'Old Man of Homer' identified; young 'Hooper Bay' woman remains unknown

Mike Dunham
A portrait of Dorothy Wrangel, mother of the Russian Colonial Governor Ferdinand Wrangel, before restoration. Photo: Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Arts
"The old man of Homer," in this photo by Steve McCutcheon on display at the Anchorage Museum, is farmer Alva "Max" Mattox, born in Alaska in 1878.
Courtesy Anchorage Museum
"Bright Rich Summer," a woodblock print by Karen Olanna, who is curating the show of Nome artists at Alaska Pacific University.
Photo courtesty of the artist.
The portrait of Dorothy Wrangel after restoration. The painting is now on display on the second level of the Anchorage Museum atrium.
Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Arts

In these pages last November I noted the photo of a woman in a parka in the Ruth Gruber photo exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, with the apparently misleading locale in its title, "Woman reading LIFE magazine, Hooper Bay, Alaska Territory, 1941-43." I asked readers if anyone from the Hooper Bay area could identify her. So far there have been no replies. But upstairs from the Gruber show, in the museum's display of portraits by Steve McCutcheon, there's at least one character whose name can now be placed on an otherwise unnamed photo.

McCutcheon's exquisite photo shows a rugged man in worn clothes and a battered hat with a spaniel on a buckboard wagon. It's labeled "The old man of Homer, circa 1945."

The "old man:" is Alva A. Mattox, for whom Mattox Street on the east side of Homer is named. The photo on display is a very clear version of a grainy image I remember from Anchorage newspapers in the early 1950s, when Mattox was touted as proof that agriculture could pay in Alaska. Further research uncovered information that the name "Max Mattox" may have been written on the sleeve in which the photo was kept.

Mattox was listed in the 1940 census as a cattle farmer. The only other person in his house at the time was John McLean, his hired hand. The "old man's" birth place was given as Alaska and his birthdate as 1878, which makes one crave information about his parents.

Mattox died before my time, but I recall other old timers -- who would have pups compared to him -- speaking about how he drove his horse-drawn wagon on the rough roads and along the beach before a highway was extended to Kachemak Bay. He expended enormous energy to help a woman homesteader build her place some two miles out what is now East Road. He hauled the nails, windows and timbers and supplied the labor.

He was courting her, I was told. But she gave up on homesteading and Homer. The long-abandoned buildings were still there in the early 1960s, a two story house, chicken roost, various storage sheds, outhouse, all sinking into the peat. My friends and I would play there.

As best as I can determine at press time, "Max" Mattox died without a wife and without children.

The spaniel's name remains a mystery.


Portrait of Dorothy

Last week we wrote about the restoration of portraits of the parents of Alaska colonial governor Ferdinand Wrangel, included in the Anchorage Museum's "New Acquisitions" display. Before and after photos sent by the museum this week give an idea of what the restorers faced and how amazingly well they did their job.

Dorothy Wrangel's little boy Ferdinand was the Russian Governor of Alaska for only five years, from 1829 to 1834, but he left quite a legacy. He was the first appointee to the colony to be married when he got here -- an obligation imposed by the Russian-American Company, it turns out. He energetically pushed for roads, buildings, schools and churches to be built, the country to be explored and maps improved. In later life, as an admiral, he vociferously opposed the sale of the colony to the United States.

Perhaps his most important legacy, however, is that he is said to have introduced the potato to Alaska and shown that it was possible to grow the indispensable vegetable here.

Find out more on the first Saturday of every month when persons holding Bank of America credit cards can attend the museum for free. The "Museums on Us" program covers cardholders only, no guests (unless they have their own cards) and it doesn't include ticketed shows.

The offer does include a lot of other museums around the country, like the Museum of fine Arts in Boston, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Chabot Space & Science Center in San Francisco. Get full details at museums.bankofamerica.com.


New Cirque is out

The latest issue of the literary and arts journal Cirque was released on Christmas Day, "a few days past our Solstice deadline," writes co-editor Sandra Kleven. The issue includes a range of contributors from the obscure, some being published for the first time, to leading Alaska literary lights like Joan Townsend, Sheila Nickerson, Carolyn Kremers, Tanyo Ravicz and historian Ross Coen. Among the 88 writers and 23 visual artists are people living in 16 states, Canada and France -- all with some connection to the North Pacific. It can be read online and hard copies ordered ($16.95) at cirquejournal.com.

Kleven's co-editor, Michael Burwell, is keeping his hand in the project from his new address in Santa Fe, N.M., where he's said to be working on his own poetry.


More online and coming up

Notable group shows by artists from Nome and Fairbanks are on display at Alaska Pacific University this month. My notes on those shows and others are posted at adn.com/artsnob, along with observations on "Freud's Last Session," which I caught on Thursday.

On stage this week, the final evening of "Alaska Overnighters" takes place at 8 p.m. on Sunday at APU's Grant Hall. Valley Performing Arts' "Sense and Sensibility" will be presented at 8 p.m on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays from Jan. 11 to Feb. 3. (Serendipitously, UAA will also present the Jane Austen novel adaptation opening on Feb. 22.)

Coming up later this month, Anchorage Community Theater will open "A Shayna Maidel" on Jan. 25. Anchorage Opera will present "Tosca," Jan. 25-27. The Anchorage Concert Association will host Perseverance Theatre's world premiere of "Bigfoot and Other Lost Souls: A Musical Fable," Jan. 25 to Feb. 3


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.