Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous had its beginnings in 1935 and continues today, suspended during World War II and revived in 1946.
According to Elmer Rasmuson’s Memoirs in Volume II of Banking on Alaska, the event now known affectionately as “Rondy” was inspired by the winter carnival in Fairbanks. Plans were formed by three men during their return by train to Anchorage.
The three far-sighted hockey enthusiasts were Vern Johnson, Tom Culhane and Tom Bevers. Culhane was a fuel dealer who later founded a refuse business while Bevers was a real estate developer. Johnson is listed on the Rendezvous Web site as “father of the Rendezvous” and was described by banker Rasmuson as an Anchorage booster who took every opportunity to help improve its civic facilities.
Initially, the Rendezvous was designed around winter sports events and a children’s sled dog race along 4th Avenue—billed in a Public Radio television video as “the street that was a city.”
It recognized the trappers who lived in outlying areas and the gold miners who wintered at Knik, across the Arm.
Immediately popular in its first years, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and invasion of the Aleutians brought the young celebration to a four-year hiatus. Anchorage at that time had fewer than 3,000 residents, only a few families living outside the city. The city’s boundaries were from the golf course/airstrip on Ninth Avenue on the south to Government Hill on the north and East G on the east to Bootlegger Cove on the West. Chugiak-Eagle River had only a handful of homesteaders while Eklutna was a thriving village where a boarding school housed students from around Alaska.
The war, however, brought an influx of residents as well as thousands of military personnel. Businesses prospered despite war-time rationing and the Chamber of Commerce was looking forward to a bright future.
The war now ended, all eyes were on the future. Attorney Ed Davis was president of the Chamber and named Rasmuson to chair the reincarnated Rendezvous committee.
With a banker in charge of planning, financial success was a goal. It was decided that the Rendezvous would be an exclusive cooperative event with those benefiting sharing some of their receipts to help cover expenses. A queen contest was added, the winner to be determined by the number of Rondy raffle tickets she sold.
Having the winter festival themed on mining as well as trapping was the result of adding miner Harold Strandberg to the committee. Rasmuson noted that a working model of a placer washing plant and dragline designed by Walter Erickson was among the biggest hits in the mining display.
Another big hit was an ice show put on under the supervision of Harry Stiver, a professional ice skater before being drafted and sent to Ft. Richardson. He was to remain in Anchorage as circulation manager for the Anchorage Daily Times and continued to promote professional ice shows.
In the late 1940s and early 50s, long before indoor facilities were available here, amateur ice shows directed by Juanita Wood were held regularly at Mulcahy Stadium. The baseball field at 6th Avenue and C Street, now the site of the Anchorage Museum, was flooded to provide ice in the winter. At least 30 skaters, both youth and adults, took part in the well-attended Rendezvous performances. Wood tutored the skaters and choreographed programs while volunteers set up scenery and props.
In his memoir, Rasmuson boasted of the success of the Rendezvous revival, noting that it held the first fur auction ever held in Alaska, with furrier Ed Shepherd as auctioneer.
There also was a boxing card that was heavily attended by cheering spectators. The bleachers in the gymnasium on G Street between 5th and 6th Avenues were filled with fans who encouraged basketball players from Anchorage and Palmer high schools as well as city teams and those from the Army post.
Promotional events led up to the revived celebration and included announcements that a new automobile would be raffled off, a contest held for men to grow beards, and sled dog racing would be expanded.
The dog races became extremely popular and quickly grew as fanciers opened kennels in the area.
Early dog racers included Earl and Natalie Norris, whose Howling Dog Kennels were located off Lake Otis Road southeast of town. Soon, Outside mushers joined those from remote Alaska villages who came to Anchorage to compete. Notable among the first Outsiders was Dr. Roland Lombard, a veterinarian from Wayland, Mass., who received his first huskies from none other than famed musher Leonhard Seppala.
Lombard was to win the Rendezvous races multiple times and with his wife published a widely recognized textbook on raising sled dogs.
Perhaps best known among the Alaska mushers was George Attla of Huslia. He was to win 10 Fur Rendezvous championships and eight North American Open championships over a career that spanned more than half a century, from 1958 to 2011. The “Huslia Hustler” died of cancer in 2015.
Races were broadcast by radio and then, after 1954, television. KENI radio and Channel 2 television enabled listeners to follow the racers as they progressed around the trail. Spotters were placed at various points to give updates. One of the most colorful race reporters was Orville Lake, a musher no longer racing and who hosted and mentored Lombard during his Alaska visits. The races then followed approximately the same route as today, starting and ending on Fourth Avenue, exiting the city along C Street and circling Campbell Airstrip.
Over the years, many mushers have trained on the Beach Lake Trails in Birchwood. Except for the downtown start and finish legs, conditions are similar to those on the 25-mile Rendezvous route. The race is conducted over three days for a total of 75 miles.
Carnival rides were added early on, with Chugiak’s Golden Wheel Amusements operating those for many years.
Attendance and events both have grown over the years since the Rendezvous’ revival 71 years ago. Its duration has been expanded from one week to two, melding it with the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on the first Saturday of March each year.
The 2018 Rendezvous begins Friday, Feb. 24, with a parade on Saturday morning.
Early features such as the dog racing, fur auction, winter sports and queen contest remain major attractions. For most of the annual carnivals, a unique pin has been created, chosen from designs submitted by residents. The Rondy pins are collector items and have grown in value. A long-standing tradition now is the Melodrama put on by Alaska Sound Celebration, an award-winning group of women who sing a cappella, whose members stage original satirical plays just for the Rendezvous. Other favorites are the outhouse races and running with the reindeer. Popular with spectators are the ice sculptures prepared from huge blocks of ice. Carvers from Alaska and Outside create impressive pieces of art from glacial ice. A gigantic fireworks display concludes the celebration.
A complete schedule of events and additional information on the Rendezvous can be found at www.furrondy.net.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.