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Exploring Alaska through books and maps

Posted: March 17, 2013 - 12:03am
Dee Longenbaugh  Illustration by Melissa Griffiths
Illustration by Melissa Griffiths
Dee Longenbaugh

Nestled among many thousands of books, antique maps and other unique publications, one can find Dee Longenbaugh at her desk, ready to offer direction in the search for a book or to share some of her encyclopedic knowledge on any number of topics. Mostly, Longenbaugh specializes in the history of Alaska, former Russian America, and maps, but the petite septuagenarian has been around the world by plane, train, automobile, boat and book.

Longenbaugh’s physical presence among the high shelves, heaped with books and lining the walls of multiple rooms, is representative of the inner workings of her mind. There is no separating the woman and her personal history from the history and the geography of the world.

A conversation with Longenbaugh about her life will be half autobiographical and half history and geography lesson. She explained that Mt. Edgecumbe was once a separate town from Sitka, and that’s where they first lived. You might also get a lesson on the proper pronunciation of Baranov, the namesake of the island.

She came to Alaska in the 1960s with her husband and three children. Their fourth child, born six years after the third, can claim the title “The Mt. Edgecumbe Surprise.”

“My husband was in the public health service. He’d just finished his residency in surgery in Baltimore, and we were looking for something because he was from Colorado and I was from New Mexico, and Oklahoma as well, and we were looking for something out west and, anyway, he was off to Alaska, so we figured we’d go there for two years and move down to the Southwest, where we were born and had family and that’s what we were going to do.” Longenbaugh said.

As many Alaskan tales go, two years became a much longer stay.

“Well, (we) got interested in boating — my husband called himself a sagebrush sailor — he just fell in love with boating and you can’t do much boating in western Colorado or northern New Mexico.” Longenbaugh joked.

The pair bought a boat and, with their three children, spent a lot of time on the water.

Boating wasn’t the only draw, they also recognized that Southeast Alaska was a good place to raise their children.

“We came with three very young children and Sitka, and I think Juneau as well, are wonderful places for kids to grow up. You don’t need parents watching you all the time, you know. In Sitka, once you learn to steer clear of the deep water, kids could camp out and run and play and go out on the boat, which we did, lots. And like all Alaska kids, when they hit their teens, their late teens, they can scarcely wait to get out. Because ‘there’s nothing to do here, this is a dumb town and the wide world is waiting. And all we do is go out on the boat and that’s no fun.’ And stuff like that.”

For many years, Longenbaugh’s full-time job was taking care of the children. She was also an active volunteer, starting young, with her mother volunteering her and her sisters at public libraries whenever they moved to a new place, and continuing to the point at which she would joke she “had done so much community good, (she) felt like going out and doing some community evil.”

After volunteering with the Alaska Crippled Children’s Association (now Easter Seals), serving as president on an occasion or two, and volunteering with the public radio station, Longenbaugh had the task of figuring out what to do with the time freed up by the children being grown, two in Alaska and two in Washington now, all making their mother proud.

“… I don’t want to own a radio station,” Longenbaugh mused, “Or a library — so I thought, ‘Alaska books! I know a lot about Alaska books.’ Well, I didn’t, but sometimes, you know, you’ve probably read those things about starting your own business where you should explore and find your niche — or your niche, depending on how pretentious you are — and then do an apprenticeship or something, but sometimes I think it’s just better to just do it.”

And so Longenbaugh opened Observatory Books in Sitka with 343 out-of-print books on Alaska as the backbone.

“I thought, ‘That’s a lot!’ If I had known there was something like 20 or 25 thousand, if I’d had any idea I’d probably still be collecting books saying “Someday I’m going to open a shop.” So I just did. I just opened my shop in Sitka, in an old house that had 480 square feet in the entire building, including the bathroom which had a bathtub in it. But I discovered that I really enjoyed it.”

Longenbaugh ended up dealing in out-of-print Alaskana because living in Sitka seemed to breed in people a fascination for history of the place.

