Early Juneau movers and shapers

Simpkins and Metzgar families helped make things happen in the early years of the city

Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Many small towns are founded on the rock of ordinary people who help to establish commerce, society and the arts.

A Juneau case in point is the Simpkins and Metzgar families. The individuals are George Simpkins and his wife Ann Lynch Simpkins, Louis H. Metzgar, nephew Edward Metzgar and Edward's wife, Mary Simpkins Metzgar.

Louis H. Metzgar got his start in mine administration in Nevada. He came to Alaska in 1915 to take the position of assistant superintendent of the Treadwell properties, which had until then been managed jointly with the Alaska-Juneau Mine by Philip R. Bradley. By the 1930s, Metzgar had succeeded Bradley as general superintendent of the A-J, the town's biggest employer. Metzgar cemented his relationship with hard-rock gold by marrying into the Bradley family, which owned the A-J, as well as a mine in Kellogg, Idaho. Louis invited his nephew Edward to work one summer to earn tuition for the University of Idaho. Three years later, in the late '30s, Edward left college to return to Alaska to work full-time in the mine.

The A-J first boomed in the early 1900s. Its main camp consisted of a 100-stamp mill, a smithy, bunk houses, a mess hall, a school and a post office. In its heyday, the A-J was one of the three largest gold mines in the world and employed 1,000 men. It closed in 1944 after producing nearly $80 million in gold.

"Louis was nicknamed 'Luther,' because it was a Protestant family," says Mary's son, George Metzgar. The Metzgars and Simpkins were active in church and fraternal organizations and knew each other socially. Betty Miller of Juneau recalls that her father, LeRoy West, was a member of the Alaska Elks Lodge contemporary with Simpkins. "If you look at the cookbook published by the Northern Light Presbyterian Church in 1930, you'll see the Metzgars and Simpkins contributed recipes, and there is an ad in the back for Simpkins' book bindery," George says.

Mary was born April 21, 1913, to Ann Lynch Simpkins and George Simpkins. There were two other daughters in the family, Barbara and Jean. The family resided on East Fifth Street in a house that is still occupied. Mary attended St. Anne's School, and remembers the "sledding hill" at 7th and Gold. One of her early memories is of Mr. Lund "up the street" who had one of the first automobiles in town. She also recalls that her mother was among the first women to learn how to drive. A favorite winter recreation was skating on Mendenhall Lake.

During an interview in October 2003, when the vivacious Metzgar and her son George were visiting Juneau, Mary reminisced about her life here and in other spots around Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

Her mother, Ann Simpkins, used to earn pin money by hand-tinting pictures for Ordway's Photo. "She would have a stack of these pictures that she was working on, and then she would clear them all off [the table] and serve dinner," Metzgar recalled. "She was interested in photography, and I remember that once she had Sydney Laurence to dinner." (Laurence was a working photographer before he earned a reputation as a landscape painter.)

Ann Simpkins was one of the three judges who selected Benny Bensons design for the territorial flag, George Metzgar said earlier this month in a telephone interview. She was a painter, an artist and an expert needlepointer and did a lot of beautiful things.

George Simpkins was deputy customs inspector for Juneau from about 1908 through Prohibition, George Metzgar said. Dad [Ed Metzgar] used to say that George was the only guy in the 30s who had a good drink of Scotch whisky because hed confiscated it. George also owned a book bindery and printing business called Simpkins on Front Street next to where McDonalds is today. Simpkins operated a ruling machine and hand-fed presses. The specialty of the business was printing and binding business ledgers in which sums were entered by hand.

There was no one else doing that around here, said Jack Gucker, 79, of Juneau. He was also the stationer for office supplies. Gucker bought Simpkins out in 1952 and updated the firm with automatic presses and the first automatic folder in the Territory. First National Bank had been Simpkins main account. Gucker took over that account, and we were able to ultimately have the largest commercial printing business in Southeast Alaska. He remembers George Simpkins as a fine gentleman.

Another friend, Mary Elizabeth Johnson, met Barbara and Jean Simpkins at the University of Washington dormitory in 1938-39. I grew up in the Seattle area and was studying business management and nutrition. Then I came up to Juneau in July 1940 to be married. Because I knew Barbara and Jean, Mary was my matron of honor, and we had our wedding dinner at the Simpkins house. When Mary and Ed left, her mother and I did a lot of hiking and exploring and drove out to the shrine a long trip in those days, Johnson said.

In 1940, Johnson recalls, Juneau was a town of about 5,000. You could charge at all the stores. Westerns played at the Capitol Theater every Saturday for a dollar, and if we didnt have a dollar, we could write a check. It was a booming town; because of the mine it was busy 24 hours a day. My husband used to say that the muckers beds in the boarding houses were never cold because someone was always sleeping in them. Many of the muckers were Armenians, and they spent as little money as possible because they saved to send to their families back home. The town was segregated then. You saw No Natives allowed signs.

Mary was a member of the high school graduating class of 1931. She married Edward Metzgar in 1939 in a church wedding, with Louise Kemper as her bridesmaid. (She had met Louise in a bridge club.) The couple was the first to spend a honeymoon at the Baranof Hotel, then brand new and one of the few places in Juneau that could both accommodate and cater a large wedding reception. Before their marriage, recalled George Metzgar, a customer services representative for the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, Dad and his friend Mickey McManomum, who had also come up to work at the A-J, started a newspaper called the Juneau Reminder. The Reminder was published for less than a year, unable to compete with the established paper in town.

In February 1940, the couples first son, Johnnie, was born. The Metzgars decided to leave Juneau and return to Kellogg, Idaho. Soon the family grew to include George (born in September 1941 in Wallace, Idaho) and Jean. Ed went into construction. He built the Milo Theatre in Smelterville, Idaho, and the family lived in the same building. Ed was drafted during World War II, and Mary labored on the home front to keep his various enterprises humming.

After his discharge from active service, Ed invested in the latest fad, drive-ins. In May 1950 he opened a theater in Moscow, Idaho. While Dad was all over the country, on the weekends Mom would load us kids up and drive down to Moscow to run the theater because it was so busy, George said. Eventually Ed built five drive-ins; the other four locations were in Clarkston, Wash., Lewiston, Idaho; Grangeville, Idaho; and Richland, Wash. In the late 50s, he also owned the Washington Hotel in Pullman.

The Metzgar family moved about every five years, following the jobs of the breadwinner. For instance, following the 1964 earthquake that washed away much of downtown Kodiak, Ed built a new hotel there, Shelikof Lodge. We got a disaster loan to do it, Mary said. The Lodge had a modular design, which was very new then. They built it in Spokane in about 90 days with kitchens in each unit. They even installed the beds and all the furnishings. Then the modules were shipped up by SeaLand. Then he bought the Redoubt Motel in Kenai and expanded it in the 70s. He would go off to build something else and leave me to run things, she said with a laugh.

Louis Metzgar died in San Francisco in 1940 at age 64. Edward Metzgar died in 1999. Mary Simpkins Metzgar lives in Linwood, Wash. She has five grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. She often encounters old friends at the annual Juneau-Douglas Picnic in Seattle. Her visit to Juneau in October 2003 was her first since the fall of 1940. However, she plans to return in July for a school reunion.

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