How Do Alaskans Make a Living?
No master of a trade who is willing to work need find himself out of a job in Alaska. Most Alaskan industries are seasonal, however, and the prospective Alaskan should be prepared to switch from one job to another according to season.
Wages are high, to compensate for high living costs. The custom of the “grubstake” is widespread: buying necessities on credit in the slack season, to be paid for during the busy season.
Agriculture so far in Alaska has not been able to keep up with the demand for farm products. In 1940 Alaskans were importing from the States $8,200,000 worth of farm products a year, including $1,000,000 worth of vegetables, and $5,000,000 worth of meat. Since 1940, due to the war, imports have increased enormously. But there is no doubt that a large market will continue to exist for Alaskan farmers’ products, providing they can raise them and get them to market.
There are four principal farming areas in Alaska: the Tanana Valley, the area near Homer on Kenai Peninsula, parts of Kodiak Island, and the Matanuska Valley.
Matanuska, the most famous of these, is populated by about 2,250 persons, including the residents of the towns of Palmer and Wasilla. There are about 250 farms in the valley, 144 of which were established by the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation, which started the Matanuska Valley Colonization Project in 1935. Farmers have cleared about 6,000 acres of land and own about 700 dairy cows, some 600 hogs, 1,200 sheep, about 100 horses, and approximately 100 beef cattle.
The chief types of farming in the valley are dairying, general farming, truck farming, and poultry raising. Most of the farmers sell their products through their cooperative, which operates a creamery in Palmer and a dairy in Anchorage. Dairy farming has proved profitable for farmers, but they have found it best to raise from their farms all the vegetables and food crops they can for family living.
Matanuska lies on about the same latitude as Leningrad, USSR, or Oslo, Norway. In the last 19 years, temperatures in the valley have averaged 13° above zero in January and 58° in July. Precipitation over the same period averaged 15.5 inches a year. There is an average growing season of 108 days. The soil is a rich loam. There are few pests or noxious weeds and no snakes—but plenty of mosquitoes!
Farms of 80 to 160 acres owned by the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation sell, when vacant, from about $4,500 to $6,000, with about one-fifth down payment. These farms may be leased the first year. Other farms are sometimes available from private owners. Undeveloped government land may be purchased at prices ranging from $1.25 to $5.00 per acre. It is usually covered with birch-spruce forest, and must be cleared before it can be farmed. Special settler’s steamship rates can be secured by farmers bringing their own equipment and machinery. If possible, the settler should bring with him livestock, farm machinery, tools, and furniture.
Alaska fish are more valuable than Alaska gold—and the fish come back every year. Alaskans consider fishing their most important industry. In 1941 food fish and shellfish taken out of Alaskan waters totaled over $61,000,000 in value. Of this amount, more than $56,000,000 was the value of the year’s output of canned salmon—nearly 7,000,000 cases.
The most important fishing areas are southeastern Alaska and Bristol Bay. Salmon taking and canning is a large-scale industry of big operators, who import much of their labor during the season, which extends from about June 25 to about July 25. Local Alaskans pitch in to help run the catch up to astronomical size. Many southeastern fishermen own their own boats, and catch shrimp, crab, halibut, and herring.
The individual prospector with his pick, shovel, and pan has not entirely disappeared from the Alaskan scene. Nowadays he travels by plane and may have a degree from a mining college, but his job still has its old elements of luck and loneliness. An experienced prospector can usually make his grubstake—and there is always the possibility of cashing in on that thousand-to-one shot of finding rich gravel or a paying lode.
Most Alaskan mining, however, is a large-scale affair requiring big corporate investments and expensive equipment. In southeastern Alaska gold mining is mostly lode, or hard-rock, in which huge quantities of mineral-bearing ore are mechanically crushed and stamped to yield relatively small quantities of metal. In the interior and the southwest, mining is usually of the placer variety, in which the gold-bearing gravel is thawed and dredged. A favorite combination of jobs in the interior is working in a mining camp in summer and trapping in the winter.
Gold mining, save for small-scale operations, has been halted in Alaska for the duration, but will no doubt be resumed after the war.
