Guest Blog: Erwin A. “Nimrod” Robertson

(Another guest post from graduate student Kirsten Olson regarding objects that we recently had on the cart in our lab that prompted her to do further investigating)

 The only grievance of his being was that he couldn’t drink his hot tea with them!  The story of these "wild teeth" spread and led to the telling of a tall tale of Robertson killing a bear, making the teeth, and eating the bear with its own teeth! Catalog Number UA73-009-0001

Catalog Number UA73-009-0001
The only grievance of Robertson’s was that he couldn’t drink his hot tea with them in! The story of these “wild teeth” spread and led to the telling of a tall tale of Robertson killing a bear, making the teeth, and eating the bear with its own teeth!

I’ve come into the lab on many occasions to find some pretty intriguing objects that are so eclectic and unique, that I simply had to share.  Last week I discovered a set of dentures on our lab shelf and I had to know more!  Turns out, they belonged to Erwin A. “Nimrod” Robertson, an early Alaskan pioneer from Maine who settled along the Yukon near Eagle in 1898.  He used his homemade teeth, forged from an aluminum pot lid set with a mix of carved sheep, caribou, and bear teeth, for about 25 years.

Over the forty years he spent in the Eagle area, he had many occupations including placer mining, dentist, jeweler, as well as serving on the Eagle Common Council, Chief of Police, marshal, magistrate, and attorney.  Because of his inventive genius, he was an all around tinkerer, making inventions and fixing things for people.  “Nimrod”, an endearing nickname given to him, was quite the resourceful genius and the teeth were just one of his many inventions.

He made hunting blades from large wood files that were tempered by a secret processes.  It was said that these knives would trim the corrugation off a silver dollar as easily as an orange peel with a paring knife.  He was well known for his gold puzzle rings and would give it away to anyone who could take it apart and put it together again within a specified time.

This is the motor to "Nimrod's Bird Machine".  “To lift, or rise, and propel itself through the air by up and down strokes of its wings as a bird.  Power for moving wings to be supplied by specially designated gas engine or by specially adapted commercial gasoline engine”  (According to Robertson's own description of his invention)  Catalog Number UA79-004-0001

Catalog Number UA79-004-0001
“To lift, or rise, and propel itself through the air by up and down strokes of its wings as a bird. Power for moving wings to be supplied by specially designated gas engine or by specially adapted commercial gasoline engine” (Robertson’s own description of his invention)

In our collections we also have an aluminum motor that he fabricated to go along with an early airplane he engineered called “Nimrod’s Bird Machine” that he had patented in 1892 or 1894.

Another of his creations is a famous and impressively accurate 60”x 80” relief map of the Eagle area, which he constructed from newspaper, magazines, hematite and moose blood.  The map was sent to Seattle in 1909 for the Alaska-Yukon Exposition and again in 1962 for the World’s Fair.  Today it’s on display at the Eagle Historical Society & Museums.

At 81 years old, in 1940, he decided to make a prospecting trip to his placer mines at Seventy-mile, Alaska.  The weather that November quickly turned on him. Realizing he was short of provisions and would unlikely make it home, he pulled up his parka hood and lay to rest, never to wake again.  Later, his body was recovered and buried at the Eagle Cemetery.

Guest Blog: Purgatory on the Yukon

(Taking advantage of some brain power of one of my graduate student curatorial assistants, this posting is written by Kirsten Olson of UAF. William Yanert is one of the most intriguing “characters” of Interior Alaska history and the subject of numerous inquiries to our department. This is a condensed version of a paper Kirsten wrote for an art history course at UAF.) 

It was late in the evening when I was working in the range, putting away a cannon ball in one of the larger cabinets when I found myself nose to nose with a large carved devils head!  It had strikingly green cat-like eyes, a black painted face with two red stripes on both cheeks, and needless  to say, scared the pants off  me! Once I recovered from the initial scare, I went back to lab and checked the data base to learn more about the terrifying head I encountered.

I  discovered that it was the creation of William Yanert, an early Alaskan pioneer.  After further research,  I had become intrigued by his devil’s head and other carvings in the collection.  During the spring semester, I was given an opportunity in an art history class to do more in-depth research on William Yanert, employing the museum’s collection of his work.

