The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Local historian releases long-awaited anthology of Seward stories

 

Seward Community Library and Museum

Parishioners of the Methodist Episcopal Church picnic a few miles north of town around 1906.

"There was a time when Seward was it," says local historian Doug Capra. "I don't think we are capitalizing on that history."

Capra is passionate about history, but more important, he's passionate about Seward history. He says Seward doesn't just have an interesting past; it has an important one.

"People underestimate the role Seward played in Alaska's development," said Capra. "Before there was an Anchorage or a railroad, there was Seward."

For decades, Capra has been researching, interviewing and collecting in an effort to document Seward's history. This month, those decades of tedious work will be available in the form of a book, "The Spaces Between: Stories From the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords." This is the first original book published by the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area through Ember Press in Eagle River.

Monday evening Capra will be center stage at the Seward Community Library and Museum where he will be taking questions and signing books. He's pretty darned excited after spending thousands of hours painstakingly choosing which stories to include the book.

Many Sewardites are already familiar with Capra's storytelling and love of history. He's been writing stories for local newspapers for more than three decades. He's been published in the Seward Pettycoat Gazette, the LOG, the Journal, past newspapers Seward Gateway, Seward Polaris and the Seward Seaport Record. While he enjoys writing for newspapers, that format has always limited his storytelling. His book allowed him to make different choices and include more detail, he said.

"The challenge is incorporating entertainment without overlooking the facts," said Capra.

To provide entertainment to a generation used to being entertained, Capra went to great lengths to bring characters alive and relevant to readers of any age. There are Mary and Chester, just six years old in 1902. There is a bear, named Carrie Nation. There are "good time girls" and murderer William Dempsey.

"I've always believed that people are what draw you to history," said Capra. "I disagree with people who say history is based on conflict. That isn't necessarily a false statement, but people provide context for the reader."

Capra said his love of history started at a young age. He grew up in Massachusetts where he he attended the Eli Whitney School. His teachers were the last generation children of "school marms," said Capra, which meant he was taught by people who infused history into every course.

"I used to go the graveyard at lunch time," said Capra. "There were names of kids in my class on the tombstones."

The history there was "old" and that meant he had no person to talk to for firsthand information. This is one reason why Capra has spent thousands of hours interviewing people who have lived Alaska history, like Pat Williams who is now 103 years young and publishing her memoir later this year.

In 1971, Capra landed in Alaska wide-eyed and ready for adventure like so many other immigrants to the state. He taught school in the Aleutians for 24 years, all the while becoming more and more interested, maybe obsessed, with the layers of history needing to be told here.

Capra's ability to tell a great tale made him a successful ranger guiding visitors in the Kenai Fjords National park. Somewhere along the way, Capra learned of Rockwell Kent, an artist considered equally as important as writers Henry David Thoreaux and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although Kent was an east coast native, he found his way to Alaska in 1918 where he fell in love with Fox Island. Over the past four decades, Capra has become an expert on the life and times of this acclaimed artist. He penned the foreward for a Kent book and has written a play about the artist's work and legacy. Capra's love of Kent's work is equal to Capra's love of Seward and Alaska history.

In conjunction with the publication of "The Spaces in Between," Capra has started a Facebook page where he is sharing nuggets of research process with other Alaska history buffs.

"I think the process is almost as important as the story," said Capra, who still loves to talk about the old days when you needed a magnifying loop to look at photographs. "I look at every detail of a picture. It's those details that help me recreate an authentic story, true to the history of the time."

Capra takes those picture details and fills in the spaces with words. He gives credit to someone else for the concept of "spaces."

The title of his book comes from a quote by writer Jodi Picoult.

"History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them," wrote Picoult. That concept, spaces in between, will keep Capra busy for years to come. There are so many spaces to be filled by stories, he says, that sometimes it's overwhelming.

"These stories just have to be told," he said. And told them he has.

Kaylene Johnson, Kenai Mountains and Turnagain Arms National Heritage Area program manager, said Capra's articles and newspaper columns over the years have offered colorful insight into the day-to-day life of people during a time a key time of Alaska's settlemet.

"His stories take place in and around the National Heritage Area and so were a perfect fit for KMTA's first original book," said Johnston. "The book is well documented and researched, so besides being an entertaining read, it is a historical resource for students and researchers.

At 7 p.m. August 18, Capra will be on hand at the library to share even more stories with the community he and his wife Cindy call home.

 

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