The Taft Tusk and its Crazy History

The Seattle Sunday Times, Oct. 16, 1910

“FAIRBANKS MEN SEND TAFT MASTODON TUSK — A section of mastodon tusk twenty-five inches long, crusted with bas-reliefs wrought in unalloyed Alaska gold that form an epitome of gold mining in the Interior North, is an heroically proportioned desk ornament citizens of the Tanana Valley are sending to President W.H. Taft. This presentation is intended to mark the recent visit to Fairbanks of Secretary of Commerce and Labor Charles Nagel and Attorney-General George Wickersham, personally representing the chief executive. While the cabinet officials were at Fairbanks they were lavishly entertained, and became popular. At a big reception one evening, the suggestion was made by a wealthy mine owner that a symbolical souvenir be sent to President Taft as a token of appreciation.”

So begins the Seattle Times article about what would come to be known as “The Taft Tusk.” According to the article, J.L. Sale, a jeweler called “the Tiffany of the North” was to produce “the most elaborate memento ever sent out of Alaska.” When the Times interviewed Sales about the tusk, he said “It is simply a great piece of mastodon ivory, mounted with gold. The ivory was dug from a mine, where the tusk had lain for hundreds of years. It is a beautiful piece. It’s striking characteristics of color being brought out effectively by polishing.” Presumably President Taft received the tusk and the people of Fairbanks were satisfied that they had represented our community and our economy.

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Ivory tusk of a walrus which was carved by an Eskimo and presented to President Taft. Alaska United States, ca. 1900. [Between and Ca. 1930] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/99614746/. (Accessed July 28, 2017.)

Fast-forward to 1943, when the President of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce received a letter from Murray Galleries in Washington D.C., offering to sell a recently acquired desk set from the estate of the late Ex-President William H. Taft. “We are of the opinion that it would be of historic interest to the city of Fairbanks, and for that reason we are offering it to you prior to placing it in our general stock.” The asking price was $1000 plus 10% Federal excise tax. Several weeks later, the Chamber of Commerce wrote to the son of President Taft, Senator Robert A. Taft. “We did this out of respect for your father and the high office to which he had been elected, believing that he would get some pleasure from the souvenir and that his heirs would treasure such a gift and keep it as a family possession as long as the Taft family existed. We are disappointed to learn that this gift of the people of Fairbanks, Alaska has been sold to the Murray Galleries in Washington and that it is now being by them for sale on a strictly commercial basis.”

Through a cordial series of communications, the Taft children purchased the desk set back from the gallery and donated it to the University Museum in Fairbanks, in order to be exhibited with a short history of the presentation by the people of Fairbanks to President Taft. The desk set arrived in Fairbanks and promptly went on exhibit in a glass case, where it was “quite the center of attraction. Our mining men are greatly interested in this work of art,” according to President Charles Bunnell, who received the gift. A story appeared in the August 1, 1944 copy of the Farthest-North Collegian (p. 6). It’s here where the first inconsistency appears.

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The Farthest-North Collegian,  August 1, 1944, page 6.

The caption and headline of the article describes the tusk as being made from a “walrus tusk” while the original 1910 article from the Seattle Times clearly identifies the tusk as mastodon. This early photograph shows the details on the piece. One particular image does made it appear to be walrus ivory, though it is often impossible to tell the difference without close examination.

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Detail of tusk (catalog number 0267-4176) and gold overlay. Notice the mottled appearance of the ivory to the left of the mountain. This may confirm the tusk as being made from walrus, not mastodon, ivory. UAMN Photo.

The tusk remained in its place of honor in the museum for many years, appreciated by visitors and student alike. The beginning of another controversy began to bubble to the surface sometime in the 1960s. In a 1968 article of Jessen’s Daily (Wednesday, Mar. 27, 1968, p. 9) Harry Avakoff describes his career as a jeweler in Fairbanks, counting as one of his major accomplishments as being “commissioned by Tanana Valley citizens to make a gold inkwell for President Taft.”

Then, on the morning of April 8, 1969, University of Alaska Museum Director Lu Rowinski opened the museum at 8:00 am and discovered the tusk had been stolen. A $100 reward was offered for information leading to the return of the tusk, “no questions asked,” according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article. People at the time were concerned that the thief would melt down the gold in order to sell it more quickly.

