Longtime Haines resident Helen Fenn, 98, died at the Sitka Pioneer Home following a stroke Jan. 24. She was the owner of Helen’s Shop, a jewelry, gift and watch repair store that was a Main Street institution for over 50 years until it closed in 2010.
Borough assembly member Debra Schnabel grew up with Helen’s Shop. “It seemed like the most exotic place in our town, especially for a girl,” she said. “All your presents came from there.”
Friend Doris Ward said Helen’s Shop was successful in part because for many years it was the only gift store in Haines and, “A lot of it was Helen’s personal touch. She was a very good salesperson.”
In a 2007 feature story about her titled “Frontier Salesmanship” in the Anchorage Daily News, Fenn said that when she learned a former employee had said she could “sell merchandise to a fencepost,” she took it as a compliment.
Daughter Sandra Martin noted, “If a kid came in to buy a gift for his mother and only had $1.50 and it cost eight dollars, she’d say, ‘okay’ and she’d make the kid sign a piece of paper for it, promising to pay her back. She said she never had one who didn’t.” Her mother made private loans as well, when she saw a need. “She helped a lot of people financially.”
Helen Rae Elkins was born Sept. 9, 1913, the sixth of eight children to Colorado homesteaders Anna Kelly and Louis Elkins. They lived three miles from the Clifford railroad station. Of her frontier childhood she recalled, “lots of tall grass and buffaloes.” After completing her freshman year of high school in a one-room schoolhouse, she became a nanny in Denver before marrying Clifford Fenn in 1934 in Lamar, Colorado. They returned home to work the family farm. The farm failed during the Depression. In May 1936 the Fenns traveled with her parents and little brother to join several of Helen’s siblings in the then-Norwegian-speaking Petersburg where they initially worked for a brother’s oyster business.
Helen harvested oysters and worked in a cannery and a jewelry store before opening the first Helen’s Shop there. During her 20 years in Petersburg, she reared two children, was a charter member of the first Emblem Club in Alaska, joined the Order of the Eastern Star and the American Legion Auxiliary and held leadership positions in all three. She enjoyed traveling around the region and the state on boats, planes, cars and trains.
Fenn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her late thirties. For much of her life she relied on a cane but rarely, if ever, mentioned her condition. “Her legs would ache after a day in the shop and she took an occasional tumble, but she didn’t complain. I used to tell her doctors, ‘If she says she isn’t feeling well then she’s very sick,’” Martin said.
Fenn moved to Haines in 1954 when her husband took a job inspecting the Haines-to-Fairbanks pipeline. She opened a second store here and maintained both for several years before selling the Petersburg shop.
She told a Pioneer Home historian that compared to well-maintained Petersburg, Haines was a shock. “There wasn’t a bit of paint on any of the buildings - it looked like a ghost town. But I found there were a lot of nice people.”
Fenn served seven years on the Haines school board, organized a local chapter of the Business and Professional Women’s Club and was a charter member of the Haines Pioneer Igloo. In 1959 she was appointed to the first tourism advisory board in Alaska and served on it for about 10 years.
Her husband died in 1970 and in 1978 she sold the store to her daughter and moved to the Sitka Pioneer Home. “My mother was in and out of there at least four times since 1981,” mostly to travel to places like China, Europe, Australia, South Africa, Mexico and the Caribbean, Martin said.
Fenn also joined octogenarian Captain Lucy Harrell on her 32-foot Nordic Tug for two “Ancient Mariner” Inside Passage cruises with a handful of women aged 78 to 93. “Helen was a real party animal. She enjoyed people, good food, good conversation and something interesting to look at,” Harrell said. On a 10-day trip to Misty Fjords National Monument, Fenn was greeted by name in each port. “She knew everybody in Sitka, everybody in Petersburg and half the people in Juneau and Ketchikan,” Harrell said.
“My mother was active, she took care of herself, she ate well and always cooked from scratch. She was just a very, very strong-willed person who overcame formidable obstacles,” Sandra Martin said.
In addition to her daughter in Haines, Helen Fenn leaves a son, Kenneth, and his wife Danielle of Juneau, grandchildren Chad and Shane Martin and Kenneth Jr., Christopher Fenn and Michelle Fenn Dye, as well as 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson.
A memorial service was held in the Sitka Pioneer Home. She will be buried next to her husband in Juneau.
Donations in Helen Fenn’s memory may be made to the community service of your choice.