The Fact of the Matter Is. . .
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities (GHAA)
www.GustavusHistory.org - by Lee & Linda Parker
Q - Other than the occasional “watchman” did anyone ever live on any of the Porpoise Islands in the early days?
A - Yes! Someone did, and for a very long time! In fact, as the waterways go, our lone, reclusive neighbor living on the largest of the Porpoise Islands was our closest neighbor of all (if our calculations of distance prove correct). Yet, one rarely saw him, and most in these parts could not have told you much about him or even what he looked like. Our mystery man was thoroughly satisfied to live remote and alone month after month, and sometimes, in keeping with the ways of the great Alaska “outback”, after packing in supplies, years might pass without so much as seeing another human face.
His name was Emil Olson. That is how he introduced himself to Rev. and Mrs. Baker (Pastors of the Bethel Tabernacle of Juneau), Mr. & Mrs. Don Mallough (a traveling evangelist), and Nell and Glen Parker (Strawberry Point homesteaders) as they dropped anchor to visit. The missionary party was traveling aboard Glen Parker’s “Glenellen” during wartime, 1943. The party feared that they were uninvited intruders and would be roughly received, or worse yet not received at all. But after a preliminary conversation (Mr. Olson saw them coming and met them at the beach), he invited them ashore, and asked to be called by the name he preferred—Black Ole. There in Black Ole’s humble little cabin the story unfolds…
Mr. Olson (age 73) left his homeland of Sweden 60 years earlier in 1883 at the age of 13. For many years he “sailed the seven seas and roamed from port to port”. In about 1923 he settled on the largest of the Porpoise Islands as the keeper of a fox farming enterprise—and never left. For 18 years or so, his only companions were the fox, the ravens overhead, and an occasional deer that would come near his quarters. In 20 years he had been to Juneau only twice—one of them by force when a mail boat stopping to check found him near death with pneumonia. He had a little gas boat for the rare supply trip to the native village of Hoonah. But, at our missionary’s visit, he informed them that he hadn’t so much as raised the anchor in almost a year, and did not know when he might do so again.
The cabin was found to be “exceptionally clean, with the coffee pot on the stove, pancake flour, canned milk, and other foods of the typical trapper on the shelf”. Magazines, so old that they would be of no interest to any one else, provided Black Ole with hours of repeated entertainment. An old radio sat neatly on his table, but the batteries (Black Ole explained) had long since worn out and had never been replaced, leaving him no access to the outside world. Long past farming days, the fox played around the doorsteps like domesticated animals—only dispersing when one of the 6 visitors would appear.
The bag of home made cookies brought ashore by the missionaries reportedly made Black Ole’s old eyes twinkle like stars. It was as though he had received the grandest Christmas present ever. The friendly hospitality by the traveling group so endeared them to him that (to everyone’s surprise) he accepted an invitation to board the Glenellen for lunch. “By golly,” he mused to himself as he ate, “It’s a funny thing. I couldn’t eat much the last few days, but now look at me go after these sandwiches. This coffee tastes different, too. Maybe I need a new coffee pot—I’ve had the same old one in the cabin for twenty years.”
After several hours the group sang songs, including one in Swedish. As they prepared to leave they gave him their current calendar—much to his delight as he had been trying to make do with a very old one. Gospel literature was left and a Bible promised to be sent when he said he had not seen his since leaving Sweden.
As the Glenellen pulled anchor, Black Ole could be seen smiling and waving. Then slowly he turned and trudged back to his cabin—to live in isolation until somebody once again should chance to stop by.
The details for this story were provided by Don Mallough 69 years ago. But it should be a timeless reminder to reach out to our neighbors. Pay that unexpected visit. Take a plate of cookies. In the dark days of our long Alaskan winter we can still make a difference and brighten somebody’s day.
Happy New Year from GHAA!