Michael Carey: The garage in Graehl was a trove of treasure

By MICHAEL CAREYNovember 16, 2013 

In 1954, my parents, Fabian and Mary Carey, bought a three-bedroom home in the Fairbanks suburb of Graehl north of the Chena River. The word suburb should not inspire visions of Levittown, the American housing archetype of the Fifties. Graehl was small cabins, tarpaper shacks and modest frame houses, a child of the gold rush that brought thousands of miners to Interior Alaska 50 years earlier. Graehl was so much the gold rush progeny streets were named for mining camps - Rampart, Circle, Dawson, Eagle, Fortymile.

Local government did not exist north of the Chena. In its absence, civic-minded residents took up collections to oil the dusty streets in summer and clear the snow in winter. These worthy citizens, like the rest of us, ignored the abandoned lots choked with alders where windblown trash and winos' empty bottles accumulated.

Graehl was constantly misspelled, and wags flaunting their cleverness joked about "The Holy Grail." Graehl also was a subject of speculation: Where did the name come from? In the Fifties, nobody seemed to remember Hyrum Graehl, an early stampeder, had become synonymous with the area before World War I. He died in Provo, Utah in 1952, age 90. His family was Swiss, drawn to the west by Mormon missionaries. Hyrum had a twin, Joseph. The twins probably were named for Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, and his younger brother, Hyrum.

Many of those calling Graehl home were old-timers who remembered the gold rush vividly. Perhaps too vividly. The sourdoughs who saw legendary con man Soapy Smith gunned down in Skagway in '98 could form a line from the Chilkoot Pass to the Bering Sea. In their dotage, they subsisted on savings -- gold, silver, paper -- stuffed in coffee cans hidden under their bed, territorial old-age assistance checks and the good will of neighbors who brought them moose meat, berries and tobacco.

Our two-storey house on Front Street, white with red trim, had an attached garage. Garages were something of a luxury in the Fifties. Most Fairbanksans parked in their yard or on the street. Our garage never sheltered a car. My parents used it for storage and filled it with ease. Eventually there was a single aisle by which to navigate from a side door in the back to the heavy double doors in front. Nails from which to hang parkas, mitts, sled dog harnesses, snowshoes, rain wear, Swede saws and Trapper Nelson pack boards had been pounded into the walls. Above the nails, narrow shelves ran the length of the walls. Cans of nuts and bolts, jars of nails and screws and bottles of bug dope competed for space with small leg-hold traps, a blow torch, boxes of ammunition, manila envelopes stuffed with dunning notices, invoices and canceled checks, bundles of love letters and old calendars, a pile of stock certificates issued by a mining company long bankrupt, a shoebox of photographs once precious to a miner long dead. Books had been shoved into gaps on the shelves, a biography of abolitionist John Brown for one, along with a windup Victrola and a stack of records -- 78s -- featuring, among others, Irish tenor John McCormack and the Red Army Chorus. I heard my first protest song on that Victrola: "The Ballad of Joe Hill" by Paul Robeson.

Three tool boxes sat in line on the floor near the double doors. Their content was mix and match accumulated over years, never a complete set of wrenches, screw drivers or drill bits. There was at least a 50 percent chance the pliers you were searching for had disappeared. Fabian explained every missing tool, unfairly I thought, with an exasperated "Kids packed it off."

Piled in the middle of the garage were two rubberized pup tents and a canvas wall tent, all three in poor shape, none with a complete set of stakes. I am surprised Fabian kept them. During the late Forties, two weeks on the trap line at 40 below zero killed his affection for tents.

Next to the tents stood a set of four black suitcases my mother brought from New York City when she came to Alaska in 1940 as a public health nurse. Young Mary Sullivan started life in Fairbanks with only their contents -- and what was in her head from an exceptional education. A bachelor's degree in chemistry from Hunter College, a nursing degree from Yale University, and advanced study in public health at Columbia University. The young woman who purchased these suitcases was a dreamer who years later concluded her dreams had been partially fulfilled, partially abandoned, partially shattered, and partially remained incomprehensible. "What was it all about?" she wearily asked me when I was a grown man living in New York. By "it" she meant her life.

I could not imagine a question like hers as a kid, much less conjure an answer. But on hot summer days, I would sit on the floor next to the tents and suitcases, breathe the cool air direct sunlight never touched, and wonder: Where did all this stuff come from? There was a story here, the story of how everything filling the garage had been brought together in Graehl by Fabian and Mary Carey, and I was part of the story too.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com. He was born in Fairbanks November 17, 1944. Today is his 69th birthday.

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