Enterprising cook mines Nome's miners

Aunt Phil's Trunk

Fired with the romance of the undertaking and inspired by exciting rumors, thousands thronged to Nome's beaches in 1900 after gold nuggets were found in the sand. Lured by the siren's cry of "gold," prospectors who'd not had luck elsewhere in Alaska came in the hopes that Nome's sand would become their pay dirt.

But several adventurers, like A.F. Raynor, swarmed to the Seward Peninsula to mine the gold-mad prospectors.

Raynor, a port steward for the Blue Star Navigation Co., was working in Saint Michael when he heard the news of Nome's riches. He immediately resigned his post and joined the stampede. His goal: to make "easy money" off the miners by feeding their stomachs.

Along with a stock of groceries, he purchased a large range and an assortment of crockery that had never been claimed for a hotel up the Yukon River. Raynor also bought a 30-by-40-foot tent.

He piled his provisions onto the schooner Hera and sailed to Nome, where he was put ashore in between heavy surfs. Once he'd hauled his outfit to safety, he found the only lumber dealer and picked up enough wood, at $1 per board ($1 in 1900 equals about $33 today), to build a lunch counter and a few crude stools.

The tent city housed about 2,500 people, and every steamer arrival boosted Nome's population more. Raynor quickly set up his cook tent opposite "Tex" Rickard's saloon and gambling house, which was the largest in the camp.

It didn't take long for Nome's population to swell to about 20,000 and become the U.S. Postal Service's largest general delivery address in the entire United States.

He kept his menu simple, offering dishes like beans for $1 a plate; ham and eggs for $2.50; evaporated potatoes for 50 cents an order; and black coffee for 25 cents a cup.

When a man with a cow walked into Raynor's café two weeks after it opened, Raynor ordered a gallon of milk to be delivered daily for $1 a quart. He then slapped up signs announcing "Fresh Milk."

But after the first order was delivered, he learned the man had contracted to deliver 50 gallons of "fresh" milk a day to others in the community from this one remarkable cow. Raynor quickly tasted the gallon that he'd just purchased and canceled his contract. He told the "dairyman" he could make a better batch by mixing a can of evaporated milk with water.

A few days later, the man offered Raynor the beast because he couldn't get feed for it. Raynor bought the cow, skinned and dressed, but soon learned that its steaks were too tough to eat.

"I will always believe that the cow never met her death at the hand of a butcher, but just laid down and died from malnutrition," he said later. "Such a scrawny array of bones as I had to work with I never saw before and never expect to see again."

Raynor put the carcass through a meat grinder and still made a tidy profit on hamburgers and stew.

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five, which won the 2016 gold medal for best nonfiction series from Literary Classics International and voted Best of Anchorage 2020, are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com.