A search of online newspaper articles reveals that only months later, Andrew Hehlin was arrested after the Alaska State Troopers recovered five car loads of stolen property, which included the gold figurines from the desk set, but not the ivory tusk. According to Glen Simpson, who was then a faculty member in the UAF art department and commissioned to repair the desk set in 1973, the museum had acquired a large number of walrus tusks from Barrow, thinking one might have the right contours to match the gold overlay. However, no tusk could be found and so instead, Simpson carved a replacement tusk of walnut. The desk set was returned to the museum and was included in the July 27, 1973 opening of the C.J. Berry Gold Room.

One might think this was the end of the story. The tusk was back on exhibit for the public to enjoy. However, there remained, even until 1999, some disagreements regarding the true artist responsible for the design and fabrication of the tusk: J.L. Sale or Harry Avakoff. Avakoff was quoted in a number of newspaper articles on file at the museum, that one of his life’s greatest accomplishments was being commissioned to make the tusk. In 1983, Emily Avakoff, Harry’s widow, visited the director of the museum and expressed her concern that the tusk label did not credit her late husband as the artist. A number of letters and supporting documentation was exchanged, and a pair of hand-written notes with no dates indicate that “Jack Sale” made the tusk, owned the Fairbanks jewelry store where Avakoff, as well as Vic Brown, were employed. “He did some work on the tusk,” says one note, indicating that both men were associated with the fabrication of the work of art.

In the end, the museum records cite both men as the creators of the desk set, as well as Glen Simpson. The piece has been on continuous exhibit, with the exception of the brief hiatus between 1969-1973, since its 1944 donation and forms the centerpiece of our gold case in the Gallery of Alaska. You can see the catalog record and some of those records in our museum database here.

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As part of our Gallery of Alaska renovation project, the gold case was opened for photography and cleaning. Here I am removing the Taft Tusk from its mount. UAF Photo by Todd Paris.

 

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Guest Blog: Operation Sandcrab

Kirsten Olson provides another interesting piece of Alaskan history. This time, inspiration came to Kirsten while working on a collection of items deposited at UAMN via a repository agreement with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2012, USFWS transferred 93 items collected from Attu Island to the museum and Kirsten spent several months cataloging, researching, and curating these items. She painstakingly constructed customized archival boxes for each piece, from pieces of shrapnel to gas masks, toothbrushes to Japanese paper dolls. She discovered the human stories behind these rusted and damaged items, and developed a small exhibit, which is on display at the UAF Rasmuson Library 4th Floor until August 2014. ~~AJL

Guest blogger, Kirsten Olson here again, this time to honor our men in arms.  May 17th marks Armed Forces Day, so to recognize this day and our soldiers, I’d like to take a moment to shed some light on a pivotal, and an often-overlooked WWII battle, the Battle of Attu.


On June 7, 1942, with a force of 1,140 infantrymen, the Japanese attacked and captured the farthest west Aleutian island, Attu. This invasion, as well as a simultaneous assault on Kiska and the attack on Midway a few days earlier, marked the peak of the Japanese invasion of the United States through Alaska.

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It began as a quiet day for the 43 native residents of Attu, when they had been captured and taken as prisoners. They were held on the island for three months before they were sent to an interment camp in Hokkaido, Japan until the end of the war. They were never able to return to their island; instead they were relocated to Atka. (Image: UAA-HMC-0690-S1-1936-117a)

Etta and Foster Jones, the only white couple on the island, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Etta as the schoolteacher and Foster operated the wireless radio, reporting on the weather to the navy station at Dutch Harbor.  When the Japanese invaded, Foster was sending in his daily weather report to the Naval post at Dutch Harbor, this time ending it with “The Japs are here!”  Foster had been taken in for questioning and executed, in front of his wife, who was then swiftly sent away to a prison camp in Japan.  (Left: UAF-1970-11-66, Right: UAF 1970-11-67)

Etta and Foster Jones, the only white couple on the island, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Etta as the schoolteacher and Foster operated the wireless radio, reporting on the weather to the navy station at Dutch Harbor. When the Japanese invaded, Foster was sending in his daily weather report to the Naval post at Dutch Harbor, this time ending it with “The Japs are here!” Foster had been taken in for questioning and executed, in front of his wife, who was then swiftly sent away to a prison camp in Japan. (Left: UAF-1970-11-66, Right: UAF 1970-11-67)

The Japanese held control of Attu until May 11th, 1943 when members of the US 17th, 32nd Infantry Regiment, and a unit of Castner’s Cutthroats began the reoccupation of Attu Island.  It was a gruesome fight with not only the Japanese, but also the harsh weather conditions that are so typical of the Aleutian chain.

