Alaska is perfect spot for tall-tale tellers
Recently, this space had a column on Geritt “Heinie” Snider, an old-timer and former legislator who homesteaded at Lake Lucille.
The Hollander who became an Alaska State Senator had the opportunity to actually know some of the sourdoughs this writer can only read about. Coming to Alaska in 1910, he caught the tail-end of the Klondike heyday. He crossed the border and did some mining before migrating to the Matanuska Valley.
Heinie’s writing style reflects the evenings when he sat around a campfire, listening to others pass the time with yarns based on their experiences. It shows in all of the “100 Stories of Alaska” in his book published in 1966 to coincide with the Centennial of the purchase of Alaska.
One of those stories he admitted was copied from the Louisville Courier. That Kentucky newspaper has roots that go back to 1830 and over the years has earned 10 Pulitzer Prizes. Heine’s version is the final story in his book, headlined “Topping Texas.” Verbatim, it follows:
In a few years I hope something like this will happen to me. I’ll be sitting in the club car of a train heading for Florida. A long, tall, bow-legged fellow will come in and sit down by me.
“Pardner,” he’ll say, “where you from?”
“Kentucky,” I’ll say.
“Well, I’m from Texas,” he’ll say. “Greatest state in the Union. You can put Kentucky and all the New England states in just a little old corner of Texas, you know it. Land area of 263,644 square miles. Greatest state in the Union.”
Then a man sitting on the other side of me will pipe up. “Pardon me, Pardner,” he’ll say to the Texan. “I’m from little old Alaska. Biggest state in the Union, 586,400 square miles. One-fifth the size of the whole United States, twice the size of Texas. Greatest state in the Union.”
The Texan will blink at him and turn back to me. “As I was saying,” he’ll say, “you can’t mention a thing that Texas ain’t got. We got 400 miles of seacoast, you know it, and . . .”
“Pardon me, Pardner,” Alaska will say, “we got 4,750 miles of coast line. Our shores are washed by two oceans, one sea, straits, gulfs and God knows how many bays. We got . . .”
“Now you take our mountains,” Tex will say. “There’s [El] Capitan in the Guadalupes 9,020 feet high. That makes her about 5,000 feet higher than anything you got in Kentucky, and . . .”
“Why, son,” Alaska will say, “that’s just a little old hill. If you want a he-mountain, why don’t you take old McKinley, 20,320 feet high. That makes her about 11,280 feet higher than anything you got in—what’s the name of that state again?”
“And,” Texas will say, “there’s the old Rio Grande. What a river . . .”
And Alaska will say, “There’s the old Yukon, 2,000 miles long, and you’ll never see the day you can jump across it like you can some rivers I can mention but won’t . . .”
By this time Texas will be foaming at the mouth and he’ll turn his back on Alaska and say, “We got oil and gas, gold and silver, and mercury . . . and lead, and . . .”
“And,” Alaska will say, we got oil, gold, silver, lead, copper, platinum, antimony, tungsten, coal, marble, glosum, sulfur, pitchblende, timber and fish and . . .”
“And,” Texas will say, “there ain’t anything we can’t grow. You ever see a Texas watermelon? Biggest thing you ever saw.”
“Yeah,” Alaska will say, “’Bout half the size of a Matanuska Valley cabbage. Richest land in the world, that Matanuska Valley land. “It’s . . .”
“But what we’re really noted for,” Texas will say, “is our men. Takes real men to live in Texas. You ever heard of them ‘blue northers’ that whip through the Panhandle?”
“Yeah,” Alaska will butt in again. “They’re just baby williwaws we send down for seasoning. When they get where they can break 100 miles an hour, they come back to Alaska to work out on some real men.”
After that, Alaska will leave. Then Texas will turn to me and say: “Them Alaskans. If they ain’t the biggest-mouthed, loudest bunch of braggarts I ever heard. Why we ever let ’em in the Union, I don’t know!”
(Heinie either didn’t fact-check the mountain heights or didn’t know the latest measurements. It appears that El Capital stands at 8,085 feet and Denali is 20,146. Also, the difference is greater than stated, but we won’t blame the Alaskan who truly loved this land.)
That story might not have been original with Heine, but it sounds as though it could be.
There are indications that some of his own stories might have been just a little bit exaggerated. And, of course, some were about his friends who themselves tended to stretch the truth a bit.
He wrote, too, about the stranger who showed up in a Juneau saloon, all steamed up about something. He began by saying he had set out to shoot a bull moose with a record-size rack. He shot a nice one, but was disappointed that it only measured 63 inches across. He rowed over the river in search of another and brought one down. It was bigger, coming in a 64.5 inches. Not satisfied, he headed for another spot where he knew some big bulls gathered. There he bagged one that had a rack measured 67 inches.
At that point, another customer put down his beer and walked over to the hunter. “Do you know who I am?” the man asked. “I am with Fish & Wildlife and you’re under arrest for shooting more than one bull.”
“Do you know who I am?” the hunter asked.
“No,” the game warden responded.
“Well, sir, “I’m Buckeye Bill and I’m known all across Alaska as the biggest liar they ever saw.”
There seems to be something about old-timers and their tales. But this writer, of course, is only guessing.
Walter Erickson, the father of this writer’s bride and whose own father took part in the Nome Gold Rush, was not above pulling one’s leg.
Daisy Conright was a reporter at the Anchorage Daily Times back in the time when Fourth Avenue was the only part of “downtown” Anchorage and the Ericksons were one of only a handful of families living in Spenard.
One morning, the man with a news tip stopped by the Times office. He pulled a pair of bone-like items from his pocket and showed them to the reporter.
“They’re the horns of a miniature creature from the ancient past,” he informed her. “I found them in my garden where they must have been buried for at least a century.” He let her finger the tiny crescents held in his palm. She asked several questions and solemnly scribbled his answers on her notepad. Her enthusiasm at being handed a significant scientific story ended, though, when he answered her last question as to what he thought the creature might have been.
“Oh, I’m sure it was some kind of a little bull, just like I’ve been handing you,” he said with a smile as he ducked the notebook she flung his way. The “horns” were actually the spurs from a recently roasted rooster from the Ericksons’ chicken coop.
And that, had it appeared in what then was Alaska’s largest newspaper, would really be “fake” news.
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.