Did you know that the oldest building in Alaska is in Kodiak? Or how about the story behind the half-bear or three-hatch kayak?
Lynn Walker, curator of the Kodiak History Museum, touched on all this and more during the museum’s first guided tour since Saturday.
A group of nine people followed Walker into the Russian American Magazin/Erskine House – the home of the museum – for 30 minutes as she walked them through Kodiak’s history from 1780 to the present day. The group even got to take a peek at the second floor, which is off-limits to guests except during the Saturday tour. The second floor houses a space for workers, an extensive collection of reference books, and a table with an assortment of vintage photos – just some of the museum’s many nostalgic images.
“The bottom line is that we’re just trying to open our doors and provide insight into what we do as a museum,” Walker said. “I think there’s an idea that things stay on the shelves and aren’t used – that’s not the case. We offer this as a way to explore the museum and the galleries, but also to see the collections.
Walker moved from Fairbanks to Kodiak in August 2021 for work. She is passionate about history and is working on her doctorate. She had taken guided tours with school children, but Saturday was her first public visit. She won a grand slam with her encyclopedia of knowledge.
“I really knew the history of Kodiak, so when I got here I started learning more about this building,” Walker said.
The Russian American Magazin / Erskine House was built in 1808 by the Russian American Company for use as a storage place for sea otter pelts. It survived the Good Friday earthquake and tsunami of 1964 and was saved from demolition for a parking space by the Kodiak Historical Society.
According to Walker, it is the oldest building in Alaska still standing. It is a National Historic Landmark and listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. The Erskine family lived in the house from 1911 to 1948. Two other families lived in the house before it became the Baranov Museum and, in 2019, the Kodiak History Museum.
“It is the oldest wooden structure on the West Coast and the oldest Russian structure built in the United States,” Walker told the group. “It’s quite historic. As you walk through it you can see the 200 year old logs and the moss between the logs. You can see some old wallpapers. There is a lot of history just in the architecture of the building.
Walker guided the group through time, from Kodiak as a Russian colony in an Alutiiq land to the American period, World War II and finally how the islanders dealt with the recent pandemic. Throughout the 30 minutes, Walker pointed out artifacts, like the three-hatch kayak, a letter written in three languages by priest Nicolai Kasgervariff in 1931, the island’s first newspaper, the Kodiak bear, and of course , the half-bear.
Guide Charles Madsen killed the bear. However, the bear’s back was too mangy for taxidermy, so it became half-bear and was mounted in the Totem Igloo Curio Shop in the 1940s.
“Visitors would walk into the store, take a picture with him, and rub their noses for luck,” Walker said. “In the 1940s, when people were taking pictures with him, a local dentist thought he needed new teeth, so they replaced the teeth and they’re way too big for his mouth.”
As for the kayak, it is attached to the ceiling of the first exhibition hall. The kayak covered in sea lion skin was one of the first objects in the museum. According to Walker, the third hatch was used either for the storage of skins or for a Russian official.
“It was found in the 1950s in a warehouse in Unalaska,” Walker said. “We know he belonged to two brothers who hunted for the Alaska Commercial Company, but we don’t know the exact age.”
Guided tours take place every Saturday at 10:30 am during the summer. The visit is included in the price of admission to the museum.