Fur-bearing animals have long been an important part of the Alaskan economy, and an iconic part of Alaska history. The image of the lone trapper in the wilderness is often a symbol of Alaskan life. Fur farmers institutionalized the production of furs, and helped prevent extinction from overtrapping. Alaska fur farming began with Russian settlement, and furs were assumed to be the most valuable resource in Alaska when it was purchased by the US. Fur sales met with varying amounts of success depending on the economy and styles of different periods, but boomed during the 1920s. The Alaska State Library has a collection of photos related to fox farming. Both fur farming and trapping coexisted and are still around today, although there are no active fur farms in Alaska at present.
Sarah Crawford Isto has a great history of Alaska Fur Farming; “The Fur Farms of Alaska: Two Centuries of History and a Forgotten Stampede“. Her book goes into much more detail and has much more history than I can cover here. Sarah was quite helpful in straightening out some of my information.
Another good source is Larry Roberts’ Southeast Alaska Fur Farm Database. Larry was also a great help in answering questions and providing extra information.
Many trappers probably worked in the Funter Bay area at various times. They would have mainly been seeking various Mustelids, including mink, marten, and weasels/ermine. Foxes are not native to Admiralty Island. River otter could also be trapped, and sea otter were hunted from boats (sea otter harvest was made illegal in 1911, but today there is a subsistence exemption for Natives). While I have not found much specific information on local trappers, the Bayers notecards mentions an S.P. “Bud” May, a Funter Bay trapper who went missing in 1937. Tlingit natives from Hoonah are noted as trapping mink and marten at Funter Bay, although at least one source speculates that marten could have been introduced to the island by fur farmers.
As a side note on animal behavior: the small mustelids are quite bold, and will sometimes come into houses or approach humans out of curiosity. By contrast, otters seem to have learned to fear kayaks (the traditional hunting boat), but will ignore larger power boats. River otters and mink like to use skiffs and docks as dining areas and/or bathrooms, and are often the source of smelly things found in your boat in the morning. River otters will also sometimes try to drown dogs, they attempt to call or tease the dog into the water where they can get on its head.
Large fox farms often involved leaving breeding pairs on an island, where the ocean served as a natural fence while the stock increased. Caretakers would sometimes live on the island to ensure the foxes stayed fed, healthy, and undisturbed by poachers. Pens and fenced enclosures were used with mink, which were more adept at swimming. Smaller backyard fox farms had pens if they were on a larger island or the mainland, and pens became more common in later years once researchers learned of parasite issues with free-range stock. Isloated island farms often let the foxes find their own food on the beach or in bird nests, but most farmers supplemented the diet with fish, wild game, and cereals. Farmers would sometimes buy fish byproducts such as heads and guts from local canneries (and some would reportedly rob fish traps for fox food). Fish could be salted or smoked to keep over the winter. Sarah Isto’s book mentions salted fish heads being used as fox feed, but also mentions that foxes preferred “freshened” fish with the salt rinsed out. Various experiments to introduce rodents onto islands usually met with failure as early as Russian farming days, but this didn’t stop farmers and the government from trying.
Several possible fur farms have been identified around Funter Bay, although official documentation is scarce. Fox farms would likely have used blue foxes, as silver foxes were harder to raise. Some farmers had only a few breeding pairs and harvested only a few pelts each year. Backyard fur farming was often a side project for people who worked other seasonal jobs such as fishing, mining, or cannery labor in the summer.
The farms at Funter may or may not have been entirely legal. Small-time operators sometimes squatted without sanctioned land rights, and neglected to get a government permit. Other “farmers” live-trapped animals in the summer (or poached them from legitimate farms) and penned them until winter when their coats were thickest. Still others used fur farms as a front for the other big moneymaker of the 1920s: moonshining (more on this later).
One potential farm is at the cannery, with pens located behind the workers’ houses. I have sometimes heard this referred to as a fox farm. The other, referred to as a mink farm, was located behind Harvey Smith’s property in Crab Cove. That site has some fencing and a trash midden at the site of a former cabin.
A fur farm belonging to a Pat Kelly is listed at Funter in the SE Alaska fur farm database. His farm, record JUN-30, is shown near the cannery and listed as keeping mink and marten in pens around 1924. The Kinky Bayers notes list a Capt. Pat Kelly of the vessel A.R.B. 10 operating around Juneau in 1958. Bayers also lists a Pat Kelly serving as mate aboard the steamship Glymont of the Nelson Line in 1933. A Pat Kelly from Wrangell was arrested at Prince Rupert, BC in May of 1934 for stealing furs and the gas boat T-1957 from Stanley Jekell. Stanley had his own run-ins with the law, being charged with poaching deer in 1935.
I am not sure if these are all the same Pat Kelly, but there are common threads between them. Capt. A. J. “Pat” Kelly appears to have been a fish buyer for the A.R. Brueger Packing Co of Wrangell in the 1950s. The A.R.B 10 is in the merchant vessel registry as a 62′ wood fishing boat, owned by A.J. Kelly of Wrangell. It was formerly the No. 3145, built for the US Navy in Philadelphia in 1923. It sank in 1959 at Lituya Bay. This book mentions that Pat and Elsie Kelly were fish buyers.
Neil (or Neal) C. Gallagher had a fox farm at Point Couverden across Lynn Canal, and received mail at Funter Bay. He is listed as raising blue fox in pens prior to 1924. His wife was reportedly Mary Joyce. (Larry Roberts compiled most of the Gallagher information, and notes that the details are confusing. I’ve used the Bayers notes to fill in some more). Neil’s brothers Con (or Don) and Phillip R Gallagher were also involved with this fur farm, as was a person named Pat Mulvaney. Con Gallagher Sr, father of “Neal, Phil, and Con Jr”, is reported as building the first pile-driven fish trap in Southeast Alaska for the Alaska Packer’s Association of Excursion Inlet in 1900. “Neal Gallagher” was in trouble with the law for rum-running in 1925 and again in 1928, and a Don Gallagher was evicted from Excursion Inlet for bootlegging during WWII.
