March 22, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 12

Area fertile in agricultural history, still holds promise

Roots of Anway strawberry may date to 1880s

Haines miner Fred Meyer grew a field full of cabbages where a gas station stands today on Second Avenue. At the site of the Department of Transportation barn on Main Street, Henry Vermiere drained five acres of swampland to raise vegetables he sold around town, including celery.

John S. Hagen
Bob Henderson

During the Prohibition, drinkers tapped cider from George De Blondeau’s apple orchard at 2 Mile, and farmers bought hay grown at Mud Bay, Glacier Point, 18 Mile and McClellan Flats to feed their livestock.

With as many as two dozen farms operating to supply soldiers garrisoned at Fort Seward, agriculture was a mainstay of the local economy until 1940, citizen historian Bob Henderson told a crowd of about 50 at the opening of last weekend’s gardening conference.

But it was always a tenuous proposition. The town lacks large areas of good soil. Stetches of hot, dry weather are necessary for bringing hay to market. Of 25 hearty varieties of apples Anway shipped here for an orchard, only two varieties survive to this day.

Modern refrigeration and closure of the fort ended most commercial farming, but the Chilkat Valley still produces vegetables tastier than store-bought, like crunchy, sweet carrots, and residents are finding success by using new technologies, Henderson said

Scott Hansen uses electricity from a home hydro plant to grow corn ready in July, he noted.

“This might be the kind of thing we have in the future… We’re not going to be an agricultural community, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grow things,” said Henderson, 92, who has raised vegetables including sweet corn and livestock including goats, chickens, horses, pigs, and poultry at a farm he started in 1960.

“As things change, we have to change our farming methods,” Henderson said.

Veteran gardener Mardell Gunn attended the conference for information on one new method, using “high tunnels,” a type of rudimentary greenhouse for extending the growing season and raising warm-weather crops like corn, basil and cucumbers.

“I have one already and I’m thinking of setting up a big one, so the pictures were very helpful to me,” she said. She also learned about raising mushrooms and why her harvested onions were sprouting.

“There’s little tidbits you pick up all the time when you talk to other gardeners. There’s always little things you can incorporate into your garden,” Gunn said.

As a result of the conference, a seed exchange was planned for 7 p.m. Thursday at the public library. She said she’s hoping future conferences can address issues like saving local seeds.

Gunn said she’s encouraged by the resurgent popularity of gardening. “Down south, the big thing now is to grow a garden. It’s great,” Gunn said.

Roots of Anway strawberry may date to 1880s

The famous Anway strawberry apparently goes back a little further than previously believed.

Farmer and researcher Bob Henderson, who wrote a book about the fruit that is arguably the town’s most famous agricultural product, offered new information at his keynote speech during last weekend’s garden conference.

Henderson previously described pioneer horticulturist Charlie Anway as a geneticist who kept beds of experimental berries he diligently crossed until creating his prize creation: a large, juicy berry with a flavor akin to the wild strawberries that grow in the area.

One of the problems with that theory was that there was no proof of experimental beds.

In 1993, demolition of an Anway packing shed unearthed a trove of written materials, including a letter mailed in 1946 that shed new light on the fruit’s provenance.

The letter quotes an interview in which Anway said he received the start for his stock from legendary trail boss Jack Dalton. The letter describes a 1903 conversation in which Dalton told Anway the berry had come from a man named Dixon 20 years before. “I started my berries from seed,” Dalton said.

Henderson said he now believes “Dixon” was a mispronunciation of “Dickinson,” and refers to George Dickinson, who started a Northwest Company Trading Post in Portage Cove in 1878.

Henderson speculates that Dickinson’s wife Sarah, a Tsimshian Indian from Metlakatla, may have brought north the berry that provided the main stock for Anway.

But it wasn’t the same berry because Anway used the seed, and not Dickenson’s runners, he said. “The seed has to be cross fertilized and who knows from what other berry?” Henderson said.

Anway developed a large, juicy berry by using an elaborate watering system and keeping multiple beds, each assigned to a different year’s growth, Henderson said. “The key was getting water on the berries at the right time. Nobody ever treated berries like (Anway) treated his.”

Anway’s berry won an agricultural award in Seattle. The strawberry farm employed up to 20 pickers and packers and its strawberries were shipped through the region. It operated until 1930.