Larry Tong grew up in Madras, Oregon, about 48 miles north of Bend. Florence came from Redmond, which was 28 miles south of Madras. Though her name is Florence, most people call her Flo. Larry first introduced Flo to his family as Loree, her middle name. They still call her Loree.
In 1964-65, Larry commuted three days a week to attend classes in Bend at the Central Oregon Community College. Larry says, “I was kind of ignorant and got 8:00 classes, so I had to get up early to drive my Corvair to school.” After one year of college, Larry started working at a newspaper office. Flo, who was 17 at the time they met, cared for an elderly couple. The woman was blind and sat in the middle of the living room floor most of the time; she ate and slept there. Her husband, who had been in the Spanish-American war, loved to tell stories to the high school kids in the college.
The lady had a collection of “End of Day” glass that Flo had to wash. She got very nervous doing this job, as the glass was very fragile and she was afraid she would break it. “End of Day” glass was made with all the glass left over when the glass-blower had finished for the day. The odds and ends were blown into an “end of day” piece. Flo never broke one of them.
Flo and Larry met at a mutual friend’s New Year’s Eve party. Larry came to visit the party, not intending to stay. Flo says she fell in love with him at first sight. She tended to be shy; however, she followed him home and made sure they got acquainted. They were married 5 weeks later.
Flo tells the story of going driving with her mom and seeing Larry. She said to her mom, “Honk, Mom! That’s Larry.” Her mom said, “I don’t want to honk at that beatnik.” However, because Larry had a job, the community accepted him, even though he had a beard. Beatniks had a bad rep. The community there was redneck cowboy and thought nothing of rounding up squatting beatniks every now and then and kicking them out of town.
Larry says, “Flo was 17 when I met her. She turned 18 in January and didn’t need her
parents’ permission to marry. However, Larry, then 20, had to get his parents’ permission. They were married in her parents’ home by a Justice of the Peace. They have now been married 51 years.
In early times in Gustavus, there were many young couples who had not been together all that long. One time Rob Bosworth asked Larry how long he & Flo had been married. When Larry answered, “Ten years,” Rob said, “Wow! I don’t know anyone who has been married that long.”
Larry said, “What really cemented our relationship was our parents. After three or four weeks, the couple brought their parents together to meet. The older folks had so much in common that they ignored us. They had so much to share. They realized we might really get along because our backgrounds were the same.”
After Larry and Flo married, Larry was working for the weekly newspaper, The Redmond Spokesman, in Redmond, OR. He worked as a pressman and linotype operator. The newlyweds lived in an apartment ½ block from the newspaper office. Within a year, they bought a little house that had been built in 1942. They paid $16,000. The owner wanted $500 down, but the couple only had $300 in the bank. The owner accepted that. Their mortgage payments were $75/month for the first year, then reduced to $60.
On October 9, 1968, Joe was born. A few months after Joe’s birth, Larry asked his boss for a raise. He was getting $3.00 per hour. Five weeks later, he got a nickel raise. He started looking for other employment. He found a job advertised in a trade magazine in Juneau. Larry had all the skills they needed. He didn’t even know where Juneau was. At the time he first got to Juneau, the population was 16,000. His employer paid his way up. He wanted to see if Larry had the skills he needed before hiring him. After a couple of days he got the job.
It was raining hard on Larry’s first night in Juneau, that October. Larry’s new employer had taken him to the Northland Hotel (Now the Alaskan Hotel). Right below it was the Red Dog Saloon. In his lodgings, the bathroom was down the hall; it was the old-fashioned kind with an elevated tank and a chain that you pulled to flush it. Larry wondered what he had gotten himself into, because his boss had put him on skid row. He wondered where downtown Juneau was. It snowed that night, and the next morning when Larry went outside, he saw Mount Juneau, stark white against the blue sky. His opinion of Alaska changed at that moment.
