Friday, May 18, 2012

Out of the Ashes: 100 Years After Katmai

“Here it is dark and hell.”

The Baranov Museum building, after the eruption
So declared John Orloff, an Afognak Island dweller, in a letter to his wife on June 9, 1912. Indeed, the Novarupta-Katmai Eruption of 1912 seemed nothing short of apocalyptic to those in its path: the usual omnipresent summertime sunshine was swallowed up by darkness, thunder and lightning ravaged the sky, and ash fell like untimely (and malignant) snow. “Poor old Kodiak, once so beautiful, is now a barren desert and I fear nothing can live there,” W.J. Erskine wrote days after the eruption.

Kodiak residents seek refuge aboard the Manning.
Fortunately, Kodiak proved resilient, and now we find the one hundred year anniversary of the catastrophe just around the corner. The Katmai eruption is a notable part of Kodiak history not only because of the horrors it wrought upon the island and its citizens, but because it so vividly illustrates the fortitude and bravery of the Kodiak community in the face of adversity. “To stand face to face with what appears to be certain death, to feel the poisonous destroyer gradually coming upon you and to know that you are powerless to ward it off, is an experience one never wants repeated, but that was what we who were caught in the embrace of the clouds of smoke and ashes following the Alaskan eruption went through,” wrote Captain Perry, whose leadership aboard the revenue cutter Manning was highly - and justly - praised. “We of the Cutter have received words of commendation and praise from the department for our work. That is indeed most gratifying, but I want to say right here there are others, I mean the men and women stationed on the island of Kodiak, who are entitled to just as much praise as is anyone for their noble and self-sacrificing work.”

The commemoration kicked off last month on April 26th, when Research Geologist Dr. Judy Fierstein delivered her lecture The Novarupta-Katmai Eruption of 1912: A Centennial Perspective at the museum. The lecture packed the building, with more than fifty people in attendance. Dr. Fierstein, who works with the U.S. Geological Survey, spoke about the pivotal connection between history and geology, highlighting just how neatly the historical accounts of the eruption align with the geological evidence it left behind. For example, immediately following the eruption, Ouzinkie residents reported that the ash fall was minor compared to the inundation experienced in Kodiak. In the 1980s, Dr. Fierstein travelled the region and measured ash distribution, finding that there was significantly less ash on Spruce Island than around the town of Kodiak. Dr. Fierstein praised the historical accounts of the “citizen scientists of Kodiak,” emphasizing just how fundamentally history twines itself into the physical world around us.

The caption on the back of this photo reads 'Making ash pie.'
On June 6th, the centennial anniversary of the eruption, Kodiak kids can come to the museum and learn about our island’s volcanic history, even participating in a simulation of an eruption out on the lawn. The activity will be conducted by the newest member of the Baranov Museum team, Senior Gallery Associate and all-around delightful human being Sarah Kennedy. On the same day, the Russian Orthodox Church will be ringing its bells just as it did on June 6th, 1912, to give spectators some idea of what it was like to make one’s way through ash-ridden darkness with only the pealing of the church bells to guide them.

The museum is also partnering with KMXT to breathe new life into these century-old stories. KMXT will broadcast readings of various accounts about the eruption, ranging from personal letters to scientific reports. Several community members (including yours truly) have been recruited for the readings; among them, look forward to hearing Senator Gary Stevens deliver a proclamation from President Taft and employees from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge lament the ash-choked salmon streams and singed fox pelts.

“People are dazed, dirty, and despondent, but I guess we can make something out of it,” Nellie Erskine concluded on June 15, 1912.

And make something of it, they did.

Please join us throughout the month of June to celebrate and explore this remarkable chapter in Kodiak history.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Welcome to the Collection!

Usually twice a year a volunteer group known as the Acquisitions Committee meets to decide which objects should be incorporated into the Kodiak Historical Society’s permanent collection. It’s a fun group of long time and lifelong Kodiak residents who are familiar with our community’s history and passionate about its preservation. 
Acquisitions Committee members, lifelong Kodiak residents,
and sisters Myrtle Olsen and Martha Randolph pose in front of the
objects recently added into the permanent collection.

This week we had a meeting and decided to welcome 18 objects into the museum’s collection. These newest additions to the collection are like a grab bag of Kodiak history. They range from the very new, like a wooden salmon roe box from Larsen Bay’s Icicle Seafoods cannery, to older objects, like the 1840 mint Russian coin that was likely in circulation in Kodiak during the Russian era.  They represent commerce, like the Bank of Kodiak money barrel and Kraft’s clipboard, and entertainment, such as the Tony’s Place bar glass from the 1940s. And, just in time for the upcoming Crab Festival, we got Crab Fest commemorative coins from 1974 and a pin from the silver jubilee celebration in 1982.

Kraft's operated in Kodiak for over 90 years. This
notebook with pre-printed shopping list is one
object that can tell the business's story long
after its closing. KHS, 2012-11-01.
Few of these objects are particularly glamorous, and someone may wonder what a museum would want them for in the first place. A notebook with a pre-printed shopping list from an old grocery store?  The value of many museum objects doesn’t necessarily rest in their beauty, or how much they cost, or their association with an important person, but in how they document and communicate everyday lives. These mundane objects are tied to specific places that existed in a specific moment in Kodiak’s past. While we can no longer go to Kraft’s to peruse their produce department, from the shopping list we can see that within the bins were onions, carrots, potatoes and, if you were lucky, asparagus.
This Tony's bar glass likely
dates to the early 1940s.
KHS, 2012-03-01.

During future Acquisitions Committee meetings, I ’m hoping to welcome more objects that relate to Kodiak’s businesses and industries. Please get in touch with the museum if you have a stash of local business memorabilia that you are interested in donating to the museum. Future generations will thank you!