A Chugiak legend

Thursday, May 21, 2015 - 14:54
How a visionary who could move mountains helped build a town

She wore a yellow scarf. Ella, slender, beautiful brown-haired Ella, riding a bicycle through Chugiak’s main street with two friends, riding all the way from Canada because ever since she was a school girl in Switzerland, she had wanted to go to Alaska.

Thillman Wallace stood in the sun to watch her. He and his brother, Art, worked outside every day making molded concrete blocks by hand. These were the blocks that would be used to build the Moose Horn, soon to be the center of social life in Chugiak, and many other buildings in the nascent town. The year was 1956.

Thillman – or Til, as his friends and family called him – would face the wide green slope under Mount Baldy as he worked. In Germany, they had called that a berg. Home mountain. Every town had one. In Til’s worldly travels, the idea of a home mountain had stuck, and he daydreamed about making that place a homestead, a new berg for a new town.

But Ella came into view, and he watched her instead, cycling down the road.

There are men who watch all manner of muses arrive and depart in their lives, without feeling the need to follow. Inspiration, love, vision, adventure. If Til Wallace had been that kind of man, he would never have left his family estate in New York, or joined the Army, or traveled the world on foot with a small monkey on his shoulder for a companion.

As it happened, Til Wallace was a man who would feel the muse seize on him, and pursue it with open wings, taking flight without a thought for the ground behind him.

“Are you farmers?”

Ella and her two friends were just coming out of an Eagle River coffee shop, and turned to look at the strange young man who chased after them.

He stopped and front of them, and seemed to say again, “Are you farmers?”

They laughed at him.

“Are we farmers?”

He tried again.

“Are you foreigners?”

After two days with Til it was time for the girls to move on.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

They told him they were traveling toward Seward.

“Leave your yellow scarf outside of your campsite so I can find you,” he said to Ella.

She thought that was strange. The girls made camp near McHugh Creek that night. Ella kept her scarf with her in the tent.

At 3 a.m., they heard the rumble of a vehicle approaching, and came out to see who was there.

It was Til. He had drove toward Seward and stopped in every camp site along the way, not finding them. On the way back, he spotted their tent and bikes.

At this time, Ella noticed one of her friends had started to take to Til, and he seemed to return her interest.

“Then I thought, oh, I better get him,” Ella said.

After that, she left her yellow scarf outside for Til to find. Every day, as they bicycled farther down the Seward Highway, he would finish work, drive father out to see them, and drive back in the morning to work again.

Then, he left Chugiak behind. Ella got on a boat and made her way back to Canada; Til followed. She moved into an apartment in Seattle and found work; he found his own place there and looked for work, too.

Every day, he called her on the phone, and soon, he was asking her to marry him.

“No.”

He kept asking.

“Finally, I just said yes because I was embarrassed,” Ella said. “Each time he called, the landlady had to walk upstairs and tell me I had a phone call from him, and she was getting a little bit irritated.”

Three days later, she received a package. Linen sheets, an engagement gift from Til’s parents in New York.

They drove back to Chugiak, and the following spring she was his bride in a wedding ceremony that brought out the whole town.

“I wasn’t in love with him yet,” Ella said. “That came later.”

 

Where the wild horses roamed

Ella and Til spent the next few years surveying and building on the land they staked as their homestead, pulling sled loads up the mountain on foot to the berg slope of Til’s visionary daydreams. The Wallace brothers’ concrete business grew, and became Klondike Concrete. Today, the wide carved-out side of a mountainside, with an office building surrounded by equipment and piles of assorted gravel, are a testament to the ordinary ways in which faith can, throughout the small space of a human existence, move mountains. The business has since been sold to another operator. Ella and Til’s home sits above the cliff face, a log cabin construction they shared at the end of Til’s life with a dog, a pet duck, and an extended family of squirrels.

The first cabin they built up on their homestead was burned by vandals, and the second one was, too. The couple got fed up with it, and for a few years in the 70s, Til was ready to scrap his vision for a berg, a place of paradise, and put a housing development up there.

