Alaska at 50: Still Foreign to Many Down South

Alaska at 50: Still Foreign to Many Down South

By John D’Armand

It was 1958. Having spent the ­summer of 1956 working in Alaska’s mining and fishing industries, I wanted to return to that vast and beautiful land. I stuck my thumb out in Boston. Ten days and 5,000 miles of hitchhiking later, I found my weary self in Fairbanks, unloading hundred-pound bags of sugar from boxcars.

Soon I hitchhiked to Anchorage to look for better work and found it with a fish processor on the Kenai River. At the end of the salmon run, I was hired as inspector for construction of the Denali Park road, which required living in a tent and working 70-hour weeks—all for less than $100 a week. But maybe I should have paid my employer for the opportunity to live in that beautiful wilderness and chase silver fox down the road while driving to work in the morning.

Later I tested successfully for a position with the Territorial Land Office in Anchorage. My job involved depositing lease money from the oil companies every day. I came to understand why people embezzle. There I was, earning less than $100 a week while carrying $75,000 to the bank at the end of the day. My free hours were spent in contradictory activities—singing for a church and playing piano at the Cheechako Tavern, which advertised the warmest beer and the worst music in town.

It wasn’t long before Alaska received increasing attention from folks down south. Most of it was the result of a Life magazine series about the Michigan ’59ers, a group who left the depressed economy of their state to homestead in Alaska. When they arrived at the land office, I showed them maps of parcels open to homesteading. A photographer walked in and snapped our picture, and that photograph appeared the next day on the front page of the statehood edition of the Anchorage Daily Times.

President Eisenhower signed the statehood declaration in January 1959, and the party began. In Anchorage wood was piled high for a bonfire on a vacant lot—49 tons of it, we were told. Under cover of darkness, which is considerable at that time of year, a prankster planted a Texas flag atop the woodpile. Texas became the butt of many jokes in Alaska. The fact that Alaska is two-and-a-half times the size of Texas inspired my favorite, in which the Alaskan says, “If you Texans don’t quit complaining about being the second-largest state in the Union, we’ll split in half and make you third-largest.”

The statehood celebration spilled over into the “Fur Rendezvous,” a major event in Anchorage that includes a dog-sled race and a huge fur auction. My principal interest, though, was in the “Fur Face” competition. Of the several categories, one called “Red Fox,” was exclusively for those with red beards. Since I hadn’t seen a red beard to compare with the length, thickness, and bright redness of mine that winter, I was somewhat confident I would win. However, a local hairdresser, in celebration of statehood, had grown just enough of a beard, probably a quarter-inch at the most, to allow him to cut a star design on his chin and to shape his left and right sideburns into a 4 and a 9, respectively, to represent the 49th state. He won. Today my dense red beard, which once inspired a friend to call me “Big Red,” has lost its hue to the point at which that same friend now calls me “Great White.”

Half a century later, Alaska remains foreign to many down south. Events here must be extremely dramatic to make the news down there, and national weather reports rarely mention our state. Many mail-order companies impose large surcharges on even small packages. Most offers made to residents of the continental U.S. exclude Alaskans, although we reside in a continental (if not contiguous) state. A reporter who had taken a quick tour of the popular sites up here returned home to write of his adventure. “We didn’t go far enough north to see polar bears or penguins.” To see the latter, he would have had to turn around and travel to the other end of the planet.

Just as some people think Tennesseans go barefoot and live in shacks, some believe Alaskans live in igloos. We smile at the misconceptions and treasure our remoteness. It’s a great land. Come see for yourself! You won’t even need a passport.