Irene Silvers

Irene Silvers

Driving by Holiday Heights Senior Housing on 8th Avenue, you've no doubt noticed the beautiful yard, flowers and raised garden beds that grace the grounds each summer. It may come as a surprise to some that a small group of residents spend countless hours in this endeavor. Irene is one of these individuals. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing this independent, feisty lady. Here is a brief outline of her life so far:

Irene Louise Kilpatrick was born on 7-25-31, in Baker, Idaho, which is located nine miles south of Salmon. She was raised on the family's 160 acre homestead along with her brother, who was older by two years and an uncle who was two years older than her brother. He lived with the family until returning back home to his parents at the age of six. Spud the dog, who loved fried potatoes, was their constant companion. Her father had purchased the property for $100 from an uncle who'd fallen on hard times. He quickly took the money and disappeared, leaving Irene's aunt and their baby son behind. Those two eventually returned home to live with her parents. The uncle was never heard from again.

Money was very tight in these Depression years, so Irene's father supported his extended family by raising horses and working as a government trapper. He primarily brought in coyotes, fox, cougars and black bear with the understanding that he return one ear of each bear he'd dispatched to the government as proof for payment. Sheep ranchers in the area were happy to offer him bounty for the other ear. They were also readily available to join the family for venison dinners, since they personally were more than a little reluctant to actually pull the trigger out of season. This chore, they left to her dad, the government employee! Irene said they ate a LOT of deer to supplement the fish they caught, the chickens they raised, the beef they were treated to from her grandparents ranch down the road and the produce their garden supplied. Often in the summertime, Irene and her brother, who were five and three at the time, would walk, unaccompanied, the five miles up a horse trail to their granny's and grandpa's place. Granny would feed them and send them back home. Amazingly, Irene doesn't remember ever getting tired on these long treks.

When funds got really scarce, her father would ride up into the hills, cut out a few wild horses from his own herd that were grazing on the range, bring them home and break them for sale. Irene followed closely in her father's footsteps, and became an avid outdoors woman. Her days were spent tagging after her dad, which she was allowed to do as long as she was quiet and kept up. Riding her horse to her grandparent's place, hunting with her 22 long rifle on horseback, helping with the livestock, garden and house and camping out under the stars with her family were common activities. Even today, Irene would rather tromp through the woods with a fishing pole in her hand than do most anything else. Every five or six weeks the family would drive to Salmon with a short list of groceries. They only purchased sugar, salt, pepper and flour. If the kids were very lucky (and no doubt, well-behaved!) they were treated to penny candy.

Life on the homestead was good, but when Irene was ten, the Kilpatrick clan moved to her grandfather's ranch on Hat Creek. By then, a new baby sister had been added to the family. After living there for nearly two years, her father got defense work in Hawaii that lasted about a year. He was sorely missed, but as a result, was able to save enough money to send home for her mother to purchase the Old Richardson Ranch that was located on the highway side of the Salmon River for $2500--an astounding sum in those days. This 100 acre property included a two bedroom log house, corral, and a chicken coop. It also boasted an orchard that had apples, plums, cherries and pears. They happily resided there until 1947 when the family moved to Oregon.

Irene and her brother attended a one room school that housed grades 1-8, and recalled that at the most, only 15-16 kids were enrolled. One particular memory that stands out to her was the four years her teacher made it his mission to “break her of her bad habit of left-handedness.” She endured many broken rulers on the back of that hand besides having her hair regularly pulled. Today, she writes with either hand and is considered ambidextrous. She went on to graduate high school and got married in Coquille, Oregon in 1949. She and her husband had three sons and lived in Oregon, Canada, Idaho (twice!), and California before Irene took on what turned out to be a Twelve Year Mission: Successfully convincing him to travel to Alaska!

