Alaska – The Social Arctic Circle

SPEAKING for the Alaska town I know most intimately, I’m sure our ” best ” people would resent any implication that a social set exists here. We are of the frontier, and artificial and arbitrary social distinctions do not flourish upon frontier soil. You are just as good as I am: I am just as good as you are. We are all colonists, upon an equal footing. Time has not broken into first and last divisions the warm human solidarity of our on-marching ranks. All alike are shock troops, here, holding the thin, red, fighting line of civilization in hand-to-hand combat with reality. In any successful hand-to-hand fight it is every man for himself; and no official salutes or forms of delicate approach are desirable or in keeping with the stern work to be done—the work of subduing Nature to human habitation and human habituation.

If people only interest you when they are poured in formal molds, if you relish only the social contacts of set occasions, if manners rather than innate qualities seem to you the better basis for judgment of your fellow man or choice of your associates, then you will only be bored in any frontier community. Reflections in The Mirrors of Fairbanks will show you more mackinaws than ” claw-hammer coats “—and though the latter are not lacking and are worn with ease and grace upon occasion, they are not de rigueur, even upon the most formal ” set occasions.” At any of the big town dances which literally every one attends, from court and clergy to restaurant busboy and grocer’s delivery clerk, you will see all raiment from Parisian creation to glorified simple house dress, everybody knows everybody, and all are having an equally fine time. All types are here, for as early New England was once a microcosm of seventeenth-century society, so our contemporary colony is a reflection of all phases of the twentieth.

What makes true ” social position ” ? Is it real property? Then that bus-boy is your social equal, for he happens to own one of the most promising claims upon one of our richest gold-bearing creeks, and we know that he is working in the cafe this winter to get a ” stake” which will enable him next summer to open up that rich new lead which he discovered late last fall. Next year “The Company” will very likely buy that claim, on which they already hold an option; and if they do, they may take out a quarter million from it. But real mines are not found, but made—by hard development work; and large mining corporations have to be shown. They don’t buy mere prospect holes. A wildcat must be tamed—and with a drill–before it works for pay! Is social caste graded by the car you own, as some one recently remarked? Then that laundress in the fluttering muslin frock is an aristocrat, for she drives as fine a make of car as any in our district. Is it ” family,” as others claim, and ” blood will tell ” ? That man in mackinaw over yonder is a younger son of one of the oldest British lines of blue blood—a rolling-stone adventurer who finds a fillip in the life of the frontier and outlet here for old, repressed, inherited traits, come down to him from ancestors who sailed and fought with Drake, and built an empire on distant raw, new soils.

But you are of less superficial temper, and you say: ” These things are not the test. Society, in any real meaning of the word, implies a congregating of per-sons trained in the same school of thought. There can be no true society unless you have both men and women living the life of the mind, and having respect for that life.” To you who really know, then, I would say this: Not long ago we thought to organize a university club, and among the thousand-odd people wintering that year in Fairbanks we found with-out any trouble, or without exhausting a list of possibilities, over sixty with degrees from universities ranging from Gottingen, Upsala and Oxford, to Old Nassau and Stanford. If there be kinship in the ways of mind, then certain root of friendliness is here.

The differences you will find in social Arctic circles are the differences of relative time and place, and not differences of people. The town of Fair-banks is not, at this writing, yet thirty years old. Except for children born here since 1902 (and most of those who have attained majority are now away at college, for seventy-five per cent. of our high-school graduates do go to college) every other person has come here-from other far sections of the world, for some specific reason. ‘When I first came to the North a woman said to me, ” Every one has come to find something, or to forget something.” The differences between social life here and elsewhere lie buried in the implications of that very true statement.

