In May, 1926, my grandfather left Norway as Kristoffer Knubedal, with wife Anna and children George and JoAnn. The next year, in March 1927, he left Juneau as Christ Jackson, with the addition of new daughter Gertie, and boarded the M.S. Northland for a ride to Sitka. George was six and JoAnn was five, definitely going through a change of life just like their mom.
After spending a few days in town at Len Peterson’s house, it was time to be getting on the move. There was no messing around. Uncle Jacob’s (who was known as Happy) boat was loaded with all the trunks brought over from Norway. Some groceries and beer were also packed. Actually, it’s very doubtful there was any beer since the Bone Dry Law had been in effect for nine years, and even if they had known one of the “moonshiners,” it would have cost way too much. They definitely did not have extra money.
So, everyone and everything was on board and they headed out to the Legma fox farm (16 miles south of Sitka) in weather folks figured was pretty normal in Southeast. The first part of the ride was in open seas. Usually, this time of the year there were always swells and it didn’t take much wind to create some rough choppy waves, plus, it was definitely cold. However, no matter what the weather was like, they needed to get out there because six-year-old George had to check in on the first day of school, April 4th.
This was the first time Grampa had brought the family to move into this cabin and he knew he was going to need more room. His brother Ole was a good carpenter and had worked for Len Peterson, the guy who owned this fox farm lease. They got permission to add a master bedroom downstairs for Nanny and Grampa, and one for George and one for JoAnn and Gertie upstairs. That was a good thing because even though the cabin was still small, it had awesome views and was protected from storms. Grampa was also provided a 35-foot gas boat, the FV Alpha, which they used to hunt, fish, travel around the islands to visit, work at other fox farms or go into Sitka for supplies or party. (I don’t think they could afford to go to parties.)
The cabin was on the northeast end of the island, which was the most protected place to anchor. As a boat turned into the cove, there was a deep channel so you could get to the beach without hitting the rocks. The Natives who had lived on the island (before the Forest Service started leasing it for a fox farm) named it Legma. (Editor’s note – according to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, the Russians reported Legma as an Aleut word for calm. Hundreds of Unangan, Alutiik and other Alaska Native people from southwestern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, all called Aleut by the Russians, lived at Sitka in the Russian days.) That was their word for calm and after they did all the work to dig the channel, it always was calm near the beach. However, you didn’t have to row very far to be in swells where it could be damn rough and no fun at all.
Obviously, Kristoffer and Anna had been pretty excited about finally moving to their new home, and had some “private time” to celebrate in Sitka before they left for the island. Exactly nine months later, on Christmas day, Anna (Polly) was born!
Mrs. Greta Mills and her daughter Ruth, who lived about a quarter mile away on Maid Island, came over to help with Polly’s arrival. We can’t figure out why but for some reason even though the Mills ladies were the ones helping Nanny, it was Grampa who signed the certificate as the attendant (I guess guys are the only ones who could be “in charge”). However, it doesn’t seem like he would have been the one assisting with the birth. We’re sure he was happy about having a healthy baby but just a little disappointed that it wasn’t another boy who would be a fisherman or fox farmer or both.
The pipe that went from the cabin to the top of the hill had a good flow of water, and part of it is still there. It was a very nice way to use a natural resource and here they had a faucet inside. The cabins they lived in on the other islands (Tava, Elevoi and Torsar) were built close enough to a stream so they wouldn’t have to fill and carry buckets too far. Like everybody else, they put a barrel at one corner right under the roof to catch rain water. Nanny always covered them with cheesecloth to keep mosquitoes and ashes from flying into it. Then she could use the clean water to cook, or somebody would use it for a bath or they could just drink it. Today folks have to pay a good price to wash their hair in pure rainwater or for a bottle of “pure” drinking water like the family got every day for free.
Nanny was a “rest equals energy” advocate. During winter when days were short and it got dark about 6 pm the family would go to bed earlier to make sure they got a good night’s sleep. They had electricity in the old country and no doubt there were some times in this new country that it was really missed. Instead of flipping a light switch, they burned an Aladdin kerosene oil lamp. This was the best light for the least cost. In the winter usually a gallon would last up to 2 ½ weeks. Plus it was safe, didn’t smell, and was quiet.
Apparently there was a store-bought wood stove in the cabin on Legma because when we visited the site in the fall of 2011, we found rusted parts. We couldn’t read the brand name but it was probably Sears. Some of the fox farmers who built their own cabin saved some money by making a heater from a 50-gallon drum. They’d lay it on its side, fill it with gravel or sand, and put it into a metal frame. Then they cut holes in the top for a stove pipe, another one on the end for a door and a little one below for the draft. Scraps of the leftover metal would be used to make a knob.
One week in the fall, all the neighbors would work together to get their winter supply of wood. Jack Clausen on Torsar Island had rigged a winch so he could pull logs from the beach up to the wood shed, and Adolf Thomsen on Biorka had a wood cutting machine.
Adolf & daughter Ann Thomsen (Anna Baggen) on the wood cutting equipment designed by Adolf
Neither Gertie nor Cora Mills remembers their family having a power saw. After the trees were down, there had to be one of the guys on each end pushing and pulling the saw to cut a log the right length to fit in the stove. Then they would have to take them up to the chopping block and cut them into quarters that would be the right width. Those pieces would be hauled, stacked and covered. By the first week in September, they were set for keeping the cabin warm, almost always with a pot of coffee on the stove, and the oven was usually baking something (like bread in the empty coffee cans) which helped keep it nice and toasty.
Breakfast pastry along with coffee was one of the things young George missed a lot. Back in Norway he was able to have a cup every morning with his favorite Gramma. In this “new life” they usually ate rolled oats (called mush) with hotcakes, and prunes mixed in for regularity. They ordered “economy scale” large sacks of oats and their dried prunes came from CJ Mills’ dad, who lived in Oregon. The order was usually for 200 pounds (about 9,000 prunes) for $12—a real deal! And- even though it tasted real poopy, everybody took cod liver oil too because they needed vitamin D.
One of the best breakfast specials were the berries. As early as the 4th of March one year they saw the first huckleberry blossoms. In July they would spend entire days picking red and blue huckleberries, blueberries, as well as salmon berries.