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Turning 90's no picnic -- it's a dance party

  • Author: Heather Lende
  • Updated: May 13, 2016
  • Published February 21, 2010

When it is raining in February, there is nothing that can cheer you and your sweetheart up more than a night on the town with old friends.

Especially really old friends.

John Schnabel turned 90 Feb. 11 and threw himself a birthday bash at the Elks Saturday night. He supplied the pizza, cake, balloons, and a coin redeemable for one drink at the bar. John also contracted the dance band. The Fishpickers are a local favorite whose leader is a commercial gillnetter. Band members played the banjo, a stand-up bass, trombone, drums, guitars, a fiddle, and a keyboard on mostly country tunes like "Luckenbach, Texas." Although they belted out a rousing "Go, Johnny, Go" for the birthday man.

Lots of people outside of Haines know John, because for many years he owned one of Alaska's big sawmills, the Schnabel Lumber Company, which at its glory employed 120 people in Haines. John has also been the mayor several times, built most of Main Street, had a share in the power company, a motel and hardware store. He is an Alaskan pioneer who once told me his dream for Haines was that it would prosper and grow to rival Seattle.

According to a gold-stamped Alaska legislative proclamation Rep. Bill Thomas hand delivered to the party titled "Honoring John Schnabel" he was the director of the Alaska Forest Association and served on the Alaska Mineral Commission and Federal Land Planning Commission, too.

John got out of the sawmill business in 1983, just as logging in the Tongass was ending. Then he embarked on a second career as a placer gold miner. He has made a lifelong vocation of battling government regulations, especially environmental ones. A favorite bumper sticker on his truck read, "I love my country but fear my government." I'm pretty sure it faded and peeled off before either Clinton or the second Bush was president.

John stills works his gold claim in the Porcupine district about thirty miles from town. He spends summers there with his wife Erma in a log cabin, returning to town for groceries, and I suspect, so John can play bridge. He wins tournaments locally, regionally, and even in the lower 48. In the winter he swims at the pool every morning and then goes to his office and writes letters to Alaska's congressional delegation and other powers that be.

Recently, John gave me a manila envelope full of the replies to some of his mail and copies of important papers documenting his long, productive life. He was born in a sod house on the prairie, and came to Haines at 19. His is a classic rags-to-riches story. (Although his style is more thrift store than lumber baron.)

The typed cover letter said the material would assist me with his obituary (I write them for the local paper) and hopefully "offset some negative comment should some misinformed person feel it should be included." A note in John's formal old-fashioned penmanship followed, "I have read most of the books written by Winston Churchill and he stated 'history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it'."

I thought about that as I watched John at the party, a ramrod straight clear-eyed 90-year-old missing a digit on one finger and hard of hearing, but otherwise apparently immune to the aging process, greet his guests.

Former mayor Fred Shields, and a bridge partner of John's who like many of his admirers, has sometimes been on opposite sides of political battles with John, was the emcee. He said John's longevity is due in part to regular exercise, healthy eating, and because "John quit smoking when he was 12."

John would like to die working at the mine. That means he'll most likely be driving his 988 loader when his heart stops. John is worried he may take the valuable machine with him when he goes. This concern was turned into a funny song by Tod and Margaret Sebens, (Tod mined with John). Tod wrote new lyrics to the Beatles tune "Across the Universe." He re-titled his version, "Nonagenarian." We all chimed in on the refrain: "Pull the yellow parking break, to waste a loader I would hate before I reach the pearly gate."

We all sang "Happy Birthday," too. "Thank you for coming," John said, "I'm flattered. Basically, you have to reserve these type of remarks for a person's memory." Then he smiled, "you know -- a funeral."

John shouldn't worry so much about how posterity treats him. The older he gets, the more he is liked, and you can't say that about everyone. Also, John didn't need to send me his historical paperwork. He's writing his own obituary -- every day. We all are.

Heather Lende is the author of "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News From Small-Town Alaska." To contact Heather or read her new blog, "The News From Small-Town Alaska," visit

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