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College kid in Wiseman


(Published: February 29, 2004) story photo
Walter Johnson shows off turnips in 1946 at the store in Wiseman, which he co-owned with Bill English. (Photo courtesy of Walter Johnson) story photo
English, left, and Johnson in 1944 at Wiseman airfield. English had a long career in Alaska avaiation. (Photo courtesy of Walter Johnson)

Click on photo to enlarge
First of two parts

I was born in a farmhouse a hundred miles west of Omaha in 1922. After finishing eighth grade at a little country school, I offered to stay out of school for a year to run the family farm. The Depression and the devastating droughts had taken a toll on my father's health. It was the typical farm life: up at 5 each morning, harnessing the horses and mules, plowing, planting, plus all the other chores.

When I was 15, we moved to Nebraska's capital, Lincoln, and there I discovered the Andrew Carnegie Library. That was the first access I had to an unlimited number and type of books, and I made good use of that opportunity.

After graduating from high school in the spring of '41, I went to Juneau by steamship from Seattle and worked at the Hirst-Chicagof mine in Kimshan Cove. Being too young to work underground, my job was in the cookhouse, where I learned about baking from Max, the old German baker. He also told me a lot of stories. He was the only one I knew to predict that we would soon be at war with Japan.

That winter I hitchhiked back to the states on fishing boats as I had a regent scholarship at the University of Nebraska. I stopped for two weeks in Sitka, where Big Andy Gunderson, "the herring king" from Ketchikan, invited me to stay with him on his boat. He also found me a ride to Seattle on a fishing boat.

After the '41 and '42 school year at the university, I packed a thin cotton blanket and a book of poetry on my three-speed bike and left Nebraska for good. I headed northwest to Seattle, 1,700 miles. By living on whole-wheat bread and honey and an occasional 15-cent milk shake, I survived on 35 cents a day and had plenty of pedal power. On one of the better days, I covered 120 miles from Sydney, Nebraska, up into the mountains beyond Cheyenne, gaining over 3,000 feet in elevation. When I crossed the Continental Divide into Idaho, two guys in a truck picked me up. They put me and the bike on top of a big load of peaches. My diet changed abruptly.

I left the bike with my brother in Forks, Washington, and went on to Seattle. One day I was walking across the Ballard Bridge when a car pulled over. It was Big Andy from Ketchikan. He invited me to come aboard his boat, The Pirate, which was in dry dock. When he asked me to be his cook for the summer, I agreed, and he sent me over for my photograph and my seaman's papers.

We packed fish from seine boats and fish traps throughout Southeast Alaska to a cannery at Todd in Peril Strait. That summer, Andy was running for the territorial Senate, so we stopped at every village, large and small. It was a great experience. (His wife, Amelia, was already in the House.)

That fall, I took the Alaska Steamship from Juneau to Valdez. I hooked a ride on a truck into Fairbanks, stopping at Reka's Roadhouse in Delta for breakfast, and crossed the Tanana on a ferry. Fairbanks at that time had a population of just over 4,000.

I ended up spending the '40s in the Interior: at the university in Fairbanks (where I was one of 116 students registered in the fall of 1942), the Army base at nearby Ladd Field and at Wiseman up in the Brooks Range. I took my basic training in Fairbanks and was assigned to work in the hospital laboratory for two and a half years.

While in the service, I met Bill English, who was born at Wiseman and whose father had the store there. Wiseman was a gold mine town in the upper Koyukuk. During the Depression, Wiseman had managed to hold on, unlike so many of the other gold camps. There were actually quite a few people there in the '20s and '30s.

When World War II came, the town's population declined considerably, and the store came up for sale. Neither Bill nor I aspired to be "bean peddlers," but we ended up as partners in the Wiseman Trading Co., which we purchased in August of '44.

After leaving the service, I went up to Wiseman and stayed a year or so. In subsequent years, I worked there for the Road Commission in the summers and would go down to Fairbanks to college in the winter. I knew the professors well, so they let me come in a couple of months late, which gave me a five-month summer and time to lay in the winter wood supply for Mrs. English, not an easy job in the days before chain saws.

During those years, Bill flew thousands of miles for seismic exploration on the Arctic Slope just to the north of Wiseman. He later went on to an illustrious career in Alaskan aviation.

Gold mining did not come back significantly, so the store didn't amount to much. I would bring in several tons of goods on a DC-3 in the spring, label them and put them up on the shelf. Then, to avoid having to spend too much time in the store, I'd put a ledger book on the counter and people could then help themselves to whatever they needed and write it down in the book. The system worked well.

One of the fun things at Fairbanks was the Sourdough Dance Club. This was a club that was organized out at Chatanika in the 1920s, when there was a lot of mining activity centered out there. It moved to Fairbanks in 1929 when the Fairbanks Exploration Co. relocated their headquarters.

The club was composed of what you would call the establishment folks of the town. To name a few, there was Doug Preston of the NC store; Reverend Bentley, the Episcopalian bishop; Judge Pratt; and, of course, Eva McGown, the undisputed social doyenne of Fairbanks, who had a little office off the Nordale Hotel.

Being a poor student and, worse yet, a cheechako, I wouldn't have been invited had it not been for a student in my organic chemistry class, Elizabeth Crites, whose deceased father had been a gold miner at Ester. As she and I were the only two in the class, I was allowed to be her escort.

We would dance in the old Odd Fellows Hall. Billy Root, who ran the Valdez-to-Fairbanks stage, played the drums, and various members would play the piano and violin -- for example, Dorothy and Audrey Loftis. (Those ladies, along with their husbands, Art and Ted, and two other people were the total enrollment at the university when it opened in 1922.)

Before long, we started another little Sourdough Dance group out at the university. I had a collection of 78-rpm records, mostly northern European and old American folk dances: polka, waltz, schottish, hambo, varsouvanne, minuet and so on. In summer, I would take the records up to Wiseman, and there we had dances in the old Igloo No. 8 Pioneer Hall. We used a hand-crank phonograph and a big Eskimo drum with a willow stick. We would alternate folk and Eskimo dances.

The central Brooks Range was an interesting place to live then because there were very few people. In 1946, there were 24 people living in Wiseman and 22 living within 50 miles, all of whose names I could recall 30 years later. Not too many outsiders came in, and there were no guides flying in at that time. You could go out in almost any direction without running into any other people. It was a great place to go hunting, but getting sheep required climbing into the higher mountains. Packing out a 90-pound sheep and a heavy rifle for 10 or 15 miles kept one in shape.

Bill English's mother, Mary English, lived in the house that belonged to the store, and I lived with her while I was in Wiseman. She became sort of like a mother to me; in fact, the Eskimos called her "your little mama." She of course knew everything about how to live off the country, having grown up in a very traditional Inupiaq way over on the Kobuk. She was a wonderful woman, and I learned a lot from her.

After graduating from the university in 1948, I went Outside, took the necessary examinations and was accepted into medical school. The next 35 years of my life were swallowed up in medicine.

Having lived in Alaska for seven years, my goal was to finish medical school and return as soon as possible.

Next week: Back to the Bush with a medicine bag.

Sharon Bushell lives and writes in Homer. Her books, "We Alaskans" and "We Alaskans II," feature her stories about Alaska pioneers that have appeared in the Daily News. For more information, visit her Web site at

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