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.
Over the past century, Anchorage progressed from a muddy, almost nothing of a railroad stop to the economic center of the state. Women played prominent and crucial roles in this evolution. Their professions encompassed the entire range of possibility as did their approaches to city life in Alaska.
Yet, the histories of Anchorage have rarely included women in a way that matches the reality of their historical presence and relevance. The following are some not exactly forgotten women, but women who deserve greater recognition than they have received in the past. This article is also the first in an occasional sub-series for Histories of Anchorage focusing on the city’s notable women.
Mildred “Mickey” Knapp (1910-1997) is the answer to a commonly asked trivia question: who was the first woman elected to the Anchorage Assembly or its equivalent predecessors? In 1931, the California native married Howard Romig, son of the Romig Hill namesake, Dr. Joseph Herman Romig. They moved to Anchorage in 1936, where she was immediately instrumental in reviving the dormant local Girl Scouts into a permanent tradition.
Beginning in 1940, she worked on the parks and recreation planning board. By 1942, friends recommended she should become the first woman to run for the Anchorage City Council. Sufficiently encouraged, she entered the race.
For the April 8, 1942 election, voters selected up to three names from a list of six candidates for the three empty council seats. Knapp received the second most votes and was duly elected. There were only 907 ballots cast — Anchorage was a small town then—though that represented an 83 percent turnout of registered voters.
She served one unpaid term on the City Council. Later in 1942, she accepted the position of director of the Anchorage division for the Office of Price Administration (OPA). Frequently unpopular with businesses, the OPA was a necessary wartime agency that enforced retail food and rent price controls and thus prevented price gouging and other forms of retail profiteering. For example, when local bars attempted to raise beer prices by 43% in 1942, Knapp and the OPA were there to protect consumers.
Her time in Anchorage was unfortunately too short. Mickey and Howard divorced in 1945, and she relocated back to the Lower 48. She became a schoolteacher, remarried, and is buried in the Greensburg Cemetery of Greensburg, Louisiana.
Still, she set the stage for numerous female successors on the City Council, Borough Assembly, and Municipal Assembly, including Margot Hoppin, Pauline Sharrock, Mable Crawford, Lidia Selkregg, Arliss Sturgulewski, Jane Angvik, Melinda Taylor, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Austin Quinn-Davidson.
Another woman who worked within the system was Peggy Nystrom (1912-1987), a longtime Fairview resident, Rabbit Creek area homesteader, businesswoman, and community leader. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, she moved to Alaska in 1928, married in Ketchikan in 1931, and moved to Anchorage in the late 1930s. The Nystroms built themselves a still-standing home on Gambell Street, notably decorated with a distinctive gingerbread trim. During the 1950s, she operated a toy store, Hansel and Gretel, out of the house, hence the trimwork. She and her husband, Warren, were also significant, long-term patrons of the arts in general and the Anchorage Museum in particular.
However, she truly left her mark in Anchorage through several Fairview place names, including the neighborhood name itself. In the early 1950s, the neighborhood was called Eastchester, and she served as the Eastchester Fire Commissioner, Eastchester Traffic Commissioner, and was a board member for the Eastchester Public Utility District (PUD). As the community was then outside Anchorage city limits, the Eastchester PUD provided a number of basic public services like water, electricity, garbage collection, road construction, dust control, grading, signage, parks, and traffic lights.
She also served as the chairwoman on the PUD’s neighborhood and street renaming committees. In 1954, the southernmost section of the community, Eastchester Flats, was separately annexed into Anchorage. To distance itself from the Flats, the Eastchester PUD sponsored a naming contest. Though realtor Greg Merims submitted the winning Fairview entry, Nystrom was the lead of the renaming committee who made the final decision.
That same year, Nystrom also led the renaming of the Fairview streets parallel to and east of Gambell Street. To that point, those streets had been named after letters in the same manner as east Anchorage. So, there was both an East H Street and a West H Street in relative proximity to one another. While not as confusing as the intersection of Glenn and Glenn that once existed in town, the duplicate letter-named streets confused longtime residents and emergency services alike. Nystrom led the renaming of what is now Hyder through Orca Streets. The next time you drive down Ingra, you are rolling along a piece of her Anchorage legacy.
After her 1987 passing, she was buried in Anchorage’s Memorial Park Cemetery.
