Juneau Color: Watching 91 years of our history

In nine decades, Katherine Messerschmidt Shaw has been a basketball champ, widowed mother of six and volunteer extraordinaire

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

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Katherine Messerschmidt Shaw readily summons up the heavenly odors and "the delicious cookies my father made: Lady fingers, macaroons, fruit bars and doughnuts. We would put a string of doughnuts around our necks and play street games, sharing the doughnuts with our friends."

Shaw, 91, was one of nine children of baker George Messerschmidt. She was born on the second floor of what is today known as the Silverbow Inn. "When you eat in The Back Room, you are under the room I was born in," she said. "I'm the little girl in the white apron in the (historic) picture there."

She got her business training early, behind the counter of her father's bakery. "When you were old enough to put a loaf of bread across the counter and take 10 cents, you were an employee," said Shaw. "A lot of people charged, and you had to do the books."

Shaw's life spans most of Juneau's history - from the days when the arrival of a steamer was an important social event, from the days when the Mendenhall Valley was "just a few fox farms and some people at Auke Bay," from the days when fresh eggs seemed bland because your taste buds were accustomed to "cold storage eggs." She was here in territorial days, and later worked for the first Legislature. And she remembers it all.

Before modern medicine, disease ate large families alive. Shaw's twin sister died at 2 months of whooping cough, and another sibling was taken by pneumonia. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Katherine was 16.

George Messerschmidt's San Francisco Bakery, founded in 1902, was sold in 1946, "but the people who bought it couldn't make it go," she said. Two of her brothers took it back for a time. Silverbow has been owned by Ken Alper and Jill Ramiel since 1997.

In high school, Shaw played basketball. She proudly displays the silver pendant that shows she was a Southeast champ in 1926-27. She played guard, and has fond memories of going by ferry to Douglas and by steamer to Wrangell for games. "They were rough players," she says of the Wrangell team.

She met her future husband at a Saturday night jitney dance at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall. They married in October 1927. George Shaw was an employee of the electric company, in charge of the meter department. One of his summer tasks was walking the length of the flume every day.

In the 1930s, the arrival of a steamer in Juneau was a big deal.

"We only had a ship a week most of the year, but there were more in the summers, when the canneries were running. On a nice day, you would wheel your baby down to the docks in the carriage."


She sewed and gardened. "At one time, every thing my kids wore, I had sewed," she said.

In September 1949, George Shaw died suddenly at home at age 45 of a heart attack. Katherine was eight months pregnant with her sixth child, Margaret. She then supported her family by running a nursery for eight years.

"I took care of kids for people on short trips up the Taku River, on three-day hunting trips or three weeks in Europe. It wasn't like today's day care," she said.

During World War II, she recalls the required blackouts in case Japanese planes flew over. Her kids, avid readers, would go into the house's central hall, close all the doors, and hunker down there with their books. "I can remember opening the fridge and the light was so bright!" she said.

"The blackout was a joke when you think of a moon-lit evening," she added.

Shaw's financial training behind the San Francisco Bakery's counter came to her aid when she applied to the first state Legislature in 1958. She rose from a clerk's position into the Department of Revenue, where she worked for 15 years.

The secret to a lively old age is keeping busy, Shaw said. One of her sons, Al Shaw, a retired school teacher, lives here. Fourteen grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren occupy some of her time.

"I do a lot of reading. To me, books are life. But I don't sit at home. I went door-to-door in bitter cold weather for 20 years collecting for March of Dimes." Both before and after retirement, she explored nearby slopes and peaks, hiking through her 85th year.

While her children were growing up, she volunteered for organizations such as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and 4-H. "I have been a volunteer all my life. 'Volunteer' is my middle name," she said. She was on the committee that built the state museum. She has worked on the pioneer history that will debut later this year. And she's a familiar face every second Saturday at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

Shaw has volunteered for more than 25 years at the Catholic Diocese, currently on its newspaper, "Inside Passage."

"She is very faithful, missing only when she broke her hip. She doesn't drive, so she walks here with her cane no matter what the weather is," said Louise Miller, editor of the bi-weekly paper.

"She lets you know exactly what's on her mind, and that's what I like about her," Miller added.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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