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Elmer J. "Stroller" White was one of Alaska's best-known early journalists. Howard Clifford writes in "The Skagway Story" that White was "considered a combination Will Rogers and Art Buchwald of his time." Juneau historian Bob DeArmond, who was a cub reporter for The Stroller's Weekly in the early 1930s, considers White the "Mark Twain of the North."
White carved out a career as a columnist in an era before columnists were common, an era when even bylines were rare.
White was born Nov. 28, 1859, in Ohio. He graduated from Muskingum College at New Concord, Ohio, and began his career in journalism with the Gainesville News in Florida. He worked in the Puget Sound area from 1891 to 1898 and then headed for the Klondike, perhaps swept up in the excitement of the big gold rush - or just seeking new subjects for his articles. He became associate editor of the Skaguay News, a four-page publication established as a weekly in October 1897 by publisher and editor M.L. Sherpy.
White wrote of female Argonauts like "Barbara," a 76-pound woman whose age was said to equal her weight. White hired the grey-haired, blue-eyed woman as a paper-seller. She immediately earned two dollars with which she bought a piano box, which she made her home. Stroller became her banker, and in five months she had saved $1,350 - which got her back home to Butte, Montana.
White's residence in the humming supply town overlapped with that of Randolph "Soapy" Smith. Smith and his gang broke the law, and White wrote about breaking it. He enjoyed writing about hard drinkers, gamblers, sure-thing men (the period phrase for confidence men), bartenders, dance hall girls and colorful bums. The conspicuously extravagant Edwardian Age had succeeded the thrifty prudery of the Victorian Age, and stories of high living characters like Diamond Jim Brady were popular.
The story of Soapy's death, which ran on the front page of the Skaguay News on July 8, 1898, supplies an example that is most likely White's writing. It is headlined "Soapy Smith's Last Bluff and Its Fatal Ending." A single sentence serves to give the heightened tone that is typical of his prose: "Although there was not a single person in Skaguay who appeared to do honor to the man who yesterday was a popular hero and is today but a dead highwayman, yet there are those who will deeply mourn his untimely end."
Sharing the front page is another non-bylined story headlined "Klondike Gold Comes Out This way." It begins, "Hip, hip. Hurray! Gee whiz!! A goodly part of this season's output of gold from the Klondike will undoubtedly come out this way! About a quarter of a million of it came out this way yesterday, and this was merely by way of experiment. ...last night there was more excitement over the arrival of some forty Klondikers with bags of nuggets and dust ... than could be expected even on a railroad pay day."
With the exit of Soapy and the thugs he called his "lambs," Skagway became a lot less interesting from a writer's point of view. The Yukon Territory was created in August 1898 by Dominion Act of Parliament, and in November White moved on to Dawson.
At some point during the Klondike Gold Rush, White was a columnist and editor with the Whitehorse Star. He penned a hoax designed as a prequel to the popular drink called Ice Worm Cocktail - a tipple with a four-inch length of spaghetti at the bottom. White's story described giant worms and blue snows that appear when the temperature drops below minus 75 degrees F. His column included an alleged interview with a 100-year-old Native man who told of the worm, a creature with a head on either end of its body that grew to 1.2 meters (4 feet) and chirped lustily when the temperature hovered around minus 70 to minus 80 for several weeks.
This hoax is said to have inspired bank employee Robert W. Service to write his "Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail" and "When the Ice-Worms Nest Again."
When White tired of the Yukon, it was back to Alaska again. In 1916, Stroller was editor of the Douglas Island News. In 1921, he moved the printing equipment to Juneau and linked the name of the News with a new partner, The Stroller's Weekly. In 1918 White was elected a member of the House of Representatives of the Alaska Territorial Legislature. He later became speaker of the house. He was appointed the first director of the Alaska Bureau of Publicity, but he continued to keep his hand in journalism, publishing The Stroller's Weekly & Douglas Island News until his death in 1930. According to a chronology of Juneau and Douglas newspapers compiled by the Alaska State Library, his wife continued to publish the Weekly for three years after his death.
Much of the Weekly's text consisted of columns of reminiscences in which White referred to himself in the third person. This is an excerpt from a column titled "The Stroller Comes North": "Like a freshly hatched bumblebee, Skagway was full grown very young in life, and the town, less than a year old, was full of buzz and bumble and a lot of other things when the Stroller landed there in the early spring of the year 1898. During the next several months Soapy Smith and the Stroller held services in Skagway, each in his own separate and distinct manner. Soapy operated with three shells and a small pea (i.e., the shell game) and used automatic artillery, while the Stroller conducted a mild-mannered newspaper in which he pointed out the rewards of upright living and urged his readers always to put a squirt of lemon in it."
Here is an excerpt from the column titled "Northland Memories," describing one of his visits to court in search of news. It demonstrates the perfection of Stroller's vaudeville timing: "...it was charged that a dog had stolen a whole ham from a cache twelve feet high. The owner of the dog, who operated a restaurant in town, claimed that it was not possible for his dog to have climbed into the cache, but the owner of the ham swore that the dog, in 50-below weather, blew its breath on one of the posts of the cache, forming steps by which it climbed up and grabbed the ham. Moreover, said the erstwhile owner of the ham, although the dog chewed all the meat off the bone, he believed the ham bone was still in possession of the restaurant owner. He asked to be permitted to subpoena it as evidence. The magistrate took that under advisement. The Stroller knew, however, that the statement was true; he had eaten soup made from that identical ham bone dozens of times."
For more about White, see Bob DeArmond's book, "Klondike Newsman 'Stroller' White." The revised edition (1990, Lynn Canal Publishing) is illustrated with photos from the White family collection.
To hear a 1998 recording made in Dawson of the popular Canadian song based on Service's ballad of the ice worm, go to www.folkbrigade.ca/Music.html.
Southeast Sagas is a series that appears in the Juneau Empire every other Wednesday.