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

The Nuka Island Fox Farm

The only fox farm within the present park boundaries, and the best known fox farming operation along the Kenai Peninsula's southern coast, was located on Nuka Island, at the southwestern edge of the present-day national park.

Edward Tuerck and his wife, Josephine, established the fox farm in the spring of 1921. [22] A year previously, the couple was living in Cordova when Joe and Muz Ibach arrived in town from their Middleton Island fox farm and sold furs worth $17,000. That sale, coupled with a $10,000 fur harvest a year earlier, caused a sensation in Cordova. [23] As Josephine later recalled, "the fox ranching industry became the prevailing topic of the day, and the question of where one could find an island suitable for the purpose, the main topic of discussion." Mr. Tuerck then discussed the idea with Charles Dustin, and the two set about looking for an appropriate island for raising foxes. On April 6, 1921, Tuerck chartered a boat, loaded it with lumber, and set out for the Pye Islands. He soon discovered, however, that the islands were exposed, steep and utterly lacking in a suitable harbor, so the boat continued west to Nuka Island where a "natural harbor" was located. [24] Tuerck liked the site, so he posted a location notice and helped haul the boatload of lumber ashore. They then sailed back to the copper mining community of Latouche, which was, in the recollections of Tuerck's wife, "the nearest town from which they could communicate with the Land Office in Juneau." On April 12, they notified that office. [25]

Development of the site proceeded quickly thereafter. In May, Tuerck and Dustin, acting as partners, returned to the site and began building a house. Construction of the small, rectangular residence proceeded slowly. In mid-July Tuerck's wife joined them, and within weeks the structure had been completed along with a hen house, storehouse, and a 3,000-foot water line connecting the house to a nearby creek. In early September, six pairs of blue foxes arrived, the beginnings of their fur farming operation. Soon afterward, Dustin moved to Seattle and his role in the operation became less active. [26]

The fox farm, known in business circles as the Dustin & Tuerck Fur Company, [27] appears to have been economically successful, and the fox population proliferated on the island. The foxes were given a varied diet. To save on feed costs, they were provided as many locally caught products as possible; humpback salmon was a staple, supplemented by the meat of seals, sea lions, and even whales when they could be procured. When fish and marine mammals were scarce, the foxes were fed a cooked compote of rolled oats and rolled wheat, mixed together with soaked-out fish, seal oil, and cracklings. Josephine occasionally made the foxes hotcakes and provided eggs from the nearby hen house. [28]

One of the foxes' only natural predators was the bald eagle. Mrs. Sather noted that "our island swarmed with eagles," and she quickly learned that they ate ducks, porcupines, minks, fish, and birds' eggs. Considering herself a nature lover, she deplored the eagles' dietary habits; what really angered her was the discovery of young fox hides, torn to rags, near the eagles' nests. The terms of her fur farm lease expressly forbade the killing of "any game animals or birds ... and to exercise all reasonable precaution to conserve game and wild birds on the land covered by this lease." Mrs. Sather, however, felt that "these predatory eagles were a menace to our fox-raising enterprise." Because of the perceived "menace" to the fox population, because enforcement of the fish and game laws was minimal, and because of the additional incentive of an eagle bounty–$2 for each pair of talons–she shot several hundred eagles during her stay on the island. [29]

One of the primary reasons that the couple settled on Nuka Island was that Ed Tuerck "had not been well for some time" and that "a change might be the very thing he needed." After settling on the Nuka Island, Tuerck's health initially improved. In the early summer of 1923, however, he was taken seriously ill, and on July 24 he left the island in order to get medical attention. He was examined in Anchorage and was told that his sickness–stomach cancer–was incurable. He returned to Seward, where he died on August 26. [30]

Josephine spent the following winter on the island with Edward's daughter and son-in-law. [31] She quickly concluded that she loved her home and the fox-farming lifestyle. She was, however, unable to run the business on her own, and by the following spring she was heavily in debt. She was given an offer to sell her half of the fur company, but instead vowed that she would not leave Nuka Island. So as she later noted, "Consequently there was only one thing for me to do–marry a man who took the same delight in Nature that I did, and who would be capable and willing to take care of the fur business." That man was Captain Peter P. Sather, "a man whom [Edward] and I had always had the highest respect and regard." [32] Seward's U.S. Commissioner wed the two on May 5, 1924. Their union, a marriage of convenience, continued until his death in the early 1960s. [33]

Pete and Josephine Sather
Pete and Josephine Sather on board their gas boat, the Rolfh III. Alaska Sportsman, September 1946, 19.

