A classic story of a once warm friendship in a small community (less than 30 people) gone terribly, terribly wrong. It is a history lesson really. The true story in its entirety goes like this. . . .
According to the Parker family, Harry Hall was a fine fellow, and just about everyone liked Lester Rink. There were no neighborly problems in general. But there was a bit of "grumbling" among the other farmers, including the Parkers, that Mr. Rink did not do enough to control or manage his cattle. One old timer said rather mildly that "Lester Rink ran a loose (cattle) operation". But hard feelings reached the boiling point when Harry Hall felt he was unrewarded for an intended good deed and took matters into his own hands. Lester Rink, who then suffered monetary loss at Harry Hall's revenge made a vow of his own.
The straw that broke the camel's back happened in about 1931. Lester Rink took seriously ill in the early fall months and had to travel to Seattle for treatment and an extended recuperation. This left his free ranging cattle to roam unsupervised and wild over the flat lands of Gustavus, Alaska. Having missed the haying season, and having little stored ahead, an unexpected winter in Seattle put his cattle in grave danger of starvation and death.
Then came winter snow and fellow cattle rancher Harry Hall to the rescue. Thinking to do an ill and absentee neighbor a good turn (everyone was a neighbor though miles separated them across the "flats"), Harry fed Lester's starving cattle his own hay when Lester's meager stock ran out. This kindness on Mr. Halls part put at risk his own cattle running short of food. Snow was on the ground; without enough hay to get through the winter, all the cattle including his entire herd could perish. With Lester Rink's cattle running wild, it was a major ordeal at times to even find them, let alone keep them supplied and alive as well.
It wasn't easy for any of the cattle ranchers in Gustavus, Alaska to put up enough hay for their herds of cattle. Winters were hard and long, and plenty of stock put away was not an option, it was an absolute imperative. But "haying" was subject to wet weather disasters and poor growing years. Mowing machines (pulled by horse teams in the earliest days) and hay rakes (only 2 in all of Gustavus) were owned by individuals, though shared in a cooperative way, subject to scheduling and availability.
It took a series of good weather days to complete the haying process from cutting, turning (raking) and gathering the hay on small wagon loads, one load at a time. The loaded wagon would then be taken to the designated storage and unloaded by hand. The first good, dry days would see the owners of the farm implements hard at work to gather their hay, followed by the others. If it was too wet, the hay couldn't be piled into the barn for fear of self-igniting and burning the barn down.
Everyone pitched in as necessary, but still it was generally a race against weather, time, and where you were in line. (Les & Glen Parker reported that one rake was owned by the Parkers, and the other by Lester Rink. Later, when the feud was said and done, and Mr. Rink was no longer in Gustavus, Lester's rake became the Buoys by virtue of its Rink Creek location. Much later still, Lee & Linda Parker acquired the suspect rake. What was once the object of death threats is now an historic Gustavus lawn ornament.)
So, when Harry Hall became incensed at Lester Rinks' refusal (or inability) to reimburse him for the "loan" of a winters worth of hay, it was a big deal that Harry helped himself one night (when Lester Rink wasn't home) to Lester's valuable hay mowing machine, and 1 of the 2 Gustavus hay rakes. Perhaps it seemed the right thing to do at the time, but unmistakingly, a line had been drawn in the sand that would nearly cost them their lives.
In Harry's view, the farm implements were justifiable recompense for the replacement of his hay. In Mr. Rink's opinion Harry stole his priceless equipment without which he would be unable to farm. Residents reported (while sympathetic to Harry's plight, but understanding of Lester's illness and predicament) that the missing mower and rake just "added fuel to the fire", causing the situation to spiral out of control.
By this time the unbranded and free ranging herds of Harry Hall and Lester Rink had gotten all mixed together. Both men vowed death to the other if any of the cattle (which each were sure was theirs) were "messed" with. This was the beginning of the two former friends and Gustavus neighbors carrying weapons to threaten each other away, sometimes concealed and bulging in their clothing, and sometimes in plain view.
The retorts and threats became prolonged and nasty, putting the small band of Gustavus pioneers in the awkward position of not only having to restrain from the appearance of taking sides, but worry about their own safety. The children were terrified that they might be caught up in the cross-fire. The stress and tension was beginning to take its toll. Everyone was on edge and with a wary eye "watched" that the meeting of the two "grudgers" did not happen unexpectedly.
