Celebrating the Alaska Centennial with Pyrography from the Gold Rush
Tom Schulz: In the Spirit of Alaska Today
Mystery Corner: Researching a Rare Pyro Work on Velvet
Announcing Two New Websites
- Denise Needham
- Jordan Tierney
Vern Robinson Asks for Our Help
As announced in the last issue of WOM, The University of Alaska Museum, located at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is hosting until March 24, 2002, a special exhibition entitled:
Burned Into Memory: Images of Alaska through Historic Pyrography
The pieces displayed, according to Dawn Biddison, Guest Curator of this
exhibit, " ... show the depth and diversity of the Museum's
collections and the Rasmuson Library archives as well as the support of
"Pyrography has a long history as a decorative technique outside the United States and became a popular hobby in America in the early 1900s with the availability of pyrographic kits and materials. Alaskans adapted the technique ... [to burn] images onto moose hide and birch bark. They used pyrography to decorate personal and household items, create vacation mementos, illustrate Alaskan scenes, commemorate events, and honor organizations. Fairbanks residents have made and displayed pyrography in [their] homes and around the community since the turn of the last century."
of Alaska Museum, has as its mission the acquisition and
conservation of biological, geological, and cultural collections related
to Alaska and the Circumpolar North, making it a singular and valuable
Two architectural teams--from Alaska and Minnesota--joined forces to design a bold modern building to house the Museum's ever expanding collection, research, and cultural events. Follow the web link here and on their website to see the design models and read about their concept for the new building, which is bound to be a tourist attraction itself.
Husky Guarding the Gold
Gold was found in Alaska in 1896. The Klondike Gold Rush started in
1897 when a million dollars worth of gold from there docked in Seattle
(in the State of Washington in the northwest corner of the 48 contiguous
In 1900, Wyatt Earp and many others were heading for the Klondike when the cold weather set in. They had to postpone their journey and wintered in Rampart. By spring, word reached them there that gold had been discovered in Nome, so he and many of the other people changed course and set out for Nome in the spring instead. He settled there and eventually ran a saloon.
In 1902, gold was found in Fairbanks, and a rush started there in 1903. The last big strike was in 1910, in Iditarod (now famous for the annual dog sled race), northwest of Fairbanks, between Fairbanks and Nome. Thousands lived in Iditarod. A bank opened there in 1910, which shut down in 1927. Today, there is no building whatsoever in Iditarod. Most of the Gold Rush towns are ghost towns now.
"Alaskana" collector Candy
Waugaman is one of the principal lenders for the University of
Alaska Museum Fairbanks exhibit, not to mention for most of the
background material in this article.
Phoenix to Fairbanks. Candy's expertise in things Alaska came about as a result of a trip to the 49th State some 33 years ago at the recommendation of her brother who had a wonderful experience working there summers. Candy traveled from Phoenix to Alaska to stay for a month and she never looked back. Her friend who accompanied her on that trip so long ago left within the planned month, but Candy says, "I'm here for the duration. Fairbanks is the only town left in America where, when it's -30 degrees, it's against the law not to pick up a hitchhiker. Sort of like that feeling!"
"Fairbanks (unlike Phoenix and your town)," Candy says, "also has the widest temperature range in the WORLD, from 70 below [zero Fahrenheit] to 98 above, so you see everything here. Spring and fall are beautiful, but too short, summer is perfect, and then there's winter!"
Starting the collection. Candy says that she has always been a collector of everything; however, her husband of 24+ years has limited her collecting to Alaskana. Notwithstanding, she has managed admirably and owns some 70,000 items of Alaska memorabilia. She owns a dozen moosehides including one of the two displayed on this page. She has found many on e-bay. She owns one very special one that wasn't included in the museum exhibit--a wallhanging with four sides of fringe that had hung in the town of Dawson. Included in the pyrographed picture are real gold nuggets glued on the moosehide.
Of the 70,000 items, the bulk of the collection consists of 22,000 postcards and 25,000 photographs. With some exceptions, Candy's collection is almost all housed in their spacious home. She gave one of her moosehides to the Anchorage Museum. (Because Anchorage was a railroad town, never a mining town, that area lacks most of the Gold Rush items found in some of the other towns there.) Other pieces are on loan to restaurants, the city museum, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum.
As this article goes to press, Candy just returned to Fairbanks from Anchorage where she chairs the Alaska Historical Society.
Many of Candy's items from the museum exhibit can be seen also in the E-Museum Alaska Salon
Excerpts from exhibit notes explain Reclamation Art this way: "The
two 'Reclamation' scene wall hangings [one below and another in the E-Museum]
depict a moose in the foreground of an abandoned camp--log cabin, cache,
well--reclaimed by nature. [Also exhibited is a] cigar band table
[that] has pyroengraved floral decoration on the legs and [again] a
panel with a "Reclamation" scene. ...
Man's relationship to nature and environmental issues were important in the past and are still important today."
Candy Waugaman elaborated saying that Reclamation Art came to be an
Alaskan tradition. Reclamation pieces almost uniformly exhibited the
traditional elements mentioned above of a moose coming upon the scene of
an abandoned camp with mining or trapping equipment left behind, the
cache, and a deteriorated log cabin. The miner's or trapper's cache
was a specially designed container placed outside to store their food
and keep it safe from animals.
"Artists made these Reclamation pieces the most," Candy explained, "for the simple reason that they were the most popular with customers."
Although it has some elements in common with the Reclamation pieces, note that the joyous fringed wallhanging at the top (entitled "Alaska") is distinguished from the Reclamation pieces in that the camp, first of all, does not appear abandoned or deteriorated. It is instead a piece of memorabilia, adorned with symbols and even two indigenous totem poles that are typical of southeast Alaska outside of the Gold Rush region.
Other than their art work, very little is known about the most prominent
artists of the Gold Rush pyrographs.
William Betzeler. An accompanying poster at the exhibit has the following to say about this artist who rendered the Reclamation piece below: "According to his January 10, 1942 obituary in the
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
"Moose Bill" Betzeler,
was a sign painter by occupation and known throughout the North for his moose hide works,
particularly reclamation scenes."
Max Kollm. left Dawson for Fairbanks in 1909.
Lawrence Thimme. left Dawson for Fairbanks in 1905.
Reclamation Art and its popularity seem the most striking aspect of this
exhibit. It is very revealing that people back at the beginning of the
twentieth century, who, by our standards today had essentially no
technology, could be concerned with their own invasion of nature. We
view their art work today while peering back in time to see them as one
with nature, adapting to that harsh environment in a way such that their
presence there seems almost imperceptible.
Before the terminology of "environmental issues" was in vogue, and before massive invasive technologies like oil wells and oil spills were a reality, that people would be in such admiration of the Alaskan wilderness in all its magnificence and be concerned that it might somehow be destroyed and lost forever, seems remarkable.
How fortunate for us that some of them thought to burn into memory both the look and the sentiment of the moment.
2002, Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.