Ketchikan's 'Fish House Tessie'
She was proud of the nickname
By June Allen
August 04, 2004
At left is "San Juan" Jack, next is Tessie Thompson (Fish House Tessie), and then Sig Thynes (one her husbands), and a Mr. Jorgenson, then Freddie Ohmer and finally a man, John (no last name). Photographer: Jane Gelormino - Donor: Jane Gelormino
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society
Tessie died in 2001 at the age of 92. From her retirement in 1973 until she suffered a stroke in the 1990s she continued her active lifestyle of keeping up the large yard and flower gardens of her neat and tidy South Tongass home as well as her daily socializing. For that, she had a regular "route" of early-in-the-day places to visit, her daughter Marie Albright explains. Tessie would meet her old friends from the waterfront on the waterfront, in the waterfront bars - sipping from a small glass, like a lady. "I always knew where I would find mom," daughter Marie says. (One bar named its 6-ounce glasses "Tessie glasses.") Tessie's visiting never took more than hour or two, but it was her way to socialize.
Tessie was born and bred in a region in Europe known for its hop fields and excellent brews, as well as its delicate china dinnerware. She was born Theresa Gunther on August 24, 1908, in Elbogen, Austria. That particular region in central Europe, historically war-torn, has shifted
Tessie grew up in the shadow of the hilltop Loket Castle, a still solid medieval fortress that today is a tourist museum attraction displaying the region's exquisitely delicate chinaware. It also is a destination for bridal couples who wish to be married in one of the region's splendid old castles. Some of Tessie's family members had, one by one, emigrated to the United States toward the latter end of that period of mass emigration from Europe.
Tessie was just 16 when, accompanied by her grandmother, she set sail for America to join other family members already there. The German-speaking teen-ager, already exhibiting her independent character traits, was more than ready for excitement and adventure when she set out on the trip across the Atlantic to America. For the voyage, Tessie said, she had sneaked a bottle of whiskey and a deck of cards into her luggage. "I slipped out after my grandmother was asleep and played cards with the crew half the night," she confessed. "I never did get caught!"
Once in the United States, New York City specifically, the courageous girl - who couldn't speak a word of English - went right to work cleaning houses and caring for children. It didn't take long for Tessie to learn the English language although even after half a century in her new nation there was still a trace of German with just a sprinkling of New York-ese in her mastery of the American version of the English language..
At one employer's home, there was a young man named John Hamersma who was the regular grocery delivery boy. A romance developed between the pretty young housemaid and the smitten young man. They married and moved to New Jersey, where Tessie went right back to work as a domestic. When Marie, the couple's only child, was born, Tessie took her little daughter to work with her. Among Marie's earliest memories are recollections of being at someone else's house and of realizing even at that early age how hard her mother had to work. Marie now shakes her head when thinking about those early years - and all the years that followed. "My mother was always there for me," she says. "She was always there, no matter what."
Marie was still a child when the Germany was invading Poland and later when Japan attacked U. S. facilities at Pearl Harbor. Tessie, an American citizen by then, went into war work like so many other American women. Not surprisingly, little Marie heard very little about her mother's war work. The only thing she remembers clearly is that once, when questioned, Tessie said, "I load the detonators!" Maybe she did? Marie thinks the plant was in Paterson, N.J.
Then in 1945, the year of V-J Day - Victory in Japan Day - Tessie and teen-age Marie moved to Ketchikan. In New Jersey, Tessie had met a man named Ezra Stone. He had served in the Aleutian campaign in the war and was fascinated by Alaska in general and Ketchikan specifically. Tessie decided she and Marie would tag along on the voyage north. Once in Alaska, she married Stone, the second of her husbands. But Stone, Marie recalls, was quite a drinker and Tessie drank with him - a surefire recipe for disaster. It was not a happy marriage.
But Tessie had landed a job - at Ketchikan Cold Storage and thus was able to support herself and Marie. They lived, Marie recalls, in "a little bit of a shack on the town side of Saxman." Marie graduated with the Kayhi Class of '47.
