Worth a thousand words

Rare photographs found during Juneau cottage renovation

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001

Decades ago, two amateur photographers preserved some of the little-documented Filipino history of Juneau.

Gaspar Advincula and Vincent Isturis Sr. were ore sorters at the Alaska Juneau gold mine in the 1930s. They snapped portraits of themselves and their friends, posed in their Sunday best - at the Mendenhall Glacier in 1937, with band instruments and in a cottage on Gastineau Avenue.

The photos, developed by Winter & Pond, were mailed home to relatives in the Philippines. The 6- by 9-centimeter format black-and-white negatives languished in a suitcase in the attic of a cottage purchased seven years ago by carpenter Bruce Tenney.

Tenney discovered the negatives when renovating the 875-square-foot structure as a bed-and-breakfast. Everything in the low attic was so sooty, he feels that discouraged previous owners from searching.

"The old photographs and their historical importance to Juneau have been a joy to everyone that I have shared them with," Tenney said. "This whole thing has been a lot of fun."

Rudy Govina, 89, who moved to Juneau in 1937, was able to identify some of the portraits. Govina named Frank Bilardi (posing at the Mendenhall), Joe Fulgencio, Joe Elmeron, Frank Sisson and others. He said they were miners from "Little Manila" who followed a trail leading from downtown to the A-J mine.

Excited about his find, Tenney donated copies of 19 negatives to the Alaska State Library. He also created a history page for his

Web site, juneaugreenhouse.com, which included a couple of the historic photos.


Soon he came to the attention of the Home and Garden Television Network, HGTV, headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn., and their program "If Walls Could Talk."

"I was really flattered" that they wanted to film, he said.

The episode featuring The Green House Private Cottage will air at 6 and 9 p.m. Monday, March 19, on cable channel 70 in Juneau.

"We profile houses with an interesting story to tell," said Tom Giesen of High Noon Productions in Denver, producer of the show "If Walls Could Talk."

"Showing a working man's cottage is thrilling for us. We don't necessarily profile 'mansions.' For us the glamour in these profiles is Alaska itself, and the connection, in the case of Bruce's house, with gold mining and the wonderful find of the photos," Giesen said.

Filipinos first ventured to Southeast Alaska in the summer to work in fish canneries, said mining historian David Stone. But when the A-J Mine opened in 1917, some switched jobs and by the 1930s, about 60 Filipino men were employed.

"And they worked until the mine shut down in 1944," he said.

The U.S. Census of 1930 counted Chinese in Juneau, but not Filipinos. Nevertheless, Filipino workers were prized for their reliability and industriousness, Stone said, and most ore sorters were Filipino.

"Sorting belts carried rock from the mine. The workers took the gold-bearing rock and pulled it off the belts. The other rock went into the dumps," he said.

In addition to the Filipino photos, Tenney found evidence that dated his cottage to Juneau's early years. He found a booklet of prayer meeting topics for 1898 from the Northern Light Presbyterian Church and a 1899 Juneau Ferry & Navigation Co. schedule for the steamers Flossie and Lone Fisherman.

"This is very significant. It wasn't 10 (or) 15 years before that there was really nothing here in Juneau at all," he said. A section of wall contained newspapers from 1937, suggesting the original 19th-century dwelling was expanded with an arctic entry across one end.

Its original inhabitants might find it difficult to recognize The Green House. Tenney has added an antique stove as well as wainscoting, a type of paneling on the lower part of an interior wall. He's taken up "archaic linoleum" to reveal wood floors, installed sliding glass doors off the kitchen, and opened up the inside with big beams.

As to the men in the photos, some have left descendants behind.

"He took pictures his whole life; I have trunks of them," said Virginia Johns, oldest of Vincent Isturis Sr.'s seven children. "He is known for his photos and for his hand-painted pictures."

Isturis was born in the Philippines in 1908, came to Alaska in 1925, moved to Juneau in 1929, and worked for the A-J until it closed. He then worked for canneries around Southeast, she said. He eventually became a custodian for state office buildings downtown, and worked his way up to custodial foreman, she said. He died at age 79, and has 31 immediate descendants.

"He and my mother, Betty, and their friends were instrumental in establishing the Filipino Community organization in Juneau," Johns said. "There were no Filipino women when they came so many of them married Tlingit women."

Miner Rudy Isturis, brother of Vincent, became a commercial fisherman when the A-J closed, and moved to Hoonah, says his son, also named Rudy, now a Juneau resident.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at:


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