Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
As part of this history series of articles in the Anchorage Daily News, I have answered something like 200 history questions from readers. The following are some of their questions and their answers. Now, more than ever, history can ground us, provide a much-needed distraction and, perhaps, show what we have endured before.
But first, an update on an older story. Back in January, a lifetime ago, I wrote about Anchorage’s chinchilla breeding boom. Since then, I learned of the oddest chinchilla story, which illustrates the nature of the American chinchilla craze. In December 1949, Fred Meyer was opening a new Portland store. Fred Meyer at this time was something of a crazy franchise, known especially for their oddball contests. This is about 25 years before they reached Alaska. For this new Portland store, they advertised that they were giving away a “healthy two month old baby.” People lost their minds. Churches lined up to protest. A massive crowd filled the store on the day in question, the winning couple was announced and called forward... where they were presented with a 2-month-old chinchilla.
Q: Can you write about the giant snowman that was outside the Dimond Center circa 1987 or 88? It was HUGE and brown and hideous and since I was only 5 I have no idea why it existed.
I love the description of the brown monstrosity. That was the 1988 attempt to build the world record largest snowman, which was indeed built at Dimond Center. The goal height was 32 feet, and the enterprise cost $15,000, or about $32,000 in today’s dollars. I can’t find any evidence that they reached their goal. But, that attempt, and the more recent snowzillas, are dwarfed by the current record holder, a much prettier 2008 snow woman from Bethel, Maine.
Q: Why no J Street? Is it because Norwegians named the streets? Why did Norwegians name the streets?
The founding townsite planners skipped J Street, but not because of any Norwegian or other foreign influence. The truth is far more mundane. When handwritten, I and J are too similar. When spoken, A and J are too similar. For this reason, there has never been a permanent J Company in the Army or Marines. Some other planned cities, such as Washington, D.C., also skip J Street.
Q: Who was U.S. Hanshew, of the middle school fame?
Hanshew Middle School, and I always have to double check my spelling when I write it, is named for Ual Strange Hanshew (1907-1965). He grew up in Nebraska but had a dream to move to Alaska. After training as a teacher, he wrote to every Alaska school. He had no idea about openings, so he simply tried everywhere. He got a response from Valdez and sailed up. In 1937, he moved to Anchorage to teach. He taught social studies and coached basketball. He left teaching in 1941; there was more money in construction then. From 1947-1952, he was on the Anchorage school board, as president his last year. After years of running an automotive repair shop, he returned to school, earned a degree at UAF, and began teaching history at Central High in 1963. He died of a heart attack in 1965. According to the stories of the day, he was the favorite teacher of the daughter of one of the school board members, and she insisted the new junior high be named for him. So, in short, Hanshew is named for a history teacher!
Q: Do YOU remember wild Bill? The Valley man who taunted judges and lawyers from his truck with billboard signs and a bullhorn on 4th Ave? I would love a story on him. He eventually was charged or convicted of jury tampering but the story kinda faded away in the end. I always wondered what was his beef and what happened to him?
That was Wild Bill Nelson. The son of Matanuska colonists, he was a contractor and developer based out of Wasilla. While he was the sort to find grievances everywhere, his major issues with lawyers began in the early 1970s. In 1973, he leased one of his properties to a gravel company. Nelson claimed they and his lawyer conspired to cheat him out of revenue. There’s some evidence that Nelson was indeed cheated to some extent, but his reaction undermined any potential support. Though contracted to do so, he refused to pay property taxes on the gravel pit land. He also grew more and more crazed and angry. His first wife fled with their children; he blamed that on the gravel company and lawyers, too. However, his wife said Nelson was the problem: “The four years from the time we signed that first contract in July of 1973 until I left Alaska in July of ’77 were pure hell.” It seems like his public protests began around that time, the late ’70s.
He was indeed arrested and charged with jury tampering in 1989. He approached several jury members outside the Palmer courthouse, arguing on behalf of his friend, who was on trial for contracting without a license. According to one juror, Nelson told them, "they [prosecution] were trying to hang my friend and to have a mind of her own and not listen to the lawyers or judge." From there, the story disappears, and the state database does not show the outcome of the charges. Does anyone know what happened here?
In 1994, he was arrested again for calling in a bomb threat to the Anchorage state courthouse. In 1997, he plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge of attempted terroristic threatening. According to contemporary coverage, the case against him was somewhat weak because Nelson was sly enough in his call to claim to have overheard the bomb threat and was simply reporting it, which is difficult to disprove.
By that time, he had lost all his money and was in poor health, diabetes among other problems. When he visited the Wasilla food bank, the women knew to scatter because of his wayward, pinching hands. He died in 2004 at age 67. In an obituary feature in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, the author -- a pastor and friend of Nelson -- still described Nelson as a “lousy businessman” with difficulties separating fact from fiction.
Q: I have always been curious to know the history of the abandoned church right next to Jones Lake on Wendys Way. Seems like there might be some interesting history on how it came to be and why it sits on the verge of seemingly sinking into the lake.
That church building is a remnant of a little museum complex called International Village, four buildings each filled with art and artifacts from around the world. It was operated by artist Wendy Jones -- hence Wendy’s Way and Jones Lake -- and seems to have closed in 1972.
Jones is also locally famous for converting what had been a Fairview candy warehouse into the Werehaus, a.k.a. the Wherehouse, a bohemian theater and commune of sorts in Fairview where Tony Knowles got his political start as part of the Ad Hoc Democrats. The Wherehouse burned down in 2017 after decades of decline, from candy warehouse to commune to punk scene center to, finally, a filthy squatter spot.