Juneau Color: To some, local history can be personal as well as a passion

Posted: Monday, December 29, 2003

Willette Janes has an energy and fight in her that you might not expect in someone 75 years old. And when she starts talking about local history, the fight comes out.

"They were going to call it the Juneau Museum. I said no. I helped work on it," Janes said about the now-named Juneau-Douglas City Museum. "I always say, 'Douglas was here too,' " Janes said.

Janes, like others interviewed for this article, has an interest in local history that is passionate and personal. They've spent a considerable portion of their lives scrutinizing old newspapers, dusty government records, fading photographs and listening to people's stories. Their only reward is sharing what they find, and their fun is in the finding.

Janes is not from Douglas. She first visited the Juneau area in 1960 and moved here from California in 1964. After raising four children, she turned her energy to researching Douglas pioneer families. What sparked her interest was a comment from one pioneer, who said nobody really cared about old-timers and their stories.

"That hit me in the stomach," said Janes, who spent the next 20 years collecting thousands of note cards of information on Douglas pioneers and their descendants.

"I've been known to squeal in libraries," she said about finding an item of particular interest.

It's the little things that delight her, like the description of one family being fined for letting their cows graze in the local cemetery. Or the story of the Treadwell band going full bore down the streets of Douglas, leading a funeral parade.

She also likes to muck around old mining sites and has a room full of historical artifacts to show for it.

"There's not one thing that doesn't fascinate me, but I try to keep it to Douglas," Janes said. By Douglas she also means Treadwell, the company town owned by the Treadwell Gold Mining Co. on the south side of Douglas.

"Two cities joined at the hip," Janes said.

Perhaps her biggest find were boxes of city records dating back to 1913 that she found sitting in the hallway of the old Mount Jumbo School.

"It was claimed that all the old city records had burned up in one of the fires that periodically swept through Douglas. Baloney. There was all sorts of wonderful information in those boxes," Janes said.

"Little people isn't the right word, but the people and the families that really made this town, that's what motivates me," said Janes. "When I can't hike or ski anymore, I'll write a book."

Glen Pafford's historical passion is one person, Wesley Wyatt, a relative who disappeared on a Juneau trail 65 years ago.

"If he walked off that trail today he would be almost 90 years old," said Pafford, who lives in Tennessee. "After my dad died, I became keeper of the flame," said Pafford about his family's fixation with Wyatt's disappearance.

The last anyone saw of Wesley Wyatt was when he disembarked from the Fearless, a boat anchored in Echo Cove, to hike south toward Juneau. It was noon on Nov. 17, 1938, and Wyatt planned to find someone to tow the hunting party's disabled boat back to town.

"As far back as I can remember, it's been there," said Pafford about Wyatt's disappearance. "My dad had a suspicious mind and suspected foul play. The big question was why did he leave right then," said Pafford.

The official government report states that four members of the party, all older and much more experienced hunters than Wyatt, tried to dissuade him from leaving. It was too late in the day to cover the 12-mile trail before darkness, they told him. Wyatt, 23, left anyway and it snowed heavily that evening. An extensive search failed to turn up a trace of the young man.

Pafford has contemporary letters from Juneau residents that hint at strained relations between Wyatt and his companions. One letter mentions that the other hunters had seriously chastised Wyatt for firing his weapon from the boat.

At the time of his disappearance, Wyatt was unemployed and had a debt of about $50. Wyatt also had family obligations weighing on him, Pafford said.

"I have considered that maybe Wesley wanted to walk away from family responsibilities," said Pafford.

Pafford's father flew to Juneau in 1959 and walked the trail Wyatt disappeared on. Pafford came in 1987 and could only find traces of the trail. Both were looking for a sense of the physical challenge Wyatt faced and both were impressed, but still not satisfied with the explanation that the wilderness killed him.

This year, for a family reunion, Pafford compiled all the material he had on Wyatt's disappearance. He wanted to share the material and garner information from relatives who could still remember Wyatt.

"A cousin told me that my grandmother swore she saw Wesley in a TV documentary on Siberian labor camps," Pafford said, who personally doubts Wyatt could have ended up in Russia.

Still, he hasn't given up. Pafford recently wrote a letter in the Juneau Empire asking for any information locals might have on the incident. He's heard that there are records of a grand jury testimony on the incident stored in San Francisco, and there are reports from individual search parties in Juneau library records.

But Pafford, 48, has a sense of humor about his quest.

"I think it's part of my mid-life crisis," he said, chuckling.

The subject of Mike Grummett's latest historical interest is a National Guard plane wreck in Gustavus.

"It's sitting right there like it happened yesterday," said Grummett, a retired Juneau businessman who was recently in Gustavus to view the plane that crashed in 1957. Grummett's close friend, Harry Aase, now deceased, survived the crash and Grummett regrets never asking him about the accident that claimed four lives.

"I like to be challenged by what it takes to get information," said Grummett about his interest in local history.

His first lead on the air crash was that a photo album existed somewhere in Gustavus. He has yet to find the album, but he came across something better, a recorded interview with Aase about the crash.

"It was a gift from the blue. Here was Aase talking to me," he said.

The gift came from Rita Wilson, a former Gustavus school teacher who developed an interest in the crash when her students showed her the plane in the early 1970s.

"The crew died, and there were still things on the plane, like toys that never got to the kids for Christmas," said Wilson.

Stories about the crash were confusing, and Wilson decided to find out what really happened.

"Locals felt something like a bump," said Wilson about the Nov. 23 nighttime crash.

When the plane hit the ground, the cockpit took the impact, killing the four crew members. The seven passengers, all in the fuselage section, survived.

But no one in Gustavus seems to have known that a crash had taken place until government officials from Glacier Bay showed up looking for the plane. The aircraft had overflown Juneau because of bad weather. It headed for Gustavus, which had a larger illuminated airport than Juneau.

The landing field had been built during World War II as a stopover point for military aircraft heading for the Aleutians and Russia.

Grummett has tracked down government documents concerning the accident, but the documents don't come to a conclusion about the cause, he said.

"They leave you hanging," Grummett said.

From the documents, Grummett learned that the government officials interviewed survivors and people on the ground, and he is now trying to track those witnesses down.

"I don't know where it's going to end. But I've gotten this far and plan to keep working on it," Grummett said.

He wants to compile what he comes up with so relatives and anyone interested can read what he's found.

"Of the four people to die, the oldest was 35," he said.

Wilson would like to do something similar. It bothers her that people have written graffiti on the aircraft wreckage, and she thinks if people knew something about the crew that would stop. She would also like to see a museum in Gustavus that would include historical information on the airport and a plaque honoring the crew that died that day.

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