Homesteading Keene Island the Williams’ Story

“I loved the woods, the fragrance of the trees, the mossy ground, the sun streaming through the trees, the sounds and the quietness.  I didn’t need to see the house. “

by Arlene Williams

In 2015 my husband, Gary, and I moved from Keene Island, Alaska to Southbrook Mobile Home Court. Salem, Oregon.  I am quite social, so after being isolated on our own island for 29 years, I took notice of South Salem Senior Center just a 1/2 mile away from our new home.

Display at South Salem Senior Center with samples of media available through My Beautiful Life Story. CD, Plexi photo transfer and canvas framed 3x3 photos
My Beautiful Life Story display at South Salem Senior Center

While at the Senior Center I met a gal named Zoe, who preserved old pictures. Before long I also recognized her at the swimming pool in our mobile home park. ( I’m not a swimmer, but I went there for social reasons and to get acquainted with other homeowners.)

When Zoe came to my house, I brought out the scrapbooks.  I showed Zoe my stacks of scrapbooks that documented our time at Keene Island.  We bought the island in 1991.  The island was 68 acres, but we owned just 2 acres of it.  The rest was Alaska Park Land and no one could live on it.  It had a house, built in the 1920’s, and a shed.  Originally, it was a fox farm and there were even some of the fox cages still there.  There had been several owners before us and it’s history is quite fascinating.  After we bought it, I realized that this was going to be a major adventure for us and I documented every building project, who came to visit us, the fish that were caught, etc. 

At this point in history, we used film in our cameras.  At the end of August we would return to Metlakatla to begin another year of teaching.  I would mail the film in to be developed and divide them into the various sections for the scrapbooks.  In May we would go back to Keene Island and my first project was to put the pictures in the correct scrapbook.  I ALWAYS did this. We had sold Keene Island and I wanted to create a book for the new owner that showed the history of the island before his purchase.  Zoe showed me how to mark the pages with sticky tabs and ABC to mark the pictures that I wanted included.  ( My grandkids are really cute, but I decided the new owner wouldn’t care about them!)

As I tried to recall all of the steps involved, I realized that it isn’t necessary.  That is what Zoe does.  With every step, I’d do what she’d tell me to do.  Sometimes I completed the task in a short amount of time and other times it took awhile.  Zoe was always very patient and made herself available when I was ready.  Then there was the problem of me changing my mind about what to include.  This was not a problem.  All of this was part of the project.

Arlene Williams displays a print copy of the Keene Island journal she made for new owners of Keene Island

Another phase of Zoe’s work was to make decisions about the appearance of the book.  What size, what shape, linen, hard or soft cover, picture on the front or just printing, dedication or not, which font and size?  So many decisions.

The final decision was the number of books to order. I made my list and then ordered a few extra.  When all was said and done, I had one unclaimed book.

That was soon claimed by our grandson Keene.  He was born shortly after our purchase and has always said that “this is MY island” and someday he’ll own it.  He loves showing his book about HIS island to his friends.

Family adventures worldwide with the Speer family photos

Travel document Dr. Homer A Speer Sr. Cancelled Argentinean Travel Visa

 I’ve scanned hundreds of Homer A Speer Jr’s  collection of vintage photos and postcards, learning the stories behind most of the the family history treasure Homer’s collected. I’ve learned a lot of local history along the way while preserving important mementos and photos.

While Homer and I scanned we talked about the photos and share memories.  I can imagine I am traveling this junket too, set in the early 20th century.

Dr Speer lived a colorful life and left a deep lasting visual legacy for his son.

World Travel Shipboard Costume Party early 20th century
Shipboard party Dr. Homer A Speer Sr World Travel

I’ve learned about the San Paulo serpentaria. I wouldn’t have imagined I would be researching serums, serpentaria and geography when I started my vintage trek through a treasury of family photos. It all started innocently enough….

“What do you suppose those hives are he is looking at’ says Homer, looking at a photo of his father circa 1924. It is sunny hot on this day almost 90 years ago Homer’s dad is wearing a full suit, hat and tie in the heat of the day.  This vintage photo shows Homer Alexander Speer Sr leaning against a wall, peering into the moat behind the wall.

I am sorting through the photos we’ve scanned to the antique photos folder “Wasn’t there a picture earlier of a snake we thought was taken in Peru? I think the guy holding the snake was standing in front of one of those too”. We look through Homer’s computer to find the particular group of photos I am talking about.

From Homer’s Picasa album, we find the picture I’d scanned a few weeks before. Sure enough, the guy holding the snake IS standing in front of one of those hives. This photo has 1924, San Paulo, written on the back. Here is where the curious get hooked.

” Let’s google ‘San Paulo Brazil snakes’ Homer!” Up pops the Institutio Batalan, built by Brazilian physician Vital Brazil in 1901.  Our curiosity is as strong as Dr. Speer’s as Homer flies us over the same spot almost a hundred year’s later by satellite and mapping.

