Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 6:

Fox Farming

The area both within and surrounding the present-day park is hostile to most forms of permanent settlement. Owing to poor soils and the scarcity of level land, the area is not conducive to agricultural, horticultural, industrial or most other activities.

Despite those restrictions, the park area has hosted a variety of activities, one of the most persistent being fox farming. Fox farming, an activity once practiced in many parts of Alaska, traces its roots to the Russian explorers. Some of the earliest explorers discovered foxes living on various of the Aleutian Islands, and by 1746, Russians were both harvesting foxes and transplanting them to other islands in the chain. To the Russians, foxes were not nearly as important as sea otters and fur seals; fox pelts were, however, sufficiently valuable that the Russians eliminated the populations of inferior fox species on several islands in order to specialize in so-called blue foxes. [11] The Russians continued to harvest wild foxes during their 125 years of commercial hegemony; during that time, hunters collected hundreds of thousands of fox skins and had them shipped to markets in Russia or China. Hunters did not deplete the islands' fox populations, and the supply was generally plentiful. The number of foxes in a given year, however, was highly variable due to a number of factors. For the same reasons, fur quality often suffered.

During the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of offshore islands, along with some mainland sites, housed fox farms. Alaska Magazine, July 1946, 9.

In order to avoid the unpredictability and variable fur quality inherent in wild fur harvesting, and to expand the geographical range in which foxes might be grown, several entrepreneurs decided to farm foxes commercially. The first Alaska fox farm began in the Semidi Islands (southwest of Kodiak Island) in the 1880s. [12] The practice spread. By the mid-1890s, an operation had been established on Long Island, near Kodiak, and on various islands in Prince William Sound. [13] Fox farming, at this time, was a rare if not nonexistent activity south of the forty-ninth parallel.

By the turn of the century, fox farms were increasingly common in southcentral and southeastern Alaska; in 1900, 35 islands were being leased from the government. Beginning in 1903, however, fur prices bottomed out and many islands were abandoned. Prices remained low for a decade; during this early period, many raised foxes as breeding stock and began selling them to newly established fur farms in the United States. In 1913, the popularity of furs (and the prices that they garnered) started to rise. [14] For the next fifteen years fur farms–particularly those that raised blue foxes–became increasingly popular. The height of popularity was reached in 1930, when 485 Alaska fur farm licenses were issued. Though fox farming was carried on in many parts of Alaska, it was most common in the coastal areas, where salmon, harbor seals, porpoises, whales and other marine food sources were available. The best fox farming sites were small offshore islands, where pens and feed houses were largely unnecessary. [15]

On the Kenai Peninsula, the first fox farm was established on Perl Island (one of the Chugach Islands group) in 1894. By 1900, new farms had been located on Elizabeth Island (four miles west of Perl Island), on East Chugach Island, and on Yukon and Hesketh islands in Kachemak Bay. The Kachemak Bay farms were apparently successful, long-term enterprises but the Perl and Elizabeth Island operations were not. A second attempt was made to farm the island in 1915, and by 1919, both Perl and East Chugach islands were being leased as fox farms. [16]

In Resurrection Bay, several fur farm operations were active, all on appropriately named Renard (Fox) Island. Alfred and Billy Lowell established the first farm in 1901. Starting with three pairs of blue foxes, the population grew dramatically, and by September 1905, the island had more than 400 foxes. The brothers built a dwelling and three feed houses on the island. But they had a hard time selling the foxes, so they put the farm up for sale. Lacking a buyer, they soon abandoned it. In 1907, two brothers named Phillips invested in the island, hoping to grow marten there; it is unknown, however, if they did so. [17]

Nine years later, Lars Matt Olson (in partnership with Seward storeowner Thomas W. Hawkins) made another attempt to farm furs on the island. In 1915, Olson filed a location notice for the island; by year's end he was living in a cabin on the bay (so-called Northwest Harbor) at the island's northern end and was raising angora goats and blue foxes. A year later, in July 1916, he filed for a homestead entry on the island. The General Land Office quickly rejected the claim (a December 1911 executive order had withdrawn the island from settlement, along with most of the land in and around Resurrection Bay), but Olson soldiered on. He remained on the island until June 1920, when illness forced him to move Outside. The island gained fame because in August 1918, Olson invited artist Rockwell Kent and his son to live in a nearby cabin (see Chapter 10). Father and son remained on the island for more than six months; then, in 1920, the artist published a popular book about his sojourn. Entitled Wilderness, A Journal of Quiet Adventure, it was Kent's first full-length book. The book, illustrated with the artist's distinctive woodcuts, helped publicize both Alaska and Seward. [18]

Before long, others took over where Olson had left off. In 1921, Tom Tessier moved to the island; he too raised furs and remained there for the next several years. Decades later, in October 1958, William C. Justice leased the island for fur farming purposes. He apparently made no steps to either live there or raise furs, and in January 1965 his lease expired. [19]

West of today's park, fox farmers pursued their craft in Seldovia and on Passage Island (between Port Graham and English Bay), as well as on the various Chugach islands. Area fox farms continued to operate, either on islands or in pens, as late as the 1940s. [20]

North of the park, in the peninsula's interior, a number of farmers were active with pen-raised foxes. Beginning in 1914, a man named Deegan ran a fox ranch at Kenai Lake, and by 1918, F. E. Whelpley owned a fox farm in the area and partners William Kaiser and Henry Lucas ran a farm on Skilak Lake. Lucas and Kaiser kept their operation going until 1923, if not longer. During this period, two other fox farmers set up shop: Mrs. L. W. Bishop (along the Russian River) and James Paulson. In 1925, a man named Newman went into business at Kenai Lake and remained there until 1928, possibly longer. Bishop's or Newman's operations may have continued into the early 1930s, but the others faded away and no new fur farms re-emerged. [21]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002