Much has been written about "Herring Pete" Sather over the years, and many old-timers from Seward, Seldovia, Homer and vicinity fondly recall his personality and eccentricities. (One reporter hailed him, late in life, as a man "known the length and breadth of the rugged 49th state as a man who can't stand dry land." [34]) Most remember him as warm-hearted and generous, if a bit quirky. Because he and his wife were the only long-term permanent residents who lived between Caines Head and Portlock during the twentieth century, many recognize that the two were the most important single elements unifying human activity in the fjords country from the mid-1920s until the early 1960s. Pete was well known because he was a jack-of-all-trades. He owned and worked at two different Nuka Bay mines; he was a commercial halibut fisherman and caught salmon for both commercial and subsistence purposes; he transported miners, hunters, sightseers, mail, and freight between Seward and Nuka Bay; and he, along with Josephine, operated a successful fox farm. Because the couple was involved in so many activities, many consider them the pre-eminent historical figures associated with Kenai Fjords National Park.

The Sathers, and a young friend, as they appeared in the late 1930s. Hans Hanson photo, from Alaska Magazine, July 1974, 29.

Two activities quickly followed the Sathers' marriage; one related to business rights, the other to site development. In July 1925, Josephine Sather acquired the other half of the fur farming business from her partners. Charles Dustin, now living in Seattle, and Robert Mooney, a Kennicott resident, were apparently no longer interested in remaining active in the operation. [35] So in exchange for 40 pairs of foxes, they gave up their interest in fox farming and also agreed to repay a debt that the Tuercks owed to a Seward merchant. Shortly thereafter, in July 1926, Congress passed a fur farm leasing act, an action that finally allowed Mrs. Sather, and fur farmers throughout the territory, the opportunity to gain a legal right to their properties. For years thereafter, she retained her fox farm lease by paying $50 per year to the General Land Office. Although Alaska Game Commission and other government records show Pete as the fox farm's operator, Josephine remained the sole possessor of the fox farm lease. [36]

During the mid- to late 1920s, Pete made a number of improvements to the fox farming operation. He added a number of rooms to their residence, including a bedroom, pantry, woodshed, sun room, and combination skinning room and bathroom. In addition, he constructed a cookhouse for preparing fox feed; a 16' x 32' breeder shed; a machine shop; and several cement tanks, for salting fish. He also built 32 6' x 8' feed houses, [37] each complete with a tunnel and trap door. The feed houses were scattered all over the island, each within easy walking distance of the ocean in order to allow easy access. And to improve boat access to his residence, he built a dock and float. Pete was no carpenter; as Josephine once wrote, "Pete is not long on patience when it comes to building, and never takes the pains to line one up just right before he starts. Consequently not a piece from beginning to end fits as it should." Despite that characteristic, much of his handiwork from that period has remained to the present day. [38]

feed house
"Herring Pete" and Josephine Sather built several dozen feed houses on Nuka Island. Several of these structures may still stand. M. Woodbridge Williams photo, NPS/Alaska Area Office print file.

The operation, and the Alaska fur farm industry, showed increasingly bright prospects during the 1920s, and the number of Alaska fur farms increased from 146, after the 1922 season, to 262 in 1926. The year 1929 was particularly prosperous with high pelt prices, unprecedented production levels and a flamboyant fur market; Alaska had 384 fur farms that year. On October 29, however, "Black Tuesday" on Wall Street ushered in the Great Depression, a period that had a catastrophic effect on the industry because fur garments were luxury items. Within a year after the stock market crash, the value of Alaskan fur exports had experienced a sharp decline; blue fox pelt prices, for example, dropped from $99 to $62. Soon afterward, the bottom dropped out of the market: pelt prices fell to $28 in 1931 and to $21 in 1932. One Kachemak Bay fur farmer, Steve Zawistowski, recalled that in 1930 he received an average of $100 per pelt. But by 1932, similar pelts brought only $11–a price, Zawistowski wryly noted, "that put us out of business right there." Unfavorable market conditions forced many Alaskan fur farmers out of business. By 1933, only 310 fur farms remained in operation, compared with 476 farms in 1930. [39]

The remainder of the decade brought mixed fortunes to the fur farming industry. In 1933, the price of blue fox pelts rose for the first time since 1929, but they remained well below the prices that had been garnered during the 1920s, and they never again rose above $35. Even so, blue fox production remained as high as it had been during a decade earlier. Depressed prices forced many other fox farmers to abandon the business, and by 1939 only 220 farms remained in the territory. [40] The poor price structure meant less revenue for the Sathers, along with other Alaskan fox farmers. The Sathers, however, were able to remain in business throughout the decade. As noted in other chapters, "Herring Pete" was able to supplement his fur farming income by transporting people, mail, and freight between Seward and the various Nuka Bay mines, and by engaging in commercial fishing as well.

