A time for wood and for cardboard

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

There is a memorable saying in chapter three of Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season." As a person looks back on 40 or 50 years, it is not only interesting to mark the seasons, but to measure the transition from one way of life to another.

In the 1940s, if you wanted to go to Seattle, you took the Alaska Steamship line or one of the Canadian ships. A few years later, you flew with Pan American World Airways.

If you had an urgent message to send to New York or Chicago, you wouldn't have used a telephone. You walked up to the office of the Alaska Communication System on the first floor of the present state capitol building. You could send a wire or telegram, to be delivered the next morning in those far-off cities.

As mundane a subject as how to box everything we use has changed dramatically in our own lifetimes. For hundreds of years, people used raw lumber to ship all of their produce and supplies. This lumber was made into boxes and barrels. Some of the bigger barrels were called tierces in Alaska, and the sides of large king salmon were layered with salt to make a load over a thousand pounds.

When I first started to buy fish in Juneau, after my father passed away in 1963, one of my urgent tasks was to go out the Montana Creek Road, to visit a sawmill and arrange several loads of freshly cut lumber. We made the lumber into boxes of a hundred, 200 and 400 pounds to pack frozen salmon and halibut. Each of the boxes was nailed together, with the top open. After getting a dip in a tank of fresh water to give them a bright protective glaze, the fish were placed in the crates, which were then nailed shut.

When a president violently loses his life, the memory is seared on the national consciousness, so that people often remember what they were doing when they first heard the tragic news. I was checking off 400-pound wooden boxes filled with whale halibut, which were then wheeled out to dockside and swung into the hold of a freezer ship, when I heard that President Kennedy had died.

In the fish business, change happened the next year. The plants in Alaska all started to use cardboard boxes to ship the fish. All across America, the age of wooden boxes and barrels disappeared.

We used to have dairies in Juneau to furnish the milk and ice cream, but when barge service from Seattle became available, that way of life also vanished. In 1951, I worked for George Danner at the plant that processed the milk. It was located where the alternative school is today, right across from Harri's Fishing and Plumbing Supply on 12th Street. Eddy Nielson made the ice cream, and I was the clean-up man hired out of the freshman high school class.

Changes sometimes pass so quickly we seem not to notice. But as the preacher of Ecclesiastes said, there is a time to mourn, but there is also a time to dance.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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