One of my greatest pleasures, since giving up the daily commute to Anchorage, is having time to organize and read through my family’s history. My family is lucky because in addition to my great-grandfather, Gerrit “Heinie” Snider, we had another writer in the family, Mike Dekker, Heinie’s brother-in-law. Mike was fascinated with my great-grandfather’s colorful life story, so he wrote his biography as a gift to Heinie, his wife, Alice, and their descendents. This gift to our family goes beyond measure, because I can no longer ask my great-grandparents or even my grandparents questions about what life was like for them. I often wonder what their childhoods were like, when and how they fell in love, what they did to make a living, and details about how they raised their children. Following is a small bit of my Alaskan family history I’ve learned from reading Mike Dekker’s book.
From 1911 to 1914 Heinie Snider roamed Alaska mining for gold. He left Alaska with hopes of joining the war effort, but a previous injury, sustained during his time as a young man in Africa, made him ineligible. He found work in San Francisco and became engaged to and eventually married Alice Aldenberg. After he returned to Alaska in April of 1916 with Alice, who was almost three months pregnant, Heinie sampled many opportunities to make a living. Heinie had recovered from his “gold fever” and gave up his pre-marital prospecting days … for the time being. The young couple pitched their tent in the “city” of Anchorage where Heinie worked as a longshoreman, a hospital orderly, a “biscuit cutter,” a waiter, a caretaker for dog teams, and a construction worker. The list continues on until he ended up moving to Pittman to work for the Alaska Railroad in 1920. This is when Heinie decided to explore raising mink to supplement their income. He started the new endeavor by live trapping four wild mink. At this time there was not a lot written on the subject, but Heinie researched all the information he could find and learned through his own observations.
Heinie’s job with the Alaska Railroad took the family from Pittman to Wasilla and then to the town of Matanuska. As section foreman, the job included housing for his growing family. The family was living happily in Matanuska when late in the summer of 1925, Heinie’s job ended abruptly (at his own request) after he lost his temper during a heated disagreement and hit a roadmaster inspector over his head with a dinner pail.
Heinie suddenly needed to find another means to make his living and find a new home for his wife and four children. Since he and Alice were already raising a few mink, and they saw a growing opportunity in the current market, they decided to use their savings and go into mink farming full-time. In the year 1925, mink and fox furs were in high demand. A friend of Heinie’s told him about a homestead in Wasilla that had recently been abandoned on the shores of Lake Lucille. Heinie and Alice moved their family there and, foreseeing the land’s potential, bought all 320 acres for the sum of $500. The purchased homestead was mostly uncleared and the new life they chose involved a lot of hard work.
Heinie was never afraid of hard work or trying a new venture, and Alice was a willing partner. The Snider’s efforts paid off and they ended up owning one of the biggest mink farms in Alaska. Today a mink farm would not be successful on the shores of Lake Lucille for several reasons including regulations, low market demands, land cost, and noise. Minks cannot handle a lot of noise. In the 1920s this property in Wasilla was the perfect location for a mink farm. It was close to transportation, water, abundant food sources, and the noise from road traffic, trains, boats and planes was not at the level it is today.
My grandma, Elizabeth “Pat” Hjellen, was only nine years old when her parents decided to become full-time mink farmers and she didn’t have fond memories of her family’s new venture. She remembered having to be quiet around the mink, not an easy thing for her and her three younger siblings. My grandma also remembered the mink had an awful stench. While the children helped as they could with the mink, they were still very young and mink are not known for being friendly with children. Consequently, most of the work in the early years was performed by her parents.
The Sniders were by no means the only people fur farming in Alaska during the Roaring Twenties. Alaska’s climate was naturally conducive for creating thick healthy coats of fur and the market was in high demand so many families turned to fur farming to build a life for themselves. For many reasons this part of Alaskan history is not commonly known or taught. By the end of the 1920s there were over 600 fur farms in the sparsely populated Territory of Alaska and 153 of these farms were raising mink. The last count of mink farms by the USDA in 2011 was 268 in the entire U.S., none of them in Alaska. Heinie was able to get $30 per mink pelt in 1929 which was quite good compared to prices in the late 1990s when mink farmers were again getting $25-30 per pelt. Today mink furs are enjoying a resurgence in demand from China, Russia and the U.S. with pelts selling for over $90 each. These price fluctuations show how volatile the fur market is.