The print shop where he worked, called Alaskan Litho, was on the ground floor of the Mendenhall apartments, one block from the capitol. For about four weeks, Larry lived in an apartment close by while Flo stayed in Redmond and packed. Then Larry went to get Flo and Joseph. They borrowed a pickup from Larry’s father-in-law, got a U-Haul trailer, and took their belongings to AML in Seattle. Larry had to load everything onto pallets at the warehouse dock for shipping to Juneau. After getting everything offloaded, he returned to Oregon by bus; then they flew to Alaska by jet the next day. When Larry and Flo arrived, it was Sunday night, and they had nothing but their suitcases. It was sleeting sideways when the couple arrived in Juneau with their 14-month-old son. Larry’s boss met them. Housing was scarce, but Larry had rented an apartment in Douglas, across the Gastineau Channel and connected by a bridge to Juneau proper. The boss gave them a crib for the baby.
The apartment was not very clean. It had a pot-burner oil stove. Flo says, “The oil stove had a problem. There was stove oil all over the floor. We walked through to the bedroom and discovered the windows were broken and covered with cardboard. The bed had stains all over the mattress. I decided to take a bath. The water was dark brown; it was muskeggy water. When I looked out the window, I discovered that there was another wall a foot away. It was the wall of the next apartment.”
The next morning, they headed for the grocery store. Flo said, “I can’t live here.” Larry said, “Look up.” There were those snow-covered mountains. It was so beautiful that Flo decided she might stay after all.
Shortly afterward, they were able to rent the apartment next door. The previous owners had fixed it up. It had a clean carpet and an oil stove that worked. While Larry worked at the printing business, Flo took care of 10 children to help make extra money.
Larry met Martin Eggert while working at Alaska Litho. Both Martin and Larry wanted
to get back to the land. Martin’s wife, Virginia, was an excellent artist, supporting their family with her art. She had Alaska Litho print copies of her paintings for resale to the few tourists in Juneau.
Martin Eggert and Larry shared a common dream. Larry’s ancestors had homesteaded in Damascus, Oregon, about 20 miles southeast of Portland, Oregon, in 1852. Larry grew up listening to the stories of his grandfather and father. In 1852, his grandfather walked the Oregon Trail when he was just nine years old. Larry’s dad and grandfather still lived on the original land. Larry grew up listening to these stories, and his favorite reading material growing up was mountain man stories.
Larry said, “After we moved here, less than a year later, the owner of the print shop in Juneau drank himself into bankruptcy. He hadn’t paid his bills and had to give up his shop.” Larry and a fellow employee from the print shop, Chris Garrison, bought all the equipment for pennies on the dollar.
Flo interjected, “Larry and Chris worked six days a week to bring the business back up. Two preachers in town invested in the business.” Larry explained, “Chris and I each put in 60 – 80 hours a week while Flo took care of children.”
Their daughter, Laura, (or Pep, as we call her) was born in 1973. At first, she really didn’t know who her dad was, as he was only around one day a week.
After a couple of years, the men realized the partnership wouldn’t work out. They remained friends, but because of different goals, they decided to part ways.
The Eggerts moved to Gustavus first. Fortunately, Martin and Virginia found the tiny community, which was a step above the wilderness with an axe, a gun, and 50 pounds of salt (The “Mountain Man” idea.) Larry said, “Circumstances and a loving wife allowed me to live my dream.” The sale of the business gave them money for lumber to build a house and land and enough coming in for three years to pay their expenses. This was lucky, because they didn’t have to leave Gustavus to get work. A lot of people came to Gustavus and had to leave again.
The Tongs arrived in April of 1974. Laura was 11 months old. Joe was 6 years old. Flo commented, “They had to have eight kids for the school to open, so they were happy that we had a school-aged kid.”
They had come to Gustavus the year before and built an 8’ x 12’ cabin to live in while they built the house. There was a loft for them. A built-in bunk downstairs gave Joe a place to sleep. Underneath the bunk was a crib, right on the floor. Laura slept there. It rained the first couple of weeks they were in Gustavus, and they quickly realized the cabin was too small.
Russ Cahill and his wife were doing the same thing. They had three kids, the oldest a teenager. They lived in a 14 x 20 wall tent with a Yukon-type stove. They were just getting ready to move out when Larry and Flo moved in. Russ offered to sell the tent, which included a pole frame he’d built and the wood stove. There was a slab floor for eight feet; then a plywood deck built off the ground for sleeping. Larry set the tent up next to the small cabin. They lived in the tent for six months. They moved into their house on October 31, after 24 inches of snow drove them out of the tent. It took them two years to cover up the Johns-Manville insulation wallpaper.
