June Allen: Collector of Characters
Editor’s Note: Longtime Ketchikan historian June Allen passed away on March 9, 2016 from the complications of a stroke at the age of 86. Rather than write a traditional obituary, SITNEWS contributor Dave Kiffer was asked to write a feature article. Kiffer decided to write about June as if she was the subject of one the nearly 100 stories she wrote for SITNEWS over the years. June’s family is planning a public ceremony for June at Bayview Cemetery on August 2, 2016.
The Allen family’s apartment in the Tongass Towers was not ready so they spent their first night in the First City crammed, wet and tired into two small rooms in the Stedman Hotel. Most people would have found the situation discouraging, but not Allen. She frequently, and cheerfully, retold the story of the family’s midnight arrival – noting that in those days every state ferry seemed to arrive at or later than midnight. It even made up the meat of her first and last SITNEWS stories more than 40 years later.
At her core, June Allen was a teller of stories, especially Ketchikan ones. She seemingly never met a person or a story that wasn’t worth writing about. Over the years she worked for the Ketchikan Daily News and started her own brief newspaper, the Ketchikan Record. She was a freelance writer for numerous other magazines, newspapers and internet sites. She wrote promotional materials for the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau and the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce. Between 2002 and 2007, she published nearly 100 stories on SITNEWS alone.
But June was always more than just the sum of her bylines. It seemed that in each of her stories there was a personal note or two that told you something of her life and, by extension, the life of Ketchikan during the four decades she called Ketchikan home.
A typical June Allen story would start off with an observation.
For example, that the façade of Ketchikan’s City Hall was unusual and striking, having been made out of glass bricks that were developed in the 1920s because bottle makers were seeking new markets to make up for the fact they weren’t selling as many glass bottles because Prohibition was in force.
Anything to do with the Prohibition Era in Ketchikan, the time when Ketchikan was reportedly one of the “wickedest” towns in America, always got her attention.
The observation – just like one of the oral stories that June would often tell – would gradually morph into a history story, perhaps focusing on a single thing – like City Hall – but expanding to encompass all of Ketchikan’s history from that apparently narrow viewpoint. Pretty soon, the story would be talking about Citizens Power and Light (the forerunner of KPU) and the lives of the telephone operators crowded into narrow rooms of the City Hall building.
Then there would come anecdotes about longtime Police Chief Hank Miller (“crusty and non-nonsense”) who pulled the police department back from the wide-spread corruption of the early 1950s and the sometimes stern librarian Mary Ginger (“I not only didn't talk in there, I didn't even risk a whisper.”).
And that was where she found the still living history of Ketchikan.
“I like writing about people,” June once said. “Buildings don’t tell stories. People tell stories. Ketchikan is nothing but stories about people.”
Not that she didn’t love the old buildings of Ketchikan, often writing about them as if they were living things. But it was always from the standpoint that buildings like the Stedman, the Ingersoll, the old Civic Center, or the Fireside were representative of moments in Ketchikan’s history that were worth preserving, even if the buildings themselves didn’t always survive.
June lived her own fair share of local history. Her time in Ketchikan ranged from the wild 1960s when the timber industry peaked and the tourism industry was a fraction of its current size, to the 2000s, when big timber was a memory and Ketchikan was struggling to absorb nearly one million visitors each summer. She watched the fishing industry nearly ebb away in the 1970s and then come back strong in the 1990s.
She watched much of it from her favorite perch, a stool in the Sourdough Bar. For many, many years that was her “office.” You could find June there swapping stories and getting more grist for her ever grinding news mill. Just the sound of her raspy voice over the phone could immediately conjure up the thousands of hours she spent in the Sourdough.
But even as she retold many of the familiar stories of Ketchikan’s familiar characters like first mayor Mike Martin; cross-dressing firebug Bill Mitchell; the world’s most unlikely anchorman, Bill Baker (baldheaded with an “eye-watering adenoidal voice.”), she peppered those stories with previously unknown facts. Such as Baker’s remarkable ability to wander the streets of Ketchikan and raise money for advertising and other things as if it were simply pouring out of the sky like the rain.
In another story, Norman “Doc” Walker, a pharmacist who became mayor and state senator, is not remembered for his legislative triumphs – such as promoting Alaska’s first civil rights legislation – as much as for his “everyman” persona, including the time he and several other movers and shakers celebrated a bit too much before a hunting trip. When they got to their boat, in Thomas Basin, they decided that Walker would take the first shift at the helm. The others stumbled down into the fo‘s’cle to sleep. When Walker’s relief came topside to relieve him four hours later, the engine was churning away but the boat was still tied to the Thomas Basin dock.
She often wrote about the infamous “sporting woman” Dolly Arthur, even penning a short biography in 1972 of Creek Street’s most famous resident, who now lies at Bayview Cemetery, surrounded Allen approvingly noted, by “strange men.”
Bayview Cemetery was another popular topic for Allen. She spent hours trolling the cemetery rolls, putting together the stories of Ketchikanites who were spending eternity in Ketchikan’s only real “lawn.”
