This fox farm lease included two nice-sized islands and a few others that were pretty rough. There were about three dozen fox left. At that point in time, fox fur pelts were selling for the lowest price in history- $11! Unreal. The harbor here is not very good because there isn’t good protection from the southeast wind, so ocean swells always roll in.
None of the harbors in this area were good, especially in the winter. That’s one reason George and JoAnn had to row Gertie and Polly out to the entrance on days they were going to school. It was way too shallow and rocky for the school boat to come in the cove to pick them up.
Food supply for the fox was perfect. There were plenty of rivers and streams around the island to get lots of salmon. There was also a good source for fish at all the canneries in Sitka. George always loved to fish (like his dad), and in fact one time when he was fishing right off this island, he got 30 (yep 30!) kings in one place at one time. Wow! At the end of August there weren’t any fish buyers, but the mission took advantage of the opportunity to serve some fresh salmon for dinner and paid him $9.04 for 10 king and 10 coho salmon. A real deal at 45 cents per fish--that was great! The water supply was perfect too: there was definitely no shortage of water no matter what the season.
In October 1921 the Forest Service transferred a permit from the Magoun Islands (about 12 miles northwest of Sitka) to Torsa and adjacent islands, about 2 miles northwest of Sitka Hot Springs (and about 18 miles south of Sitka) because the Magouns were considered to be unsatisfactory. The next two months Chris Houger stocked the new lease and paid a $25 lease fee. He died the next year, in August of 1922, and in October his wife sold the property to Dr. L. P. Dawes for $5,300.
Included in the sale of this 612-acre fox farm was a big house; a nice little house; a tall smokehouse by the dock; a few additional buildings and 15 pair of foxes. There was also a skiff, four fox houses, one fish house, a gas boat (the LUE), and all the equipment in the house’s scow such as dishes, stoves, salt and barrels.
Dr. Dawe’s special use permit was sent in at the end of January 1923. He was told that his next two $25 payments were going to be due the first of the year. At the end of May he sent a note asking the Forest Service guys if they had any printed notices on cloth to post on his fox islands.
Jack Clausen was running the fox farm and his 1923 Fur Farm Report included information about the business. This included that they had brought in two male and seven female fox the past year, an addition to the 30-40 male and female fox they already had on the islands. For some reason they hadn’t sold any. Obviously, they were pretty busy, because they had built another house worth $400, added three more feed houses at a total of $100 and brought over one more gas boat, worth $500, for a total of $1,000 in additional assets.
The following year, 1924, they added five more pair foxes, and didn’t sell any this year either. They had built a dock valued at $400, a fish house at $200, and also had a scow this year, worth $400. Wow! Impressive.
When the Forest Service did the appraisal in 1925, the examiner followed the original permit, which registered the size of the fox farm as 612 acres. He included an interesting item in the report about the acreage: because he was told the farm was not over 350 acres, he noted that the islands in this area had been resurveyed by the Coast Guard, and the Forest Service folks were hoping to get a copy of that blueprint in the spring.
Of course the most important variable, with the heaviest impact on the appraisal, was how good the denning grounds were. They weren’t very good on Torsa because the soil wasn’t deep along the beach line. The ground was steep and covered with large rocks, so the foxes created dens on top of the ridges. Also, on the smallest island under this permit, there was about one quarter mile of beach with reefs that went under at high tide. After evaluating that item and all the fox farm variables, the annual rate increased by $54 for a total lease amount of $79!
(Editor’s note: The late Al Brookman, Sr., in his book Sitka Man (Alaska Northwest Books, 1984), tells about working on the Torsar Island fur farm the winter of 1926-1927. Al was 21 years old, and was paid $5 for a 14-hour day skinning fox. He reports that Jack’s boat was named the Torsar. “John Davis and his young wife Julia were steady employees at the fox farm, with John doing most of the feeding of the stock, and Julia doing the housework for Mrs. Clausen, who was an invalid with two small children.”
He describes the process of catching the fox using a trap door in the feed houses. They would then go at night and catch individual fox in the trap area using special wooden tongs. They branded each fox’s ear with ink, and cut the tip of the tail square to show it was marked. Each fox to be killed was put in a gunny sack and taken to the skinning shed. The “smart” fox would avoid the feed houses after the trap was set, and he says they had to move the “dumb” ones to another island then set snares and traps for the rest.
The work included skinning and fleshing the skins. He says “I never got used to the offensive odor that these foxes emit from scent glands when they are excited or scared. I was glad when it was time to go to town and get away from the foxes, for while working with them I developed an intense dislike for these savage little beasts.”
He says they pelted 80 fox, for which he was paid $95 by Dr. Dawes. By the time the 21-year-old Brookman got his pay, though, he owed it all, for new clothes and a haircut, and a quart of bootleg whiskey for a party, and was looking forward to king salmon fishing season. Sitka Man is out of print but easy to find. It is highly recommended for tales and yarns about Sitka, now part of local lore.
The 80 pelts he says they sold doesn’t match with the 30 pelts in the farm report, which could be due to memory or to the scarcity of oversight in this era. Sarah Isto, in her book The Fur Farms of Alaska: Two Centuries of History and a Forgotten Stampede (University of Alaska Press, 2012) tells how in 1929, many fur farms mentioned in newspapers or labeled on maps were not listed anywhere in official records. She found some official record of 622 fur farms but estimates there were easily over 700 in the Territory of Alaska.)
