The Story of the Spenard Windmill

In the early 1980s, when money was no problem and anything was possible, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse by none other than Mafia Mike, thus becoming the custodian of an important historical icon. Had I known at the time what a maintenance nightmare it would become, I’m not sure I would have been willing to accept the responsibility, regardless of the possibilities—or consequences.

Byron Gillam stepped ashore in Seward in April, 1941. Before a planned return to the States, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, liquor was banned, martial law was established and no one was allowed to leave the territory of Alaska. After the war, Gillam made a stake of a little over $40,000 by diverting a ship bound for the Philippines with 8,800 cases of Hiram Walker aboard, selling the whiskey to the 3,000 men and 50 women of Valdez. He put the entirety of his stake into purchasing the Nevada Bar, a Swedish bar on First Avenue in Fairbanks, happily discovering that there was $50,000 in inventory downstairs.

Having built a successful enterprise in Fairbanks, Gillam sold out to Larry Carr and moved his family to Anchorage in 1957, where he opened the Kut Rate Kid on East Fireweed Lane. He was the bane of the liquor wholesalers, importing forty-foot trailer loads of beer and liquor directly to his store—bypassing the wholesalers—heavily discounting his prices to the public. He profited by selling a load of 5,000 cases of beer for two cents per case over his cost because his customers would buy a bottle of wine or liquor—properly marked up—or a bag of ice, 100% profit. His landmark was a lighted windmill; the very same one that sits in the heart of Spenard at Spenard Road and 26th Avenue today.

In 1960 or 1961, Gillam was driving the freeway near Sacramento when he spotted a windmill, lit up, turning in the night, and had an epiphany. Soon there was, at a cost of approximately $13,000 including installation, a beautiful new windmill on East Fireweed Lane. Gillam advertized his Kut Rate Kid as, “Under the Windmill at Fireweed and Gamble.” But not everyone liked the windmill. Then, as now, there are those who don’t like outdoor advertizing, especially big, flashy stuff. In the very early 1960s, a municipal ordinance was passed that prohibited commercial signs specifically targeting the windmill. Byron responded with, “Where’s the advertisement? Where’s the sign? It’s not a sign; it’s a light. Screw off!”

The windmill as it sits today, at Chilkoot Charlie's. Photo by Mike Gordon.
The windmill as it sits today, at Chilkoot Charlie’s. Photo by Mike Gordon.

Byron’s son Bob, recently graduated from college, built a nice new facility further west on Fireweed Lane out of which the business was run until around 1978, Byron having passed away that year. In 1980 the business and property was sold, and the new operator—not as adept at tracking those two-cent profits—failed; the property fell into bankruptcy, leaving the building and windmill sitting unattended for some time. The Anchorage economy was booming though in the 1980s, fueled by the massive oil income from the newly-opened pipeline from Prudhoe Bay and Project 80s expenditures on infrastructure, so Mafia Mike, who owned a pizza operation, was expanding.

Mafia Mike was a local character, appearing in his own television ads sporting a black shirt and black fedora, even putting his name on the ballot for mayor of Anchorage, so the windmill, which he purchased out of bankruptcy, was a perfect fit for him. He was all set to open another location in mid-town and planning to move his new windmill to the new location as his own landmark when Sheik Yamani opened the spigots in Saudi Arabia, sending the price of oil spiraling downward by over fifty percent. That was the end of a lot of plans in Alaska and other oil-producing states, including Mafia Mike’s. The only guy making any money until the Exxon Valdez oil clean-up efforts resurrected the moribund Alaskan economy was the guy with the U-Haul franchise. People were just dropping off their house keys at Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, driving down the Alcan Highway in a flood, looking for work elsewhere—anywhere.

