Judge James Wickersham's 153rd birthday commemorated

Posted: Sunday, August 22, 2010

After you cast votes Tuesday for candidates you hope will influence Alaska's future, you're invited to remember a family who greatly influenced Alaska's past.

One of territorial Alaska's most significant figures, Judge James Wickersham, will be remembered along with his family at the historical house that bears his name.

A local group is organizing a gathering Tuesday, the 153rd anniversary of Wichersham's birth, to share memories of the judge, his wife Grace Bishop, and Bishop's niece, Ruth Allman.

Wickersham was arguably the most influential person in Alaska in the early 20th Century. During his time in Alaska from 1900 to 1939, he was a politician, district judge, delegate to Congress, statesman, collector of Alaskana, mentor, researcher and author. For all 39 years he kept a diary, leaving an invaluable resource for those who are interested in what life in Alaska and across the country during that time period was like.

After Wickersham's death, his wife continued to live in their home until her death in 1963, at which point the house passed to her niece, Ruth Allman. Allman opened the house to visitors and was instrumental in preserving the historical site and its artifacts.

"Without Ruth we wouldn't have it," said former house caretaker Elva Bontrager, who is helping to organize the Aug. 24 event. "Even though this is the judge's birthday ... to me Ruth is just as important as the judge was."

Allman lived in the house until age 78 and continued to visit until she died at age 84. Bontrager got to know Allman during the last six months of her life.

"She used to come up. I'd serve her tea," Bontrager said. "She'd sit down, put her arms on the side of the chair and say, 'Hello, judge.' It was just like a ritual she went through."

The State of Alaska purchased the house in 1984, and provides the home with live-in caretakers as well as a docent, who shares the home's history with visitors. The current docent, Bill Ragan, will be hosting the celebration on Tuesday, and a representative from Alaska State Parks will be on hand to discuss plans for the house.

Alaskans are lucky to have the house as a historical site, Bontrager said.

"All we have to do is find the vision to present it and maintain it," she said.

All are invited to share memories and learn about the history of the House of Wickersham and its former residents on the 153rd anniversary of Judge James Wickersham's birth. The celebration will be held Tuesday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the House of Wickersham, 213 7th Street. Refreshments will be served. For more information, call Elva at 463-5413.

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