History buff brings Alaska history to life with museum

Posted: Thursday, July 05, 2007

FAIRBANKS - As the 59th child born in Alaska in 1959, under the freshly unfurled "Eight stars of gold on a field of blue," Frank Morrison was predestined to become an Alaska history buff.

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Morrison, who opened an Alaska history museum this week at 23.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road, didn't know about his prestigious state ranking until his 10th birthday when an Alaska flag, a coin with the state seal and a letter from the state Capitol, arrived in the mail.

Unfortunately, the historical items were lost when his family split up a short time later, but Morrison points out a coin on display similar to the one he received almost 40 years ago.

Morrison has a story for almost every item on exhibit throughout the three rooms. An entry area is devoted to antiques for sale.

"I've been collecting everything since I was a child," Morrison said, adding "I've been a Civil War collector forever."

Morrison has fond memories of his great uncle reading to him from his great, great grandfather's collection of diaries, some written during the Civil War when he served with the Union army.

The neatly displayed museum exhibits include a small case devoted to four items found at the museum's Two Rivers site by Morrison while clearing land - an arrowhead, a bone with markings from a stone tool, an animal tooth used for scraping and one ivory bead. Also uncovered was the remains of a spruce hut.

"The river used to go through here," said Morrison, who plans to reconstruct a similar Athabascan style spruce shelter and campsite nearby.

Exhibit cases are thematic and bring life to Alaska history with many artifacts from before and after the Gold Rush ranging from harpoon tips and a stirrer for seal oil lamps to a heavy leather sled dog collar from the turn of the century, ivory poker chips and a hand-hammered copper kettle from a Sitka bathhouse during the Russian occupation.

More contemporary objects include a conductor's ticket punch from the Tanana Railroad; a radio that used to be in the Lacey Street Theater; and a hand-cranked heater used to thaw airplanes at Ladd Air Field.

Morrison's out-of-pocket museum is put together with a lot of thought and many historical items from longtime local families.

He's been surprised at the number of visitors already stopping by as he continues to work, putting on finishing touches and informational signs.

What's different about Morrison's business is that when he starts collecting a $3 admission fee next month, he plans to donate $1 of each fee to the Interior Alaska Cancer Association.

"Anything I make during this first month, I'll donate a dollar from every transaction," added Morrison, a disabled veteran.

Although he moves slowly and carefully from his own painful injuries, Morrison is more concerned about his wife, Mary, who was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago. Without insurance, Morrison had to sell property and most of his historical collections he garnered over the years to cover bills.

The sign on the former oilfield housing unit reads Kind Heart Consignment and Antiques and a nearby one-word sign simply states "museum."

The museum is located just a stone's throw from another family enterprise, Quickie Pizza.

Morrison named his new business Kind Heart in recognition of the support and help he and Mary have received from community members over the years.

Morrison names the late attorney Mark Merdes as the man who helped him - free of charge - obtain the military disability he was due.

Others on his list include Henry and Mary Dirks, who took him in at age 15 when he ran away from home, and the Interior Alaska Cancer Association, which has provided educational and emotional support to his family.

Museum hours are 4-8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 2-8 p.m. on Saturday, and noon-4 p.m. Sunday.

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