President Teddy Roosevelt Butanan Museum, San Paulo Brazil 1912

We can’t see the serpentaria in the photos we pull up on google earth. The Google car didn’t drive into the compound of Institutio Batalan when it was mapping San Paulo this century, but in 1914 Teddy Roosevelt did.

Lab Session with Cadaver Dr Homer A Speer Sr c. 1905

Turns out, anti-venom and a lot of other research has been conducted in San Paulo for over a century, making it a world renowned center for sera and other pharmaceutical development.  This is why Teddy Roosevelt was here in 1914, and  Dr. Speer arrived a decade later. The elder Homer was educating himself about  serums development and the medical advances that would come around the globe from research being done here in Brazil.

Looking through Homer’s vintage photo we’ve both learned something new about Brazil, snakes and those ‘hives’. Both Homer and I are curious; we learn that each time we get together to compile his vintage photos and put the pieces together for his own personal history project.

Homer A Speer Jr Beaverton OR Skype Call
Homer A Speer Jr enjoys exploring technology during Skype call

Homer and met when he was looking for some tutoring on his computer. He’s in his mid-eighties and as curious as I am, Homer has a lifetime of stories to share. He has a treasure of family photos and friends he’s connected with by having a tutor who can help him with learning more about how his computer will connect him with many things.

You know how sometimes life has a way of working in funny little vignettes. When you are doing something you really love with another person who has a passion for sharing their stories and inviting you on their journey? I’ve gotten to walk into the past with Homer and learn some wonderful things.  In the case of my dear friend Homer, the past is lovingly illustrated by stories and those vintage photos. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to help preserve and share his past. And watch as he confidently shows me something he’s now learned to do on his own on his computer.

Homer, Walter, Dr Speer and Bobby enjoy the beach at Seaside Oregon

This past year, I’ve ridden bikes with Homer and his brothers in Seaside Oregon. Thanks to those vintage photos I’ve built sand castles on the coast as the Dr. Speer the elder shades the beach  in his suit coat, tie and ever present hat.

I’ve traveled to Alaska circa 1947 when Homer was stationed there during his time in the Air Force. I’ve attended Homer and Nancy’s wedding the year I was born, lifting a glass to the happy couple at Nancy’s parent’s home over in West Slope.

Homer Speer and Nancy Lee Finn Wedding 1957

I’ve also waded in Odell Lake beside the family and watch the string of fish unfurl out of the boat to be proudly displayed. I’ve seen the home in Beaverton, when the land was raw. Furry sheep, the ‘girls’, grazed the pasture tucked into the property before the house was built.

This past summer I looked photos from the 1960’s of dam’s being built by the Guy Atkinson Company. Through conversation I’d sat beside Homer as he carefully enters numbers in the general ledger for the company those years ago. As Homer’s career developed ‘we’ traveled to Guernsey in the UK where he scouted for Tektronix and met new friends.  Among them a heretofore distant cousin who shared a family tree that included Homer’s own family. Homer is a man who seems to gather synchronicity wherever he goes. He delights in family and has drawn Nancy and I over closer to one another as we share stories and lessons over dinner.

In the present day I’ve excitedly passed on the story of treasure unearthed in a potato field and teased Homer that he’d missed his change to find the horde when he was in Guernsey. He must have been working too hard that year.

Roman Age Treasure found on Jersey Britain

I have found a treasure myself. How?  Every day I am whetting my curiosity whistle beside wonderful folks who are keepers of their family’s personal history. Like being part of a magical family legacy.  Wonderful stuff, being part of the family!

Pleased to announce this blog about my adventures with the Speer family photos was featured in the NixPlay blog, “Recounting One Family’s Past Through Pictures.” Their blog about ‘our project’ recognizes the importance of preserving these marvelous stories! Thanks NixPlay!~ zm

Testimonial A Living Memory Book



As the Speer Family West keeper of family history, Homer’s photos dated back to the before the turn of the 20th century. After organizing the photos and slides, they were scanned to preserve them.

I taught Homer how to use his software so he could label, rotate and order images on his own.  Once he was satisfied with his project materials I helped Homer stitch his digitally labeled still photos into several video montage. He had selected music to accompany some of his finished slideshows which was added to the montage if he desired.

 Homer’s vision and Zoe’s expertise made  his dream possible. He tells how in this video.

Today we have the opportunity to leave  our children and grandchildren and all our family a permanent story of our lives.  This is the first time in history that this is possible. Instead of just pictures we can literally share with them what our life and times were like.I can’t imagine how great it would be to have had all my grandparents be able to do what we can do today.  I can only imagine what it would be like to have my grandpa leave me story of what it was like to live and experience what they experienced during and after the civil war.  With the help of My Beautiful Life Story, I have been able to do that now for my family.Together you and I have created a “LIVING MEMORY BOOK”.  That is what has happened to me. That’s what you have done for me.  I enjoy being able to see ALL Of my historical family photos and the videos we created from those photos from the comfort of my computer and even on my SMART TV.  With your help, my last few years have been some of the most enjoyable of my life…Homer Speer Jr, Banks, Oregon