Alaskan homesteaders focused on adventure

Two Marion County farm kids marry and raise a family on the last frontier


Staff writer

Homesteading in the 20th century? That was the experience of the Elmer Gaede family in Alaska in the 1960s.

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened up land in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Oklahoma for settlement. Almost exactly 100 years later, the Gaedes homesteaded on the last American frontier, Alaska. It was an adventure.

For people who often have wondered what life in Alaska was like 40 years ago, Naomi Gaede-Penner's newest book, "Finding Home in Alaska," is second-best to actually being there.

Naomi is the niece of Wilbur and Helen Leppke of rural Peabody. She is the granddaughter of the late Sol and Bertha Leppke of Peabody and the late Henry and Agnes Gaede of Hillsboro.

Naomi has written two books in an ongoing series called Prescription for Adventure.

Her mother, Ruby Leppke, married Elmer Gaede in 1943. He obtained a medical degree from the University of Kansas. Looking for a challenge, he signed up with the U.S. Public Health Service.

His first two assignments took the family to Alaska, beginning in 1955. One two-year stint was spent in a small village in the interior along the Yukon River, reached only by airplane. He delivered babies and provided medical care for native Indians, Russians, and Eskimos.

The family then was transferred to an Indian reservation in Montana before moving to Tulare, Calif., where the doctor undertook a residency at the county hospital to update his medical knowledge and skills.

After living in this modern-day "paradise," for more than a year, Elmer decided to take the family back to Alaska in 1962, where they homesteaded 80 acres on the Kenai Peninsula, which juts out into the Gulf of Alaska along the southern coast of Alaska.

The peninsula was opened up for settlement in 1947. Before 1960, small homesteads had been carved out of the forests mainly by war veterans and hippies.

When the Gaedes purchased the 80 acres, they had to "prove up" the land by building a house within a year and occupying it full-time for three years. One-eighth of the property was required to be cleared, and a cultivatable crop planted.

Naomi's first book: "Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor," is a recounting of her father's experiences flying to and fro over the wilds of Alaska on all sorts of dangerous mercy missions and hunting trips, in all sorts of weather.

Her second book, "Prescription for Adventure: Finding Home in Alaska," is more inclusive, focusing on the entire family from the beginning of her parents' life together to the establishment of the Alaskan homestead.

Much of the book is taken up with the experience of homesteading "The Gaede Eighty." A cabin and main house were built in separate clearings cut out of a forest of spruce trees. The house was modern and spacious. It had a septic tank and cesspool. A landing strip also was cleared along the road, one tree at a time, for the doctor's plane.

Sol and Martha Leppke made numerous trips to Alaska beginning in the 1960s to assist their daughter and her husband in the development of the homestead.

In the book, Naomi places special emphasis on her mother Ruby as a tenacious, uncomplaining woman who loved the life of this last frontier and worked tirelessly to provide for her family and numerous visitors. Naomi also presents the perspectives of her two younger sisters and a younger brother.

Interspersed among the stories of hard work, child play, and numerous adventures, are interesting facts about time spent on the Leppke farm in Kansas, where Naomi and her siblings experienced the seasons and learned Mennonite traditions.

Though her parents have died, Naomi and her siblings still own the homestead. She lives in Parker, Colo. Her sisters still live in Alaska, and her brother works for an oil company in Saudi Arabia.

According to Naomi, the family loved living in Alaska. As stated in the title of the book, life in Alaska was an adventure.

The text of the 357-page book is in an easy-to-read font size, with readable footnotes.

To order the book and to learn about upcoming books in the series, go to Naomi's website: