Poster designed by Paul Gardenier and Jackie Manning

The Juneau names of streets are like any in other American towns.  We’ve numbered streets, the Main street, and Front street.  Then as the town expanded, the streets were named after prominent figures in the community like Egan Drive and  Willoughby Avenue.  As many of you know, Egan Drive was named after Governor Bill Egan who I believe served 2 terms from the late 60’s into the mid 70’s.  I wondered about Willoughby; I thought he too was a political figurehead from the turn of the century:  not!

Local librarian, independent historian and storyteller, Mark Whitman

Richard “Dick” Willoughby was a gold prospector originally from Missouri.  Gold panning his way up the West Coast from California through Vancouver Island area, he arrived in Juneau in the late 1800s and made his fortunes.  Who was this character?  There is no one alive today who knew this character; he died in 1902.  However, through the research of local historian, librarian and storyteller Mark Whitman, Juneauites were treated to Mark’s several years  of researching factual accounts about Willoughby compiled into 2 hours of historical, fascinating and sometimes comical, storytelling.

A photo of Juneau' waterfront in the late 1800's shows where Willoughby's home was located

Mark’s presentation left the audience hanging at the end of each sentence – I literally experienced sitting at the edge of my seat.  He accompanied his storytelling with a display of Willoughby’s banjo, a few invented percussion instruments, a compiled document listing all of Willoughby’s mining claims along the West Coast on up to Juneau, and a fascinating Power Point Presentation of archival images of Willoughby’s family images from Missouri, his West Coast mining claims and photos of his home in early Juneau (at the base of Telephone Hill in almost the exact spot of Dan DeRoux’s recent art installation at the new public transportation facility).  We discovered this man was not just a miner, he was also a musician and storyteller who could bamboozle his audiences with first-hand experiences and tall tales.

Mark Whitman presents a document listing all of Willoughby's mining claims

Mark touched upon the subject of the social/political effects of the non-Native miners who “married” Tlingit women (until the non-Native women arrived, and then some of the miner’s “returned” to their “own kind” as Willoughby eventually had).  This was a very interesting aspect to his presentation because my maternal grandmother’s older sister was married to Joe Juneau’s partner, Richard Harris.   Did you know that Juneau was once named Harrisburg?  I surmise because Harris was married to a Native woman, a T’akDeinTaan clan member from Hoonah, he lost his credentials to his own people.  The locals could not support the town’s name being Harrisburg because this would acknowledge Harris’ “half breed” children who would have equal rights and privileges, and back then, this was unheard of, and definitely unacceptable.   Of course, to appear as though there was ever any discrimination in the town’s image that it wants to portray, there is probably another explanation of why this town’s name was changed from Harrisburg to Juneau.  The name change in itself probably has many a tall tale to tell; it’s part of  Juneau’s “color.”

Understand I appreciate the “good works” of the bureaucratic approach to solve the “problems” of Juneau, yet Juneau has lost its public display of “colorful” characters.  We have been “tempered” and seduced into a certain image.  Have we have lost touch with a truth about our image as a whole.; or has it just shifted into something else?

In my lifetime, I remember certain characters who once graced our town with their interesting personalities  (those of us who are at least 40+ years may also remember them.)  We no longer have characters like town drunk, Henry, nor the legless, Tlingit Horace Marks, the brilliant, eccentric politician Belle Blue, the elderly walking couple of Mr. & Mrs. Cashen, the Alaska Home-Health Aide Service director, Dove Kull or the Admiralty Island bear man, Stan Price. (Even our Governor Bill Egan was a commoner with the locals at the Triangle Bar).  I could say not one of these characters were harmful to the general public.  As children, we weren’t afraid of these folks; their characters and the very fact that they were amongst us were accepted as the norm.  Their obvious tragedies and/or accomplishments added to the human aspects of our society; they each contributed to the “Alaskan” experience in their own special way.  Their multi-faceted characters were out in the open; this dynamic lent itself to the very human quality and character of Juneau.

For almost 40 years I lived in downtown Juneau.  I no longer live downtown, but I still do business at the downtown stores, restaurants and banks.  During my walks through town, I cannot say I am aware of any real “characters.”  On occasion I’ll recognize someone.  On occasion there will be someone getting thrown out of a bar.  Yet, there are no longer “consistent” contributions to our unique, Alaskan society.  All seems so bland.   How come we have seemingly become sterile?

Recalling the early years following the oil money in the mid to late 70’s,  local politicians wanted to create a certain “clean” image for the arrival of the thousands of tourists they were anticipating from the increasing number of enormous tour ships.  Politicians proposed to “clean up the act” and erase the “unsightly” aspects of downtown; to name a few such as “Wino Alley”, moved the lower class from downtown and provided “low income housing” near the Juneau Garbage Dump/Land Fill and created the Glory Hole for the homeless.  During the “tourist season” we now have a sterile downtown Juneau – flowery, painted and paved – alive and bustling for 5 months of the year with strangers from around the world, to dull and lifeless for 7 months (especially the South end of South Franklin Street!).   Maybe I am the only one with this perspective; maybe I’m the only one wearing dull, lifeless glasses.  Maybe all our characters are indoors watching other characters on YouTube.

Local musicians Bob Banghart on fiddle, and Jack Fontanella on banjo were the live “soundtrack” for Mark Whitman’s presentation.  This production was held at and sponsored by, the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.  This is the same location where the Alaska Folk Festival began its musical roots almost 37 years ago in 1974.  There is no comparison between the number of musicians in this country to the number of performing storytellers, yet wouldn’t it be a fine thing to help promote the art of storytelling by the creation of an Alaskan storytelling festival?  The stories could be told by a one-man show, or various theatrical styles (mime, speaking actors, etc.), with a live “sound track” by a musician or an entire orchestra.   The evening of stories could be held in a variety of venues (starting at the Alaska State Museum?), indoors in a coffee shop, outdoors around a fire, hosted in someone’s large living room?   (Can you tell Mark Whitman’s presentation on Willoughby was an inspiration?)

Alaska still has a unique character; could it be that we’ve been molded, shaped, and evolved into a more “controlled” society reflecting a change – a transition from individually-known characters to group-characters that reflect the diverse nature of each individual town?  We have groups that never existed 40 or even 30 years ago  such as the Montessori School, the Alaska Folk Festival, Juneau-Jazz and Classics, Arts & Humanities Councils, Juneau Dance Unlimited, Habitat for Humanities, Alaskans for Life, and the Raptor Center to name a few.  Why we could add another group character called the Alaskan Storytelling Festival?  Maybe Alaska’s colorful history is now defined in organized groups outnumbering the more colorful, outstanding, characters of today such as Sarah Palin?