What brought us together here—the individuals who, collectively, form our society? Among those who came to forget something there is, first of all, the ” race of men who don’t fit in.” Some few were frankly misfits and failures seeking refuge in the wilderness—men with the requisite physical hardihood to survive the early rough conditions of pioneer life but who by temperament were unsuited to the existing social order Outside, as they saw it. Many of the early New England Pilgrims brought with them that same feeling of non-conformity, a preference for a smaller, a more remote community, where men would count for more as individuals than they did in seventeenth-century social England. Today these are the alone-goers who wish to remove themselves from the poisons, strains, depressions and mechanization of what they consider a too-crowded civilization and have, to this end, sought out America’s last frontier, hoping to secure here a fresh start, a new environment, a more even ” break,” and association with new and perhaps truer individuals. These have come to get away from pasts—historical pasts or personal pasts—and are not much interested in old roots or old conventions, for they are themselves uprooted and unconventional. One such has said to me: ” For God’s sake don’t waste your time digging up stuff about Alaska’s past history! We came here to escape history, if that’s possible. The old ways are all bad. Let’s forget them, and start afresh.”

There is a grouping of similar-minded men on any frontier line, in any far colony—men not interested in reading or thinking history, but men who are themselves, without realizing it, making history; for of such is the groundwork colonial pattern composed. As individuals they may be ” lazy as sin ” or perfect models of industry; but as citizens they have certain definite qualities that can always be counted upon—inherent qualities rooted to this environment as truly as the city type is set in concrete. Intense optimism is one such characteristic, practical ingenuity is another; versatility, a certain religious and social tolerance, a firm belief in the creed that a man’s a man for a’ that,” will always be found in this class of frontiersman, no matter how else riotously combined with conflicting discords of characteristics, or how else colored by racial or national origins.’ If they live here long enough, Scot, Kanuk, Jew, Negro, Jap, Swede or Montenegrin will all bear the stamp of the last frontier. Their minds will be Alaska-made, for this brand of thought is the first manufactured product of any frontier state, long before it reaches economically the manufacturing stage. Our people are all non-conformists, in the wide sense of the word, and a community of non conformists is never a stagnant spot. After all, it’s only non-conformists who have amounted to much—the Copernicus type who would not conform astronomically, the Columbus type who would not con-form geographically, the Jefferson type who would not conform politically, the Edison and Rockefeller and Ford types who refuse conformity in matters of invention, organization and sales pattern. These non-conformists have done the most interesting of the world’s jobs, and perhaps we are beginning to realize that no one ever gets far ahead of the crowd by herding very closely with it.

The new forty-niners of Alaska, the founding fathers of a new forty-ninth state, are essentially individualists with a strong feeling for and tenderness toward individual liberty. They really believe that men were created free, that men were born equal, and that the rights of the individual should never be unwholesomely abridged. Because they believe this, they act upon it. Hence we have on the frontier a rare assortment of vivid personalities, a complexity of manners and types, a grouping of intensified qualities. Those who are scamps by nature become more and more raw in their manners after they scamper to the frontier; but those who are decent and clean-hearted find here more useful outlets for their virtues, and these virtues grow with daily use. The frontier does not segregate the scamps and saints, it juxtaposes them; and that makes life exciting and zestful, morally strenuous and testful. Danger and isolation in the early days, freedom from restraint in the middle period of Alaska’s past,—combined with opportunities for financial success with little or no capital, as in placer mining,—naturally attracted ” the adventurers, the restless and the contentious,” just as Adams has described the settlers of early New England. Having come, having cast off the old, they have stubbornly refused to let go in their wrestling, without a blessing. They wouldn’t go back and face the folks back home without ” a full poke.”

Even those who have not been financially successful here have come finally to have their reward in seeing that, even in Alaska,. life can be well lived. They have found a more natural and more unhurried pace, restful and as yet not highly mechanized. Here the absence of crowd infection and a relative lack of germ density make for health. In proof—when Stefansson came down from his five winters spent in the High Arctic, up on the roof of the attic where he had been all that time entirely free from ” colds,” and got to Herschel Island (which we Interior Alaskans consider the jumping-off place!) he caught a severe cold, a cold which nearly killed him. When men such as my Scotch friend from the relatively lonely Kantishna, or Fannie Quigley, come to the ” crowded town of Fairbanks,” they almost always catch a cold. When we go Outside from our relatively uncrowded town to the city of Seattle, we almost always “catch a cold.” Like cold itself, colds are apparently a matter of something more or some-thing less, not something stable or fixed, inherent in one’s biological chemistry.

