof Island, about a 25-30 mile run. Jack would load 20 empty drums onto the freighter, which would go to Elfin Cove, get them filled, and return. Then Jack hauled five of them at a time with a tractor and trailer to the inn.
Grocery orders had to be sent to Juneau. There was no phone at that time, so folks would have to write out their list and mail it to town. Later, when phones were installed, orders could be called in.
Around 50 people lived in the area when Jack’s family arrived. Five people lived at the park, and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) accounted for around 25 people, all working at the fully-staffed airport. Homesteading families made up the rest of the population.
In 1965, there were no phones. Wires had been strung to 3 or 4 centrally located homesteads; batteries provided power, with an old-fashioned crank phone with a ringer hooked to it. Each homestead had its own ring pattern, so the homesteader could tell if the call was for him. Of course, if someone wished to listen in on a neighbor’s conversation, they could just pick up the receiver and hear it all. Then, for a couple of years, there was one phone in a phone booth installed at the inn. It could be used for collect calls only. In the late 60s, the phone booth got moved to the post office. Then someone in Juneau bought it and put it in their house. Rumor has it that the Parkers bought it back from the Juneau owner and returned it to Gustavus. Eventually, it will be on public display with other historical artifacts.
In 1967 or ’68, Alaska Coastal Airways made scheduled runs to Gustavus with a Grumman Goose, an 8-passenger amphibian plane from the ’30s that was used to transport troops during World War II. A versatile plane, it could land on the water, but then it could motor up onto land, making loading and unloading easier. The Goose landed at the airport here. Sally became the Gustavus agent. To send reservations and to keep up with flight information, the company installed a teletype at the inn. At night, the Lesh children would play on the teletype, calling their friends in other communities. Sometimes a message would come through to get off the teletype so a message could be sent. Oh, well — children will play!
In the 70s the community got its first local airline, Glacier Bay Airways. This airline was started by a former Juneau pilot, “Gildy” Gildersleeve, who ran things for a couple of years. Then another man, Art Hayes, took over and piloted for about five years. All charter flights from Juneau were on float planes. Sometimes when the Leshes came home with a load of freight, the plane would taxi up the river so they didn’t have to carry things so far.
The first grocery store was started around 1980. Jesse Buoy, the owner, first lived with her family at Rink Creek before there was a road. She had to drive the beach at low tide to get home. Finally, she moved to town and opened the store. The small establishment started across the river from Jack, and eventually moved to a new location.
Rink Creek’s road started first as a logging road in the 1960s. Logging started around the time the Leshes arrived. Then, when settlers began moving in, locals (mostly the Buoy family) started developing the road.
The original homesteaders had gardens. They also raised beef cattle, fished, and hunted deer, and the land provided. Before the Lesh’s move, there were numerous fish processors in the area. As all the fish was hand-packed, these small processors furnished several jobs. Unfortunately, they were all gone before 1965. Salaried jobs in Gustavus were scarce. Some men fished, or hauled freight with their boats. Small sawmills provided earnings for a few. People worked at whatever they could find to do.
The community had no paved roads. The park lodge was built in 1966. The construction crew lived at the inn for about six months. Visitors came into the airport in Gustavus and took a bus to the park. The road in the park in the early days was pretty primitive, with only two dirt tracks. After the lodge was built, a tour boat started trips up the bay. Then, construction of the new road began. During the early years, Ken Youmans, father of present Gustavus resident Aimee Youmans, came here from Sitka to be the park maintenance man. He lived in a tent for five summer seasons.
Water for the town came from wells. The only public utility was electricity, which was installed in the mid-70s. The FAA had
generators at the airport, but they only shared power with the school and the FAA housing, then called the “compound.”
At the time of the Lesh’s arrival, there was a school in town. That first school consisted of a two-room building, with a classroom on one side and the teacher’s living quarters on the other. A VW minibus picked up students, driving out to the park to get the children there. At that time, there were ten students total in the school.
The post office has had a number of homes. When the Leshes purchased the inn, it was located in a small building across the driveway. The building was moved at one time, onto Wilson Road close to where the Quonset now stands. Then for three or four years it lived in a former FAA building, now usually referred to as “the old pre-school building.” At the end of that period, a new building went up, and the post office moved into its present quarters.
To provide entertainment, people threw dancing parties or potlucks. A movie came to town quite regularly, and was shown sometimes at the inn and sometimes at a FAA building at the compound.
Jack was instrumental in starting an organization known as the Gustavus Community Association, or GCA, as it was called. The association focused on the organization of community or cooperative projects. Then, city government finally arrived. The original city hall was built as a church camp building, and later moved to its present location. It housed the library before the city government was established. Then, in 2004, Gustavus was incorporated, and took over the building.
