I feel sorry for Alaska, by FAR one of the greatest states in the Union. Since the collective attention span of the United States has been scientifically determined to be only several months, unfortunately, for most Americans when the state is mentioned they think of future failed talk show host Sarah Palin and her grandson Tripp, the future governor of the state. However, Alaska truly has a rich, historic past which reaches far beyond our increasingly shrinking memories.
Wrangell is one of the oldest non-Native cities in Alaska, yet still only has a population of a few thousand. For a little town, it has an Alaska-sized history. And I mean Petroglyph era history. The Tlingit lived there, a tribe of people with a great cultural heritage of their own and superb artistic skills. Wrangell was actually founded because of a Russian, Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel, the Russian "go-to guy" in Alaska, in 1834. The intention was to trade with the Tlingit. And no wonder...they trapped sea otters, harvested beaver and made sublime crafts, of which the Totem Pole is one of the best known.
In 1920, Walter Waters established the above shop, The Bear Totem Store, to sell Tlingit art. Walter was a former mailman who, considering the size of Alaska, probably went though a pair of shoes a day. However, along his travels he met many natives and acquired not only a wonderful collection, but established good relations with the artists and craftspeople, thus opening the curio shop above to trade in their goods. It must have been an extraordinary place. Unfortunately, The Bear Totem Store burned to the ground along with virtually the entire town of Wrangell in the 1950's. For those of you with family who purchased items there, the phone numbers for Sotheby's and Christie's are available online.
The Bear Totem Store Wrangel Alaska Real Photo Post Card c. 1941 Collection Jim Linderman