Long time Alaskan, John Sipes Jr. passed away on March 24, 2021, at the age of 93. John was born in Big Spring, Texas to John Sipes Sr. and Willa Mae (Crawford) Sipes on August 14, 1927.
John’s early years were spent on a ranch in Hartwell, Texas where his father worked as a cowboy and his mother worked as a cook. Around the time John started school the family moved back to Big Spring, Texas where John spent much of his time on his grandparent’s farm. During the Great Depression, John’s family, as well as many others, endured many hardships, but they enjoyed the simple things and were very close to their extended family.
With the onset of WWII John’s family moved to the west coast in search of work. John quit school and went to work with his father at the Swan Island shipyard in Portland, Oregon. There they built T-2 Tankers for the war effort.
At age 18 John was drafted into the U.S. Army where he had many experiences and was given an honorable discharge. During his time in the service, while attending a local dance, John met, fell in love with and married Irene Loretta Rochester of Yelm, Washington. The couple would have five children together.
After the war, with no work in sight, John’s father pointed his model-A Ford north to the newly opened Alcan Highway that ended in Big Delta, Alaska. There he went to work at Fort Greely, homesteaded and proved up on 160 acres. In 1948 John and Irene joined his parents in Alaska where they proved up on their own 160-acre homestead. Parts of both homesteads are still in the family today.
Life was hard on the homestead with no electricity or water. Every night in the winter John had to drain the oil out of the car and take it and the battery into the cabin so that the car would start in the morning to go to work. Irene melted snow to wash the family clothes. One day when John was at work a buffalo backed into the front door of the cabin pushing it open. Irene ruined a flashlight beating on it trying to get it out. Another time John trapped a buffalo in the tiny garage and before he had time to get his gun the buffalo escaped, destroying the garage. One time while John, his dad and several MPs were releasing a bear that they had tied up in a culvert (Ft Greely post-commander was trying to start a zoo), the bear ran through the open door of the cabin where John and Irene’s baby was sleeping. Before any of the men had time to react Irene ran into the cabin past the bear and grabbed her baby. The bear ran off into the woods. John often said Irene was the bravest girl he ever met, and he wished he could have made life easier on her.
In February of 1952 John and Irene’s cabin burned down. Fortunately, the family got out safe. With the help of R.L. Johnson and F.S. Pettijohn, John rebuilt his house, this time with frame construction instead of logs. Then, in September of 1952 John jacked up his house and with the help of Clyde Garrity, and using Bob Mitchell’s truck, moved the house and John’s family to North Pole where the family house remains today.
Life in North Pole was much easier with electricity, indoor plumbing and a phone. During that time Irene studied the bible with Esther Deremer and John studied with Jess Perry resulting in baptism for both. John was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in April of 1963 and for the rest of his life practiced his faith with quiet solemnity.
In 1967 Irene died. John lost a wife, and five kids lost their mom. This was a dark and hard time for John and his kids and may well have continued if a wonderful woman by the name of Mae Jean Kemper had not entered his life. The two married in December 1968, bringing her five children into the family.
Although raising a blended family of ten children was challenging at times, John and Jean both set a good example as parents trying to be fair to all. John often said that Jean saved his family and he loved her very much. Jean passed away in 1996 and the family still misses her. Many times, John has said “I was blessed to have the two best wives in the world.”
During his life John had many jobs and was known for doing things his own way. He met and became good friends with Con Miller who at the time was trying to establish North Pole as a viable city. In those days, money was very tight for small towns. John built streets, worked on the fire truck, plowed snow and other things for the city getting paid mostly in trade for equipment that the US Army gave to the city. Con and John got a lot done for very little money.
John also operated the 16-Mile Service Garage & Tow Truck owned by Jack Parks, trucked fuel from Valdez, was a heavy-duty mechanic, worked as a turbine operator at the Eielson power plant and contracted road work and land-clearing. In 1955 John and R.L. Johnson worked a D-7 CAT from Eielson to just short of the Canadian border, contracting for Williams Brothers building the three-inch pipeline. In 1972 John and Max Keeney developed a large subdivision in North Pole. John gifted some of these lots to his children, where some still live today. In 1980 John cleared 300 acres on the Delta Barley Project with his D-9 Cat.
In the 1980s John took great pleasure in mining gold on Deadwood Creek with many of his sons and grandsons working with him. John and Jean’s grandchildren have happy memories of the annual summer trip to the gold mine when they would camp, play, pick berries and mine for gold in the mini-sluice box that John built for them. John and Jean gifted their children and grandchildren gold-nugget jewelry from the mine which is still worn and cherished today.
John's door was open to family, friends and neighbors. At his table there was always good, strong coffee, a bowl of hot beans and even better conversation. When John’s life ended, he was well loved, well respected, and a true Alaskan Pioneer. He will be laid to rest in the family plot on Birch Hill. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Irene, his second wife Mae Jean, his stepson August, his parents and his brother Frank Sipes. John is survived by his five children Austin (Jana) Sipes, Patricia (Art) Wagner, Juanita (Curt) Hamlin, Harold (Joanne) Sipes, Ernest Sipes. Four stepchildren, Richard (Connie) Kemper, Susan (Mark) Lacefield, Patricia Dudley, and Robert Whaley. Grandchildren Marilyn, Crystal, Cecily, Amanda, Joe, Danelle, Amber, Greg, Colleen, Melanie, Curtis, John Patrick, Nicole, Brian, Andrew James, Danny, Kyle, Austin Jr., Mary, Jeanna, Kimberly, Sam, Jennifer, Shelly, Lisa, and Brenda, along with numerous great and great-great grandchildren.
John’s family would like to express special thanks to Dr. Peter Marshall for his many years of care and friendship. Also, much appreciation for the support from Fairbanks Hospice.