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Remote cannery holds fond memories for workers' children

Posted: Friday, August 23, 2002

To hear the reminiscing at a reunion last week, Hawk Inlet cannery was as much summer camp as work camp.

Juneau Natives who spent their childhood summers at the cannery on Admiralty Island from 1915 to 1960 remembered it as an idyllic spot.

With a summer population of 500, Hawk Inlet cannery was like a small village with international flavor. Japanese supervisors, Caucasian college boys, Filipino and Hawaiian workers, and Native families from around Southeast Alaska all gathered there from June through August.

Though they sometimes worked 12 to 18 hours a day, what they remembered were the dances, songs and, for the children, hours of play.

"That was such a wonderful place to grow up," said Eunice Akagi, who arrived at Hawk Inlet in 1928, at age 8.

There wasn't any family housing yet, so she, her mother, two sisters and two brothers lived for a week in a shack while a two-room cabin was built for them. Like the other cabins it had a bedroom, kitchen, small stove and no running water. Each summer they would come back to Cabin 3 until it became like their summer home.

Child's paradise

"It was a real carefree time," recalls Sandi Benzel, who went there in the 1950s, from age 7 to 12. "My happiest memories are of Hawk Inlet."

The kids would hike up to the dam for fresh spring water, which they still remember as the coolest, clearest and sweetest in Southeast. A rope hung from the boat house, where children could swing out over the water.

They'd pile 10 kids in the company skiff and the boys would row after whales that frequented the inlet. Frightened of being tipped into the deep water, the girls would take over the oars and row back toward shore, Benzel said.

"The beaches were so beautiful," said Rosa Miller. "I miss the picnics we used to have. Of course, after you eat, your dessert is right behind you - berries."

They'd pick blueberries, salmonberries, and jakeberries, with one person on watch for bears.

On the inevitable rainy days, one cabin would be commandeered as a play room. The children would pull the mattresses off the bunks to line the floor for gymnastics and put on plays for each other, Benzel said.

Walter Johns recalls playing basketball on the dock, swimming sometimes eight hours a day, and building beach fires to cook clams and crabs they'd just collected.

"It was like a paradise," said Johns. "We were the only kids there. There was no one to tease us or chase us."

Part of what made Hawk Inlet such an idyllic place for the Native children was leaving behind the racial tension and prejudice they faced in Juneau. There were no other children there.

"You know why we liked it? It was segregated," said Martin "Snooky" Goenett, whose parents started working in Hawk Inlet in 1914. "We didn't have people standing there saying, 'Oh, you guys are Indians.' "

Single men - Caucasian, Japanese, Filipino and Hawaiian - all came to work at the cannery during the summer, but only the Alaska Natives came as families, bringing their children. The single men stayed in race-segregated bunkhouses, where they had their own cooks.

"It was just a good place where we could be ourselves," Goenett said.

Working vacation

While the young children played, the adults and older kids worked, hard. The day would start about 8 a.m. They'd get a half-hour break to run home and cook some lunch, then it was back to work, sometimes until late at night, Akagi said.

"It all depended on how much fish there were brought in," Akagi said. "If there were two or three scows you worked all day, but if there were more you worked 'til 2 or 3 in the morning."

Dorothy Walker would stand at the filler machine, filling 185 cans a minute with fish. Standing beside the noisy machines for hours, the women would sing "You Are My Sunshine," "Goody Good" and other popular songs of the era to stay awake, Akagi and Benzel said.

"We went there to work, but we never worried about work," Walker said. "We worried about when all the cute guys would come from college."

When the work was done, Akagi and her mother would collect subsistence food for the winter. They'd alder-smoke and can their own salmon, dry salmon and pick berries. Occasionally the adults held a mini-potlatch, wearing regalia crafted from paper and giving away yards of cloth, Akagi said. But the highlight of each week was the Saturday night dance.

"We would work 24 hours if we had to so we could dance," Benzel said.

A space in the warehouse was kept clear, reserved for the weekly dance. Every Saturday the workers would ask the night watchman not to turn off the lights that night when the work was done.

"He was grumpy about it, but he left the lights on so we could dance," Akagi said.

Then music would take over and suddenly everyone, the children and elders, the Filipinos, Natives, Norwegians, Hawaiians and Japanese, were dancing together. Akagi learned schottische and hambo from the Norwegians. She'd jitterbug with a couple of Japanese friends to whom she still sends jars of homemade salmon caviar. She still sings the Hawaiian songs she learned from friends at Hawk Inlet.

"Everybody was very nice. We all got along so well together," Akagi said.

Union and reunion

For all the good times, the work was hard, the pay was low and conditions were difficult. In the 1930s efforts began to bring a union into the cannery.

"They didn't want it here in Juneau. They called it all kinds of names, like 'AFL - all full of liquor,' and 'CIO- crazy Indian organization,' " Akagi said.

The pro-union workers stayed firm and in 1934 they unionized.

"We had a lot of difficulty, but it came out all right," Walker said. "For a while there was harsh feelings on both sides."

After the union came, the cannery workers were paid more, working all summer for $600, said Rosa Miller. The cannery put in washing machines to replace the tub and washboards the families had been using for years.

"It took a long time coming, but I thought that it was better for us," Miller said of the union. She continued going to Hawk Inlet until 1956.

The tiny mine they used to call Jimmy Green's Creek, after its caretaker, has now expanded to take over the old, red cannery buildings in Hawk Inlet. The renovated cannery buildings now temporarily house up to 100 mine workers.

"We left the outside intact to obviously respect its historic interest," said Keith Marshall, Kennecott Greens Creek Mining Co. general manager.

But the children who used to play on the beaches miss their summer home. They hope the first Hawk Inlet reunion, held last Thursday at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, won't be the last. And they dream of going back to the site of so many sweet memories. Andrea Ebona Michel, who was born in Hawk Inlet, keeps a photo of the cannery at her desk.

"I think it's very sad that we can't go back there and see where we grew up," she said.

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at khutchison@juneauempire.com.



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