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Prime Time -- Alaskan adventure: Bemidji men's stay for work was short-lived

Leroy Hill enjoys a morning with his great-granddaughter, 18-month-old Abigail Speck. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron1 / 3
Leroy Hill cleans the new 1947 Chevrolet he and his partner, the late Vernon Johnson, drove to Alaska in May 1947 on the dirt AlCan Highway.2 / 3
In 1947, Anchorage, Alaska, which now has a population of more than 374,000 in the municipal area, had fewer than 20,000 people and was a frontier outpost.3 / 3

On May 15, 1947, two Bemidji guys headed north to the Territory of Alaska where they had heard work was available.

Leroy Hill and his partner, the late Vernon Johnson, weren't in Alaska even a month, but they came back with stories to last a lifetime.

Hill had joined the U.S. Army Air Corps when he graduated in 1944 from Bemidji High School and became a fighter pilot in a P51. However, pilot school didn't start until October and he needed a summer job to tide him over until he could join the service.

"Because of the war, the only place I could get a job was on a farm," Hill said.

Johnson leased a 19-cow dairy farm on the site where Cenex South is now located, and Hill went to work for him.

Although Hill never saw overseas action, he said, "I was flying the day the war quit. They told everybody to land."

He then started a nightclub with a partner at the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and state Highway 89 where Pete's Place West is now located.

"It was a moneymaker, but I didn't like it," Hill said.

He sold out to his partner and joined Johnson on the quest for work in Alaska.

Hill was single at the time, but the plan was for Johnson's wife, Luella, to join them.

They took off in Johnson's brand new 1947 Chevrolet from Bemidji to Edmonton, Alberta, and north through 4-inch-deep dust on the dirt track AlCan Highway. The road was also an obstacle course of washouts, which had to be driven around through open country.

"We were naïve," Hill said. "We didn't worry about anything - didn't have the sense to worry."

Hill and Johnson arrived after dark in Anchorage, a frontier outpost of fewer than 20,000 people at the time, and slept in the car. The next day, they lined up with other men seeking work and were hired by a man who was a gold miner in the summer and a well digger the rest of the year.

To dig a well, Hill and Johnson scraped away at the soil until they hit permafrost. At that point, they started blasting and gradually pulled the freed material up with a winch and bucket.

"I was a small guy, and Vernon was a big guy, so I was in the hole all the time," Hill said.

Their employer gave them the materials to build a cabin in his back yard. They lived there without electricity or running water.

But their sojourn was short-lived. Johnson received word that his wife was seriously ill and they had to return to Bemidji.

However, their employer didn't have enough cash to pay them off for the agreed amount in full. He did have a bunch of Army surplus overcoats and raincoats, though, and he traded the coats for part of their wages.

"All the way back, we traded coats for gas," Hill recalled. "It was Grand Forks or Crookston when we ran out of coats."