Because of the economic downturn, Mafia Mike cancelled his expansion plans and no longer had a location for his windmill, but the owners of the property still wanted it removed. Mike asked around and, according to him, one person he talked to said, “Go see Mike Gordon. He’ll buy anything,” which was not entirely off base because I had recently purchased a two-headed pig for Chilkoot Charlie’s. Word gets around. Mike really did make me an offer I couldn’t refuse, saying, “I’ll give you the windmill if you move it off the property, re-erect it at the southeast corner of your parking lot, and put a plaque on it saying that it was donated to Spenard by Mafia Mike.” So it was done, at a cost of $10,000, but the plaque has long since disappeared.

The cost of moving and re-erecting the windmill was only the beginning. Next, we discovered what we might have anticipated in Spenard—that there were loons who would want to climb the structure. There is a scruffy variety of loon in Spenard, Gavia inebria, whose only similarity to the common loon found in Alaskan waters is its red eyes.

We had to build a six-foot fence around the structure topped off with barbed wire to protect the loons from themselves. Those who aren’t interested in climbing the windmill still love it, many because its lights provide colorful targets at which to toss rocks. Others, like the Spenard Saturday Market love it because of its iconic, homey presence under which they hold their event during the summer months. The people who love the windmill the most, however, are the people who provide maintenance for it. We’re talking job security here.

The time span during which all the lights are working on its support legs and the spokes are all completely lit up and turning over during the decades can be numbered by slowly counting to ten. If all the support leg lights are working, then the neon lights on the spokes or tail are totally or partially out. If, by some chance, all the lights are working, then the motor that turns the spokes has most likely died. It’s a beautiful thing to gaze upon, however, during those fleeting moments when the whole thing is working. It’s like witnessing a miracle.

Not long after the windmill was re-erected, we had a little celebration to which we invited the public to bring appropriate items to put into a 55 gallon time capsule we then placed in a hole we’d dug under it. This story will serve as a reminder to future archeologists that the capsule is there. I hope the contents prove to be interesting to future residents of Spenard in, say, 2050.

I recently had a conversation in the Swing Bar at Chilkoot Charlie’s with Bob Gillam, founder and president of McKinley Capital Management, LLC, a highly successful investment institution, first of its kind situated in Anchorage. The family has property on Lake Clark and would like to install their old windmill there as a family keepsake, so I am currently investigating the cost of a metal replacement that would look enough like the original that no one in Spenard would be upset about the change.

Bob has agreed to pay reasonable expenses to make all this happen and I’m perfectly happy to accommodate him and his family. It will be a win-win if they get the windmill they want for sentimental reasons and I get one that requires less maintenance, but if we consummate a deal, Bob should forthwith consider investing some of his McKinley Capital money in a sign maintenance company.

As the saying goes, Bob, “Be careful what you ask for.”

I was born in Ft. Pierce, Florida, moved to Alaska in 1953, graduated from Anchorage High School and earned a Bachelor's degree in Political Science with a Minor in Philosophy at the University of San Francisco.  I played alto saxophone in the Anchorage High School band, as well as ice hockey through high school and as a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks before moving on to USF.  Incidentally, I completed the seventeen credits I needed to graduate from USF in the Spring of 2011, 48 years late and earning a 4.0 gpa for the semester!

I have been a member of the Anchorage City Council and Anchorage Borough Assembly before unification, twice a board member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, State of Alaska, and twice its Chairman.  I have been on many boards, including Boys and Girls Clubs of Alaska, Anchorage Opera, Anchorage Repertory Theatre, Anchorage Mental Health Association and Boys Scouts of America, Western Alaska Council.  I am an active Rotarian and past president of Anchorage Downtown Rotary.

My interests are climbing, running, skiing, scuba diving, reading, writing, traveling and opera.  I have climbed six of the seven highest mountains on each of the continents and made three attempts on the seventh, Mt. Everest, reaching 27,500 ft. at age 50.  I have also run fifteen marathons, including the original run from Marathon to Athens.

I have a son, Michael, a daughter, Michele, and seven grandchildren by my first wife.  My present wife and I will celebrate our 26th anniversary in September 2012.

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