Of course, not every woman who made her fortune in Alaska did so in an entirely legal fashion. Zula Swanson (1891-1973) was born deep within Jim Crow Alabama and experienced all the indignities that entailed for a Black woman. An impoverished sharecropper’s life did not appeal to her, so she escaped the South and moved to Oregon. In 1951, she told the Baltimore Afro-American, “When a small girl, I just made up my mind that I wasn’t going to pick any more cotton in the dust fields.”
Her path was far from easy. She became a prostitute and left the Lower 48 for Alaska only after her pimp was busted and narrowly ahead of her own arrest. She arrived in Anchorage in 1929. And here she promoted herself to madam, developed a downtown hotel — the Rendezvous — to host her activities, and quickly made herself a tidy nest egg.
From there, she transitioned into real estate. She specialized in underpriced, well-located properties, primarily downtown lots. In 1944, she told the Afro-American, “I urge all my friends to buy undeveloped land and hold onto it.” In other words, she managed to enter the local real estate market right before and as it began to boom during World War II. Her business acumen and foresight transformed that comfortable nest egg into true wealth. In 1969, Ebony magazine dubbed her “Alaska’s Richest Black.” When she died in 1973 at age 81, she still owned millions in real estate holdings, including her dream home overlooking Goose Lake.
Anchorage’s notable women of the past have included not just the political and economic movers and shakers but the cultural icons as well.
Cecilia “Ceil” Braund (1940-1987) was a longtime Anchorage area bartender, perhaps the most famous bartender in a town, with a lengthy, checkered history of notorious bars. She was notably associated with lengthy tenures at Diamond Jim’s and the Bore Tide in Indian.
Braund was born in a tiny farming community near Spokane, Washington, and moved to Anchorage in 1963. Her car was old and breaking down. She had no job, money, or prospects. A waitressing gig was her salvation and the start of her legend.
There is no other way to put this; she was most known for her large breasts. They were reported to have weighed more than 14 pounds each and were insured for a time by Lloyds of London. She took pride in her measurements. She once told the Anchorage Daily News, “Get the vital statistics down straight. My measurements from the bottom up are 37-29-49½ with a bra on. Without a bra on, I’m 37-46-32.” Men lined up for photographs with her, their heads straddled on either side by what Braund called “Alaska earmuffs.”
She was a link to flashy entertainers of the Gold Rush saloons, women like Klondike Kate. Flamboyant and warm-hearted though she was, the attention also wore her down. She drank heavily, as much as a fifth of Seagram’s VO a day. One of her five marriages began with a honeymoon bicycle ride from Anchorage to Nevada. The newlyweds carried four water jugs between them: one with vodka, one with whisky, and two with actual water. Her excessive drinking contributed to her death, kidney failure at the too-soon age of 46.
Her brother told the Daily News after her 1987 passing, “I think Cecilia found her niche up here. There’s no doubt in my mind. She loved the people up here. And they accepted her. Whatever the hell she wanted to be, she could be up here.”
There is little connecting Knapp, Swanson, Nystrom, and Braund other than that they made their way and fortunes in Anchorage. But that small link looms large when you think about it, illustrating the breadth of opportunities that have defined this city over the past century.
What historical women of Anchorage do you think deserve a spotlight? Use the contact form below to offer your suggestions.
“Eastchester Renamed Fairview.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 17, 1954, 1, 11.
“Elect Stolt, Romig, Culhane and Wolfe.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 8, 1942, 1.
Frisby, Herbert M. “‘Tootsie’ Forgets Her Race in Alaska.” Baltimore Afro-American, September 15, 1951, 15.
Frisby, Herbert M. “Women Pioneers to Alaska Successful.” Baltimore Afro-American, October 7, 1944, 5.
“The Good Times.” Anchorage Times, November 28, 1981, 20.
“Iron Out Beer Prices; Bars Set Lower Fee.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 21, 1943, 1.
“Marguerite K. Nystrom.” Anchorage Daily News, May 31, 1987, D4.
McKinney, Debbie. “So Long, Cecilia.” Anchorage Daily News, March 20, 1987, D-1, D-3.
Morgan, Lael. Good Time Girls: Of the Alaska/Yukon Gold Rush. Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press, 1998.
Morris, Steven, and Hal Franklin. “Is Alaska a Bonanza for Blacks?” Ebony, November 1969, 123–126.
“Street Signs go up in Fairview.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 22, 1954, 9.
“Zula Dead: Colorful Life Ends in Hospital.” Anchorage Daily News, January 13, 1973, 2.