Larry didn’t realize he could get pre-cut 2 x 4 studs. He used all hand tools. Every board in the house except for rib joists on the first floor was hand-cut. They had a six-foot-wide front porch on the front of the house until the 80s. Then they pushed out the wall of the original cabin about six feet to enlarge their space, the deck becoming part of the living room. Flo: “Before we enlarged, when the house was full of teenagers the space became wall-to-wall legs.”
They had lots of mason jars that they filled with canned meat or salmon. They stored grain in plastic 30-gallon drums; ground their grain by hand. For the first 11 years they were without electricity.
Larry’s dad had bought and shipped up a wood range. In a second-hand store in Juneau, they found a nickel-plated wood range for about $200.00. They had to have it! They were renting a house in Douglas; the owner’s husband had passed away. The owner told them, “If you will do all the maintenance, you can rent it for $100/month. Larry had to take care of all repairs. They installed the range in that house. Flo learned to cook on that stove before moving to Gustavus.
Transportation was a hassle. The first building supplies brought from Juneau were the materials for the small 8 x 12 cabin. Larry used Alaska Litho’s van to take these materials, driving the van off the barge, unloading it, and putting it back on the barge before the tide change.
There was nothing scheduled regularly. There were a few independent barges available. They charged by the square foot of deck space, not by weight. The materials for the house cost $4,540.00, and included roofing, windows and insulation. Larry got the creosote pilings from a beach in Douglas.
Then Larry bought a 1965 van and filled it with all their remaining personal belongings, including a year’s supply of food and boxes of books. They had to unload quickly, yet again, and put everything on tarps laid out in the puddles, as it was raining. When they picked up a box of books, water would flow out.
Flo said, “We got a treadle sewing machine from the same store where we got the stove.” Larry added, “We chartered a barge and unloaded everything at Bartlett Cove near the boat ramp. The area was not improved then; it was just a small beach.”
The Alaska State Library set up a program to send books every month that would interest kids and adults. They put candy in the boxes before sending to Gustavus. The kids were delighted. They thought that this was where candy came from.
Because they did not move into their house until the end of October, they did not have enough firewood to get them through the winter. They cut a lot of wood. They had to use snowshoes and a sled in winter. Larry cut dead standing pine at the top of the snow cover. In the spring there would be a three- to four-foot stump after the snow had melted.
From the 70s to the mid-80s, fish packers going to ports to the far north or west of Gustavus filled their holds with seasonal fruit and other produce. These they sold to the small
communities along the way as they passed through Southeast Alaska. The boat would announce their arrival an hour away via the marine VHF radio. In most Southeast communities, people all lived close together near the port or dock, so they had plenty of time to get to the fruit boats. However, in Gustavus, most people lived several miles away from the dock. As Gustavus was one of the last ports visited by the fruit boats, their supply was pretty low. Larry says, “Every time we got the phone call, ‘the fruit boat is in,’ everyone made a mad rush to get to the dock, hoping there were still some fresh apples left.
“Another thing: Residents never knew what the fruit boats had to offer. Most would have apples, pears and melons. Sometimes they would also have potatoes and carrots and many staples, like dry beans and rice. One October, a big seine boat had pumpkins for Halloween. The captain said they had a lot more pumpkins when they started, but in crossing Dixon Entrance they hit some bad weather, and a lot of the pumpkins got washed overboard. He said there was a string of orange pumpkins floating behind his boat all the way across Dixon Entrance. It makes one wonder what the Canadians thought when those pumpkins washed up on the beach.”
Larry reminisces, “In those days, there was no ramp from the dock to a float, only ladders. It seems like the fruit boats always arrived at low tide. So, you had to select your purchases by looking down into a boat that is 20 or more feet below you, and then hauling up the purchase by ropes tied to boxes. Remember this as you are waiting in your car for the ferry that will take you into Juneau for another shopping trip.”
Flo said, “We had a horse for several years. Pep had to earn the money to pay for its feed. The horse, whose name was Comet, went through several owners. Finally, no one was riding it, so the Scotts took it in. Comet ended up dying of old age, having brought happiness to
many people, especially young girls. Comet was a POA (Pony of the Americas.) He was very afraid of bears. If he heard something he thought might be a bear, he would rear up. When he did, if I were riding, I would fly off.”
