Museum curator pieces together stories in Sitka's history

Historic leather-bound ledgers describe life on Baranof Island

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009

SITKA - On a recent afternoon, Ashley Kircher and Amy Thompson were in a basement room at the old pulp mill administration building leafing through Sitka history.

Kircher, the Sitka Historical Society Museum's new curator, and Thompson, a summer intern there, donned white cotton gloves and spent about an hour turning the pages of more than 50 leather-bound ledgers that paint an interesting, if fragmented, picture of life on Baranof Island in the late 20th and early 19th centuries.

One ledger, which like many of the others was from the W.P. Mills Company, held a letter dated Dec. 26, 1919, from Susan Bartlett, whose return address was on 21st Avenue in Seattle.

Bartlett wrote that she had received a $50 check from the Mills company on Nov. 12, but that a check due on Dec. 3 had not arrived.

"Your kind and earnest attention to this matter is highly appreciated," Bartlett said in the typed note.

She wrote again in March 1920, this time in her own hand, to say more money had arrived and that the funds had helped her care for her sick children. She also noted she had moved to Port Blakely, Wash., and asked that, from than on, her checks be sent there.

The letter had Kircher and Thompson intrigued. The entries in the Mills' ledger indicated it was a general store, and each month different provisions were listed in the accounts under various names.

Flora Campbell had a taste for candy; James Shield bought sardines in July; John Hanlon, an early jailer in Sitka, seemed to like cigars and spent about $20 a month on various food items.

And whoever kept the ledgers had impeccable handwriting. There also are mentions of early businesses such as Sitka Wharf and Power, Booth Fisheries and the Golden Gate Mining Company.

But why did Mills owe Susan Bartlett money?

The answer was found in another ledger, where, in the top left hand corner of a page it was noted that Mills owed George Bartlett, presumably Susan's husband, $3,000. The note said George had died and that $50 was to be sent to Susan on the first of each month, beginning on May 1, 1919, until the debt was satisfied.

It was found that Mills acted as a sort of bank for early Sitkans. Historian R.N. DeArmond said in a Sentinel column in 1993 that Mills may have been the first Sitka merchant to operate a curio store, in a two-story built in 1899 at the site where The Cellar is currently located. DeArmond said E.W. Merrill, the photographer, managed the store and had a portrait studio there.

But the ledger raised some questions that were left unresolved.

"We have to find out how her husband died," Kircher said, adding that every day she feels like Nancy Drew, the fictional amateur detective.

In March, the Sitka Assembly approved a funding increase for the historical society that allowed it to hire Kircher for one year.

Kircher, 30, got a master's degree in museum studies at San Francisco State and took over as the new curator at the Historical Society's museum on June 1.

Prior to that, the museum had gone seven years without a professional curator and the collection is somewhat disorganized.

Kircher said her first task is to figure out what exactly the society has in its possession and how different items could fit into potential exhibits.

Other than the items on display at the Centennial Hall museum, the historical society has various things in its two storage rooms - one adjacent to the museum and the other at the old pulp mill.

Kircher explained that at any given time a museum has only a fraction of its collection on display. The same is true at the Sitka Historical Society, though one challenge for Kircher is that over the years items have been accepted without being formally catalogued into the collection, a process known as accession.

In her first six or so weeks on the job, Kircher worked with Thompson to sort through the storage areas to determine which items should be placed in the collection.

For a professional museum it's expensive to accept items that can't be used, Kircher said.

"It's $60 per square foot to house collections per year - that certainly puts things into perspective," Kircher wrote in an e-mail to the Sentinel.

The museum recently bought new computer software that will allow Kircher to "digitize" the collection.

Kircher said she wasn't exactly sure what the ledgers will be used for, but that they are "definitely worth keeping."

It's fun to browse through the books, Kircher said, but they could be extremely useful for research on a specific question about Sitka history.

This spring, a donor gave the historical society a journal written by John Hanlon that details his work as the Sitka jailer in the 1880s.

Hanlon is remembered in Sitka today as the builder of the Hanlon-Osbakken House, the Lincoln Street building now occupied by the Sitka Rose Gallery.

The ledgers offer more information about his life, specifically, what he bought each day. At the very least, it's possible to get a handle on Hanlon's smoking habit in 1903. He bought cigars every few days, and once and a while threw in some matches, the ledgers indicate.

In December 1903, he seemed to stock up on cigars and it was speculated that he might have been buying Christmas presents.

"I do find the books interesting, mostly because of their very pedestrian nature, which often reveals more about a community than the special occasions - in the same way that a farmer's overalls might reveal more than a wedding dress," Kircher said. "The ledgers are incredibly personal and detailed; they would be helpful to someone who had a specific interest or person or industry they wanted to learn more about."

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