Heinie and Alice sold many pairs of live mink to others who wanted to breed mink and start their own farms. His biggest shipment of live mink, prior to the Great Depression, was worth $9,000. They did try raising a few fox also but found that they were too expensive. Mink were less expensive to raise, more resilient, and a better fit for the Snider farm. In his book Heinie wrote, “to me, fox farming is like a quartz gold mining proposition–it takes lots of capital to put it over. Mink farming is like a placer claim–a poor man can work it himself!”
When Heinie began raising mink he bought all the books and ordered government bulletins on the subject, but found them lacking in accurate information specific to Alaska. As a well known mink farmer, he received letters in “every mail” requesting information, and it was beginning to take too much of his time to answer them all. Realizing there was not much written for mink farmers in Alaska, Heinie decided writing a book would be the most efficient way to share his knowledge. Heinie dedicated his first book, Mink Raising in Alaska, to his wife with the words, “To Alice J. (Aldenberg) Snider, my wife, helpmate and ‘sourdough,’ who embodies the finest characteristics of the pioneer woman, this book is lovingly dedicated.” He makes it plain throughout the book that he could not have been successful with their farm without her support. At one point he wrote, “…observation of the mink industry has shown that man and wife are the most successful mink farmers.” In the book he gives practical advice to others wanting to start their own enterprises, but he has the following strong words in his introduction: “For if you are looking for an easy living don’t start a fur farm!” and, “No one who is unwilling to sacrifice profit for the sake of an animal is fit to own one, whether it be dog, horse, cow, fox or mink. Those who do the most, give their livestock the best, will in the end reap the biggest profit. But no one who figures financial returns as the only profit can make even money out of living or by raising fur animals.”
Fur farming was very lucrative for Alaskans who put in the effort … until the Great Depression. Demand for furs dropped to almost nothing during those difficult years. Heinie declared, “When people have no money to buy bread, they don’t worry about such things as fur coats.”
Faced with the realities of the Great Depression, Heinie had to find other ways to supplement the family’s income. He entered into a contract with the railroad to supply them with ice. He and a partner, Harry Saindon, cut chunks of lake ice for storage in the farm’s “refrigerator,” a thick-walled shed repurposed into an icehouse. A few years later, in 1933, the icehouse was repurposed again and became the Snider’s winter home when they donated their own home to be Wasilla’s first high school. Heinie also bought an interest in the active High Grade Mine in Hatcher Pass where the Snider family spent many summers.
A few farmers, including my great-grandparents, hung on to their farms in the hope that once the depression was over they would be able to make a comfortable living again. While the Snider farm was able to remain solvent, the market for furs did not recover for multiple reasons, including World War II and fashion trends. My great-grandparents kept a smaller mink operation going until after World War II. My dad, Gil Hjellen, just like his mother, remembers being shushed as a young child, so he would not disturb the sensitive mink.
One of my favorite stories concerning my great-grandfather and his interest in furs was one Mike Dekker shared in his book, Biography of Gerrit (Heinie) Snider or A Former Senator’s Odyssey. Heinie was a delegate for the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago. He decided to cast his vote for Eisenhower even though the other Alaska delegates were casting their votes for Taft. They told him his political career would be over in Alaska, but he felt strongly that Ike was the better man for the job. After the convention he had an opportunity to talk with the soon to be president and asked Ike if he would appoint an Alaskan as governor of the Territory of Alaska, rather than a political friend. Ike said he would. Heinie gave Ike two sable furs that had belonged to his son, Lincoln Peter, who lost his life in World War II. From Mike Dekker’s book we read: “Heinie reached out to him the two sable-skins, that had belonged to Lincoln Peter. He wanted to tell him what they meant, but for the first time in his life his orator-talent left him in the lurch. With tears in his eyes, all he could say was, ‘For Mamie.’” Ike Eisenhower presented Heinie’s gift to the future First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower, and kept his promise when elected President by appointing Alaskan, Frank Heinzelman, as governor of the Alaska Territory.