Arthur, Allen found, was famous primarily because of her longevity, she had stayed in Ketchikan for more than half a century, long after the other sporting women had died or left.
Which was something that appealed to Allen who had come to Ketchikan from Fairbanks on somewhat of a lark, never expecting to stay very long. And even though she moved away from Ketchikan a couple of times, she returned. And even after she moved permanently to Palmer in 2002, her thoughts were never far from Ketchikan for the last decade of her life.
Like many Ketchikan residents her route to the First City was more circuitous than direct. Born in Portland, Oregon, she and her husband and her young children drove the then barely decade old potholed dirt of the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks in 1957. Her husband had wanted an Alaskan adventure after reading about the Last Frontier in the Alaska Sportsman and other publications. Although she wasn’t thrilled with relocating, she said that she grew to love how Fairbanks was just a big “small town.”
In fact, she liked it so much, she told the Ketchikan Daily News in 2001, that she voted against statehood in 1959 because she wanted everything to stay the same. In the early 1960s, her first marriage dissolved and she married a University of Alaska student who became an English teacher and that was how she ended up in Ketchikan.
While in Fairbanks, she began her career as a writer, entering and winning several state-wide writing contests. Through one of those contests she met the venerable Alaskan newsman Albro Gregory who had lived in Ketchikan and wowed her with stories of the First City.
Shortly after arriving in Ketchikan, June Allen ran into Gregory in the Totem Room at the Stedman Hotel. Albro was then editing the Ketchikan Daily News and he asked June if she wanted to be a reporter.
She did. And a new love was born.
Her first story, she told the Daily News in 2001, involved a young boy who had wandered out of his family’s apartment and ended up at the Police Station where the officers got him some ice cream and notified his parents. When they came to get him, he really, really, really didn’t want to go home.
It was during this period that Allen also started getting involved in some community events. She considered herself an introvert and much preferred the comforts of home and family to social engagements, but years later she was very proud of being present at the creation of First City Players and the first stagings of the Fish Pirates Daughter.
In 1966, Allen’s husband decided he wanted to get his doctorate degree and the family was uprooted to Buffalo, New York. But the East was not for her and she ended up back in Ketchikan by 1971. She went back to work for the Daily News and continued to collect and report Ketchikan stories. Her “beat” involved visiting places all over town to get the “news.” Places like the police station or the court house or city hall. But where she found the best information, she always said, was in the bars.
“If you want to know anything about Ketchikan, ask a bartender,” she would always say. “If you need to know something, they will always know. Even if you don’t need to know it, you should ask them, you’ll be glad you did.”
In the mid 1970s, a new husband took June and the rest to the family to Anchorage, where she lived for the next decade. She had a variety of jobs involving some form of writing or another. At one point she worked on publications for the Governor’s office. She also cultivated a variety of free-lance writing jobs. At one point, she ended up back in Fairbanks managing a cab company that she had dispatched for nearly three decades before.
“Cabbies are also great sources of information,” she once said. “They see a lot of things that other folks don’t. Driving cab will really curl your hair.”
In 1987, Allen decided to resettle in Ketchikan. In 1990, she would even briefly published her own newspaper, the Ketchikan Record. But in general she “retired” by diving deeper in Ketchikan history: Finding numerous outlets for the all the stories she had been collecting over the years.
In 1992, she wrote “Spririt: Historic Ketchikan Alaska” an anecdotal history of the First City for Historic Ketchikan. More than 20,000 copies of the book were printed and sold. She also wrote the first issue of Our Town magazine in 1994.
In her last years in Ketchikan, she lived in the Revilla Apartments, becoming the unofficial “den mother” for the other tenants and, seemingly, for half the people who still lived “Downtown” in those days. Best of all, her apartment gave her a good view down Main Street of the court house and the police station. Her police scanner was a constant companion. And the Sourdough was just a couple of blocks away.
Besides her writing, she loved her crafts, creating quilts, throws, dolls and wall art. If a visitor remarked on the beauty of her works, it was pretty much guaranteed that she would stuff it in their purse as they left her apartment.
When the SITNEWS community news website was established it proved to be a natural fit for her. Even after she left Ketchikan for Palmer in 2002, she continued to write local stories for SITNEWS, until 2007, using her voluminous files of notes that she had taken with her north.
Even in her retirement, she continued to collect information about local history. A particularly interesting topic to her was Ketchikan’s legendary “Dammit the Donkey” which she always pointed out was actually a burro.
She enjoyed telling everyone how “Dammit,” the pride of both Craig and Ketchikan for many years, had been buried in a “place of honor” along the old Ward Lake access road.
She wouldn’t say exactly where Dammit was buried but that she always thought it would be a lovely place to reside when she returned to Ketchikan.
June also had a strong affection for the Alaska Pioneers Homes that were established originally for the miners who came for the Gold Rush and never left. She always said that she wanted to spend her last days in one and the Pioneer’s Home in Palmer was where she spent her final years.
No doubt still telling the stories of the Alaska that she loved so much.
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Stories By JUNE ALLEN
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Columns by Dave Kiffer
Historical Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer
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