Perhaps it is because we know each other better that we are more trustful here. Honesty is the very best insurance policy, and Fairbanks is the only town I’ve ever lived in where I did not carry burglar insurance. When I first came here many houses had no keys, ever. The house on Front Street, which we rented for the first two years, had no key to the front door when we took possession, and the man who owned it thought me mighty queer when I asked for one.

” What do you want of a key? ” he said. ” No one in Fairbanks ever locks a door—except, perhaps, when the boat is in.”

There you have it, for the boat brought strangers; and it’s always the stranger—not people whom you know who is distrusted. Or, as Peter Dow put it, arriving in Seattle from a mining camp at the head of the Koyukuk River where he lived for twenty-five years:

” What’s it done for us up North—this rotten civilization? In the old days we had justice in our camps. Everything was settled in miners’ meetings.

Gold was left unlocked in miners’ cabins and never a grain stolen. Food was always handy in cabins along the trail, for any traveller. Then the United States came with marshals and their deputies and they brought a civilized class in, and now we have to lock our doors at night!”

Our Town is in a social transition, now that we have a railroad and airplane service. We are neither a frontier nor a city, at present, but have something of both. This change was shown dramatically in the famous “moccasin case ” which agitated our court one spring. A man had sent his children to school that winter in moccasins, which he claimed were both cheaper and warmer than leather shoes. The teacher claimed that the heat of the room brought out essential odor of whatever kind and the not-toodelicate odor of native-tanned moose hide in special! She and many of the pupils were offended in the nostril, and so an order was issued that shoes were the proper foot-gear for indoor wear at school. The father, a pioneer and therefore of course an individualist, felt that his liberties were being abridged—and who was this Outside woman, this cheechako, to say what his children should wear? Feeling ran high and the matter finally came to court, giving us a spicy and dramatic spring session, a grand social pow-wow beaten upon that persistent resonant village drum of small towns, the local court-house, until (as was inevitable with a sourdough jury) the individualist had his way! The case was a good sample of the only two real differences between our social life here and elsewhere—the fact that we are pioneers and the fact of the northern climate.

Locality influences our accent, so that a different and a typically Alaskan vocabulary grows up out of this rich soil of shared experience; it also influences our perspective and preoccupations. Changed mechanics of living stamp a changed pattern on the mind. Mill towns think in different terms and symbols than do ” cow towns,” and mining towns have their own ethical and social pattern, peculiar to the trade men live by. We know an astonishing lack of tradition, incident to our recent immigration; but so, too, do many eastern cities. Many of the conventional props of city social life are missing; and untied instead of united qualities, as yet unsmelted, bring strange juxtapositions. We have no really ” untouchable ” castes on the frontier. The human strata are not laid down smoothly as in the old communities, each in its own ordered place, but are opened, ex-posed, tilted and weathered here, so that any one with an eye to human geology can read the story. Buried strata are no longer buried, for the strange upheaval which tossed us here has brought up into the open all that the older lands keep hidden. Any one coming directly from the east would perhaps most notice that nothing underlying need be taken for granted—on the frontier! Matters of social hiatus not talked about elsewhere are bandied between goody and gossip, tongues are vastly more free and things are said, names named, spades denominated. At first this startled me; but later it greatly interested, because it meant a social order so vividly changeful and chock-a-block with variety.

