Thursday, April 28, 2016

Minnie Street Bridge and Northside Grocery and Gas brought Slaterville into the modern age during 1950s


Northside Grocery as it looked in 1969

After 1939, when construction began at Ladd Field, and well into the 1950s, Fairbanks experienced a population explosion. Terrence Cole’s report, “Historic Resources of the Minnie Street Corridor,” states that between 1939 and 1950 the area’s population increased by 240 percent, and between 1950 and 1953 the population doubled to about 31,000 people.

Residential areas developed around the city’s edges, including Slaterville, which is north of the Chena River and across from downtown Fairbanks. The city’s burgeoning population, along with military activities and renewed mineral extraction in the area, severely taxed the area’s transportation system. The Minnie Street Bridge across Noyes Slough, along with the Wendell Street Bridge across the Chena River, were constructed in 1953 as part of the city’s efforts to modernize its outdated road system.

The only bridge across the Chena River before completion of the Wendell Street Bridge was the Cushman Street Bridge, built in 1917. The old two-lane steel-truss Cushman bridge was narrow, allowing only passenger vehicles to pass. Busses and trucks had to straddle the bridge’s central beam to cross.

The Minnie Street and Wendell Street bridges diverted traffic from Cushman Street. When completed, they became part of the first intentionally designed truck route through an Alaska city.

One of the most recognizable landmarks along Minnie Street is the old concrete-block Northside Grocery. Located at 140 Minnie St., it was, according to Cole’s report, built in 1952 by longtime Fairbanks resident, Carl Heflinger, in anticipation of the opening of the new bridges.

Heflinger was better-known as a miner than a merchant. Moving to Fairbanks from Anchorage in 1934, Carl worked as a drift and open-cut miner until World War II intervened and he joined the Army. Stationed at Ladd Field during the war, he met and married Dorothy Brady, and they built a home in Slaterville.

After the war and a few unsuccessful mining seasons, Dorothy convinced Carl to get a “real” job rather than return to mining. He went to work for Mitchell Truck and Tractor as a mechanic and eventually helped found GHEMM contacting. It was also during this period that he and his wife decided to put up a new building at the corner of Minnie and Clara streets next to their house.

According to Carl’s son, Dave, the gas station was more of an afterthought that a calculated plan. Carl and Dorothy wanted to build an apartment house. However, a friend suggested cutting the corner off the building at the Minnie and Clara intersection so gas pumps could be installed, and Carl decided that was an excellent idea.

Dave told me that his mother often rued the change in plans, saying it would have been much easier running just an apartment house. However, Carl, having fueled aircraft during the war, and working as a mechanic afterward, thought running a service station made sense. In addition to selling gas, he operated a towing business and repaired vehicles in a garage at the back of the building.

The Heflingers also rented out apartments in the basement and on the first floor, and later added a small grocery to the operation.

Carl eventually tired of city work and returned to mining in 1958, but he and Dorothy owned the grocery and gas station until the 1980s. After Carl left the day-to-day operation of the business, it became the first self-serve gas station in Fairbanks. Also, the ground under the garage was excavated and more basement apartments added, as well as the garage itself being converted into apartments. In The grocery, which had occupied a tiny corner of the building, also expanded.

The service station and grocery eventually closed. For a period the building was used as a religious outreach center, but has now reverted to its original purpose as an apartment house.

Sources:

  • Carl Heflinger obituary. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 12-30-2014
  • Carl Heflinger presentation to the Pioneers of Alaska on 4-17-2000. Oral History Collection at the University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Conversation with Dave Heflinger, one of Carl’s and Dorothy’s sons
  • “Historic Resources of the Minnie Street Corridor.” Terrence Cole. Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. 1989
  • Property records at the Fairbanks North Star Borough

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