Hilma White, who owned and operated the Halsingland Hotel more than 30 years and worked 20 years more maintaining the Port Chilkoot Camper Park and Laundromat, died Aug. 4 at Haines Assisted Living. She was 98.
Many who knew White said she was the hardest-working woman they ever met. Said friend Mary Manuell: “I think Hilma felt that working is what life should be, and so that is what she did. She was hanging nets for (nephew) Yngve until quite recently.”
White arrived in Haines in 1947 with her first husband, Swedish-American machinist Clarence Mattson. They were one of the original five families who lead the co-op that purchased Fort Seward at the end of WWII and transformed it into the tourist destination of Port Chilkoot.
The couple met in Washington D.C. where she was cooking at the Swedish embassy, and were married just before they left for Alaska. They converted the commanding officer’s home and an adjacent officers’ barracks into the Hotel Halsingland, named for Hilma’s home province in Sweden.
They brought her brother’s family from Sweden in 1956 to work at the hotel, including her nephews Arne and Yngve Olsson. Longtime neighbor Phyllis Sage said: “Clarence greeted the guests, Arne and Yngve carried the luggage, and Hilma did everything else.”
The hotel gained a reputation for old-world hospitality and was featured in national magazines. Nancy DeCherney, who worked as chef for three Alaska governors and co-wrote “The Fiddlehead Cookbook,” began her career as a teenager waitressing for White.
“The Hotel Halsingland put Haines and Port Chilkoot on the map back in the day. It was the place to stay, as quaint and quirky as it was. We waitresses would have tables of 8 or 10 people, take their orders by memory, go into the kitchen and tell Hilma our orders and she would remember it all – 40 plus orders nearly simultaneously, and bam them out.”
A Fairbanks newspaper writer praised the Halsingland in 1967, describing White as, “quiet almost to the point of being shy.” While a visitor might never meet the hotel’s reclusive co-owner, they would not forget her meals, she wrote.
“I never have mastered the pastries she would make almost as an afterthought each night for the morning’s breakfast. Walnut bar cookies, frozen strawberry desert, a peach fluff thing, her special macaroni and cheese that was featured in the Ford Times magazine. My love of cooking and interest in the hospitality business were shaped by her,” DeCherney said.
Manuell got a job changing beds at the hotel in 1953 shortly after arriving in town. Ironically, White didn’t like to cook, but she was very good at it, Manuell said. White provided Manuell and her sister a room at no charge, and helped them find land to squat on.
The hotel had only a wringer washing machine at that time, and only tubs for rinse. Sheets were hung dry and ironed.
“Hilma and Clarence’s room was a cubby hole off the kitchen with bunk beds where they also kept extra supplies,” Manuell said. “When they had few guests, for fun they’d stay in the best room with a private bath. Hilma said it was luxurious.”
“Hilma was a testament to the benefits of hard work. I asked her once how she did it. She did all the cooking and then managed the cleaning of the rooms and doing the laundry. She told me she took 15-minute naps here and there,” Nancy DeCherney said.
White also wove the hotel hall and stair rugs on a Swedish loom, set the formal tables with linen and China, and decorated the dining room walls with original local artwork, most notably the Alaskan dog portraits by Jo Crumrine. Friends said that White helped to support both Crumrine and her sister Nina, a landscape painter.
Hilma Cecelia Olsson was born in Jarvso, Sweden Sept. 6, 1913. She was one of 13 children born to a farmer and as a child she tended cows and worked for a wealthy family weaving their linens from flax she spun herself, saving the leftover thread for washcloths for her family. As a young woman she went to London to work as a cook and a housekeeper, and in 1942 became cook for the Swedish naval attaché in Washington D.C. and then for the Swedish embassy.
Mattson and White operated the hotel together, and also owned land on Kochu Island, where they spent some winters and harvested strawberries for the hotel. After selling the hotel in 1978 to nephew Arne Olsson, White took over the adjacent Port Chilkoot Camper Park and Laundromat and ran it with her second husband, New Englander Gordon White.
When the hotel and campground were sold in 2002, White retired. Nearly 90, she traveled to Sweden several times and rode the trans-Siberian railroad through Russia. She also survived a winter rollover on a highway near Watson Lake, B.C., hanging upside down in her ditched truck nearly a day before she was spotted.
White attended the Presbyterian Church, enjoyed long walks and cross-country skiing, and especially riding on her kick sled. Manuell said, “After both of her knees were replaced, we took the kick sled out. I was on the seat in front, and Hilma was going pretty fast down the hill. I asked her if we’d be able to stop, and then she dumped us into a snow bank. ‘That’s how you stop,’ she said.
Yngve Olsson said his aunt doted on his twins. “That’s the thing that kept her young the last 11 years. She loved them and we loved having her with them.” He said he was surprised to learn how old she was, as she had never revealed her birth date.
Marge Ward said she would miss her old friend. “Hilma had a great sense of humor. She saw the humor in a situation and was friendly person. She may not have been outgoing, but she had a nice manner and put you at ease.”
At White’s request, no service is planned.
Local relatives include Yngve Olsson and Robin Penwell and their children Tailer and Trever, and Sabine Olsson. Cousins Gunnar Olsson and Berit Syder live on the West Coast, and there are numerous family members in Sweden.