An original homestead of 160 acres included the land where the inn was built. On the homestead, around 12 to 15 cattle were raised for meat. The Lesh children helped with the feeding. One of the cows would occasionally have a calf, and the calf often went to the children as payment for their labor. The family ended up with a small “herd” of 4 or 5 cows of their own. Finally, Sally decided the cows should be sold. They were sold “on the hoof.” Buyers came with private planes, slaughtered the cattle, and took them back to Juneau..
The cattle were not the only animals the family had. They also owned chickens, goats, sheep, and ducks. Betsy had a horse for a number of years. The Lesh’s animals would have to have winter feed, so every summer the long grass in the big field next to the inn would be cut. Once cut and raked, it would be loaded into a large hay wagon and stored in the barn behind the inn. It often amused the guests to help load the hay wagon, and then ride on it to the barn.
In the old days in Gustavus, everyone knew each other, so it seemed natural to wave at your neighbors when you passed them on the road. Even though our community is now much larger, people still wave to each other on the road. Maybe it’s someone you don’t know yet, but if you live here, chances are you will soon meet. Waving is a nice reminder that we still live in a small town.
Jack has a liking for language and grammar. He learned Esperanto about the time he came to Gustavus. He spoke it fluently; in fact, he made three trips to Europe for Esperanto conventions or meetings. Because these gatherings always took place in the summer, it was hard for Jack to go because he couldn’t easily leave the inn. This problem led to the end of his Esperanto studies, and he learned Spanish instead, so he could go to Mexico in the winter.
On the first trip to Mexico, Jack and Sally took the two youngest children, Tom and Betsy. At the time, there was a train from Tijuana into Mexico. The Leshes traveled on the train to Mazatlan, then took a ferry from Mazatlan to La Paz. They liked the beaches there, but couldn’t drive to Baja until the road opened a few years later. For four or five years, they would spend three or four months in Baja, camping on the beaches. They traveled in a pickup with a camper. They stayed in a primitive trailer park in La Ribera (between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, on the Sea of Cortez) and got to know the area and the locals. Then Jack won a drawing in the year 2000 for a free trip anywhere that Alaska Airlines flew, so they went back to Mexico. At that time, they found a small house in La Ribera that they could rent year-round for a low fee. They had this place for five years.
Shortly before renting the house in La Ribera, they bought a trailer. They had become friends with people who raised mangos on an up-country farm, and they got permission to move the trailer there, and stayed in it from time to time. Unfortunately, they never visited when the mangoes were ripe.
In 1975, Jack sold the inn to his daughter, Sal, and her husband, Tom McLaughlin. The McLaughlins ran it for four or five years, and then sold it in 1980 to their brother, Dave. Now that Jack no longer owned the inn, he needed something else to keep him busy. He went to work for Alaska Discovery, an outfitter organized by Hayden Kaden, who is from our community. Jack served as a guide on excursions by kayak into Glacier Bay. They first started with kleppers, collapsible kayaks that folded into bags. At the beach a float plane would drop them off, the guides put the kayaks together and everyone traveled up-bay and back, camping for seven days. Then they would be picked up at the same spot where they started the trip. Later, they used firm-structured kayaks, transporting them and guests to the drop-off spot by tour boat. The boat would start at Bartlett Cove and travel up the east arm. Kayaks, guests and guide disembarked, and were then picked up at the same spot a week later. They hauled all their food and camping supplies with them. Jack says that the trips were fun, unless it rained all seven days. This excursion adventure is still ongoing.
In 1980, Jack started building their house. They had been living in a small cabin on their land, named “Salmon Roe,” and now rented by Connie Edwards. At the time, it had two little rooms, no electricity, an outhouse, and a pump in the kitchen for water. Sally grew tired of living there, and told Jack they needed to build a house. Since they didn’t have money to buy building supplies, Sally said she would get a job to pay for it. She worked for the ferries and also as a chef at the Governor’s Mansion in Juneau. Since she worked to pay for construction materials, Jack said he felt obligated to build her a house. He built it himself, with help from his sons and his son-
in-law. In 1984 they finally moved in. They named this new house “meandro,” which means “a bend in the river.”
When the owners of the Gusto Building Supply decided to sell in 1986, Jack and his son, Jim, bought the business and ran it until 1992. The business was not profitable enough to satisfy Jim, who is an excellent finish carpenter. He found he could make more working as a carpenter, so they sold the business.
In 1995, Jack went to work for Dave at the inn. He started as a maintenance man. “I fixed all the things I did wrong originally,” says Jack. When he got too old to crawl around under buildings, he ran the office for about five years, doing all the necessary paperwork, including payroll, reservations, and sometimes chauffeuring guests.
In 2008, Jack retired and became a gardener. He especially likes growing trees and bushes, but has plenty of garden space and a small greenhouse. His favorite annual is peas. He grows enough to last him through the winter. He also likes to grow salad greens and kale. He has a bed of cultivated strawberries.
Jack Lesh has lived a full and varied life, and has contributed much of value to the community of Gustavus. Thank you, Jack,, for sharing some high points of your story with us.