Seventeen-year- old Private Donald Lynch is treated by medics after remaining in a water-filled trench for more than twenty-four hours during enemy fire.  The Attu landing forces suffered heavily from exposure, particularly with trench foot, which was the case for Private Lynch.  Castner’s reconnaissance team had warned them of the cold weather conditions and had expressly advised against the use of the leather blucher boots, but to no avail.  The clothing and equipment issued to the 7th Division was neither warm enough to withstand the biting Aleutian winds nor waterproof enough to keep out the icy rain and the water that seeped into every foxhole.  (Image: ASL-P175-053)

Seventeen-year-old Private Donald Lynch is treated by medics after remaining in a water-filled trench for more than twenty-four hours during enemy fire. The Attu landing forces suffered heavily from exposure, particularly with trench foot, which was the case for Private Lynch. Castner’s reconnaissance team had warned them of the cold weather conditions and had expressly advised against the use of the leather blucher boots, but to no avail. The clothing and equipment issued to the 7th Division was neither warm enough to withstand the biting Aleutian winds nor waterproof enough to keep out the icy rain and the water that seeped into every foxhole. (Image: ASL-P175-053)

On May 29th, after weeks of fighting the enemy and the harsh weather conditions, the Japanese had broken the US troop line and fought for a steady thirty hours.  A strange turn of events took place after the initial fury of fire.   One final banzai charge sealed the ill fate of the Japanese, and the US had regained control of Attu.  The thundering of grenades faded and more than 1,000 Japanese lay dead.  The total Japanese loss was 2,500 men, 29 were captured alive.  Of the 15,000 US troops that landed, 550 were dead, 1,500 wounded, and 1,200 were victim to Attu’s climate.

The Combat Intelligence Platoon of Alaska Defense Command, nicknamed Castner’s Cutthroats, displaying their Japanese finds from Attu.  The items include a .30 caliber clip, sake bottle, infantry cap, belt of 1,000 stitches, flute, helmet, gloves, folding water bucket, three Japanese flags, port and starboard lanterns, 20mm high explosive shells, .25 caliber rifle with bayonet and pistol.  The Cutthroats were vital to the success of the war in Alaska by going on repeated reconnaissance missions, reporting weather, conditions, terrain, and advising authorities of necessary equipment and techniques for survival in remote regions.  The University’s own Ivar Skarland, who was first a student at the then Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, and ultimately served as the Director of the University Museum and chairman of the Division of Social Sciences, was also a voluntary member of the Platoon during the war.  (Photo by Al Brittain, former Alaska Scout, in Jim Rearden, “Castner’s Cutthroats” 1990)

The Combat Intelligence Platoon of Alaska Defense Command, nicknamed Castner’s Cutthroats, displaying their Japanese finds from Attu. The items include a .30 caliber clip, sake bottle, infantry cap, belt of 1,000 stitches, flute, helmet, gloves, folding water bucket, three Japanese flags, port and starboard lanterns, 20mm high explosive shells, .25 caliber rifle with bayonet and pistol. The Cutthroats were vital to the success of the war in Alaska by going on repeated reconnaissance missions, reporting weather, conditions, terrain, and advising authorities of necessary equipment and techniques for survival in remote regions. The University’s own Ivar Skarland, who was first a student at the then Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, and ultimately served as the Director of the University Museum and chairman of the Division of Social Sciences, was also a voluntary member of the Platoon during the war. (Photo by Al Brittain, former Alaska Scout, in Jim Rearden’s “Castner’s Cutthroats” 1990)

 

A soldier's badge.  One of many personal artifacts that is currently housed at the UA Museum of the North.  (UA2013-005-0049).

A soldier’s badge. One of many personal artifacts that is currently being housed at the UA Museum of the North. (UA2013-005-0049).

Today, Attu is a National Historic Landmark, with remnants from both the Japanese and US occupation.  The village that was once home to the islanders was destroyed during the war and never reestablished.  The LORAN station, which aided in navigating the Pacific Northwest both during and after the war, was established in 1946 but was shut down in 2010.  All that stands on the island are memorials for the fallen soldiers. We are forever grateful for the service of our men and women in arms, and their fight to protect our country and our freedoms.  Thank you.