Alaska Wild Berry Products' owner ready to retire

Photo/McKibben Jackinsky/Homer News

As berry-pickers know, everything has its season. There’s a season for tending berries as they grow and a season to harvest them. There’s a season for turning the ripe fruit into something delicious to eat and then there’s a season to retire from your labors.

For Peter Eden — the third owner of Alaska Wild Berry Products who grew the business from a single site in Homer to additional sites Anchorage and Wasilla and turned it into an enterprise that ships products all over the world — the time to retire is just around the corner.

“I’ve been there since 1975,” said Eden when he bought the business. It was founded by Ken and Hazel Heath in 1946 and in the 1960s purchased by Harry and Betty Brundage.

Along with his retirement, Eden is closing the business either at the end of the summer or after the holiday season, the exact time still to be decided, and has put the business up for sale. The Anchorage and Wasilla sites are being sold together, but the Homer site is being sold separately through Chris Story of Story Real Estate. Selling price for the six lots, comprising 1.93 acres, and building is $1,070,000.

“Of course there are different ways to sell it,” said Eden. The land could be divided. Some of it could provide parking space for neighboring businesses. Someone might decide to buy all locations and pick up where Eden leaves off.

“It could happen,” he said.

The Heaths began Alaska Wild Berry Products in the back of their Kachemak Café on Pioneer Avenue. The “Alaska Wild Berry Products” sign now hanging on the front of the store is the same sign the couple posted on the front of their café. In 1948, the Heaths built and moved to a still-in-use vertical log structure at the current site. More space was added over the years, and in 1953, a concrete block structure was built to house a kitchen and packing area “for the thousands of pounds of wild Alaskan berries which were and still are processed annually into jams, jellies and other delectables,” writes local historian Janet Klein in her book, “Celebrating Homer’s Buildings.” Klein also notes a second story being added and used as a warehouse, and another portion of the building that, between 1996-2002, housed Captain’s Coffee Roasting Company.

In the mid 1950s, the Heaths purchased a small log cabin and moved it to a spot just off Pioneer Avenue on the right side of the property. The cabin was built in 1927 and served as Homer’s post office from a location near the mouth of Beluga Slough. From 1962-1966, it provided gallery space for Homer artist R. W. (Toby) Tyler.

The Brundages bought the business from the Heaths in the 1960s, and operated it until Harry Brundage retired and sold it to Eden.  

“Every one of my older kids picked berries and picked spruce cones for decoration in the packages,” said Wilma Williams. “Ken and Hazel Heath deserve a great deal of credit for encouraging kids to do that.”

Williams recalled how Hazel Heath would weigh each delivery made by the young berry-pickers, paying each one accordingly. Williams’ son Tommy combined what he made picking berries with his earnings from a paper route to purchase a bicycle.

“(Alaska Wild Berry Products) has been a very special thing in the community,” said Williams. “Ken and Hazel had the idea that if you made up your mind you were going to make a living from the country, you could do it. I think that their enterprise really showed that it is possible if you have ingenuity and ambition.”

In the late 1950s, when a 13-year-old Jack Klingbeil found an interesting object on the beach, he took it to Hazel Heath.

“I asked her how much she’d give me for it and she said $10. That sounded like a lot of money,” Klingbeil, now an Anchorage resident, told the Homer News recently.

Through Janet Klein’s study of woolly mammoths on the Kenai Peninsula, last year the object was identified as a woolly mammoth molar. It now has a place of honor among more than 100 items in Alaska Wild Berry Products’ museum.

Tyler’s scrapbooks and photo albums are filled with photos from the years his “8 By 10 Gallery” filled the little building whose dimensions gave the gallery its name. The building was so small that the walls — inside and out — and ceiling were covered with Tyler’s artwork. It was such an attraction that youngsters would stop to watch him paint.

“It was an interruption,” Tyler said of the visitors. “So it got where I kept my eyes open for certain ones and if I saw them coming, I’d sneak out and hang out with the Brundages where they couldn’t see me.”

The gallery was big enough, however, to be in the way of a driver making her way home from a local drinking establishment.

“She swerved to miss a fellow walking on the other side of the street and ended up running into the back corner of the building and knocking a few logs out,” said Tyler. “Harry and I got together and restored it pretty much to the way it was except one of the logs was broken and we put in a long, horizontal window which gave me some light, but less wall space. It was quite a place.”

Tyler helped the Brundages find and restore an old coal truck from Homer’s coal mining days. The coal truck still sits next to Tyler’s former studio, as does a food cache the Brundages had built as a tourist attraction.

The one-time post office is not part of the “for sale” package.

“If someone was interested in taking that, I could donate that,” said Eden. “Also there’s the food cache. I don’t know if I’ll bring it to Anchorage. I’m not sure of yet, but I’m open to suggestions and ideas.

He also hasn’t decided what to do with the collection of museum pieces.

During Eden’s ownership, the berry-collecting operations and kitchen were moved to Anchorage. Hand-pouring of jams and jellies was mechanized. Alaska Wild Berry Products candies were introduced, and a mail order division, complete with a catalog, was developed. Most orders are shipped to the Lower 48, with some going out of the country.

When peninsula trees were attacked by spruce bark beetles, Eden worked hard to protect the tall trees on the property.

“Our trees our beautiful,” he said.

For the past 15 years, Sheila Gronseth has managed the Homer store. In the winter, she is assisted by another employee. In the summer, employees number between four and five.

“The things I’ve gone thru. Oh, my gosh, it’s not even the same place,” said Eden. “It’s been a long run, a wonderful fun, but it’s time to pass it on to someone who has some youth.”

03/29/2012 - 8:08am