In December, 1975, Larry’s father sent them a Montgomery Ward 3500 KW generator. The first time they turned it on was to light up the Christmas lights on the tree. Flo says, “It was so nice when the lights were turned on, but we had to turn off the generator because of the loud noise it made. In fact, the generator came with a five-gallon gas tank and it took us five years to use that amount of gas.”
Though it was not easy, they successfully lived off the land with their $500 per month income for the first three years. They had no medical insurance. Laura broke nine bones in her youth. All these accidents occurred on school property or field trips. She broke both arms and her shoulder. She was stoic about her injuries, wanting to do things for herself even with a cast on both arms.
For that first three years, they had a large garden. The turnips were huge. They had enough potatoes, broccoli, carrots, kale, brussels sprouts, and peas to keep them in vegetables all year.
Then, in the winter of 1976/77, the Tongs moved back to Juneau, where he worked full-
time at his former print shop. He earned enough money to pay for lumber to build a print shop in Gustavus, right next to his house. In 1977 and 78 he took a full-time job as
a teacher of a course then called “Graphic Arts” in his home town in Oregon. He taught how to hand-set type for letter presses, though they had more modern offset equipment. He enjoyed the job, but missed the bush. Though it was a good opportunity, they wanted to return to Gustavus.
Because Larry was a linotype operator, he was called into Juneau from time to time to work. He kept a bedroll in the shop when he had to go in to work. Flo stayed at the cabin with the children. She was very afraid of stack fires, as they did not have metalbestos pipe and the stovepipe would soot up terribly. Once, she stayed with Leslie Sirsted until dark, and when she came home, the cabin was very cold. After she got a fire going, she would stay up until the last ember was gone because of her dread of a stack fire. Flo told her friends, “Unless Larry replaces the stovepipe, I am taking the kids and leaving.”
Larry decided to build a brick chimney with a terra cotta liner. They decided that Flo should take the kids to see her parents until the chimney was done. Larry had to thaw out frozen sand in small quantities in their print shop stove, make cement and carry it to the house. Building that chimney was a long, tedious project.
Building this brick chimney occurred in September, which was Larry’s birthday month, and he was all alone. The neighbors brought birthday cake and food to cheer him up. They thought he was in mourning because the wife and kids had left him.
After the chimney was built, he joined his family in Oregon. When they came back, the neighbors rejoiced. Larry says, “I never told them the whole story.”
In 1976, when Larry realized that they could stay in Gustavus but needed more income, he opened the print shop next door to his house. It was called “Homestead Press.” In 1977, he went back to Oregon to see if he could find a foot-treadle machine. He found an 8 x 12-foot treadle C&P platen printing press that
came with a nice supply of hand-set type and cabinets, and a paper cutter, called a “Pony Cutter” that was made in 1883. In the old days, such a paper cutter was transported by pack horses. The cutter could be taken apart into two pieces of equal weight, allowing the pack horse to carry both halves.
After their first three years in Gustavus, Larry needed to get a job. He could work for a month and make enough money to buy enough food for one year. Larry says, “In 1977, I started working seasonally on the ramp crew for Alaska Airlines. One of the benefits of the Alaska Airlines job was a termination pass for the travel anywhere the airline flew, given to Larry when he was laid off at the end of the summer. I had that job for two years; then for two years after that, I worked at Customer Service.”
Flo said, “I worked as a maid for Glacier Bay Lodge. I got trained as Head Housekeeper, then went to work at the lodge.” Then Flo was asked to work at the Gustavus Inn. She also worked in Gustavus Mercantile as a grocery store clerk. It was a grocery store and hardware store with a laundromat and showers.
Flo then became an Interpretive Ranger. She was the first person to run the information station at Bartlett Cove, located at the head of the outer dock. She monitored
the marine radio and gave weather reports. She hated wearing a uniform.
In 1979 Larry was hired by the Sitka Telephone Company to maintain the rotary-dial phone system party lines as a part-time job. He put in 500 hours per year. When Larry started working for the phone company, he had no previous experience. It was a “learn while you earn” job. At the time the only real phone cable was a 52-pair cable attached to the power pole from the airport area to the towers area left over from World War II. All the “drops” to residences were ground-laid single-pair drops to the customers’ houses. Fred Rose was the previous phone employee. Larry remembers Fred dragging the first phone wire in from the main road to their house in 1976.