Trapping and Fur Farming
Alaska’s seventeen kinds of commercial furs are known the world over. The land fur bearers yield every year more than 375,000 skins worth over $2,000,000—mink, fox, beaver, muskrat, lynx, marten, land otter, ermine, and many other varieties. They are found in many parts of the Territory, so that trapping is a rather general way of supplementing one’s income.
Alaskans say that “fur wearers breed faster than fur bearers.” For this reason, raising fur-bearing animals becomes every year a more flourishing industry. The climate is right, food supplies plentiful, equipment simple, and transportation problems not difficult.
You can lease a fur farm for 10 years or less from the government for a maximum annual rental of 1 per cent on the gross returns from fur sales, and a minimum of $5.00 for not more than 10 acres. A number of fur farmers lease whole islands. This is permitted if the island is not over 30 miles square.
There are still free public lands available for homesteading. Of course, much of this unreserved acreage is not suitable for making a home. Most suitable for farmsteads are the areas on the Cook Inlet shore of the Kenai Peninsula, in the Tanana Valley near Fairbanks, and in the Matanuska Valley. Homestead entries for up to 160 acres can be made through the district land offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Nome. The General Land Office in Washington, which has jurisdiction over the public domain in Alaska, will supply full information on request.
Any United States citizen employed in Alaska may purchase one 5-acre tract at $2.50 per acre and the cost of surveying it. It is also possible to purchase larger tracts up to 80 acres for business purposes, including fur farming. Private purchase of proved land may be made from homesteaders and others. Coal and timber on public lands is available to individual users under specified conditions.
Buying and Selling
Alaskans demand a high quality in the goods they buy, since high transportation charges bring the cost of cheap and shoddy articles into the price range of more expensive ones. Alaskan customers also demand complete frankness from merchants as to the quality of goods, and expect long-term credit to carry them over unproductive seasons.
Competition for Alaskan customers, with their large buying power, is keen, and the prospective merchant will find himself competing against mail-order houses and old trading companies. He will encounter serious transportation difficulties. In remote regions the trading post has a virtual monopoly. Persons intending to invest capital in any selling enterprise should go over the ground carefully and consult local chambers of commerce.
Professions, Trades, and Services
Young and healthy men and women with a profession or a skilled trade do well in the larger centers. They should bring their professional equipment or the tools and machinery of their trade with them.
Odd or seasonal jobs are usually available according to the region and season. Some of them are: work in stores, garages, restaurants, and other services; trucking; construction and building; fishing, mining, and trapping; timbering and land clearing; surveying; road construction and maintenance; railroad work; nursing, school teaching; and office work.
Alaska was built by people who lived in the future—who mixed in their ordinary day’s work a considerable portion of hope and belief in tomorrow. This is as true of Alaskans today as it was of earlier pioneers in that region.
- Young scientists to help solve problems in agriculture and the extraction and conservation of natural resources;
- Young technicians to develop labor-saving machinery and transportation equipment to solve Alaska’s problem of vast distances, few hands, and many tasks;
- Young doctors, dentists, and clinicians to keep Alaska’s population, white and native, healthy and strong;
- Young businessmen with a real appreciation of our last frontier’s beauties to transport, house, feed, and entertain the thousands of tourists soon to pour into Alaska, and to help develop a chain of mutually supported facilities for transportation, shelter, and recreation;
- Young geographers, geologists, and explorers to survey and reap great, uncharted areas;
- Young scholars to study and record Alaska’s vanishing languages and lore, its history and development, its natural life, and to pass these records on for the permanent use of others;
- Young skilled hands to build Alaska with hard work.
These jobs are not advertised in want-ad columns, nor are they available merely by applying to an employer or government bureau. They are not a sure road to riches or fame. Undertaking them in many cases may mean bucking up against some local beliefs and well-established traditions and facing the opposition, expressed or implied, of old-timers “sot in their ways.” That is why they are “pioneer” jobs. They don’t offer immediate rewards, but they do offer the satisfaction of jobs worth tackling—and they may yield long-term gains.