The circle of human contacts deepens as it narrows to the shape of a small community, and one gets to know revealingly well almost all the people whom one daily meets. My own years in the North seem to me a post-graduate course in essential human nature. There are no giftedly idle here, no fashionably great, for all are equally busy. Mrs. H may be the wife of the bank president, and Mrs.I the wife of the man who runs the hoist at a mine; but if Mrs. I is a better cook in her own right, then her parties will be more popular! For we Fairbanks women are all our own cooks, and that in itself is a social democracy. In the matter of self-service we are all in the same boat, and that helps a lot in understanding each other’s problems. I don’t know any ordinary or uninteresting human beings in Fairbanks, for the influence of the frontier has been to individualize sharply. People do not dwell here within the walls of fond memories, close-knit family or “social” ties, parochial interests. They have retained what they could of the graces and charms, diversities and distinctions of their home places, and these home places are so immensely varied that to know them even vicariously is in itself an education; but ” freight is high ” even upon mental baggage, when one comes thus far, and here the ancient institutions upon which our kinsmen in the ancient lands depend are either absent or haven’t quite the same meaning. ” It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion: it is easy in solitude to live after your own.” Frontiersmen retain of ” world’s opinion ” only that which they can put to immediate use, under the pressure of new circumstance. The North, as Professor Turner said of the West, ” is a form of society rather than an area.”

There are some who define social life as a matter of parties, hospitalities, and sports, and Fairbanks life is very full of these pleasant diversions. Our Town hasn’t a golf course, but most major sports, both winter and summer varieties, are enjoyed here. The hospitalities of the northern towns are famous, and Fairbanks—because it is farthest north, more so than even Dawson or Nome—has in its frontier stage been especially open-doored. There came a time in colonial America when, as Hall wrote long ago of the American colonies, ” the mere name of stranger has ceased to be a passport. The country was civilized. There were taverns.” So in the North, there are now comfortable ” taverns ” in all the major towns where numerous travellers are summer touring guests and where many of the creek population live in winter, if work on the claims is not possible. But wherever there are no hotels, then the frontier open-handedness is still in evidence and the stranger is taken within the gates, gladly.

As to houses, I have told you of our first log cabin in Fairbanks and that it was well fitted and commodious. After two years the owners returned and wished to live in it themselves, and as it was difficult to rent another (since practically every one owns his own home here) we were fortunate in being able to buy one. In a letter written the year after we moved into our new home, I described it to a friend:

Our new house is, in a way, a bit of the history of the country. Tourists coming here wonder how such a large, comfortable, really pleasant home ever happened to grow up in a town so remote—so, as they think, forgotten, distant, and primitive. It was built, in a way, on a bet, as a wager, in an odd manner.

A man who had been a wanderer, an adventurer, made quite a little fortune in Dawson in the early days, married a young wife who loved the bright lights of the city and its ways, and then came to our town to live. The wife longed for ‘Frisco, but the husband—for reasons which I suspect, but which he alone knew best—did not care to leave the North. He proposed a compromise, so I have been told. If she would remain contented in Alaska for ten years, he promised to build for her the finest house that the Territory had known ! She considered this. Having had, perhaps, some former experience with the futility of masculine promises, she went to her attorney and had him draw up the plans and specifications of a house such as her fondest dream had imaged. It was to have a real lawn, first and foremost—that unknown, luxurious thing in a land of moss; and it must have a real fireplace, a thing until then unknown in the Interior. It must have hot-water heat, even though a man had to come from Seattle to install it, and an oak floor (another import!), oak trim and doors, a large porch all screened and roomy, a double garage, and the best plumbing obtainable, with all-porcelain fixtures. This house was to be really warm—not a log cabin to be chinked anew each year, to sag in the corners when the frost moves, and ” with cracks you can stick the stovepipe through.” Oh, no! This was to be one frame house set inside another frame house, complete, with six full inches of sawdust in the space between the outer walls and also in the ceilings, making it absolutely frost proof in winter and heat proof in summer.

She knew what she wanted, and he, poor man—as many another—signed on the dotted line! The house was built, as per specifications. Before it was really finished, in a sudden tragic moment this wanderer was thrust unwarned out on his last long trail and the widow left with her super-home—a house as seeming out of place in this far land as a lovely Georgian mansion of brick and elegant facade would have been anachronism in seventeenth-century New England. And we—my seven eighths and I, needing desperately a place to lay our heads,—snatched upon this house as heaven-sent, and bought the place, though we could ill afford to. But we have found that a truly Alaska-built house has its advantages. My father, as you know, lives in an eastern city famed the world over for its mild and equable winter climate, for it lies where the Gulf Stream can touch it. He occupies a house there of much the same cubic content as ours here; but last winter he burned twenty-five tons of coal to heat his house, and I burned nine to heat mine! It pays to build a house like an ice-box.