The 1927 report was sent to the Ketchikan Forest Service office in July, and like the majority of fox farms, there were several changes from the numbers previously submitted. This year they had about 50 pair of fox, worth $7,500 ($150 each), but they sold 30 pelts for $931.78, so this year they got about $30 for each of them. Obviously they were taking a big hit because their annual operating expense was $4,551.09!
Five years later, in 1932, Dr. Dawes decided he wasn’t going to keep raising foxes and stopped making payments. Even though rent had been cut in half, and he only owed $39.50, he did not think the fox farm business was worth the investment any longer.
In 1932, Regional Forester Wellman Holbrook put a note in the Torsa fox farm file about Jack Clausen coming in to his office on March 5th and introducing himself as a partner with Dr. Dawes. He was the one who had been managing and working the fox farm for the previous ten years, and was headed for Seattle until April. In order to take over the special use permit they had him file a copy of his contract and told him to let them know his plans. Grampa had worked for Dr. Dawes in the past, and had good references, so he would be the one running the fox farm.
Fox Farm neighbors on Elovoi Island, Don Huff’s mom and dad, went into town one night in September 1933 and so their son Don came over to spend the night at the Jacksons. Cool. He remembered that he sure had fun - “we drank up to three quarts of root beer.” We were shocked when we read that. Can you believe they actually had that much to drink? One of their favorite things to do was to create sails for their skiffs, using all kinds of different materials, and have races. Good thing no adults were watching because they were boating while “under the influence” – being root beer intoxicated.
In December that year, when Uncle Sig was staying with them, it got REALLY cold-only four degrees above zero! He and Grampa went over to Elovoi Island to get a drum stove from the Narrows, and paid Claude Huff with a skate of gear. Almost a month after Christmas (that’s how long it took packages to come from Norway), in January of 1934, the Jackson kids finally got the really nice pair of mittens they had asked their grandmother to knit for their best friend Don.
At the end of February, 1934, a letter their cousin Thurman wrote from Kansas asked them, if he came up, could he get a job. Nanny wrote back and told him “If you want to come up and stay for a vacation you are welcome to stay here. Since we live 14 miles from Sitka it would be hard for us to find you any work because everyone else is looking for work.
“Chris’s boat is so small, there’s only room for one man. In the fishing season there is a cannery near here and you might get a job there, I can’t be sure. You had asked how it was at trapping season and since there are so many Indians trapping around here, they only open the season for one month.” It’s a good thing Thurman didn’t jump on the boat and come on up for a fishing trip because the salmon trollers had a strike that summer, all the way to the 10th of August. Grampa told him they lost all the best trolling. In May, when they got salmon trolling outside Biorka, they sold them for $1.23. Claude Huff bought 10 black bass from George for 25 cents!
June 1st 1934 Don Huff wrote in his diary that his dad dressed one big bear on Jackson’s island- wow- so there was bear! (See Part 6 for a photo of Don Huff standing next to a bear hide.)
Another excitement that summer was July 25th when JoAnn and George went to town with Claude and Don Huff. It was the first time they ever went without someone in their family!
October 29th Grampa and our Uncle Sig met with Claude to ask if Sig could live at the Narrows for the 1934 winter. Mrs. Huff said the answer was NO! What is absolutely amazing is that she didn’t like him at all. Unless of course she thought he was too “wild” and would bring in lady friends and start a distillery so he could have parties at the cabin. One thing for sure is he did have a totally different personality from his brother, our Grampa. He was very positive, always happy, loved playing his ukulele and was totally carefree and upbeat.
When cousin Thurman sent them a note in 1934 to find out how they liked Alaska now that they had been here that long, Nanny wrote “my husband says it’s the only country he would like to live in because it is free.” She also said, “I sure would like to see your Grampa up here because it is so much like Norway.” When he asked her about traveling to see them, she explained that first he’d have to take a steamer from Seattle to Juneau. Then he’d take the MS Northland to Sitka which would cost him $50 for the round trip in first class. She recommended he travel in steerage because it was so much cheaper and she said, even though they give you a bed, they didn’t provide blankets, and you better bring some because it was pretty damn cold in steerage. (Well, she didn’t actually say damn.)
(Editor's note: the Jackson family moved to Sitka in April 1935.)
At the end of March, 1936, L.T. Peterson asked to remove improvements from Torsa but was told Dr. Dawes still held the Special Use Fur Farm permit, so he had to be in charge. Dr. Dawes got another late payment note. He said he was going to have to give it up, but suggested they get in touch with his partner, Jack Clausen, because he might want to keep it but he didn’t think so.
They did send Jack a letter to tell him if he wanted to take over the lease, the reduced rate and the late fee would cost $156. If he decided he didn’t want to, they were thinking they might have to sell the improvements in order to get the rent due to the government.
Jack Clausen told them even though Dr. Dawes had turned it over to him to run by himself four years ago (1932), he had abandoned it two years ago (1934), and actually was the last one on the island the previous March (1935) when he went out to check on it.
There was still a house in good shape and a large work shed. He left some personal things like a hoist, a large boiling pot, and other items, which he offered to a man living on an island close by for only $200. However, he never heard from the guy. One of the rangers who went to check it out in September 1936 verified everything Jack said. Since the island was abandoned, his recommendation was to cancel the permit. It was L.T. Peterson and a Mr. Baggen on Legma who were interested in buying the improvements.
In March of the next year, 1937, Mr. Peterson, who held the permit for Legma Island, decided to pass this island over to Mr. Mills, who was running Maid and Tava Islands, because he decided there wasn’t anything he was interested in buying on Torsa.
Next post: The stories of Uncle Ole and Uncle Happy