Tessie always claimed she was the first woman ever hired to work in a cold storage. She worked her way up from the slime line into every other facet of cold storage work. Two years after she arrived, a new manager showed up at the cold storage. He was later to become mayor of Ketchikan and one of the town's leading citizens. He was the late Jim Pinkerton. He pulled the failing cold storage out of the red ink to become one of the town's leading industries. Pinkerton once said of Tessie, " I could depend on her to do the things I asked as well as the tasks I overlooked." Tessie loved that job and everyone, from the fishermen who offloaded their catches on the wet, slippery dock (where cruise ships now moor) to the VIPs who visited the facility knew who Tessie was! No one ever accused her of being shy! She would work there until the final wrecking ball demolished the tall and stately old concrete structure.
It was at Ketchikan Cold Storage that Tessie met the love of her life - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her third husband-to-be saw Tessie as the love of his life. Sigurd (Sig) Thynes worked side by side with Tessie at the cold storage. When he met
That house at 3141 South Tongass became Tessie's anchor, her pride and joy truly the love of herlife! The vast, velvety green lawn stretched all the way from the little house to the highway and required a great deal of care and attention, which Tessie lovingly gave it. She added flower beds that also required a great deal of work, but work was no stranger to Tessie. She loved every minute of it..
But whatever happened to Tessie's previous marriages happened to this third marriage, too. Sig and Tessie finally broke up. But gentle-hearted Sig knew how much that house and yard meant to Tessie, and he left it to her and it would remain hers even if he eventually married again. He wanted Tessie to have "her house." He never remarried.
Tessie married twice more, to Al Wright and later to Joe Thompson. But her marriages are only an occasional postscript to a long and eventful life. After Ketchikan Cold Storage closed for good, Tessie went to work for Phillips Cold Storage and then for New England cannery where she worked as a filler - and finally for NEFCO's cold storage until she retired in 1973.
By 1998 Tessie could no longer live alone at her beloved house of South Tongass. And after a debilitating stroke, she moved to the Pioneers Home. Even there she continued her long-standing if dainty beer-drinking ways - she had changed to non-alcoholic beer a number of years before on the advice of her doctor. The Pioneers Home allowed to keep her non-alcoholic beer; a gesture of compassion and love. Or maybe they were afraid to risk Tessie's famous temper!?
Oh, yes, everybody who ever knew her remembers her - in the fish houses, in the bars, in the Pioneers Home! Anyone who attended Reub Crossett's annual game dinner in earlier years remembers that gallon of pickled herring she made every year, without skin or bones - delicious. Tessie's family especially remembers her with affection and humor.
Granddaughter Evelyn wrote for her grandmother's memorial service: "I remember one day when my sister Cindy and I were spending the night at her house. Cindy and I both had long hair. Cindy had the habit of chewing on her hair. Granny didn't like that and repeatedly told her to stop! Cindy, being strong-willed, persisted. So Granny walked over to Cindy, took the end of her ponytail and gently pulled it toward her mouth. Granny then took her scissors and cut the ponytail off about an inch from her mouth, and told her, 'Now try chewing on your hair!'""
Granddaughter Judy wrote: "I'm really going to miss her. I know grandma is sitting up in heaven, drinking her beer, and giving God guidance as to how things should be done - while she's watching over us and showering us with her love."
Granddaughter Karen wrote: "She always was so full of life and worked hard for everything she got. She always told us, 'If you want something bad enough, get off your butt and earn it!'"
Granddaughter Roxie wrote: "The last memory of Grandma is one that makes me smile every time I think of it. I was spending some vacation time with her. It was almost time for dinner and Grandma wanted a beer. Mom told her 'No, it's almost time to eat.' Grandma turned to me and asked me to get her one. I told her I couldn't because Mom had said no and I didn't want to get her mad at me. Grandma kept complaining and finally mom told me to go ahead and get her one! I took it to her and said, 'Grandma, look, I got you a beer.' She looked at me with a serious look on her face and said, 'So. What do you want me to do, kiss your ass?' I said, 'NO. But a thank you would be nice.' Then Grandma got a big smile on her face and I felt the love and warmth that radiated from her and wrapped around me." I raise my glass 'Cheers, Grandma!'"
At her death, Tessie left her daughter and son-in-law, Marie and Verne Albright; six grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren, and a host of Ketchikan friends and admirers.
For several years Marie kept her mother's ashes on a shelf in her home, unable to scatter them at the site her mother had specified. "I just wanted to keep her with me as long as I could," Tessie's daughter explained. Tessie's express wish was that they be scattered over the dockside site of the now-long-vanished Ketchikan Cold Storage.
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