From government reindeer manager to pig farmer, Glenn Briggs became a huge figure in the development of Chugiak-Eagle River.
Upon their passing, his estate and that of his wife Mary Lou made it possible for college scholarships given to local students to continue for many years into the future.
During his lifetime, Briggs was a major backer of civic projects including the Eagle River Lions Club, Knik Little League, Chugiak Senior Center, the Miss Chugiak-Eagle River Scholarship Pageant and others. In addition, he helped many local businesses get their start. He also was the developer of some of the community’s first subdivisions and built the Eagle River Shopping Center and Parkgate Building. A strong advocate for local business, he helped form the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce in 1970.
Although shunning public recognition for his philanthropy, Briggs did choose to run for public office when the Great Anchorage Area Borough was formed in 1964. A staunch Republican, he was elected to the non-partisan GAAB Borough Assembly, serving one term as the community’s lone representative on that body. He favored unification of city and borough governments, something that was unpopular with the majority of his constituents and cost him re-election to a second term. The loss did not diminish his support for civic improvement.
Briggs came to Alaska in the late 1930s as a manager in the Alaska Reindeer Project assigned to supervise herds on the Seward Peninsula.
Briggs held a degree in animal husbandry from Iowa State University and had minored in economics. After graduation, he worked for the Armour Packing Company in Chicago.
The reindeer project was started by Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister who was named as Special General Agent for Education in Alaska in 1878. Jackson had heard Capt. Michael Healy, commander of the Revenue Cutter Bear, speak of reindeer herds on the Siberian side of the Bering Sea, suggesting that they might be of benefit to Native Alaskans. As the person responsible for schools in the new possession at the top of the world, Jackson saw the potential for educating people on the care of the animals. He also saw the potential for reindeer, a close relative of the caribou, to supplement the diet of people in Northwest Alaska.
An appeal to congregations Outside resulted in donations totaling $2,146 which were used to purchase 16 deer. These were placed on an island in the Aleutians. They not only survived but produced calves. That success resulted in purchases by the government of more deer from Siberia and Norway. By the time Briggs arrived, the herds had grown to 640,000 animals in herds owned by Alaska Natives, by mission-operated schools, and by the Lomen Commercial Co. of Nome.
That diversity of ownership was contrary to Jackson’s original concept. It led to passage by Congress of the Reindeer Act of 1937, limiting ownership of reindeer to Alaska Natives. Briggs was one of four managers hired to oversee the transition from private ownership to Native herders.
Briggs covered hundreds of square miles to oversee training of herders and management of the herds.
A major settlement he visited was Kotzebue, a trading center and port on Kotzebue Sound on the northern edge of the Seward Peninsula. There he met the daughter of the manager of the trading post, a pretty young woman who had attended college in San Francisco. His journal describes many enjoyable evenings spent in dances held in the community hall—and scarcely conceals his excuses to divert his travels to Kotzebue while making his rounds to the herders’ villages. He and Mary Lou were married in Kotzebue.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, Briggs came to Ft. Richardson to enlist in the Army. He was rejected as being too old. Instead, he decided to aid the war effort by selling pork to the military. He and Mary Lou purchased the Eagle River homestead of Jack Cobol and moved into the log cabin there. Briggs’ brother Dale, then in the Army, was slated to come to Ft. Richardson and was given the task of purchasing a passel of swine to be shipped north.
The Briggses built shelters and a slaughterhouse and prepared to raise hogs to sell bacon and pork to the Army. He made daily trips to the post and hauled swill that had been discarded at the mess halls to be used as feed for the animals. To assist with the work, he arranged with the Eklutna Industrial School to train students in the care of the animals.
After the war, Briggs sold the pig farm to John and Joe Anne Vanover who continued the operation.
Seeing the need for a commercial center in the growing community of Eagle River, Briggs formed a corporation with other shareholders Ray Tedrow, Mary Lou Briggs, Evelyn Sehm and Lucille Tedrow. They began construction of a quarter-million-dollar mall that the Anchorage Daily News called “one of the most modern and complete in Alaska.” It was to hold Eagle River’s first post office, a variety store, and other businesses.
Briggs went on to buy out the other shareholders and expanded the shopping center to its present size. He subdivided the homestead he purchased from Cobol and sold lots there. Later, he purchased another homestead and subdivided it as well, naming streets Baronof, Kahiltna, Meadow Creek and Palos Verdes.
In the 1970s, Briggs built an all-steel building farther north on Old Glenn Highway, naming it the Parkgate Building in recognition of its proximity to Chugach State Park. It was the second two-story commercial structure in the community, the other being the Atwater Building on Artillery Road.
In contrast to some other subdivisions of the time, Briggs stressed upscale amenities.
He established a public water system to serve homes within the platted area. He insisted on paved streets and established covenants to ensure that standards were met.
In 1996, when Chugiak-Eagle River hosted the Arctic Winter Games, Briggs was a major supporter. He served on the organizing committee. When the Games ended with a cash surplus, he insisted that the money advanced by the Municipality of Anchorage be repaid. The remainder of a little more than $100,000 was placed in the new Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, created to aid local non-profit organizations. That organization was the beneficiary of a large portion of the Briggs estate. It continues to fund the college scholarships given each year to local students that had long been a tradition of Glenn and Mary Lou Briggs.
When the new Eagle River High School was built, Briggs’ name was nominated to be given to the school. It failed to win the necessary number of votes from the nominating committee, the geographical designation by which it had been known during planning carrying the question.
The Briggs Bridge over the Eagle River is named for both Glenn and Dale Briggs and their wives Mary Lou and Mary Alice, respectively. Their selection by legislators for that particular feature, though, is a subject of debate involving another Eagle River developer of the time. That will be the subject of next week’s column.