Some of the Gallaghers’ fox farming partners were Michael and Lylia Whalen. After Neil’s death, Mary reportedly sold her 1/6 share to Lylia for $1, and the Whalens sold the Point Couverden farm to August Goodman in 1928. Goodman abandoned it in 1934. Their farm, JUN-17, was noted as using several islands, probably on the East side of Couverden, South of Howard Bay. Elizabeth Goodman (1919-1999) was the daughter of August and Isobel Goodman.
Several Funter Bay residents had formerly been involved in fur farming. Lazzette Ohman grew up on a fox farm near Petersburg in the 1920s, and her stepfather owned a small fox farm in Juneau later that decade. Harold F. Hargrave, the caretaker of the Funter Bay cannery in the 1940s and onward, is listed as owning fur farm JUN-24 on Douglas Island between 1937-1940.
Today there is not much left of the fur farms at Funter Bay, aside from some wire fencing, cabin ruins, and a few artifacts.
Another fence near the cannery, this one with actual cut fence post, angle braces, and sections going underground to prevent critters from digging under (I realize these aren’t the most exciting photos, chickenwire on trees doesn’t provide much contrast!):
Today, mink, marten, and weasels are all common around Funter Bay. As noted, some populations may have been introduced or escaped from farms. While foxes escaped from farms periodically, they were unable to survive on only a foraging diet. Blue and silver foxes are not indigenous to Southeast, and farmers had to provide significant dietary supplements to keep their stock healthy.
Another introduced species, red squirrels, seem to have been transplanted to Admiralty Island in an effort to aid fur farming, and have become an invasive nuisance animal. State and Federal wildlife agencies occasionally transplanted animals, including squirrels, marten, and others. Local information indicates that the US Forest Service introduced red squirrels onto Admiralty Island in the 1930s as a cheap food source for foxes (I am not sure why they thought this was a good idea, squirrels are better climbers and would easily evade free-range foxes, and a farmer would have to shoot or trap a large number of squirrels to feed their stock). One source claims red squirrels arrived on Admiralty in the 1970s. Another claims they appeared in the late 1940s. This paper quotes the USDA Forest Service as saying red squirrels were released on Admiralty in the 1930s, and claims they are “not invasive”. Red squirrels were also released on Prince of Wales Island, but seem to have been out-competed by indigenous flying squirrels. While locals have long recognized red squirrels (aka wood rats or tree rats) as a non-native nuisance animal, official studies have finally begun to classify them as an invasive species. Squirrels are a major predator of local birds (mostly the eggs) and an annoyance to human residents (they steal insulation and chew wiring). The Forest Service and ADF&G seem to claim no direct knowledge of their mysterious appearance on Admiralty Island.
Larry Roberts of the Alaskan Fur Farm Database was very helpful in compiling this information, both by email and with copies of his research materials. He is interested in sharing fur farming information with other researchers and the public. His contact information is below:
Larry D. Roberts
P.O. Box 4381
Grand Junction, CO 81502
Sarah Isto was also very helpful with additional information on this topic.
References used for this writeup include:
Roberts, Larry D. Preliminary Select Bibliography in Relation to Historic Alaska Fur Farming. 1 May 2013. Grand Junction, CO.
Roberts, Larry D. “Search Database.” Historic Southeast Alaska Fur Farming. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 May 2013. <http://rockingr.com/home/search-alaskan-fur-farm-database/>.
Roberts, Larry D. Place Names. N.d. A Preliminary Biographical Index to Historic Southeast Alaska Fur Farming; Second Edition. Grand Junction, CO.
Roberts, Larry D. Companies and Individuals. Mar. 2013. A Preliminary Biographical Index to Historic Southeast Alaska Fur Farming; Second Edition. Grand Junction, CO.
Isto, Sarah Crawford. The Fur Farms of Alaska: Two Centuries of History and a Forgotten Stampede. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, 2012. Print.
Ohman, Lazzette. Reflections: A Pioneer Alaskan’s Personal History from the Gold Rush of ’89 to 1980. N.p.: Vantage, 1988. Print.
“Fur Farming.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Sept. 2013. Web. 1 Jun 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fur_farming>.
Goldshmidt, Walter Rochs, and Theodore H. Haas. Haa Aani, Our Land: Tlingit and Haida Land Rights and Use. N.p.: University of Washington, 1946.
Bayers, Lloyd H. Captain Lloyd H. “Kinky” Bayers Collection, 1898-1967. N.d. Archival Collection MS 10. Alaska State Library Historical Collections, Juneau, AK.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Division of Wildlife Conservation. Game Transplants in Alaska; Technical Bulletin #4. By Thomas W. Paul. 2nd ed. Juneau: n.p., 2009. Print.
United States Forest Service. Alaska Region. Assessment of Invasive Species in Alaska and Its National Forests. By Barbara Schrader and Paul Hennon. N.p.: n.p., 2005. Web. <http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5269749.pdf>.
MacDonald, Stephen O., and Joseph A. Cook. “The Land Mammal Fauna of Southeast Alaska.” The Canadian Field-Naturalist 110.4 (1996): 571-98. Web.
Aubry, Keith Baker., William J. . Zielinski, Martin George. Raphael, Gilbert Proulx, and Steven William. Buskirk. Biology and Conservation of Martens, Sables, and Fishers a New Synthesis. Ithaca [N.Y.: Comstock Pub. Associates/Cornell UP, 2012.