This state of uneasy affairs went on for several years without being resolved. There were reports that the two feuding farmers would "lay their guns down" or leave them outside the door so that a planned party (even a party at Harry Hall's house!) could be enjoyed by everyone (including themselves), only to resume their enemy positions once the party was over. Unfortunately, those times were rare and only a temporary reprieve.
The war became deadly serious when Harry Hall and Lester Rink (probably having enough of it all themselves) called each other out for a "show down" on the Salmon River Bridge. The stand-off reportedly took hours, with everyone nervously gathered a safe distance on both sides and praying for calm and resolution. Harry Hall was on his end of the bridge (the west), and Lester Rink on his natural end of the divide (the east), both hurtling insults and daring the other to take the first step to come across.
No one that we ever heard of could explain how or why, but sometime late that night, "The Great Gustavus Shoot-Out" (as it's been called every since) was over without any shots being fired. Perhaps deep in the hearts of these two good men, neither were willing to be responsible for breaking the code of pioneering community and blight the history of Gustavus, Alaska forever.
The peacemaking was tentative, however, with both sides agreeing not to interfere or "mess" with each others cattle (now combined in one wild herd) for a period of time, or the threat of guns and bodily harm would resume once again. That was a shaky agreement at best, and obviously not a long term solution. Behind closed doors, earnest consulting sessions were held among the other homesteaders trying to decide what to do.
In the meantime, the wild cattle roamed and became a threat themselves to just about everyone---children and adults alike that by chance or accident got in their way. There were big, old, obnoxious bulls, and groups of cows (even calves) that would stampeed gardens, knock down fences, and entice the good, domesticated cattle to "join" them. They "charged" anything and anyone that moved. Something clearly had to be done. The wild cattle were becoming brazen enough to knock down and enter structures that contained winter feed for the Parker cattle, thus threatening the whole cattle ranching prospect for everyone.
A solution was finally reached with Hall and Rink when the A. L. Parker family offered to "buy" each of them out of their share of combined, mixed cattle with a plan to build a corral of unpenetrable fences, slaughter them, and take them to market. A sum of money was agreed on. Immediately, the Parkers began the almost impossible task of building a heavy-duty, 8' high (some reported it as high as 10') log fence in a series of structures over about 20 acres designed to trap, separate, and move the cattle along to their final destination, the slaughter pen.
At times, the Parkers had to use their own cattle, separating mothers and calves, so that the mooing of the two could be heard for miles around, bringing the wild cattle within range to be rounded up and caught in the enclosures. It took a lot of time and "nonsense" said Les Parker, and every one involved risked life and limb.
Eventually, the dangerously wild, grudge-causing animals were all caught and executed. Everybody, from the youngest to the oldest living anywhere in Gustavus, Alaska could do nothing but give thanks and be glad.
It just so happened as the chapter closed with a happy ending on "The Great Gustavus Shootout", another chapter in the lives of the ever-adjusting pioneers began. Under the category of "good timing", there was an unexpected need in Juneau at just about this time for large quantities of fresh beef.
The story of the Longshoremen strike, and the opening of "Parker's Beef" on Willoughby Street in Juneau, Alaska will be told in time (with photos and links) within the pages of www.GustavusHistory.Org.
Photo by Les Parker: Glen Parker, observing wild cattle successfully corraled in 8' high log fence.
For a photo of Lester Rink, click here. For a photo of Harry Hall, click here.
GHAA Note: Years later, Ruth Matson reported to Sally Lesh that the very night following the long, "nerves-on-edge" standoff, there was an all night dance and party (likely to relieve the stress) involving the entire community AND our two insult throwing, gun slingers! Once again, the guns and differences were "checked at the door" and laid aside for the sake of some good old fashioned fun.
GHAA Note: Harry Hall took ill and died in the Spring of 1936, just 12 to 18 months after the feud was resolved. Lester Rink reportedly left Gustavus for Hoonah a year or two after this story took place. He may have returned from time to time to Gustavus, but as of now GHAA has no proof of it.