FAIRBANKS - Two tins of LaMont's Improved Crystallized Egg bearing testimonials from Mrs. General Custer. Two dog collars. A cleaning kit for a .30-caliber rifle tucked inside a rusty baking soda can touting the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A hand-forged hook. A newspaper clipping that expounds on the ornamental domes on the new Brooklyn Bridge added in 1896. A small plate-glass mirror.
Stashed in a cleft of a rock along the Tanana River, not far from where it meets the Volkmar River, the prospector's goods were adequately sheltered for his return. But he never came back.
Why this prospector in the early 1900s did not retrieve his cache is one of the mysteries surrounding a recent discovery east of Delta Junction, which is about 90 miles southeast of Fairbanks.
Judith Bittner, chief of the Office of History and Archaeology for the Alaska Division of Parks, said the discovery may give historians a clearer picture of that period in Alaska history.
"It is a collection of interest because it appears it can convey some insights about prospectors and trappers," Bittner said.
State historian Rolfe Buzzell, who got his first look at the items last week, said the cache may have been left by an adventurer drawn to Alaska by the 1903-04 discovery of gold near Fairbanks.
"Maybe this person was part of the wave that spread out," Buzzell said.
The cache, found by Delta Junction-area farmer Scott Hollembaek, his son and a friend about a month ago, apparently was untouched for nearly 100 years. The wayfarer had also stashed sections of telescoping stovepipe, two shirts, a pair of Goodyear rubber mittens, an ax head, and a length of cotton caulking, likely for boat repairs, tucked into a tin that once held Mayflower Choice Open Kettle N.O. Molasses packed by D.B. Scully Syrup Co. in Chicago.
Also in this rocky cache in a bluff overlooking the river were a coffee pot repaired with wire, a white enameled bowl, two files, two harness-type rings and a bufflehead duck stamp, copyrighted 1904, that would have come as a prize in a product. Still more items: a baking pan and a piece of string - apparently a fishing line.
"It was probably for burbot or pike on the river," Hollembaek said.
The cache's discovery was a fluke, Hollembaek said. The three men were tramping on state land across the river from Hollembaek's farm in late May when one of the younger men spotted a piece of old rope coming out of a cleft in the rocky bluff.
Bittner said proper procedure would have been to alert the state archaeology staff before removing the items. Hollembaek later did call state officials, who sent an archaeologist to retrieve the items.
"Because it was disturbed, it destroys some information that could have been gained," Bittner said.
Hollembaek had no idea what they had found until they looked closer.
"All you could see was a rope," Hollembaek said. And that rope, just barely visible in the crevice, did not look like part of an historic find.
"It's almost like you could still use it," Hollembaek said.
Later they realized the items were not left in recent decades but had likely remained hidden for nearly 100 years. State officials are trying to determine an accurate time frame.
While the collection has little economic value, Bittner said, it provides a wealth of history.
"Everybody here is very interested but it's going to take some time to figure out the clues," Buzzell said. "It would be really nice if we could figure out who this person was. But we may never know."
Among the clues are the shell buttons on one of the two shirts. The date on the bufflehead stamp negated notions the discovery might have dated from the late 1800s.
Delta historian Irene Mead has seen a lot of prospectors' relics. Mead said the possibility it is a 100-year-old cache is intriguing, but she cautioned that there were not a lot of changes in what people carried during a time span from the last decade of the 19th century to the early decades of the 20th century.
"This is the stuff I was raised with in the '40s," said Mead, who grew up at Big Delta.
If it is a cache from about 1900, it brings up exciting possibilities, she said. For example, the owner of the goods might have been traveling the river route from Canada, using a major trail from Eagle to Big Delta.
Both Mead and Hollembaek said they hope the finds are put on display in the Delta Junction area. For the last 20 years, Mead has been the volunteer in charge of the Delta Historical Society. A roadhouse in downtown Delta could be home to the collection.
First, Bittner said, it must be assigned to either the state museum in Anchorage or the University of Alaska Fairbanks museum. Then, it could be loaned to a local display.
"We're not trying to grab everything and run," Bittner said.
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