93 Years in The First City!By DAVE KIFFER
July 26, 2021
Not that she wanted to live that long, she often said that 90 was about right. But she made it to 93 and not many people have lived in Ketchikan for more than nine decades. That's why her story is worth telling. It is a story of nearly a century in Ketchikan.
She was born on July 26, 1921, in a small house that still stands on Freeman Street next to Ketchikan Creek. Her grandfather, James Allen Hart, was a miner who had come to the area in 1894 and staked claims from Prince of Wales to the Unuk River to the Klondike. He also managed the Schoenbar mine for several years and served on the Ketchikan City Council as well as town public works director. Shortly before the turn of the 20th century he brought his family north to join him in Alaska. Merta was named - sort of - after his wife Mertie, her grandmother.
Hart's daughter Edna grew up in Ketchikan and married Paul Smith, a tinsmith and plumber who worked in local canneries and mines. Paul's extended family was involved in several local businesses including Smith Electric and Schmolck Plumbing.
Paul Smith also worked on the new White Cliff School and that led the family to move out to Ketchikan's West End in 1926 where they lived in a house at the top of Austin Street. By the early 1930s, they were living at a house at the corner of First and Jefferson that would remain "in the family" for 50 years.
One of her neighbor's, growing up, was the slightly older Irvin Thompson who would go to the Naval Academy and would be the first Alaskan to die in World War II on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. According to her sisters. Merta had a serious crush on the tall, handsome Thompson.
Besides Merta - the oldest - Paul and Edna's family included Alice, Dorothy, Patricia, Paul Jr. (Sonny, who died at age 6 when he was hit by a car on Tongass Avenue) and Larry.
Merta was in the first Kindergarten Class at White Cliff and she later went to Main School, where she graduated third in her high school class in 1938.
Like many girls her age, she was a babysitter, but she also spent a summer working at the Sunny Point Cannery and another summer working at "the stink plant" a salmon waste reduction plant in Ward Cove. After graduation, she worked as a telephone operator at Ketchikan Public Utilities and also at the Ketchikan General Hospital. She had planned to become a nurse and even had - through a relative - looked into going back east to St. Elizabeth's Hospital near Washington D.C. to study.
Instead, she met Ken Kiffer, the son of a local commercial trolling family that lived near Bar Harbor and her life went a different direction. They met while ice skating at Ward Lake. Reportedly, he got her attention by pushing her headfirst into a snow berm.
They were married in 1939 and their first child, also named Ken, was born in 1940. They also made plans to "homesite" a property in Clover Pass from the federal government. They built their home out of parts of an old cannery from Loring and Ken Kiffer's parents built a home next door.
During World War II, Ken Kiffer had a food production deferment from military service, although he - and many other location fisherman - were called up toward the end of the war because the military needed boat operators for an expected invasion of Japan. But the war ended before they were needed.
By the later 1940s, they had two additional sons, Jerry and Dick, and were still living in Clover Pass. Merta was pregnant with a daughter, Janet, in 1948 when she was found to have contracted tuberculosis. Two of her sisters also contracted the disease and all three spent time in sanitoriums in the Seattle area. A city girl at heart, she would talk fondly about those three years in Seattle, especially the time when she and two fellow "internees" snuck out of "the San" in Laurel Beach during a snowstorm and made their way into downtown Seattle to see her favorite musician, Louis Armstrong, perform.
Merta would not return to Ketchikan for good until 1951. By then, she had tired of living "out the road" and the family moved "to town." For a several years, they lived in Ketchikan's first public housing development, Alder Park, a collection of several large buildings at the corner of Tongass and Bryant Street where the Ketchikan Pioneer's Home is now.
In the late 1950s, Merta's father Paul became seriously ill with cancer, no doubt brought upon by the materials he had worked with for decades in construction and he and Edna moved South. Merta and Kenny purchased the house at First and Jefferson. Paul died just months after Merta's last son, David, was born in 1959.
During the winters, Kenny worked on "the pond" at the Ward Cove pulp mill. His three older sons would also work at the mill as well. Janet graduated from Ketchikan High School in 1966 and married a local logger.
Kenny continued to commercial troll but died of a heart attack at the dock in Petersburg in 1974. After that, Merta went to work for Dr. Miles Shepherd for several years, she also volunteered for the Forest Service as a greeter in Federal Building for many years.
When her youngest son went off to college in 1977, she filled the now empty house with students from logging camps that wanted to attend school in Ketchikan in the winter. In the summers, for several years, she hosted students from New York's Houghton College, who came to Ketchikan in the summer to work.
She was active in the Eagles Lodge, serving as president, and was an avid if not particularly accomplished bowler at the old Billiken Bowl. For many years, she helped Mary Balcom produce the "Old Timer's Cache" weekly column for the Ketchikan Daily News and even helped copy edit other stories for the newspaper.
She had always been an active churchgoer, but in the 1970s and 1980s, she became a leader in the local Presbyterian Church and also a regionwide deacon which allowed her to travel throughout Southeast Alaska. She was also part of a local senior's group that traveled throughout the US and Canada over the years. She also accompanied family members to Hawaii, the East Coast and Yellowstone National Park among other places. Travel was a very big deal for someone who spent so many years on "The Rock."
At one point, she talked about joining her mother and sisters, who all lived in the Seattle area, but when push came to shove, she never left Ketchikan.
In 1989, she agreed to swap her house on First and Jefferson for a condo that First Bank owned in the Harbormaster overlooking Bar Harbor. She had had her eyes on one of those condos since they had been built a decade before. The house property on Jefferson became part of the expanded First Bank Totem Branch property. She would live in the Harbormaster for the next 26 years, immensely enjoying looking out at the ever-changing Bar Harbor tableau calling it "better than TV."
It was a great location and her health stayed good as she continued to walk wherever she needed to go - primarily to church or the grocery store. She had never learned to drive, but always enjoyed driving around town with her children and grandchildren. She had a photographic memory for all things Ketchikan and could remember just about all the local history from the mid 1920s onward. Every drive through Ketchikan was a local history lesson for the driver.
At one point, she had considered going into the Pioneer's Home but every time her "number" came up she was still feeling healthy enough to continue to live on her own.
She never did have to leave her condominium, just as she never did have to leave Ketchikan.
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