In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge appointed George A. Parks as territorial Governor of Alaska. This marked an important turning point in Alaska politics because, unlike previous appointees, Parks was a long-time resident.
In 1926, while visiting the Post Office building in Washington D.C., standing among the flags of each state and territory displayed in the rotunda, the Postmaster General commented to Parks that the territory of Alaska was not represented because it lacked a flag. On returning home, Parks immediately contacted the Alaska Department of the American Legion to discuss methods for Alaskans to develop a territorial flag.
On Jan., 1927, more than 30 years before Alaska became a state; the Alaska Department of the American Legion sponsored a territorial contest for Alaska children in grades seven through 12 to develop a flag to represent the future state of Alaska. Up to that time, Alaskans had flown only the U.S. flag since the territory was purchased from Russia in 1867. Contest rules were circulated throughout the Territory, stipulating that the first stage of the competition would take place at the local level. Each town would set up a panel of judges that would determine the ten best local designs and forward these to Juneau where the final competition would take place. More than 700 submissions were received, of which 142 designs were forwarded to Juneau.
The Juneau Flag Committee reviewed many interesting and unique concepts. Some were rejected because they were too specific to one or another of certain aspects of the vast Alaska Territory. A couple designs were centered on polar bears, others around the fishing and mining industries, the midnight sun, the northern lights, and about one third centered on the territorial seal.
The winner of the contest was John Bell (Benny) Benson from Chignik, a 13- year-old seventh-grade Aleut student. At the time of the contest he was living in an orphanage in Seward, the Jesse Lee Mission Home.
The present day Alaska State Flag, designed by Benson, has a blue background to represent the sky and the Forget-me-not flower. On that background were placed eight gold stars to represent the Big Dipper and the North Star. The big Dipper forms part of the constellation Ursa Major or Great Bear, symbolizing strength. The North Star represents the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. On the bottom edge of the flag was the date 1867, the date of purchase of the Territory; that was later removed. Benny’s simple but elegant design was adopted by the Alaska Territorial Legislature in May of 1927.
Benson received a gold watch that was engraved with his flag design. Additionally, the Alaska legislature awarded Benny $1,000 toward a trip to Washington, D.C. to present the Alaska flag to President Calvin Coolidge. Due to prior commitments of the President, the trip never took place. The Legislature decided to apply his award of $1,000 to his education. Though he never went to Washington, D.C., the territorial flag became the Official “State” flag when Alaska joined the union in 1959.
Benson was born in Chignik Oct. 12, 1913, to a Swedish father and an Aleut-Russian mother. His mother died when he was 3 years old, which forced his father to send him and his brother Carl to an orphanage because he could no longer take care of them. His sister remained with his father. Benson grew up at the Jesse Lee Children’s Home in Unalaska and later in Seward.
After graduating from High School in 1932, Benson left the Jesse Lee Home and returned to the Aleutian Islands to work with his father at a fox farm in Ugaiushak Island. In 1936 he moved to Seattle and, with the use of the $1000 prize money, enrolled in the Hemphill Diesel Engineering School for diesel engine repair. Later he moved to Kodiak where he became an airplane mechanic for Kodiak Airways. Benson donated the watch he won in the flag contest to the Alaska State Museum in 1963. He died of a heart attack in 1972 in Kodiak at the age of 58. If you visit Seward, you can find the Benny Benson Memorial at Mile 1.4 of the Seward Highway.
There is more to this story. Two additional people, Claudia Marie Drake and Elinor Dusenbury, must be mentioned to complete the full story of the Alaska State Flag.
Claudia Marie Drake was born Feb. 11, 1888 in Ohio. She married James Drake in 1907 and moved with him to Alaska when he was assigned to work for the Bureau of Public Roads. Lester Henderson was appointed to be the first commissioner of education in Alaska and hired Marie Drake as his secretary. In 1934 Drake assumed the position of assistant commissioner of education. She edited and wrote most of the material for the department’s School Bulletin that was circulated throughout the territorial school system. The following poem first appeared on the cover of the October 1935 School Bulletin:
Eight stars of gold on a field of blue —
Alaska’s flag, May it mean to you
The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes and the flow’rs nearby;
The gold of the early sourdough’s dreams,
The precious gold of the hills and streams;
The brilliant stars in the northern sky,
The “Bear”— the “Dipper” — and, shining high,
The great North Star with its steady light,
Over land and sea a beacon bright,
Alaska’s Flag — to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier.
In the summer of 1938, Elinor Dusenbury, a singer and public school choral director, put Drake’s words to music. Dusenbury and Drake met at the Baranof Hotel in Juneau and Dusenbury played the new song on the hotel piano. It is said that upon hearing the song tears came to the poet’s eyes. A publisher was found and soon afterward an Omaha radio station (WOW) sent the music to Fred Waring (America’s Singing Master). Two weeks later, his Glee Club performed the song on the Chesterfield Hour on national radio. In a surprise move by the Alaska Legislature, in 1955, they passed a bill adopting the song and words as the official song of the Territory.
Drake died in 1963. In 1984, a fire at the Baranof Hotel destroyed the piano that Dusenbury initially played the Alaska Flag song.
These three individuals have left an indelible mark on Alaska’s history and, I might add, on Juneau itself. So, the next time you see the Alaskan Flag waving in the breeze over our Capital building or you happen to be walking down past Second and Franklin Streets where the Baranof Hotel still stands, remember Benny Benson, Marie Drake, and Elinor Dusenbury, a real part of our heritage.
God Flies Benny’s Flag by Velma Moos Potter
Eight Stars of Gold, The Story of Alaska’s Flag by India M. Spartz