When Larry worked for the phone company, they had an electrical outlet available – a rarity in those times. Larry got three heavy-duty batteries that he could charge using that outlet. These supplemented his light system at home.
While living in Douglas in the early 70s, the Tongs had become friends with the owner of Shop Right Market, Bob Thibadeau. Every December, Bob sold Christmas trees from his front yard. In October of 1979, Larry called the head of DOT airport maintenance and asked permission to cut Christmas trees on the approaches to the Gustavus runways. Larry was told, “Sure, cut all you want.” Larry also received a letter giving him permission to cut the trees. Larry then contacted Bob to see if he would like to sell Gustavus jack pine Christmas trees. As the trees Bob sold were ordered from tree farms from Outside, he said he would order 100 trees as a trial. Larry arranged to have the trees shipped to Juneau on John Gitkov’s landing craft, the Gumption. After Christmas, Bob said the Gustavus trees sold out before the farm trees. Juneauites liked the idea of locally grown, wild Alaskan Christmas trees. The next year, Bob ordered 300 trees, as that was the most the Gumption could hold. The following year, the order increased to 600 trees.
Harvesting the trees became an annual event for the Tong family. The only tools needed were a small Silvic saw and a pickup to haul the trees to the boat harbor. Larry and Flo cut the trees, while Joe and Laura would carry or drag them out to the pickup. Depending on the weather, there was either cold standing water or wet snow. It took about two weeks to harvest and deliver 600 trees to the boat harbor. The first year they cut trees, they had a Thanksgiving vacation inn Juneau, with motels, movies, swimming, McDonald’s, and homework (ugh). The first 600-tree year, the family went on a Christmas vacation to Oregon to surprise the grandmas and grandpas, followed by a road trip to Disneyland in California.
In September, 1980, Larry’s parents, Wilbur and Thelma, came to see what they had accomplished. Larry’s father was a cabinet maker and was going to help him build the kitchen base cabinets. By this time, they were raising rabbits and chickens. They had saved a rooster to eat when the parents arrived. Early in the morning the day before their arrival, there was an awful commotion coming from the chicken pen. Flo jumped out of bed just in time to see a medium-sized bear chasing a chicken down the driveway and under the house. Flo ran down the stairs, grabbed the 30-30, and ran out the back door. Meanwhile, Larry finally got his contact lenses installed so he could see well enough to shoot a bear. He ran down the stairs, grabbed the shotgun and ran out the front door. Just as he reached the front steps, he heard a shot, then another shot, and then another. After a minute of silence Larry yelled, “Is it safe to come around the house?” Flo yelled back, “He was eating the Colonel. I wanted to make sure he was dead.” When they gutted the bear they found three bullet holes in what was left of the heart. As they had already killed and canned a problem bear that summer, they gave the bear to neighbors to process. They saved some bear steaks for the parents. Wilbur enjoyed the meat but Thelma refused to try it.
Apparently, the Tongs were among the first “back to the land” people in Gustavus to can and eat bear meat. The original homesteaders regarded bears as big forest rats and did not eat them. When word got out that the Tongs would eat bear meat, they started to get offers of dead bears to process. In the first six years, they canned and ate nine bears. By now they had a telephone. One day Gary Owen called them, asking if they would like a bear. Flo said, “Sure!” Gary put the phone down. A minute later, Larry heard a loud gunshot. Then, two minutes later, Gary picked up the phone and said, “You can come and get him. He’s cooling in the ditch. He was eating my raspberries.” By the time Larry and Flo got there, Gary had taken his backhoe and picked the bear up from the ditch and was gutting him.
Canning the bears was a big deal. As the Tongs did not have a two-burner propane hotplate until the spring of 1977, all canning was done on the wood range and a Coleman stove. As they did not have electricity for the first 11 years, they had to can around the clock so the meat wouldn’t spoil. They used their pressure cooker, along with a borrowed one for the bigger bears. It took a couple of hours per load to process. The house always got unbearably hot. They took turns working around the clock. They got so proficient at canning that they would look at a bear and say, “That is a 24-quart bear, or a 36-quart bear.”