“You see, if you live in Sitka and you’re interested in history, Sitka was the capital from 1808 until 1906, when Juneau took over. There’s a lot of Russian history there and they’re very proud of it and they like to talk about it. That’s how I got interested in that. It’s fun when you live in the town and you read about, see a map or something that shows the different buildings and you can go and say, “Oh, that was there” — that’s fun.”

She reveled in making discoveries while poring over old books, photographs and articles. She said Sitka is “a place of dreams and illusions” and referenced the old Russian castle which was shown on fire in an 1894 photograph, but which lived on in tales until at least the 1950’s.

“I think most places have myths, don’t you? I think the older the place, the more lively the myths.” Longenbaugh prompted, leading up to claim to infamy many Sitkans have held dear.

“When Harding was president in 1923, was it ‘24? I think it was ‘23. He came up to Alaska to drive the golden spike to finish the Alaska Railroad that goes from Seward to Fairbanks, ok, so he did, and the whole little town (of Sitka) at that time — there were probably 3-500 people (in) Sitka, they were told the president was going to be stopping and having dinner there, and his wife too, and they were so thrilled. So, the whole town pitched in … and they were all so thrilled and they worked very hard and they had this banquet and the president and Mrs. Harding were there and it was wonderful — and three days later he died of food poisoning,” goes the story, “Well, it turns out, no, I mean, the dinner did happen and they were thrilled, but no … they stopped in Seattle and had dinner and they were down in San Francisco when he died — but it’s such a lovely story. Heartwarming. Well, you know, you never know what’s going to happen here, and it’s so much more entertaining than (if) he’d just had a good dinner and met some of the prominent Tlingits and, you know, that’s no fun.”

In addition to helping people find books and providing interesting conversation, she is a published historian and author who travels to Europe regularly to search out more inventory and to present at conferences of the International Map Collectors’ Society and the International Conference on the History of Cartography. She also presents at museums and schools and is working on a book about the history of mapping Alaska.

Why does history fascinate Longenbaugh so much? She was raised that way.

“I think it’s because my family, my mother and dad, were both born and raised in Oklahoma… they had lots of stories. And we’d be driving, the kids in the back quarreling, and they’d get to chatting about a book they’d read or looking out at the countryside, “Yeah, that’s where the such-and-such battle took place,” so we just grew up thinking history is part of life,” Longenbaugh said, “And it really is.”

A little family history: one grandfather was an oil wildcatter and an exceptional investor and the other, from Frankfort, Kent., left home young and drove cattle and farmed. Her mother and father met the first time at ages six and four. Her mother was sitting on an ant hill and her father was sent to rescue her — it turns out she was immune to the stings, but he was not. That romance eventually blossomed and they started a family, moving frequently from town to town, eventually making a larger leap to New Mexico. As a child, she enjoyed the frequent moves, but since calling Alaska home, she’s kept her roots in Southeast. Longenbaugh did spend an additional two years in Santa Fe after closing her shop and selling her house in Sitka, but wild Alaska called and she chose to settle in Juneau, where she again opened a bookstore in 1992.

The wanderlust is sated through travel for the different conferences. The locations rotate from country to country, so Longenbaugh has been to London, England; Barcelona, Spain; Budapest, Hungary; Zagreb just before Yugoslovia fell apart; Riga, Latvia; Oslo, Norway and many other cities. She missed going to Vienna this year because of a broken rib. They have also met in various U.S. cities and next year Fairbanks will host, she said with notable glee.

She may also satisfy the wanderlust by studying the many maps she has, one dating as far back as the 1570 — because they were made from linen and very expensive, they were taken care of and held up amazingly well. She can be entertained for hours looking at the maps and wondering why they thought what they thought, studying and researching.

“The thing about old maps is they show how our ancestors looked at the world; what they knew and what they thought they knew. And it’s all completely visual, you don’t have to know the language.”

As much as Longenbaugh enjoys the intellectual side of things, she said she also loves her job because of all the nice people she meets.

“I’m glad I have a bookstore in a tourist town… if they do like books, they come in, and lots of interesting people come in.”

If curiosity drives you, let it drive you right to the little bookstore on the corner of Third and Franklin streets, where Longenbaugh can help you find a book, provide a history lesson, or maybe let you touch a map from the 1600s.

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