William YanertYanert was born in Olschyna, Prussia on March 3rd 1864 and immigrated to the US around 1881 and shortly after enlisted in the U. S. Army.  While in the army, Yanert served with the Fifth and Sixth Calvary in the Indian Wars, trained in cartography, and was dispatched in 1897 as a member of Capt. Edwin Glenn’s Alaska Exploring Expedition, scouting and reporting on the conditions between Skagway to Lake Bennett (later this trail became the Chilkoot Trail of the 1898 gold rush).  He was assigned to map the Haines Mission and surrounding country, various tributaries of Susitna River, as well as reporting on and mapping the Healy and Talkeetna Mountain area. As a civil engineer, he mapped regions of McKinley Park and Dyea area.  He was also the first man to explore Broad Pass, where the Alaska Railroad runs through.

Herman (Left) and William (Right) Yanert standing outside of their cabin on the Yukon; with moose horns hung over the door and a carved sign that read, “Search not the world for happiness, You’ll find her not on land or sea, no use looking for her address, for she lives right here with me”

Herman (Left) and William (Right) Yanert standing outside of their cabin on the Yukon; with moose horns hung over the door and a carved sign that read, “Search not the world for happiness, You’ll find her not on land or sea, no use looking for her address, for she lives right here with me”.

St. Nicolas was carved from a birch burl, with horns, green bottle eyes, and red cape draped around his shoulders.

St. Nicolas was carved from a birch burl, with horns, green bottle eyes, and red cape draped around his shoulders.

After his army career, Yanert retired in 1903 and was determined to make his place amidst the land he had come to love so much.  He built a cabin and named the land in the Yukon Flats he claimed “Purgatory“, because it was “one hell of a place to live”. A few years later, William’s brother, Herman, came to join him.

Over the years, the brothers had developed quite the reputation for peevishness.  Steamboats, carrying tourists, had stopped at Purgatory to stock up on wood, Alaskan hospitality and the Yanert’s practical jokes. This included the devil’s head that I had stumbled upon.  The “devil” was named St. Nicolas, and dubbed the Patron Saint of Purgatory.   William had him wired to the cabin so that he could wave “hello” or “goodbye” to those passing by on the Yukon.  Other devils and imps were carved out of the burls from birch trees and rigged up like jack-in-the-boxes.

Anyone coming down the river was welcomed at Purgatory by St. Nicholas and the brothers, even unexpected guests such as the Evancoe brothers, who in 1937, were floating down the Yukon River. According to a letter Paul Evancoe  wrote to the museum in 1976, he recalled that they had fallen asleep, and were “awakened by a gruff voice, ‘Why the hell don’t you fellas come up to the cabin?’…so we pulled our kayak ashore and proceeded to the Yanert cabin situated back a short distance from the river bank…Well, we spend three of the most delightful days as their guests.  Inside their cabin were shelves of carvings that they made of wood, ivory, and bone.”

"The Stampeeder".  William used whatever materials he had available to him, including cigar boxes!

“The Stampeeder” Yanert used whatever materials he had available to him, including cigar boxes.
Catalog number 0768-0038

William would carve and paint a range of characters, including those from Shakespearian plays such as Othello, Desdemona, and Yorick as well as scenes of the people who lived in Alaska; mushers, natives, hunters, and gold miners.  These images were often done on cigar boxes that had been repurposed as a painting board of sorts.


Catalog number 0768-0006

He also carved figures from moose or caribou antlers. The carvings, inspired by the pioneer life he lived, also reflected his philosophy on life, which would often accompany his work in title form, or with a snippet of poetry that was incorporated into the work.  Later, he published a collection of his poems, titled Yukon Breezes, accompanied by his hand colored illustrations.

They spent their lives surviving off of and surrounded by their hard work.  Their cabin at Purgatory was filled with handmade furniture and decorated with carvings.  The front of the cabin was bedecked with totems, some more than twenty feet high.   In the 40 years he lived there, he only left once, when his health took a turn for the worse in the fall of 1941 and a year later, he passed away.

The majority of his works, carvings, paintings, photographs, and a copy of his poem, Yukon Breezes, were donated to the University of Alaska Museum of the North by Ralph Newcomb and Herman Yanert in 1943.  The collection in the museum is just a snippet of what was once the glorious and remarkable Purgatory.  We can sill enjoy the humor and sincerity of William’s artwork in the Alaska Classics Gallery in the University of Alaska Museum of the North, as well as the writings and photographs of the Yanerts in the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives at the Elmer. E. Rasmuson Library here, at UAF.


It’s Worth How Much?!?!?!?


