By Jeff Brady
During this semi-retirement phase of my life, I’m drawn to one of those coffee groups that get together in Skagway most mornings. The one I hit has a bit of an extended family element to it, with a mix of local stories and history, and often someone will bring an envelope of old Skagway photos to share.
The photos get passed around and the guessing game begins. “Who’s that?” followed by an “I know, that’s so and so, you remember?” It’s a great way to break up the usual present-day talk about who is seeing whom and who was on the last medevac.
So when Kira Pontius and Kristi Ausfresser from Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park had an idea to better identify some of the photos in the park’s massive 10,000-photo collection, they knew where to turn.
Pontius said she borrowed the concept from the Alaska Federation of Natives. At a recent AFN conference, she saw folders of photos separated by different areas of the state all spread out for Native Alaskans to help identify. She then approached Bites on Broadway, which hosts “Miss Bea’s Coffee Gang” on Wednesdays, and “Can You Help Tell These Photos’ Stories” came to be. It would make a nice addition to Yuletide.
On December 14, Kira and Kristi arranged about 20 folders of photos on two tables and a coffee counter. The little Yuletide town on the display cases made a nice background. Voices mixed with Christmas music and history. It didn’t take long for the crowd to gather.
“We’re trying to get information from people who have lived here a long time who might have knowledge that we don’t,” said Kira, urging folks to dive in and write all over the photos (copies of course).
Bea Hillery Lingle, the matriarch of this coffee group at 89, was one of the first to dive in. She and other family members brought some photos of their own too. There was one of “Frank Reid’s House” that the park also had, but no one could pinpoint the exact location, though it appeared to have been on Martin Itjen’s Streetcar Tour.
Another in the “groups” album of an outing rings a bell. It is similar to one in the Hillery album showing Bea’s mother and father, engaged at the time, in their finery at a “Camera Club” outing. Even though Jeanette deGruyter looks flirtatious with her new beau, Tad Hillery, Bea notes that “she had a good education. My grandpa did good from his gambling and sent her back east to a girls’ finishing school.”
Looking at a photo of a tall man in a top hat with his wife and son on Broadway, probably during Fourth of July, Kira says, “That man is really tall.”
Bea’s daughter Kathleen O’Daniel chimes in, “And he was, and she was my sixth grade teacher and high school English teacher.” They are identified as Occie and Betty Selmer with son Eric.
Then there’s the girl with the chickens. She is popping up in lots of photos, but no one knows who she really is. “For some reason I think she’s a Gault,” Bea says. “I don’t know why I think that, but she does. A Gault stood up at my parents wedding.”
“That’s okay, anything helps,” she is told by Kristi. Even though no one is alive from the gold rush era, their hope is that someone like Bea may have talked to someone from back then who remembered looking at the same photo. Or there’s a note in another album. Bea’s daughter Dorothy will check.
“It’s so nice of you guys to do this,” Bea says.
There’s another one that is stumping people, a photo dated 1952 of an old couple in front of two-storey house on a river, but the river is far, far back. Probably not Skagway, maybe Haines?
Newly discovered photos from the George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection are creating a buzz. There are photos of fires and airplanes that will need a look from experts in those fields. I note “ask Carl Mulvihill” on a photo of a fire at 4th and Broadway and “email Bob Cameron (author of Yukon Aviation)” on the a series of shots of a WWII plane crash into Lake Bennett near Carcross. Doug Hulk also has seen this photo.
George Rapuzzi is popping up in a lot of photos. One I’m drawn to shows George with a group of men packing up a horse in Dyea. Kristi and I think it was from 1922, when George and friend Cecil Hukill guided Hollywood producers up the Chilkoot Trail to scout the pass for a possible movie. But which one is Cecil? We make a note to ask Mavis Irene Henricksen of the Hukill-Soldin clan.
A sweeter connection is made later. SkipperStovall, one of the Bites proprietors, is excited about photos of the Rapuzzi famiy’s Washington Fruit Store on lower Broadway. An interior shot shows of rows and rows of goods, including bins holding candy. He recognizes one type of candy.
“We were told that one of the Rapuzzi girls was really good at making candy,” Skipper says. “They had a produce general store and she started out with a little candy section…. Looking at that photo over there with candy on shelves, they were selling the same violet mints we are selling in our store.”
The stories continue, as they do in Skagway, which helps us carry on our history. If you didn’t make it to the park social, stop by the park office and take a look at the folders. Or, if that’s not your thing, bring a photo or two down to a future coffee gathering. It will be shared.