Living with antiques
June 1, 2023 | View PDF
"Dad, we would like to replace your stove. Is that okay with you?" I asked back in the spring of 2004. He said he supposed so.
I was planning a two-month visit with him in Homer and the thought of trying to cook a regular meal on his kitchen stove was discouraging. The General Electric electric range matched the refrigerator. Both were probably top-of-the-line when purchased back in the 1950s when the house was new. Dad had replaced the element in the oven a few years back, but the metal hardware was getting too fragile to put in replacement burners on the cook top. Dad had removed the parts of the burners that were no longer working, so there were big gaps between the coils. One burner didn't work at all.
So, when my husband Gary and I drove from our home in Slana to Dad's place in Homer, we stopped in Anchorage and purchased a brand new 30-inch electric range and loaded it in the pickup. The next day Gary expertly exchanged the old for the new. A few hours later I could cook whatever I wanted, but the kitchen had lost some character.
Dad didn't want his house to lose too much character. As it was, it was like living in a museum. Just inside the front entry were the 75-year-old leather chaps he bought with his own money. He needed them for protection while working his trap line as a teen in Montana, riding his horse, Buck. Next to them hung a 1940s-era military survival suit. A wicker fishing creel was displayed on the wall across from a 29-inch mounted pike from Scotty Creek.
In the kitchen, the refrigerator looked like it was from the same era as the eggbeater hanging on the wall. And yet, a new VitaMix food-processing machine had prominent space on the counter, where at the end, an old-style circular towel hung for hand drying. An ancient two-foot-tall metal cream canister sat near a cupboard door. Dad remembered when it was sent by train from his folk's ranch to a creamery in Dillon. The $7 to $8 received from the cream and credit for eggs at the local store in town helped his family during the depression.
The highlight of the living room was the (fossilized) bison skull from the Birch Creek area that Dad called "Ole Bonehead". During his individualized "museum tours" for guests that came to his house, he would play a song on the Edison hand-crank, cylinder phonograph player (with metal horn), similar to the one his family had when he was a teen. Then he would explain each of the 8x10 inch black and white photos displayed on a 20-foot shelf he'd made that wrapped around the top perimeter of the living room walls. They were taken mostly during the 1940s – many developed in his own dark room back then. His parents' binoculars (likely 100 years old at the time) sat on a display shelf. Bamboo fishing poles framed the picture window and a very old rifle hung over the fireplace.
When he did any sewing or mending, he used the Montgomery Ward treadle sewing machine that belonged to his mother in the beginning of the 20th century. Several nights during our visit, he and I watched movies he'd made with his 16mm Eastman camera he bought in his early years in Alaska. Of course, they were shown using his 1940-era movie projector. The apparatus for splicing the 16mm film sat nearby. We could also have a slide show or look at slides individually with one of the two old hand-held metal slide viewers.
100-year-old carpentry tools of his father's sat next to the fireplace. Fox, lynx and martin furs, as well as bear and moose hides looked right at home near the bear and beaver skulls. A pie tin that was accidentally saved from the sinking of the SS Yukon back in 1946 had a special place of honor. Dad had been invited to have dinner aboard the SS Yukon with friends of his from Seward that night. There was a piece of pie left over and the cook told him to take it home, pan and all. Later that night the ship ran aground, split in two, and sank. Eleven passengers perished.
Mementos from his 1979 retirement from Copper Valley Electric included an inscribed gold plated gold pan. Other memorabilia from Pioneers of Alaska and numerous Alaskan objects and art adorned the walls and shelves. On one shelf sat a canteen, next to an Army cook skillet, and an unopened U.S. Navy aircraft emergency ration – all vintage World War II.
Dad felt right at home surrounded by his belongings, which were coincidentally antiques. I made these observations about a month after the new kitchen stove had been installed and about a month before he turned 90. He wouldn't have wanted to hear me say it aloud, but I thought Dad was an antique himself. Only he was certainly not ready to slow down and "sit on a shelf". As I wrote those thoughts, he was outside modifying a snow machine trailer so it would be ready to load his four-wheeler for a trip to McCarthy later that summer.
It has been 19 years since that wonderful spring visit with Dad in Homer and almost 15 years since his passing. With his recent May birthday and now Father's Day, I find myself thinking about Dad and how much he enjoyed living life. I am not surrounded by antiques in my current home, but having his bear skull on display in my living room is a special reminder of him.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at email@example.com.