And so, you see, we live in comfort and at ease upon our pioneering venture. Guests who have come from the east have been quite as surprised at its comfort as were, I have no doubt, travellers from England who ventured to New England in colonial days and were entertained at your Salem in homes they thought remarkably comfortable to have sprung up ” in the wilderness ” I The cold has proved an ally, the air year-round a distillate of health. What more can I say, about ” the discomforts of the North ” which you seem to insist that we suffer?

President Harding said when he visited Fair-banks : ” One who comes to Alaska from the States, even though measurably well read, usually has an impression that this is a man’s country, that it is the home of the itinerant adventurer and prospector and sometimes of the roughneck. He does not stop to think, as I myself did not, of the charm of Alaska as a home country. . . . While Alaska is majestic and boundless and mighty, an empire in itself, it is also strikingly a home land; and that is the finest thing that may be said of any section, of any nation.”

Song is a social agent, and music forms an important factor in the life of the North. Alaska, with its large quota of Russian and Scandinavian music lovers, is rich in music creation as well as music appreciation. Orchestras, bands, choruses, study clubs and choirs are found in nearly every town, and thirteen of these organizations are affiliated with the National Federation of Music Clubs. Take Ketchikan, for example: it has a rousing community orchestra presenting concerts annually, the Normanna Male Chorus of thirty-five members, the Ketchikan Music Club which in 1929 presented Charles Wake-field Cadman in three concerts; and the Ketchikan City Band. The very oldest musical organization of which I know in Alaska is the Metlakatla Concert Band of thirty native members, founded by Father Duncan in 1877. The large choir of St. Michael’s venerable cathedral of the Orthodox Church at Sitka sing gloriously in Russian under the leadership of John Panamarkof. And Florence Tobin, District President of the National Federation of Music Clubs, tells me that Alaska now has more music-club members per capita than any state in the Union.

If groups of interesting people make for a social order, if home comfort and the possibility of pleas= ant hospitality make for ” society,” then one may surely find them here, in flourishing peopled towns and imminent cities of the Northland. Alaskans have their backs to disappointment and their faces set toward hope. As ” W. F.” says: ” Come good, come ill, I would rather my children live all their lives in Alaska than that they leave and prosper exceeding great in a worn-out world. For here is the last Frontier, the greatest that has been, and it is on the the Frontier that a man has the chance to show what is in him—if it is! The Hicarders, Hijackers, did not clutter up the Contribution Box with cheques. Those who came to the North solely because the North was then wide open, have went. The Sure-Thing Man went where It was and tied into It, from soda to hoc. Men don’t grow big on coddling. Builders go forth to build.”

It is not uncommon (in individuals such as explorers, in communities of pioneers, even in a whole nation)’ to see people who possess unusual resource-fulness in mastering things, baffled and unskilled in their human and purely social relations. But this does not seem to hold true in Alaska, where certain types of organization, especially the fraternal orders, are very strong and form really the most stabilizing influence. Watching their work, we learn that institutions are effects and not causes in true social life. The towns of the North are great get-together places, and when anything is going on, whether a good time or a peck of trouble, it is always a shared experience. The potlatch is an Indian affair, but if you are in actual need in the North, whoever knows of it will potlatch you to the limit of his stake!

I have spoken of the towns, for in the towns one finds truly social living—in all the word’s best implication. But outside and beyond the towns lies that vast, almost empty, ninety-eight-per-cent-unclaimed, unmastered, real frontier. One realizes this when a man of seventy-three walks three days’ journey to see a dentist, or when a family of five girls come to town, who have never seen an electric light. In Fairbanks we are not quite a city yet, nor are we quite the real frontier any more, but something in between, something in transition—meeting-place of wilderness trails and civilization, where both ends play from the middle. We live in the suburbs of melodromance and can reach out to either wilderness or civilization from this vantage coign, for recreation or change. It’s pleasant to know that both are there, a stone’s throw out on either hand. This helps us keep a telescopic vision, so that the immediate foreground of our own north end of Main Street—the sometimes sordid small-town stuff—does not obstruct the glory and the beauty and the proven worth of that great untouched hinterland lying just beyond the small town’s limits.

