Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fox and Boots

One of Bob Chamberlain's boots,
There is an old pair of leather work boots in one of the museum’s collections storage rooms, neatly packed in an archival box. They have black rubber bottoms, grommets for lacing up, and are a men’s size 9. In a room full of finely woven Aleutian baskets and stone artifacts, these boots are a bit of an anomaly. According to the records, they belonged to Bob Chamberlain, and former board member Deedee Pierson (nee Owen) gave them to the museum several decades ago.

But who was Bob Chamberlain? It was time for some historical sleuthing. I promptly called Deedee to get the scoop on Mr. Chamberlain, or, as I soon found out, “Old Bob.” After speaking with Deedee and her sister, Hazel Jones, a larger than life sourdough emerged from their stories. And their stories were actually Bob’s stories, tales he wove each evening for the Owen children as he smoked his pipe at the end of a day of fox farming on Marmot Island.

Bob Chamberlain, Alaskan sourdough
Hazel Jones collection, P 894-5.
It seems that Bob came to Alaska in 1898 as an Argonaut, aboard his sternwheeler. He and his partner steamed their boat up the Yukon, froze in for the winter, and continued upriver after the breakup of the ice, getting a head start on the other miners. Later, in Nome, he became an acquaintance of Wyatt Earp’s, and reportedly had to pay $1 for the luxury of using an outhouse on Nome’s infamous beach. He travelled to Rampart and from there to Fairbanks, where he struck it rich at Dome Creek. Once he’d made his poke, he opened a cigar and ice cream parlor in Fairbanks.

In the late 1930s, he was ready to move again. He came to Kodiak, with the intention of purchasing the Belmont Bar. Apparently, he found the open sewage running under the establishment not to his liking, and claimed that the bar was on the wrong side of town. He abandoned his plans and instead purchased the lease for fox farming on Marmot Island from Carl Pajoman of Afognak.  He brought red fox and snowshoe rabbits to the island and built a 2-story house on one side of the island and established trapping cabins in other locations on the island. Bob had 2 large gardens from which he grew strawberries, rhubarb, rutabaga, potatoes and the like. He canned throughout the summer and in the winter ate from his larder, only needing salt and sourdough to supplement his diet. He also kept a herd of dairy cattle.
One of Bob's cabins on Mamot Island,
with a fox in the foreground. Hazel Jones
Collection P 894-3.

Old Bob became friends with the Owen family, and Kodiak fisherman and politician Al Owen was swept up in fox farming craze that by now had gripped large swaths of Alaska. Al decided to try it out for himself, becoming Bob’s partner. As a result, the Owen family moved to Marmot Island in 1942. World War II was in full swing, and the family had to get special permission to leave town. Each night, the family would listen to Tokyo Rose on the radio, followed by Old Bob’s stories of sourdoughs and misfits.

Old Bob with his pipe.
 Hazel Jones collection, P 894-6.

Bob Chamberlain died around 1961. But in a way, his stories live on through those old work boots. Sure, he likely didn’t pan for gold in them, and perhaps he never pelted a fox while wearing them, but those shoes still can convey the journeys of Old Bob Chamberlain.

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