My Uncle Bill

Following Newspaper Article Appeared In The Frontiersman March 1996

Faded photos focus on Valley's history


Frontiersman reporter

Many of Bill Hecker's memories are preserved in an old photo album, held down on brittle paper pages. The faded black-and-white photographs are filled with images of the past— Model-T Fords, World War II planes and youthful faces. "Eddie Barge," Bill said, pointing to a faded photograph of a young man wearing an Army uniform. Barge had served with Bill on the Aleutian Islands. But while Barge escaped Japanese bombings, the years finally caught him. "He died fairly recently—82 years old," Bill said. "He only died, oh, a month ago or so." The 78-year-old man and his wife, Bergie, have lived on their original Matanuska farm on Palmer Fishhook Road since the 1940s. They can still see the old main house and barn across the street, sold years ago to another family. The Heckers live in what was once a milking parlor. During the past decades, renovations and additions have changed the small, concrete building into a cozy home. Alaska became home to a 20-year-old Bill Hecker in 1938. His aunt's family had moved to the Valley the year, before, 'and Bill's parents would follow later. He said he cannot recall the exact reasons for moving north from his home state of Oregon. "Something new I guess ... to see the world," Bill said. "I walked from warm, rainy weather into cold snow." He arrived in early spring to a town not much older than himself, one that would later become the state's largest city. "It wasn't much of a town at all, then, Bill said of Anchorage. He said the streets were still gravel, with only a few strips of pavement serving as sidewalks. The shops and homes were all woodframe buildings, except for the impressive, concrete Federal Building. And it was this rustic nature of Alaska that left a lasting impression on Bill's wife. It was like going back in time 100 years," Bergie recalled. "There were no amenities." She said many homes were without electricity, phones or running water. Bergie had been working in Europe with the Red Cross and coming from Paris in the early 1940s, Bergie encountered a very different world in Alaska's Matanuska Colony. But she had always dreamed of coming to the Last Frontier. And it was here where she met her future husband. " He was just back from the Army," Bergie said of her husband. Bill had served four years as an Army engineer during World War II. "We met at a dance in the old movie theater," Bergie recalled. Today, the downtown Palmer theater is now encased in a larger and much flashier Gold Miner's Hotel. In 1946, the young couple was married. Within a few years, the Heckers had bought the family farm after Bill's father died in 1948. "I guess I just worked into it after the war," Bill said of farming . And hard work it was. With three daughters, Bill expected to do most of the farming on his own. But one daughter turned out to be a pleasant surprise. "Patricia helped me the most" Bill said. "She learned how to milk the cows and feed and take care of the animals." With some help from Patricia, Bill said he was able to run the farm without much outside help. The other two daughters, Barbara and Angela, assisted their mother with the inside chores. Bill said winters were the most difficult for farmers, trying to get fresh water and feed out to the cows while the wind and snow howled through the Valley. "There were a good many times I wished I was back in Oregon, Bill admitted. "But we never had enough money to go anywhere else," he added with a chuckle. He said dairy farms, like other farms, are rarely big moneymakers. "In order to make a living, you have to buy more cows," Bill said. More cows require more buildings and more feed. The farmer then has to buy more land and more equipment, which costs more money. And in an attempt to pay off the loans for land and equipment, the farmer then buys more cows. "It's a never-ending thing," Bill said. "Farmers never made anything," his wife agreed. "Everything we ever made went right back into the farm." In the late '70s, Bill began selling off some of he dairy cows to slow ly ease out of the demanding business. I didn't miss them one bit," he said of the dairy cows. While the Heckers encountered many hardships along with other Matanuska Colonists, they recalled many pleasant memories as well. "I don't think I led a very exciting life," Bill said. "But everybody knew how to have a good time." He pointed to a photograph of his mother as a young woman. She was a blur of movement and laughter as several small children bombarded her with fluffy snow. Other photographs showed a young couple relaxing in a green field, while sunlight glittered off their smiles. Bill recalled many evening dances in town, summer picnics in the mountains add successful fishing trips. "We found more time to do those things back then," Bill said. "We had a lot of fun ... I guess you take it where you can get it." The 78-year-old man cracked a small grin. "When I was young, I liked it here a lot more than I do now," Bergie said. She said Alaska is for the strong-bodied and brave-spirited. But as people age, many begin yearning for warm winters without snowy roads and windy yards. And as the Heckers have grown older over the years, the world around them has changed dramatically. "It doesn't seem like the same place at all," Bill said. "As soon as they built McDonalds, it all started to change," Bergie agreed. "We used to go the post office and know everyone there. Most of them were even related to you." The elderly couple said they see few familiar faces anymore, however. "This is a wonderful place for younger people ... but it's not the best place for retired people," Bergie said. For the past few years, the Heckers have headed south in their motorhome to visit with relatives and enjoy sunny skies during the heart of winter. However, Bill decided he was not comfortable driving the large vehicle along the Alaska Highway this year. The couple has spent these past few months in their Palmer home. Outside, snow drifts against their screen door. "It's been a long winter this year," Bergie said. But inside their warm milk parlor, the couple sat in their plush chairs beneath a skylight and shared their memories. Bright rays of sunshine cast a glow to the room as Bergie and Bill flipped through piles of black and white photographs.

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