Finally, in 1975, Irene, her husband and Cliff, their youngest and only child still living at home, moved to Wasilla and built houses in and around Wasilla and Palmer. Irene remembers the Wasilla of today as being nothing like it was in the mid-70's. In those days, it consisted of a Chevron Station, the Kashim Bar/Restaurant, Teelands and later the D&A Market. Even in those early years, she knew it would eventually become a “mini-Anchorage.” They were in business from 1976 to1981 with Irene actively serving as bookkeeper, expediter, painter, materials foreman, framer and doing whatever else was necessary to keep things running smoothly. Flexibility wasn't awfully difficult for her because at an early age she'd learned to be a hard worker and to appreciate the value of a dollar. One of her very first jobs was at Herb's Cafe in Salmon, Idaho the summer she turned 16. She spent the first part of her eight hour day peeling three five gallon pails of potatoes before she continued on to make the salads and donuts and help in the kitchen. She was happy to get the 50 cents an hour he paid for her 8AM-4PM shift, but happier still if the dishwasher failed to show up at 4PM. This meant she'd be paid $1 an hour for the next six hours! Apparently, the dishwasher wasn't the most reliable of employees because by the end of that summer, Irene was able to buy all her school clothes from Alden's Catalog, pay for her books and STILL have $200 left! Did I mention she is VERY good with money?

In 1981, Irene's marriage ended. With her sons all grown and on their own, it was now time for her to venture out and make a life for herself. She was employed by the Farmer's Home Administration in Palmer for 10 ½ years and retired from that position in 1991. She said it was one of the best AND worst jobs she'd ever held, mainly because their office was always behind and continually short-staffed—regardless of the beliefs held by the folks in Washington D.C.

In 1996, Irene moved to Steel Creek Road outside of Fairbanks and later to Holiday Heights, where she has made her home for nearly eleven years. Her willingness to step in and lend a hand has resulted in her becoming the “go-to” gal there. She keeps the pop machine filled, schedules dates and notices on the bulletin board, is their “Sunshine Committee,” assists in seasonal decorating and spends countless hours outside in the yard. She is currently hoping for a bumper crop of her potted tomatoes and potatoes as well as a healthy crop from her square foot garden.

Other than rattlesnakes, which thankfully are a rare sight around here, Irene is pretty fearless. If she wants to drive north of Fairbanks, dip her rod in Olnes Pond or check out Chatanika, and stop for a liver & onions lunch at Hilltop, she goes! She is comfortable in her own skin, confident in her abilities and has some dynamite tips for anglers that she'll share if you ask. Pulling off the edge of the road and hiking to an unknown area where she is SURE the fish are biting doesn't faze her in the least. In fact, she says if she had to wait around for someone to come with her, she'd never get to go!

This active lady has been a member of Santa's Seniors for several years, has volunteered her time by helping with Easter Brunches and dinners, working in the gift shop and was an elected Director on the Board. She has also been a regular supporter of The Breakfast Club, serving meals and helping with kitchen clean-up. For several years, Irene also volunteered as a Senior Companion. In July, she and others from Holiday Heights handed out water for the Arthritis Jingle Bell 5K, a task she has participated in since this race began in North Pole.

Just because she has finally unpacked her suitcase, doesn't mean she has taken travel off her regular to-do list. She keeps her 19 ½ foot travel trailer in Wasilla, near her third son (and her “extra kids”), and gets down there at least a couple of times each summer. Last January, Irene went back to Challis, Idaho to visit her second son. Her oldest son resides in Lacey, Washington. As someone who clearly enjoys the company of her adult children, Irene says she “never gets to see enough of them,” also sharing that if she needed them for anything, they'd be right there for her. Photos of her family line her living room wall, along with her most prized possessions, her maternal grandparent's wedding certificate that is dated 5-4-1904 and the scroll which records all the family births and deaths from 1904-1963.

Admitted, she does have some vices. She is a gum chewer, a beer drinker (COLD Natural Ice and only 1-2 per night, in case you're interested!), and a power-cat-nap-taker. Aside from that, Irene reads anything except bloody murder books. Silver Wings is her favorite song and fall is her favorite time of year. Perhaps it brings to mind the end of a hard summer's toil, berry-picking, mosquitoes and close bear encounters? Or, it could also mean she’ll have the time to spend on her handcrafts. She has several with knitting, crocheting and beading being some of her interests.

Irene has a treasure trove of family stories, and I was delighted to learn she is in the process of writing them down for her family's enjoyment. Meanwhile, we shouldn't expect her to slow down anytime soon, though she is the first to admit that with the passing of time, some things take a bit longer and seem to be a tad harder to do. Luckily for us, this Young-At-Heart Woman has many trails that she hasn't yet explored and streams that still need checking out!

Interview & Story by Francie Cork

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