Celebrating the Wickersham tradition

Posted: Tuesday, May 09, 2000

On Sunday, May 14, as part of International Museum Day celebrations, the House of Wickersham on Seventh Street downtown will dedicate its open house to the memory of Ruth Allman. Nothing could be more fitting, since without Ruth, there would be no House of Wickersham Historical Site as we know it. She devoted much of her life to preserving and sharing Alaska's early history through her very personal tours and unique hospitality at the House of Wickersham.

Ruth was a friend of my family through three generations. To honor my grandmother's friendship with Ruth's aunt Grace Wickersham and our love for Ruth, my mother, Amy Lou Barney, and I will be at the house from 2 to 4 p.m., on Museum Day to share our recollections.

Ruth died in 1989, so perhaps a little background on her will refresh memories or provide introductions. Ruth Coffin was born in Boston and came to Alaska in the early 1930s to join Grace and her husband Judge James Wickersham. She taught music and art in the Juneau public schools from kindergarten to high school, and was one of the organizers of the first Southeast Alaska Music Festival in 1934. When the judge died in 1939, Mrs. Wickersham was forced to sell part of his extensive collection of Alaska artifacts and diaries in order to pay his medical expenses. Ruth hated to see the collection broken up, and vowed that it never would be again.

In 1949 Ruth married Jack Allman, an early day Alaska newspaperman and author, and set up housekeeping in Bush cabins. She brought her sterling silver, Lenox china and a lace tablecloth, and once a month the Allmans ``dressed up'' in clean wool shirts and sox and dined in style to celebrate. Years ago, I wrote down something Ruth said that I believed typified her outlook: ``I like the beautiful regardless of where.''

Ruth and Jack established Tongass Lodge at Excursion Inlet where she experimented with Native berry recipes and jams. She was made an honorary member of the Tlingit Eagle Clan, and given the name Kut'aan-Sa-Wu-St'aan, which means ``waiting for summer to come.'' She was a care-giver first to her cancer-stricken husband until his death in 1953. Then, again in the 1960s, when Mrs. Wickersham became terminally ill. That was when Ruth faced losing the Wickersham House and the remaining collection, or finding a way to pay Grace's medical bills and hold on to what she knew was a gem of Alaska's history. Out of this dilemma the House of Wickersham was born.

Ruth's entrepreneurial endeavor did not get much support from the community at first, but a few devoted friends helped her get started and Ruth persevered. I love seeing my grandmother's hand-braided rugs and needlepoint chair seats still in the house. Others donated their time, their cup collections and whatever else Ruth needed to complete her vision of a gracious historical experience. She set the dining room table with white linen, fine china, poured coffee from her family's silver service, and served her ``flaming sourdoughs'' made from her own starter. For a fee visitors were transported back to a more colorful time as Ruth entertained them with stories of her uncle. Since the judge was crucial in the foundation of Alaska's law and education, Ruth's storytelling amounted to an oral history of our state, which she shared with thousands of visitors from all over the world for over 25 years.

In so doing she preserved and maintained Judge Wickersham's memorabilia, which dates back to Russian America. In 1976 Ruth wrote the book ``Alaska Sourdough, the Real Stuff by a Real Alaskan.'' It is a marvel of recipes and anecdotes, lovingly hand-written and illustrated by Ruth herself. It is still one of the top-selling Alaska books. Her accomplishments were recognized in 1961 when Ruth was named Woman of the Year in Juneau. In 1980 her ``flaming sourdoughs'' were featured in the book America's Best 100. She was awarded the highest possible honors many organizations had to give, and one that pleased her most was being made an official U.S. Coast Guard Mother.

In 1984 the state bought the House of Wickersham. Today the nonprofit Wickersham Society is the custodian of Ruth's legacy, dedicated to keeping the house open for the community. I think she would love the fact that it is, once again, available for small tours and special events. Whether they knew her or not, Alaskans have reason to be grateful for Ruth's perseverance and love for our state. We hope people will come to the House of Wickersham on Museum Day and help us celebrate the memory of Ruth Allman, a ``real Alaskan.''

Renee Guerin grew up in Juneau. She is a former Broadway singer and actress who returned home to write. She is the author of ``The Singing Teacher'' and ``Amy Lou's Alaska.''

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