The decades that followed were even harder on fox farmers than the 1930s had been. The advent of World War II reduced the demand for furs and other luxuries, and the postwar years brought increased economic opportunities that lured fox farmers into other lines of work. Consumers, moreover, increasingly preferred coats made of mink rather than blue fox, so pelt prices remained low. As a result of these and other factors, the number of Alaska fox farms continued to decline from 220 in 1939 to 87 in 1944; to 62 in 1947; to 24 in 1950; to 15 in 1957; and to only 4 in 1966. [41]

Sather homestead
The Sather family homestead, as it looked in 1938. Alaska Sportsman, October 1946, 21.

Despite these increasingly gloomy trends, the Sather fox farm continued to operate, a hardy survivor in an industry that was quickly becoming a shadow of its former self. In its 1947 edition, the U.S. Coast Pilot warned passing ships that "Nuka Island is used as a fox farm. Numerous ‘No Trespassing' signs are on prominent points and islands along the northern and western shores of the island." Soon afterward, however, the Sathers stopped renewing their annual fur farm license, and by 1954 the Coast Pilot described Nuka Island as containing "the remaining buildings of what was once a fox farm." Even so, Pete and Josephine continued to live at their Nuka Island residence. [42]

What happened to their foxes, now essentially valueless, is not entirely clear. For the first several years after the couple abandoned their business, Pete continued to hunt and fish for the foxes; he did this because of the couple's fondness for wildlife, foxes included. The Sathers continued to feed some foxes as late as the summer of 1961. [43] But beginning in the late 1950s, the couple may have taken a cue from various Aleutian Islands farmers and simply left most of their remaining foxes to fend for themselves. Arctic foxes, after all, have been known to survive, unattended, on large islands by scavenging the beaches and bird rookeries for food. On one of the Barren Islands, a farmer abandoned her farm in 1930; she returned seven years later to find a healthy fox population, even though poachers had been active. [44] On Nuka Island, the chances for survival were diminished because small game and rodents had long since been eliminated and because readily available marine life was scarce as well. Even so, however, a number of foxes were apparently able to adapt to the new regime; a woman who resided on the island in the early 1980s has definite recollections of foxes (and mink) on the island. [45]

During the postwar years, the Sathers continued to live at their Nuka Island home, Pete earning most of his income by fishing. By the mid-1950s, as noted above, the continuing decline in fur prices caused the couple to lose their enthusiasm for fur farming. Because Pete was off fishing for long periods, Josephine, now in her mid- to late 70s, became concerned about her isolation. In August 1959 she moved to Seattle, only to move back again the following spring. [46] Then, in late August 1961, tragedy struck. On the way back to Nuka Island from a trip to Seward, Pete's boat was lost in a storm, and he was never seen again. The following July, Josephine left the island, returned to her home town of Ellmau, Austria, and began living with her niece. She died there, at the age of 82, on October 13, 1964. [47]

After Josephine left the island, a family named Johnson moved there; exactly who lived there, however, is under some dispute. One source notes that Chuck and Sherry Johnson bought the lease. A longtime resident, however, states that Mike Johnson was living at the site before the March 1964 earthquake, and land records show that Ms. Billie June Wiles Johnson obtained a ten-year fur farm lease beginning on April 1, 1963. [48] The Johnsons, moreover, were not the only ones to live on the island. In 1966, the Suddath family (of Seward) lived there, and others apparently did as well between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s. [49]

In July 1966, the State of Alaska applied for title to Nuka Island along with adjacent acreage on the mainland, all of which was federally owned at that time. The BLM reacted to the state's 75,521-acre application, which was part of its 104 million-acre statehood allotment, by incrementally reducing the size of Billie Johnson's lease. In 1973, Johnson applied to the BLM for a new lease, which was set to expire on September 1 of that year. By that time, however, the state's application was well underway, and a BLM official informed her that her lease would be canceled once the agency gave tentative approval to the state's application. Johnson fought the ruling, but on October 1, 1973 the agency issued a decision denying the lease renewal. [50] Johnson was invited to apply to the state's Division of Lands for a new lease. Either she or her husband apparently applied for, and were granted, a mining lease. That lease remained in effect for the remainder of the decade. [51]

Sather homestead
Photo of the Sather homestead, c. 1985. McMahan and Holmes, Report, January 1987, 36.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002