Alaska Life

Alaska history Q&A: Anchorage hippies, the SS Bertha store and the origin of Buns of Steel

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Every week, readers send in questions and I try to answer them as best I can. Here are some recent submissions.

Were Buns of Steel really created in Anchorage?

While Tamilee Webb has long been the face of Buns of Steel, the bestselling workout phenomenon, Greg Smithey created the routine while he lived and worked in 1980s Anchorage. Per his original Buns of Steel website, Smithey earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Idaho State, where he excelled in track and field, and a master’s degree in education from the University of Idaho.

Sometime after graduation, he found his way north, where he taught in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. He notably claims to have coached Sarah Palin at Wasilla High School. However, he grew disenchanted with the rhythms and stresses of public school life. Inspired by a Zig Ziglar motivational lecture, he moved to Anchorage, where he established a short-lived private education service called Excell. In 1984, he founded the Hip Hop Aerobics Club, which relocated a couple of times but had its longest run underneath the Brown Jug on Old Seward Highway near Tudor Road.

After a slow start, the classes there were consistently packed, but Smithey was struggling financially and drowning in debt. Author Heather Radke recently tracked Smithey down, as detailed in a 2022 Slate article. Said Smithey, “I was looking at total failure with my exercise studio, and I got more angry and more frustrated.”

Inspiration came from a random comment. Smithey explained, “They were coming because I was causing their butts to hurt so bad. And soon they started coming in and telling me all these wonderful stories about how their butts look so good, and their husbands love it. After class one day, a student said, “Wow, our butts feel like steel.” In 1987, he produced the first “Buns of Steel” VHS tape, which sold for $25, about $65 in 2023 dollars. Early copies of the tape note his job in Anchorage. Sales were initially slow but dramatically increased after he sold the distribution rights. “People love the name,” he told Radke. “I made a million dollars off of three words.”

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Whatever happened to the dry-docked boat “Bertha” that I have read was at one point used as a store in Anchorage and that may have been the basis for the naming of the city as well?

The SS Bertha was a steamboat launched in 1888 that serviced Alaska for the entirety of its lifespan. Before Anchorage was established in 1915, the town of Knik on the other side of the Knik Arm was the population and commercial center of the Upper Cook Inlet. The steamer stopped at Knik several times. Due to the mudflats at Knik, the Bertha and other ships anchored at Ship Creek. Lighters and barges then carried cargo and passengers across the water.

In 1914, Charles Brown and Thomas William “T.W.” Hawkins charted the Bertha to carry a load of goods to service the area. The ship remained at the Ship Creek anchorage as a floating store for the duration of the sailing season. While Brown and Hawkins ran a store in early Anchorage, they are best remembered for Seward’s still-standing Brown & Hawkins building.

Due to the strong tides in the Knik Arm, the Bertha was pulled onto the mud. According to some stories, the ship itself was then called “the anchorage,” and thus, the name for the future town was born. However, the area had been known and labeled on maps as the Knik Anchorage for years prior. Though there were some twists, turns and potential alternatives, Anchorage became the name for the new railroad town simply because it was an anchorage, a safe place to anchor a boat.

The Bertha wrecked off Uyak, west coast of Kodiak Island, in 1915.

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Did Anchorage have any hippies during the 1960s?

In the late 1960s, Anchorage was a very long way, physically and culturally, from Haight-Ashbury and the heart of the loosely defined hippie movement. Yes, there were members of the younger generation in town who rejected the norms of the previous generation and perhaps had more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality and drugs. Yet, no one could have ever mistaken Anchorage for San Francisco. That said, there was one enlightening and relevant incident in 1969.

Today, most depictions of hippies are harmless caricatures, constantly saying “peace” and looking like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. The 1960s were absolutely inundated with jokes and cartoons about hippies, but there was also a streak of fear. Many older Americans truly believed that hippies were going to destroy society, that hippies would upend the world as they knew it. As baffling as it might seem now, the media frequently described hippies as a public menace.

Stores would lock their doors if they saw what they thought were hippies. There were authors and traveling lecturers who made their money warning the masses about hippies, preying on gullible school boards and PTA associations. Many churches prayed for salvation against those “godless” hippies. And throughout the country, police often ran suspected hippies out of town.

The hippie craze was one of a long list of moral panics in American history. Change is inevitable yet broadly feared. From switchblades to Dungeons & Dragons to rap music to video games, people have unjustifiably projected their fears onto specific aspects of culture, blaming them for the inescapable passage of time and erosion of what once was.

Alaskans were no different. On March 1, 1969, Ken Granger lectured at Romig Junior High School on the “youth quake that is destroying your children.” Per Granger, hippies were using LSD and sex to destroy America. His presentation included clips from his documentary, “The Generation Gap,” one of many anti-hippie films with all the subtlety and accuracy of “Reefer Madness.”

In this context, hundreds of hippies invaded Anchorage in June 1969. Or at least, that is how certain powers described the situation. In reality, around 100 job seekers arrived in town at roughly the same time. From the beginning of Anchorage, the arrival of seasonal, migrant labor has been an annual tradition. Job opportunities traditionally bloomed alongside flowers as soon as the ice melted: construction, tourism and fishing. If anything, the arrivals of 1969 likely smelled and presented better than many of the gold rush prospectors and railroad laborers of decades prior.

These hippie job hunters were simply seeking opportunities in Alaska like so many others before and since. Many prominent Alaska families started off with less, like the Hickels. Two-time governor Wally Hickel was a bouncer and boxer who famously arrived in Alaska with just 37 cents in his pocket. However, to a large segment of Anchorage society, these new arrivals were just filthy hippies who came north to spread communism, free love, or LSD. As the Anchorage Daily Times described the situation, the city had a “Hippie Problem.”

City officials worked with the so-called hippies. In exchange for policing themselves and not overrunning the town, city leadership essentially gave them Mountain View Lions Park. After stern warnings about noise and public drinking, they were more or less left alone.

Unfortunately for the hippies, Mountain View Lions Park borders military land. At the time, the park extended into Elmendorf Air Force Base, with the restrooms technically on Air Force land. So, when military police busted some of the campers smoking weed, the entire group was kicked out of the park.

Oddly enough, the hippies then disappeared. There was no visible mass migration out of town. City officials and reporters checked with the police and state troopers, but no one knew what happened except that the formerly bustling camp was empty. This, more than anything, perhaps scared some locals. What did it mean if the hippies could disappear or blend into society at will? It was almost as if they had always been a part of the population and not some different species of man. People with vastly different beliefs were among us the entire time.

Key sources:


“‘Hippies’ Have to Go.” Anchorage Daily News, July 14, 1969, 1.

“Hippies Pull Out of Town.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 15, 1969, 1.

“Our Summer Jobhunters Are Given a Home.” Anchorage Daily News, June 30, 1969, 13.

Piper, Sharman. “Smithey Helps Students to ‘Excell’ at Learning.” Anchorage Times, December 31, 1982, C-6.

Radke, Heather. “The Odd Fitness Genius Behind Buns of Steel.” Slate, December 11, 2022.

“To Establish Branch Store.” Seward Daily Gateway, March 16, 1914, 1.

“A Welcome Farewell.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 16, 1969, 4.

David Reamer | Alaska history

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.