What's up with that?

Discovering Switzer, and diversions along the way

Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2003

Q: Who's the Switzer that Switzer Creek and Switzer Village are named after?

A: According to "The Centennial Gazetteer: A Guide to Juneau, Alaska Place Names," the creek and mobile home park are almost certainly named after Charles "Charlie" Switzer (1855-1946).

Switzer was a man who, through the very last moment of his life, was devoted to public service and helping others.

That might casually be said about many kind-hearted people, but for Switzer it was, very literally, true. On Sept. 10, 1946, at the age of 91, Switzer was serving on a jury that had gone to the Juneau federal jailhouse to interview a figure in the case at hand when he collapsed and died.

What was then called The Daily Alaska Empire ran a first-day story reporting his death - with a brutally honest headline reading simply, "Drops Dead," - that called Switzer "perhaps one of the biggest hearted men in Alaska."

The next day, in an editorial titled "Friend of Many," the Empire expounded on Switzer's life and good deeds:

"Charlie Switzer, who died suddenly yesterday afternoon ... was a friend of many and an Alaskan extraordinary. He had been in Alaska since 1898, was a graduate of Cornell University and was a bugler with the Northern Army of the Civil War.

"As early as 1874 his desire to help others became foremost in his life. As a worker in the Curry Mine in Virginia City, Nev., at that time he sent two nieces and a nephew through college. He was constantly helping others. One young man he fed and cared for in Alaska was Jack London, the famous writer. He was rich many times, but his money went for the poor, the unfortunates, the drunkards and others he befriended.

"The dairy farm which Switzer sold recently was started in 1922, and since that time he has fed and sheltered more than a thousand men. If on his milk route he found a man down and out, he'd pack him out to his farm and put him on his feet. Many were those he supplied milk without charge.

"His thousands of friends who have made the grade with his help are scattered all over the world, and all will be saddened by news of his death."

Switzer's dairy was located about 8 miles out Glacier Highway, the Empire reported - which would put it right about where Switzer Creek and Switzer Village are today.

While looking up information about Charlie Switzer, I happened upon a news item from Feb. 8, 1939, reporting that Switzer had broken his leg when a truck filled with rocks hit his dairy delivery truck.

But news of that accident was buried deep inside the paper, because the eyes and minds of Juneauites were focused elsewhere that day.

Feb. 8, 1939 - a little more than 64 years ago - was the day of the massive Goldstein Building fire in downtown Juneau.

The Daily Alaska Empire of that day proclaimed, in a banner headline, "$250,000 loss in early morning blaze."

The Goldstein Building, since rebuilt and still standing on the corner of Second and Seward, housed 60 residents and several businesses that were completely destroyed in the blaze, including the Juneau Clinic, Goldstein Furriers, United Food Store and the radio studios of KINY.

The Empire devoted numerous stories to the conflagration - which it called the worst in Juneau's history - and to the accompanying scene, which it described as "having all the elements of a dime novel."

I'll share one last interesting item found along the winding path taken to learn about Charlie Switzer.

While I knew there was no connection to Juneau, the name Switzer, to me, signifies licorice. I've never been a licorice fan, but while growing up in the Midwest - where the name is most commonly heard as "Switt-zer" rather than "Swite-zer" - I developed that association.

When I went looking for information about Switzer's licorice, I found that the St. Louis-based company had been bought out and amalgamated into Hershey Foods. And that Hershey's changed the Switzer formulation to taste more like Twizzlers licorice. And that Switzer fans looking for the original taste should try Halva licorice, imported from Finland.

In short, I found out way more about licorice than I ever thought possible, thanks to www.licorice.org. That's the Web site of Licorice Finder, "a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the gourmet aspects and health benefits of licorice."

The site features a searchable database of "lost licorice" brands, and makes for an interesting stop on the information superhighway.

Andrew Krueger is Switzered-out, and can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com. Send questions or comments for What's Up With That to whatsup@juneauempire.com.

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