The biggest bear they canned was shot by Dave Lesh at the Gustavus Inn. The bear was after their sheep. Flo was working there as a maid. It was the first week of August and Larry and Joe were deer hunting on Pleasant Island for a couple of days. Dave gave the bear to Flo, putting the animal in the back of her pickup. She then winched the bear onto the front porch for skinning and butchering. By the time Larry and Joe got home (with no deer), Flo had the bear cut up and half-canned. It was a 48-quart bear.
Larry remarked, “People always ask if bear meat is safe to eat and how does it taste? We canned all our meat in a pressure cooker at 10 PSI, which is 240 degrees temperature,
for 110 minutes. This made the meat safe and tender. Bear tastes similar to beef.” Before moving to Gustavus, Flo would buy beef on sale and can it. She didn’t want any empty jars when she moved. She put a “B” on the jar lids to signify that the jar held beef. Later, when Joe and Laura (Pep) complained about having bear again, Flo would say, “Oh, the lid had a B on it so it might be beef.” Flo was very creative in processing bear. She would lightly grill the tender backstrap steaks and stack them in jars to can for breakfast steaks. She canned bear meatballs, bear mincemeat, bear stew and bear sausage.
In the first four years in Gustavus, when the Tongs were in the “living off the land” mode, they were successful. However, they finally realized that continuing this lifestyle required hard work every day of the year. Also, they realized that they had bear problems because of the “bear magnets” called chickens, rabbits and ducks. After they got rid of the livestock, they never had to shoot another bear. Life became a little simpler, as it was really hard getting the livestock through the colder winters.
In the early 80s one of Larry’s jobs was a contract to haul the mail from the airport to the post office. LAB had the mail contract to deliver the mail twice a week and was noted for hiring low-hour pilots. One day two old-timers, Archie Chase and Fred Rose were with Larry when the LAB mail plane landed. A young teenage-looking pilot got out and asked them, “Is this Hoonah?” Fred, who always had a cigar in his mouth, walked up to the
young pilot, took the cigar in his fingers and said, “Boy,” then thumped the man on his chest. “Don’t you know” – thump –“This is the highlight of our week” – thump, thump, thump. The “boy” literally ran to his plane, jumped in and left. Larry never saw him again.
In 1982 a neighbor’s house burned down. The community was really bothered by this tragedy because by the time folks got there to help, it was too late. To try to alleviate this problem, the Gustavus Fire Department was started. It was very primitive at first. Larry says, “The fire department was a community effort. I believe it started before the Gustavus Community Association was formalized. The people I remember at the beginning were Jack and Sally Lesh, the Strevelers, the Kadens, the Stedmans, and others.” That same year, Tom Berner became the first fire chief. Two years later, Larry became the chief.
The Gustavus airport is owned and maintained by the state. As fire chief in 1985, Larry negotiated with the state Department of Transportation for a contract to provide certified firefighters to meet the jet. Larry and Richard Sirstad were trained to be CFR (Crash, Fire Rescue) firefighters in Fairbanks. As Richard was a full-time DOT employee, Larry had the job of meeting the Alaska Airlines jet two hours a day. The DOT airport contract financed the fire department and paid a minimal wage for those certified to operate the airport fire truck.
By 1984, Sitka Phone Company had been sold to PTI. That summer they buried all new phone cable from the end of the Rink Creek road to west of the Good River to the park boundary. They also replaced the outdated rotary dial, party line phone system with a new digital private line system. Gustavus finally had twentieth century telephone service.
In 1985, Dick Levitt bought the power station from Art Hayes. Because Art Hayes sold power to less than ten customers, he was not regulated by the state. Dick Levitt and his partner, Ed Cahill, created Gustavus Electric Company to sell power to the entire community.
Dick wanted to bury all the distribution lines. He asked Larry to work for him that summer because Larry knew where all the telephone lines were buried. Jim Nixon and Larry worked for the next few summers burying all the power lines. After three years, lines were buried all the way to Rink Creek and out Goodriver Road and in the main part of town.
At one time there were five aircraft navigation towers in the spot called the “tower area.” After the Native Land Claim act, if Native groups could not find enough land to claim in their own area, they could select elsewhere. Cook Inlet Native Corporation selected the area where the towers were located. By law, they could potentially build there. In 1984 and 85, they then owned all of those towers, which were considered a liability. Skip Bouy, another Gustavus resident, got the job of removing those towers. Skip loved
dynamite. He set charges of dynamite at the base of each of the towers, knocked them down, and left them lying there. The towers were made up of angle iron steel, which was collected and put to good use by the locals. A year later, the towers had disappeared.