Any town, of course, is not in itself the typical frontier, for town and frontier are mutually contradictory terms. The moment you begin to build a town you begin to push back the true frontier, which is composed of lonely men in lonely cabins and not of friendly groups living in clustered homes. One feels that presence of the pressing vastness all about, however, even when living in a so-called frontier town, and it modifies all thought and action. It draws us closer together, for one thing, in friendly cooperation whenever any trouble threatens. We are quite used to doing things for ourselves, and also for others.

Recently in Washington I was driving down Connecticut Avenue and came suddenly to an impasse. A five-ton truck, loaded high with bales of hay, had been struck by a street car and had overturned across the track, scattering a score of bales in an impassable barricade all across the avenue. In twenty seconds (for it was the rush hour when the United States Government is going home) hundreds of cars, it seemed, piled up on either side—honking and hooting a protest at this delay. But not one soul did anything! Every one sat his car there, impatient but inactive, waiting for the trained servants of the city —the police or the fire department—to come and remove the obstruction. The incident amused and re-instructed me in city ways, for I well knew it never could have happened in any western or north-ern town. There a dozen men would instantly have sprung from their cars, thrown aside the central bales and, in fewer seconds than it takes to tell, a free lane would have been cleared. But no one seemed even to think of this, here.

The friend who saw this with me was a Virginian of gentle birth. When I said, ” But look at all those men—why don’t they do something? ” she answered: ” Why should they? They are not paid to; it’s not their affair. That is the city’s business, to keep the streets clear. There’s not a man here has ever touched a bale of hay, I reckon. And, besides, many of these men, you must realize, are on their way to clubs or formal teas or dinners with their friends. How would it look if they came in all covered with hay, or with their hands all soiled and rusty from that horrid snaggy wire? Why, they’d be laughed at!”

And then I realized how far I’d travelled since the days when I was born in Jersey, lived in old York State, and was ” educate in Boston town!” Where I’d been living lately, soil on one’s hands or clothes was no disgrace, nor social service for the group a laughing matter. To me there’s no more stimulating sight than people pitching in and doing what they’ve never done before—to help themselves or others out of a tight place. It’s in a jack-pot that you see the very best frontier qualities rise to the surface, for then these super-individualists of ours knuckle down to superb tasks of cooperation, in a way that’s ” social ” in the biggest, broadest, noblest sense of that abused word. We saw this handsomely when the great influenza epidemic swept in on us and within three days full nine hundred of our thousand then in town were stricken; but every able-bodied person jumped in and helped, with joyous uncomplaining, so that all were cared for and nearly all were healed. Scarcely a person of our noblest helpers in that day could you have met at teas or formal functions in a great city. Few were of the priestly class and few were Levites, but they proved them-selves Samaritan good saints of God when, of a sudden, faith and grit and courage were desperately needed. “Whatever makes a proper world, I do not know. But surely two elements are necessary—a common purpose and a common sympathy.” In no group that I know are these two traits so notable as among those abiding in far places of the North.

Which are more truly ” social”: groups highly organized and stratified to function only in untouchable castes; or groups of individuals without caste, fluid and free, flowing in swift cooperation and compassionate service, as neighbor’s need arises? It’s an old query. Two thousand years ago a certain clever lawyer put that question of eternal life to a contemporary who, by the test of time, has proved to be the greatest Sociologist. In one of the most searching stories of all literature, that lawyer got his answer; for he was shown that any man, although perhaps of alien thought or despised race, who meets with fellow man in trouble on a lonely trail and gives of his compassion, time, or purse in free-will service —that man is your true neighbor.

Of such true neighbors is the kingdom of the North, the social Arctic Circle.