This morning, while I chatted with my 3-1/2 year old son over coffee, my husband shared a story he was reading on the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s website. The AP story, “Rare century-old $5 Alaska bill to be auctioned” by Rachel D’Oro, described an upcoming auction sale of an extraordinarily rare piece of Alaskan paper currency. My husband knew about a similar piece that we had accessioned back in 2009, which I have shared with the Tanana Yukon Historical Society as well as the Fairbanks Coin Club in past presentations. At each presentation (the TYHS presentation only included a photo while the FCC folks got to see the real thing in person) viewers were in awe of the perfect specimen in our collection.

The history of our $5 bank note is mostly blank: we received it from former UAF Rasmuson Library Alaska and Polar Regions archivist, Anne Foster, as a “found in collection” piece. We have a standing MOA with the library that states that all photographic, manuscript, and other similar items (i.e., items that contain information) are to be curated at the archives while all 3D and object-type things (i.e., more ephemeral or decorative items) come to the Museum to be curated. As a result of this agreement, the archives staff and I are old friends and are always calling each other up with statements like, “Hey, I found this thing in the collection and I think it needs to come to you. When will you be near the library/museum next?” So when a unique $5 bank note showed up in a box of items from Anne, I was not surprised to learn that they had no information associated with it and we started our own internal research to accompany our Preliminary Justification Form to the Museum’s acquisitions committee.

Having just come back from maternity leave, I had my student, Micole VanWalbeek do that web-based research. What she found included an auction sale of the same (P)7718 stamp and red seal, but a serial number and different signatures. The number in the upper right corner was also different. That particular $5 note sold for $27,600 in 2006. I promptly put our bill into our vault.

The story in today’s paper describes a bill seemingly identical to ours. Upon closer comparison, the only difference seems to be a small “B” on our bill, as compared to the “C” on the bill up for auction, the plate designation. The auction house representative quoted in the article describes there being only four of these bills printed.

So this is sometimes how the documentation about items in museum history collections is collected. My file on this piece now has twice the number of citations as before. The catalog entry in my database will be much more rich, and our insurance assessment will be much more accurate. Guess I’ll keep my eyes on this story, and others, that are connected to this early form of paper currency in Fairbanks.


Sharing the Legacy

One of the aspects of my job that I really enjoy, is working on special exhibitions. Finding a topic that has broad appeal and developing a new way to present it to the public. A little over a year ago, our museum started to think about a possible exhibit to commemorate the centennial of the first ascent of Denali’s South Peak (20,327 feet). This 1913 group included Hudson Stuck, the charismatic Archdeacon of the Yukon; soon-to-be first superintendent of Mt. McKinley National Park, Harry P. Karstens; Walter Harper, the athletic, intelligent, and dedicated trail companion of Stuck; and Robert Tatum, postulant for holy orders at the St. Mark’s Mission in Nenana. Joining the group were two young men (each in their mid-teens), John Fredson and Esaias George, also studying at Nenana, who played essential parts in the ascent as well.

1913 crew, from left: Robert Tatum, Esaias George, Harry Karstens, John Fredson, Walter Harper.

It is the exciting story of their ordeal climbing “the great one” that we will tell, in partnership with the Denali National Park staff, during the summer of 2013 in the exhibition Legacy: 100 Years on The Mountain. Narratives taken from the journals of each climber will guide visitors through their journey from Fairbanks, to the peak of the mountain, and back down again. We will also learn about the men, as individuals, and how this event pulled them together as well as drove them apart.

Hudson Stuck with one of his dogs.

As we develop this story, we seek the assistance of our community in identifying potential artifacts associated with these people and their legacies. Anyone with information about items used on the 1913 ascent are asked to contact me or the museum.

I look forward to sharing the stories of these incredible men and the legacies they left behind. Join us next summer for the exciting celebration of this amazing event.

Things I never thought I’d have to do in a museum…

Working in a museum brings all sorts of exciting and new experiences. While processing a loan of Bradford Washburn material, going to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, the curator of the show requested a few historic food cans. Food cans that still had food in them. YIKES!

I remembered that Ellen Carrlee, Conservator at the Alaska State Museum, had recently posted a set of instructions in the ASM Bulletin #35 (Winter 2010) on how to safely empty and clean out old cans of food (salmon, in this case). I followed her steps and safely emptied out eight cans of “Bolton Whole Meal Biscuit Ration,” which turned out to be crackers (think whole-wheat pilot bread); two cans of C-Ration Fruit Cakes (no, I did not sample them); one can of Simplot Instant Potatoes; and one can of Pemmican used in a 1971 Polar Expedition to the North Pole (which I had to dig out of the can and plan on adding to our Frozen Tissues collection for future analysis).

