According to local historian Roberta Sheldon in an interview for Talkeetna radio station KTNA, the Talkeetna Roadhouse was built sometime around 1916-17 by brothers Frank and Ed Lee, from Michigan, who were freighting supplies to the mines in the Peters Hills, Cache Creek, and Dutch Hills areas west of the Susitna River, in the southernmost foothills of Mt. McKinley.
The 1985 book Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: A Visual History of the Valleys, published by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, states the building was constructed in 1917 by Frank Lee “as a two-story log home, and later expanded with several frame additions.” The book records the physical properties of the Talkeetna Roadhouse building:
Type of construction: Log with corner boards and vertical board and batten.
Description: Rectangular two-story log with gable ends, medium gable roof, 1-story closed frame verandah across front end with shed roof, multi-paned rectangular windows, rectangular door, 1-story frame wing on side, shed roof.
Talkeetna’s first businesswoman, Isabella “Belle” Grindrod Lee McDonald, arrived in Talkeetna in 1917 and married Ed Lee, Frank’s brother, a year later. With her brother-in-law Frank Lee as her head freighter, Belle developed the Talkeetna Trading Post, a freighting service, stable, blacksmith shop, and the beginnings of a roadhouse, located half a mile west of the present-day Talkeetna Roadhouse, at the edge of the river. After Ed died in 1928, Frank and Belle continued the freighting business together, and at some point the precursor of the current roadhouse came into service.
In the 2013 book Talkeetna, by the Talkeetna Historical Society, the description continues with a reference to the “two meals a day” standard which would later make the Talkeetna Roadhouse a venerable institution: “Belle served two hardy meals a day, only deviating for freighters coming in late off the trail. She raised chickens and grew vegetables to supplement the wild game, fish, and fresh-baked bread she served at the roadhouse.”
As was tradition at Alaskan roadhouses, dinners were served family style at a long table, with heaping platters and bowls of food passed around between strangers who served themselves. The Closes ran a tight ship: Eggs were always scrambled, only vanilla ice cream was available, and the only breakfast meat available was thinly sliced ham. No exceptions. Reservations were necessary for dinner, and punctual arrival was expected; Carroll was known to lock the front door once guests were seated and late arrivals could eat elsewhere.
In his classic book, Life at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, Ron Garrett, who worked for the Closes, provides a delightful glimpse into the era, circa 1975: “A special day, generally once a week, was when Carroll baked bread. To see him come into the kitchen wearing a white T-shirt and put on the white apron was the first announcement that it was baking day. Verna would ask how much he was going to make and he almost always said 21 loaves. I never understood the significance of 21 or if that was the number of bread pans they had but it seems as if every time he baked it was 21 loaves. Carroll did the entire operation while Verna would prepare the bread pans. Many times I watched as Carroll worked with the dough, Verna occasionally looking and perhaps making some comments, but Carroll always being in control. I wish I had a picture of him standing there almost completely covered with flour, his arms white, and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The aroma of the bread baking in the Roadhouse was wonderful. This was plain bread, very good and tasty, without any of the gimmicks or specialties of the present yuppie bakeries.”