“I had to work every day,” Til Wallace said in a 2013 interview. “I can’t sit home and watch the house to keep it from burning. So we decided, we’ll subdivide it.”

The homestead was subdivided and platted in 1973, and the Wallaces hired a well driller to tap a water source big enough to support a neighborhood. After hitting five dry holes, the guy was ready to pack up. But Wallace told him, “Heck, why don’t you just drill right here in the road?”

The contractor hit an artesian well, an unlikely find for an area that suffered from too little ground water for miles around.

Til paved and improved the road, Skyline Drive, that led up from Eagle River Loop, extending it up to the homestead.

But an environmentalist group partnered with homeowners at the bottom of Skyline Drive to successfully sue Wallace and halt the development.

They didn’t want extra traffic going up the mountain.

Wallace now had a homestead he couldn’t develop that was vulnerable to arsonists and looters. He wasn’t the only one who thought the place was paradise. And now, with the road extending up to it, he got more visitors than ever before. He’d arrive to his beloved berg to find it littered with beer bottles, cigarette butts, and once, a crashed motorcycle. He put up a gate. He didn’t mind people using the land, he said in his 2013 interview, as long as they were respectful and didn’t drive on the narrow dirt road that extended past the Mount Baldy trailhead and onto his property, making a loop around the man-made lake with a hand pump that was made after his driller struck an artesian well.

His daughter, Stephanie, wanted a horse.

She was 12 years old, and it was the early 80s. Til loved animals, and was happy to get her one. Stephanie proved to be, like her mother and father, a hard worker, tending the animal with dedication and care.

Til thought he might like to get a horse, too.

Or 50.

“I thought, hell, we got the land,” Til said in 2013. His grandfather, Thillman Favry, was a German immigrant who arrived to the U.S. in 1870 and lived a ramblin’ life, spoke seven languages, spent time living in villages with various tribes, and had rode horses all over the West.

“All ya gotta do is get a horse. Be just like my grandpa. Live that way. What’s stopping me?”

His daughter, Stephanie LeProwse, said it was hard work taking care of the horses, a group of 50 that roamed free across the homestead.

At the same time, Til started falling in love with historic cabins from around Alaska and hauling them up to the homestead at the top of Skyline, setting them in a circle around the man-made pond in a way that made the place look like an ancient town. Some had been built as early as 1912.

And, he brought a large wooden boat, The Chacon, to rest in Chugiak near his brother’s shop, Fuji Gifts.

Eventually, Til sold the horses, having grown too old to care for them. Over the next few decades, the homestead attracted hikers and partiers, with looters and arsonists slowly destroying the historic buildings there. The end of the road he’d paved up to his property became a popular place for locals to enjoy the view, and eventually local government expanded and paved the area for parking, and widened the trailhead up to Mount Baldy.

At the end of his life, Ella said, Til Wallace couldn’t move. He’d lost power over his body slowly, a little bit at a time, and she said doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. She tended him in their home, and every night his brother, Mike, would lay in the living room next to him, alert to any sign Til might give that he needed assistance.

“He always liked to have things his way, and telling people what to do,” Ella said. “I think that was hard for him, not being able to move. But he would still try to tell us what he wanted us to do.”

Til Wallace died in his home on Tuesday, March 24.

His daughter, Stephanie, said he was a man who was always after adventure.

“Because that’s what life is about,” she said. “It’s about adventure.”

On April 25, members of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department worked with Til Wallace’s friends and family to clean up The Chacon, the boat he hauled to Chugiak that has stood as an iconic landmark for decades next to Fuji gifts.

Joleigh Rainwater, a friend of the family, helped clear brush to prepare The Chacon as a memorial to Til Wallace. Volunteers tied yellow ribbons to the birch trees around it, and placed a plaque on its side.

“The man really is a legend,” Rainwater said. “His family did so much to found this community.”

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