I only had one gross-out moment, when the last can of crackers ended up having a compromised seal and the remnants of a few “friends” were found lurking inside.

Here are some photos that documented the process. Be sure to click on each for the full experience. Enjoy!

Supplies for opening historic food cans (aka Personal Protective Equipment aka PPE).


The fumehood in our Collections Prep Lab served as my workspace for a couple of hours. Fully lit, it provided me with great protection from the unknown.


Biscuits... aka crackers. I had no idea what I might find inside these tins.

Wrapped can of biscuits

In my head I imagined gooey, uncooked baking powder biscuits ala Pilsbury biscuits in the cooler case! So, I wrapped the precious historic paper label with carefully cut Mylar and held it in place with stretch film.

Opening can

Drumroll please!!!!!

Opened can of biscuits

OH! "Biscuits" as in crackers! Of course!

Into bucket

Dump the biscuits into the bucket!

Empty can

Inside the relatively clean can after dumping out all the biscuits. A rinse with some bleach and a wipe down with paper towels and this can was done!

Last can

And then there was the last can of biscuits... oh gross.


It took some elbow grease, but eventually, this mess was cleaned up and the inside looked as good as the other cans.


On to the fruit cakes! Excitement loomed as I remembered the c-rations my dad had showed me and my brother as kids... then I remembered how long ago that was...

Open fruitcake

Hmmm, moist.

Top of cake

Or is it?

Fruitcake in paper

Anyone else thinking "hockey puck?"


Finally, something simple... orange potato powder!

Can opener

And last but not least... the 1971 pemmican! Notice the grease leaching from the "seal" along the end. Probably a good thing I finally got around to doing this!


NOT the texture of corned beef hash, no matter the resemblance! I had to dig this stuff out with a plastic spatula!


Coat it all with some bleach, snap the lid onto the bucket, and call it a day! One I won't soon forget!

2011 New Donations, part 3

When you’re working with a local history collection, you never know the kinds of things that will present themselves. One of the most difficult things to know is what will be important for future generations to understand our current time; what should we be keeping in order to most accurately convey our place in the history of Interior Alaska?

Donor: Joshua Reuther

Blue Marlin t-shirt.

As a former UAF student and local musician, Joshua Reuther was quite familiar with The Marlin, a local pub close to campus and known for its “close quarters” and eclectic musical performances. While working many years ago at The Doghouse (now Pad Thai Restaurant) he was given a Blue Marlin t-shirt by the owner Gerry Ostrow. As with most pubs, the Marlin had undergone changes in ownership and with that change, a slight variation to the business name. The Blue Marlin name represents the bar at a time prior to ca. 1996 when it was known for having the “best damn pizza in Alaska,” according to this t-shirt. While it may seem odd to have a t-shirt in a museum collection, we actually have 13 such shirts! We find that t-shirts are a straightforward technique for representing pop culture of a local community, with their period-specific graphics and messages. They are ubiquitous, and therefore, a veritable requirement for a history collection.

Denali cookie handed out to VIPs who attended a big-top tent celebration at Tok, AK, summer 2008.

Vehicle magnet, given to contractors to signal their participation in the project.

Flying disk, used during the summer 2011 at the Meade Site, a UAF archaeological field school sponsored by Denali.

Baseball cap bearing the Denali logo.

Also donated by Reuther, an archaeologist who works for Northern Land Use Research in Fairbanks, are a collection of items used by NLUR while working on surveys for Denali – the Alaska Gas Pipeline project. The company, an LLC of ConocoPhillips and BP,  formerly closed their operations on May 17, 2011 citing “a lack of customer support.” This controversial company was conducting the preliminary surveys to move forward on a route to bring natural gas to the Lower-48, while the state of Alaska was working on a separate route through the AGIAprocess. These four artifacts bear the logo of Denali and were distributed to contractors as part of their advertising campaign and will now help serve as symbols of this story of one of the first “boom and busts” of the gas line process.

Polar bear carving by QAY.

Donor: Grace Berg Schaible

Polar bear mother and cub, carved by QAY.

Grace Schaible has long been a friend to the UA Museum of the North. Grace is known for being Alaska’s first female attorney general (1987-1989) and an avid art collector. A major component of Grace’s collection are representations of polar bears, both in 2D and 3D. In 2011 she donated two very large whale bone carvings of polar bears, carved by Ronald “QAY” Apangalook (Qaygeghutaq) originally of Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. In these two lovely pieces, QAY uses baleen for the eyes and nose and in the single bear, walrus ivory for the bear’s claws. Pieces like this are especially welcome in the Ethnology collection because whale bone is a relatively stable medium that can hold up to more lengthy exhibition periods and slightly more variable environmental conditions (compared to more vulnerable materials like dyed skin or grass or sculptural materials like wood or walrus ivory).

