Alaska Life

In 1975, Alaska had a bragging contest. Here’s the story that won first prize

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.

Alaskans have never needed much motivation when it comes to bragging. Fish, bears, snow, anything and everything. The sheer size, the scope of the state is the easiest claim. When Alaska became a state in 1959, there was a cottage industry of jokes between Alaska and Texas, the latter having lost its status as the largest state in the union. Texas even had to change their state song, which previously declared Texas as “largest and grandest.” Now, the song says, “boldest and grandest.”

In September 1975, Alaska Airlines announced a contest to determine the greatest brag in Alaska. As one advertisement for the contest declared: “We think it’s about time somebody honored the people that make this great land great. The tough, gutsy, independent, sensible and honest men, women and children who live the Alaska myth every day of the year... a call for believe-it-or-not achievements from all over the state.” Per Alaska Airlines CEO Ron Cosgrave, “Alaska is a state to brag about. Now our goal is to give you an airline to brag about, too.”

Every entry received a “handsome certificate that gives your brag official recognition.” However, the real prize was cash. The winner was awarded $500, about $2,400 today. There were also four $100 awards for the runners up. “This is no time for modesty,” said the entry form. “We’re recording history.”

The entries naturally clustered into the typical subjects of brags. There were the garden brags. Said Janice Ogle of Anchorage, “I grew a 16-foot-high sunflower in my front yard. How’s your garden doing?” Max Sherrod of Palmer said, “I grew a 72-pound cabbage in my backyard. Now show me your garden.” Dorrie Smith of Anchorage said, “I made 19 pints of cauliflower pickles from one head of cauliflower.”

["Announcing some of the world’s greatest brags." Anchorage Daily Times. Nov. 13, 1975]

There were the wildlife brags. “I lassoed a deer in my backyard with a clothesline,” said John Grainger of Mountain Point. “I fed bananas to a wild moose in the front yard,” said Lillian Webb of Fairbanks. Linda Anselm of White Crossing said she “fought off a thieving black bear with a bag of jelly beans.”

And of course, many Alaskans bragged of their fishing exploits. “Don’t tell me about Jaws,” said Glen Carroll of Homer. “I caught a 22-foot shark with the buoy line to my shrimp pot.” Wesley Moulton of Fairbanks claimed he caught a 200-pound halibut. Spencer de Vito of Kenai said, “I caught a 75-pound king salmon with a 15-pound-test line.” Tex Sharp of Anchorage topped them by needing no line at all. “You won’t believe this, said Sharp, “but I caught a 93-pound king salmon in low water on Turnagain Arm with my bare hands.”

There were also the more uniquely Alaskan brags. “I used a crane to decorate the highest Christmas tree on the pipeline,” said Nancy Skoglund. “I only pay $200 [$960 in 2020] for a one-bedroom apartment in Fairbanks,” said Robert Baker. “It has lights and plumbing, too.” For everyone in the know about Alaska road quality, Barbara Ferguson bragged, “I drove 3 ½ miles with a coffee cake on the fender of my car. On a road in Ketchikan. And that’s something to brag about.”

Some of the brags were more idiosyncratic. Said Nan Grindle of Anchorage, “I was the first person to streak Chilkoot Pass and I have pictures to prove it. I also had the worst sunburn in Alaska, according to the Haines doctor who treated me.” John Graham of Anchorage was proud to win the “Alaska State Fur Rendezvous beer-gulping championship for five years in a row.”

And the inimitable Oliver “Porky” Bickar of Sitka suggested his 1974 prank was the greatest Alaskan accomplishment. “On April Fool’s Day, I hired a chopper and flew 70 old, kerosene-soaked tires on top of the dormant volcano, Mt. Edgecumbe, that looms over Sitka,” said Bickar. “I set the tires on fire, and the billowing black smoke created one hell of a commotion in Sitka.”

[Related: The story of ‘Porky’s rising’ - Alaska’s greatest ever April Fools’ Day prank]

Somehow, Porky Bickar didn’t win. The winning brag came from Anchorage resident Ronald Cole. His entry: “After I was viciously attacked by two grizzly bears at Lake Creek, I crawled 1 ½ miles to my cabin. And survived.” The attack had occurred in May of that year. Cole, a Korean War veteran, was airlifted from that cabin to Anchorage. During the flight, he told the crew that one of the bears ate his gun.

Like many true Alaska stories, the story here veers dark. Cole was not the simple fisherman he claimed to be. In fact, he was one Anchorage’s most prolific drug dealers. He was sufficiently notorious that he had an underworld nickname: The Raven. After a 1977 bust, Cole and his wife Darcelle were found in possession of a half-ton of marijuana in addition to supplies of cocaine, drugs and cash. Ronald shipped the marijuana in 55-gallon drums on barges out of Seattle. In 1981, the Coles were murdered in their South Anchorage home by a frequent customer. The couple were discovered surrounded by what the police described as a commercial amount of cocaine, quaaludes and marijuana. The murderer, paranoid from an excessive dose of cocaine, claimed he was afraid the Coles would harm him or his family over a $18,000 debt, an amount verified by Ronald’s detailed records.

Cole could have bragged about his status as a drug kingpin, but he chose the brag that spoke to the Alaska frontier. Alas, there doesn’t seem to have been a follow-up bragging contest, a status that perhaps needs remedying. What are your Alaska brags?

Key sources:

“Alaska Airlines presents Ronald Cole’s Brag.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 13, 1975, 21.

Announcing Some of the World’s Greatest Brags.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 3, 1975, 18-19.

“Enter the first Alaska brag contest.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 11, 1975, 13.

Eppler, Patti. “Judge Rules Only Defendant Can Testify to Victim’s Violence.” Anchorage Times, April 16, 1982, B2.

Hansen, Steve. “Couple Questioned in Cole Slayings.” Anchorage Times, October 6, 1981, A1, A2.

Hansen, Steve. “Murder Suspect Confesses.” Anchorage Times, October 12, 1981, A1, A3.

“The brag.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 2, 1975, 15.

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