In 1983, Tom Berner had built an 8’ x 12’ shed with a porch on log skids. This small building was located at the Salmon River park, and was used to cache the fire department tools. With a little money from the state, they bought rubber packs, hose, shovels, and flappers for snuffing out grass fires. They researched, then ordered a timber frame structure from a company that specialized in timber frame kits. The building had panels that were spiked to the exterior of the frame. It cost $28,500 to get the building set up. In January of 1986, Greg Streveler and Larry went to Juneau to lobby their representative for money for the fire hall. The representative was typical of that era, with the white shirt, suspenders and a big cigar. He was disappointed they asked for so little funding. He kept asking if the community needed a new boat harbor or a new dock.
The material for the new fire hall arrived in April, along with the owner of the company, who had built the kit and came to supervise the assembly. Larry explains, “We had the cement slab already made by Bob Mills. Ed White had volunteered to use his fork lift to raise the timber frame ‘bents’ as they were assembled. However, we were unable to use the fork lift because of ice on the slab. So. Jim Gage rigged up a gin pole, using three poles, ropes and block and tackle to raise the bents. We had a barn (fire hall) raising that the Amish would be proud of. We got that building up in two days, all with volunteer help and a lot of tasty donated food.”
From 1987 to 1988, Larry worked a summer job for the park service, doing maintenance. His projects included the pole shelter built over the dugout canoe displayed near Bartlett Cove and the boardwalk to the Blackwater Pond – Forest loop area.
In the late 80s, Flo bought Mary’s Pickup Taxi from Mary Hervin, and renamed it TLC Taxi. The Tongs had just bought an extra-long van with a cargo area at the back. They had the taxi business for several years.
Flo was the fire department dispatcher. By this time the department had a radio/telephone system where 911 phone calls were transmitted to their radios. Flo says, “I had a cab with a radio, and would take emergency calls while I drove.” She had a notebook and would ask a passenger to write down what the radio dispatcher would say, and would arrange all the medivacs.
In 1990, Larry worked as a full-time salaried employee for Dick Levitt in the summer. In winter, he had to maintain the generators. These jobs provided more income.
In 1993, Larry was offered a full-time job as an installer for the PTI phone company in Juneau, so he moved back there. He left Gustavus a couple of days after being hired, and Flo sold her taxi business and most of her craft supplies and many other things before realizing she would need some of the sold items later. At a farewell party for Flo and Larry, the fire department
members changed the name of the fire hall to Tong Hall in recognition for the years of volunteer work they both did for the department.
Larry sums up his Gustavus story with the following dialog: “I’m often asked if I ever regret selling my share of a profitable business, taking my family to build a house in the woods and living there. My answer is ‘absolutely not.’ There were many trying times, but with the love and support of my wife we persevered and made a good life based on hard work, honesty and caring for others. I’m also asked if I had it to do over, would I do it the same way. My answer is ‘absolutely not.’ My mantra before moving to Gustavus was ‘how did my great-grandpa do it?’ I brought only hand tools (except for a chainsaw for firewood) while Flo got rid of all her Tupperware. And we did it, almost like great-grandma and grandpa. Now that I’m older and hopefully a little wiser, were I to do this again I would definitely have a generator with power tools to build the house, and a log splitter for the firewood. I’m sure Flo would add a washing machine, freezer and vacuum cleaner to that list.
“We watched Gustavus grow from an average of 100 or less people in the mid-1970s to the community we have today. Back then we had no electricity, dusty pothole roads, a primitive phone system, a one-room school, no stores and mainly only airplanes for access to Juneau. Today we have local government, a couple of paved roads, ferry service, modern schools, hydro power, phone systems and internet, direct TV, and stores, coffee shops, and restaurants.
“Flo and I want to thank the Christian community,, especially the Gustavus Chapel (now called the Gustavus Christian Church) for their guidance in our dedicating our lives to the Lord. Our faith has been the foundation of our marriage, which has lasted over 51 years.
“It’s good to know that we helped build Gustavus as we know it today, from the phone system and power grid to the fire department and the taxi business. Our best contribution to Gustavus is our daughter, whom you know as Pep.”