Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


OUR PIONEERS HOMES: From way back until now
By June Allen


May 31 2002
Friday - 12:30 am

Pioneers Home - Ketchikan, Alaska
Retirement today is something that can be anticipated. There are ways and means of planning and saving for the time when workdays and payroll checks are a thing of the past, and many people are doing just that. Such was not the case in Gold Rush Alaska. The thousands of men who stampeded to Alaska just before the turn of the 20th century and those who trickled in during the following few years were thinking not of the future but of immediate, golden rewards! Only the very few struck it rich. Most of the thousands and thousands of Gold Rushers returned south when they saw the reality of untamed Alaska and the reality of the prospects for themselves.

Those few who chose to remain and settle in Alaska came from every walk of life and from both ends of the economic and social spectrums. Some left their pasts behind, others brought their families north when they were settled, others had no ties or connections and were reluctant ever to return south for varying reasons, among them the prospect of unemployment, or the law.

The one thing they all had in common was the raw country and the rugged lifestyles they chose. So they banded together for the common good, named themselves Pioneers, and


Pioneers Home - Ketchikan, Alaska
worked together to make a better life on America's last frontier. They watched as federal oversight and better law and order came to Alaska about 1900 and they cheered in 1912 when Alaska gained Territorial status.

That fall, Alaskans from Ketchikan to Nome elected a total of 16 territorial representatives and eight territorial senators to represent them in Juneau. Ketchikan's member was Rep. Charles Ingersoll, attorney and hotel owner (for whom the much-missed Charley's restaurant was named). Now Alaskans had a Legislature to make laws and to speak for them each year in Juneau! During that historic first Legislature of the Territory of Alaska, legislators gave Alaskan women the vote! - this seven years before that duty and privilege was granted via the U.S. Constitution. The body also passed a number of mining reform bills, since that was the territory's major industry.

Another remarkable 1913 bill that spoke to Alaska's progressive spirit was a bill to establish a pioneers home "for indigent prospectors and others who have spent their years in Alaska and have become dependent." The bill, by Rep. Arthur Shoup of Sitka, was rushed through before adjournment. The home was to be located in the abandoned Marine Corps barracks at Sitka.

As Sitka historian Bob DeArmond wrote in a 1997 article on the subject, "The main problem was the newly created Territory of Alaska had no money. Not a dime. Most of the taxes


Great Room - Pioneers Home - Ketchikan
Used for all types of activities, including monthly family
dinners which might include up to 130 people.
imposed by the [new] Legislature were not due until the end of the year." There was one tax, a poll tax, to be collected at once by the U.S. Commissioners from each male between the ages of 21 and 50. One U.S. commissioner refused to collect and applied for an injunction to stop all such collections - Alaska's relationship with the federal government has never been smooth. Alaska's delegate to Congress, Judge James Wickersham, got a law passed requiring federal officials to perform duties as imposed by the Alaska Legislature.

Meanwhile, the creation of a pioneers home in the abandoned barracks was begun. The pipes had frozen and burst, windows were broken, and the building was in serious disrepair. Furniture had been removed and all that remained was a three-oven range. Sitka merchants and volunteers responded. After the military refused a request for beds, Sitka merchant W.P. Mills allowed the territory to use his credit to buy furnishings and food.

The rules for admittance, set down in 1915, required residents to be at least 65 years of age, with ten years of residency since 1905. No Natives or women were to be admitted - Natives because the federal government already had provisions in place for their care, and no reason was given for excluding women. However, in the same newspaper article, Bob DeArmond explains, "The reasons were apparent. This was a former military barracks. There were two wards on the second floor, one with 20 beds and one with 30. The former recreation room on the first floor had, of necessity, been turned into an infirmary."

DeArmond continues, "It was not a place for women. A majority of the residents were old miners much of whose speech was profanity. Most were tobacco chewers and although spittoons were numerous, their expectorations were not well aimed. The table manners of


TV Room - Pioneers Home - Ketchikan
many were atrocious." But women were given consideration by the 1915 Legislature. The qualifying elderly men who didn't enter the Pioneers Home were given a pension of about $7.50 to $10. Women's pensions were double that of men. Most women then living in Alaska had family or some other caretaker. The pensions provided the needed financial help for this care. It would be 1950 before the Sitka Tower Apartments were purchased for a women's pioneer home.

All this early century history sounds rather primitive today. But at the same time in the lower 48 states, there were miserable work houses and poor houses for the elderly who had no family to care for them. If an oldtimer at that time developed what we now call senile dementia, he or she was simply put into an insane asylum, where death followed quickly. In fact, in a number of states, most of the mentally handicapped were routinely warehoused in asylums.

As happens with everything, times changed and Alaska's pioneer homes had to change with them. Qualifications for admittance changed over the years, as did the cost of care. As Alaska's history seems to indicate, when times are bad down south, federal money loosens up and benefits Alaska. A number of the state's significant buildings were constructed in times of national economic slowdowns. A new Pioneers Home was built in Sitka in 1934 with federal dollars and WPA (Depression-era) labor, a generous building with two wings, a full basement and three floors with a large attic. A hospital-nursing unit occupied the third floor and the first two floors were dedicated to ward-like rooms for the men. Alcoholics were housed in the basement's dormitory-like rooms.

But going back to that very first 1913 Legislature when the pioneer home idea first surfaced, those initial plans called for two homes, the one in Sitka - originally envisioned as being at the Goddard hot springs not far from the city, and the other in the Fairbanks


Dining Room - Pioneers Home - Ketchikan, AK
vicinity, also at one of the hot springs in that region. The story goes that the Fairbanks folks got into such heated arguments about which one of the hot springs should be the location that the whole early idea was finally dropped.

The days of dormitories were over. The homes' floor plans were designed for comfort and privacy. And Fairbanks was indeed the second home to be built, in 1967. The Palmer home opened in 1971, the Anchorage home in 1977, the Ketchikan home in 1981, and the Juneau home in 1988. Population growth and rising health care costs over the years changed, of necessity, the earlier nursing-plus-residential concept of the earlier pioneer homes. By the early 1990s residential care had been eliminated except for those already in that program. The nursing program was drastically reduced and in 1996 the homes' mission was changed to focus on senile dementia and Alzheimer's, the largest segment of those needing care. In 1999, the homes' concept once again shifted, to a new concept of assisted living.

Whatever the confusing changes - and they lose importance today in light of the many other affordable alternatives for senior living available now in the more populated parts of the state - one fact remains. Alaska's pioneer homes were, for many years, an amazing accomplishment in a world that was far behind Alaska in recognizing the value and contributions of its senior citizens.

Alaskans can and should be proud of their state which, even in its infancy as a territory, looked out for those who went before, for the pioneers who built the place we all call home.



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