"Porcupine Nest" by Craig E. Dorman, 2010.

Donor: Craig E. Dorman, Ph.D.

One of the last donations of 2011 is an incredible set of seven nesting baskets, made by the donor, Craig E. Dorman. Dr, Dorman is a past director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, retired rear Admiral and program director for anti-submarine warfare in the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. Most recently, Dorman was the Vice President for Research with the University of Alaska.

Dorman produces these baskets, known as Nantucket Lightship Baskets, now that he is retired. He documents them with great detail and the workmanship is outstanding. His innovations include tiny twists in the weavers and staves that are dyed or made from varied materials, as in these baskets. In this set of seven tightly-nested baskets there are a total of 4915 curls! This tiny detail is one of the reasons this group of baskets won the Division 10 Grand Prize at the 2011 Tanana Valley State Fair. We are proud to be the new owners of this treasure.

The inside of the outermost basket, showing the exquisite symmetry and precision of weaving.

Informational document developed by Dorman to accompany his lightship baskets.

A detail of the outermost basket, showing the upward and downward facing twists, in addition to the baleen and cherry staves.

2011 New Donations, part 2

Over 2011, we received a total of only 19 objects. This is in contrast to 2010 when we cataloged a total of 182 objects. Why the sudden drop, you might ask? It’s nearly impossible to know. In 2009 we cataloged 214 objects; the year before it was 137.

I tend to look at years like this as a much-needed respite from the sometimes maniacal frenzy we find ourselves in, trying to keep up with the paperwork, photography, custom-box-making, and the detailed descriptions that accompany every single object that comes through our doors. On average, it takes something like 5 to 6 hours to fully process every single object that we accession into our permanent collection. It can easily be double that if the object requires stabilization or cleaning, or if the custom support is complicated to design and execute. But two of the first things we teach our students who work with our collections is to “take your time,” and “be careful.”

Donor: Jackie Niemi

Jackie Niemi, formerly of Circle, donated this very unique clothing pin that is made from locally-mined gold nuggets and two small cables from the airship Norge. The pin was made by Harry Greep, sometime after 1926 (the year the Norge “landed” outside of Teller, Alaska, following the first officially-documented overflight of the North Pole). Greep was, at the time, the U.S. Road Commissioner, as well as Postmaster at Circle Hot Springs. The pin was originally owned by Niemi’s great-grandparents, Oscar and Eli (Ella) Larsen. It went to her grandmother, Ruth (Larsen) and  her husband, Roy Olson. Jackie inherited it around 30 years ago.

Donor: Alyeska Pipeline Service Company

The delivery of the pig.

S.U.N. Engineering Hybrid-B Super Pig, in operation in the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, from 2007-08 until 2010. This pipeline cleaning device was decommissioned in 2011 when they went to an all-disk pig.  Alyeska offered to replace our aging pig, that was donated to the Museum back in 1984. It has been part of our exterior exhibits since its donation, and the full-sun exposure and placement among spruce and aspen trees has caused major deterioration to its rubber components. It has been deaccessioned from our permanent collection, but will remain part of our comparative collection and housed off-site. Our new Super Pig has been installed in new custom cradles on the northern side of our building, to help protect it from the damaging sun rays, but with excellent visibility for visitors to enjoy. (See the UAMN Facebook page for a great photo album showing the delivery of the pig.)

Donor: John R. Bockstoce

Snowshirt from Red Bay, Labrador.

Snowshirt from Point Hope.

Snowshirt from Point Hope.

Snowshirt from Point Hope.

The well-known and greatly respected northern archaeologist and historian, John R. Bockstoce, in 2011 added four “snowshirts” or parka covers, to our collection. Three of these lovely, but utterly functional, garments were made by Inupiaq skinsewer/seamstress Sarah Nipiq Kingik of Point Hope, around 1974. They were worn by Bockstoce while working on a whale crew in Point Hope. The fourth was purchased at a store in Red Bay, Labrador, ca. 1995. Snowshirts are fabric covers that one wears over a parka when hunting on the sea ice. They are the ultimate in camouflage, blending the hunter into the white expanse of the northern coasts.