SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


A Walk Down Memory Lane


September 21, 2009

Ketchikan, Alaska - I took a walk along First Avenue the other day and I noticed something was missing.

jpg Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer

Although I have lived "Downtown" for that the last 17 years, I will always be a "West Ender" at heart. It is funny even in a small town like Ketchikan that we are still attached to our neighborhoods, particularly if we grew up there.

I was talking to a friend recently who grew up as a "Downtowner." Our paths had never crossed until Junior High. You would have thought we lived on different planets!

My mother's family moved out to the "West End" in the mid 1920s when her father went to work on the White Cliff School project, first settling on upper Austin Street and then moving into a house on First and Jefferson in the mid 1930s. That was the only home I knew until I went away to college in the mid 1970s.

In addition I spent several years as a paper boy on what was called the Avenue B route. It consisted of the entire length of First Avenue, then up Madison to Fourth and back to Washington Street.

You don't hear much about paperboys ­ or papergirls ­ anymore. Most of the remaining newspapers are now delivered in the wee hours of the morning by adult drivers.

Afternoon newspapers have pretty much disappeared into history and I suspect that most of those that remain probably have decided that it's just not safe to have children on the delivery routes any more.

That's a shame because it was always a time-honored way for youngsters to make a little extra scratch. For me having a paper route meant the transportation freedom of my first bicycle and eventually a down payment on my first motorcycle.

Being a paperboy also gave me a little insight into the lives of the people along my route. I knew them all by name and in those days before the ubiquity of two income families there was usually someone home when I made my rounds.

I knew who had mean dogs, I knew who had a bit of a drinking problem, I knew who entertained callers of the opposite sex, I even knew who had recently lost their jobs and suddenly were home in the afternoons.

It was kinda of like being the "cable guy." Although I never went inside the homes.

A friend of mine who used to be a cable guy once said that being a cable guy meant that you learned things about people that you really wished you hadn't. It wasn't quite that "interesting" as a paper boy, but it had its moments.

There was one elderly woman whom I often found out in the street in front of her house. That was long before we had heard about Alzheimer's Disease. I would patiently lead her back into her house. One day, she wandered out into Tongass Avenue and was hit by a truck. She spent the rest of her days at Island View Manor.

The there was the elderly gentleman who wandered around his yard, cursing under his breath. He had a small sign in one of his windows that read "Hitler was right."

One fine day, I learned that a very prominent family was going through a messy divorce. The wife was throwing the husband's stuff into the front yard as I delivered the paper.

"Take anything you want," she screamed at me.

One afternoon, a very inebriated 30 something-ish Coast Guard wife came to the door to get the paper completely buck naked. Fortunately, she seemed later to have to memory of it.

But as usual, I digress.

In the past 40 years some parts of Avenue B have changed a lot and some very little at all.

The upland part of the route, Madison and Fourth Avenue looks much as it did then, except that what I once thought were pretty hoity-toity houses now seem a little drab, especially in comparison to the McMansions we now see along the shoreline or in the highlands above Downtown.

Of course , the names of most of the residents have changed. .I suspect that, at most, only one or two of my original "customers" remain on the route. The Hendersons, the Purschewitzs, maybe a couple of others.

But also, especially along the bottom side of First Avenue nearly all of the residential housing has gone away.

Although it had been residential for nearly five decades when I lived there, it was zoned commercial when the borough was recreated in the 1960s and that meant all the houses were living on borrowed time and the properties would eventually become businesses when the inevitable fires or remodeling would occur.

My own "block" at First and Jefferson has disappeared entirely in the last 40 years. The Stenford, Cusack, Sarber, Hunter and Brandow family houses have disappeared entirely to be replaced by the newly expanded
First Bank Totem Branch.

But even on the residential upper side of 2500 block of First Avenue, there has been change. The Shewbert house is now a ReMax office. And the Llanos house has morphed into a much expanded group home that looks nothing like the original house where I often played with my friend Marla.

Farther down the street, the Falconer, Hardestry/Tinney and Henderson houses are still as I remember them, at least for now.

And that leads me back, finally, to what I noticed was missing. The Johnston House, between Falconer and Llanos.

Just a big empty space now.

It caught me by surprise.

As if I had met and old friend on the street and noticed one of his teeth was missing. It would be rude to stare, but kinda hard not to.

I thought about Mr. and Mrs. Johnston who lived there when I was growing up. They were a kind little couple. You would always see them walking around town dressed in nearly identical clothes. Mrs. Johnston had moved after Mr. Johnston died but I still thought of the house as the Johnston house. Habits set in childhood have deep anchors.

I have long stopped being shocked when old houses or buildings suddenly disappear from the Ketchikan landscape. It happens every day as we reinvent ourselves over and over again. And sometimes they just go away through neglect or old age. As an acquaintance is fond of telling me, sometimes a building is not historic, it's just old.

But when people ask me why I care about old buildings in Ketchikan so much, I have remind them that it's not necessarily the building that's important, it's what it stands for.

It's that it is a piece of history, either community or personal.

And if we don't have our history, then our present and future don't really have much meaning.

Besides, Ketchikan already has enough "holes" in it.

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Historical Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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