The Fact of the Matter Is. . .
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities (GHAA)
by Lee and Linda Parker
Q - What’s new in the “who’d have believed it” department of GHAA?
A - We’ve got one! Strawberry Point/Gustavus has been home to any number of characters through the years—and these days we only have to look at each other! But seriously, since 1914 a lot of seekers (gold, solitude, adventure) have come and gone; only a few have stuck it out and stayed. Whatever happened to those who set out to make their mark here on the flats but moved on to parts unknown? Well, perhaps we know something about at least one of them, as we soon shall see. Here is a great example. Have you ever heard of the name Louis Mideke?
Born in the state of Washington and about the age of 20, Louis Mideke announced to his family a determination to be his own man. He struck out for the wilds of the territory of Alaska—the year was 1928 give or take. He sometimes lodged in Juneau with a halibut fishing family but settled down at Strawberry Point. Here he began the work of proving up a homestead just south of the community’s brand new one-room schoolhouse (where City Hall sits today).
In 1931, he and friend Paul Lenhart (also from the Point) went prospecting in Glacier Bay and brought back mineralized rocks full of gold. The trip to cross the 19-mile divide (by land) between Glacier Bay and Lynn Canal was crossed to Berg and Endicott Lakes traversing 2 ½ days of ice and treachery. They reported a high count of bear, goats, and “dead glaciers” in Glacier Bay—with Muir Glacier the exception and in continual action, receding quite rapidly. Hundreds of geese were seen molting with “feathers flying like snowflakes”. Louis and Paul pronounced Glacier Bay full of gold and color—with the weather and ice being the biggest deterrents to what could become another gold rush. Whole forests of preglacial trees were seen and the pair reported that the wood made a really good bonfire. The exhaustive adventure started on April 17th and ended upon their return August 7th. They were described as being only shadows of their former selves—having lost a great deal of weight, and gaining inches of whiskers.
But back here on the flats, Louis Mideke never completed the homestead process. By June 1933, Glen Parker contested Mideke’s application to the Department of the Interior with an eye to proving up a homestead of his own. In a case of musical homesteads, Glen dropped his pursuit in favor of a location east of Salmon River. About the same time, Ruth and Fred Matson were looking to settle here and had fallen in love with the location (now Amy Youmans’ place). Harry Hall encouraged them to inquire and “Lou or Louie” as he was also called, relinquished his homestead rights and offered a friendly blessing.
Later, Mr. Mideke was to refer to the years pursuing his Alaskan dream as his “energetic years”. After he left Gustavus, he ran the length of the Yukon River in a rowboat and dredged for gold around the Arctic Circle—all the while corresponding with a girl he met in Bellingham before he ever left. In 1938 he returned to Washington and married his sweetheart. But what happened to Louis Mideke after he left Strawberry Point behind is most remarkable indeed—and that is exactly why you just might recognize his name!
Louis Mideke became a self-educated, world famous potter! His work with clay began quite by accident—a story in itself. By the 1950’s he was participating in national competitions with an estimated 100,000 lifetime pieces created—and exhibitions still being held nearly ten years after his death. He was honored and characterized in an Art Commissions tribute to a “Living Treasure” as having sharp humor, and opinions peppered with philosophical gems—“like sourdough bread; crusty on top and soft as a marshmallow inside…leavened by many years of hard work, and mellowed by the gentleness of his temperament and soul”. He was humble, disliked fanfare, and served as an inspirational mentor. A small sign almost hidden by shrubbery marked his workshop and home. On the walls of his shop a hand made poster reminded visitors (or perhaps himself) of a simple truth…”Men,” it read, “are earthen jugs—with spirits in them”. Hampered by arthritic hands, Louis Mideke’s earthen vessel died in 1989. But the spirit that once lived among us continues on in the many worthy pieces of clay—molded by a master’s hand and still traded world wide today. Google his name and you’ll see what I mean.