Living in Seattle in the 1920s, Mildred Curtis likely never thought of gold along Alaska's Yukon River. "Mil", as she was known to her friends, grew up in Butte, Montana to English immigrant parents. After her marriage to Al Hendricks in 1927, and the birth of their son Al Jr. a few years later, the young family began a new life with an unusual move to Alaska during the Great Depression. Al had gotten a job working as a dredge operator at Coal Creek, and invited his wife and young son to join him.
Missing her friends and family back home, Mildred wrote over twenty letters to the Lower 48 over next four years, telling of her life at Coal Creek and Walker Fork gold dredges. Life in remote bush Alaska was hard, and Mildred tells of the challenges of raising a family and of being one of the few women in a male-dominated gold camp.
The following essays are excerpts from her various letters, along with Hendricks family photographs, that tell the story of her perspective of life at Coal Creek in the fall of 1936 and winter of 1937.
This is Mildred's first letter from the gold dredge camp, written to her Aunt Bessie Boomer and cousin Lucilla Kinsman:
Sept 16, 1936
Dear Auntie + Lue:
Well, have been so busy haven't taken the time to write since I arrived here. We have been here a little over three weeks now & the time has just flew by...we live in the cook house so we all have to cook together...so we usually have about 10 people for every meal including breakfast...Mrs. Cowdin & Mrs. Bolstead do the cooking, but I guess I will have to start in after they leave & that is going to be in two days. It will seem lonesome after they leave, but might as well get used to it...Say, what do you think, we had two feet of snow already & we went dog sledding. The camp where the dredge is, is two miles from here & we went down by dog team, can you imagine this time in the year & having enough snow for that...Our water has frozen. Al has to pack water every night for all of us & it sure is a job. We have been out picking cranberries & blueberries but the snow had to come & that was the finish of that. The blueberries up here are like the ones we had in Montana.... I don t know what day of the week it is anymore, as the boys work every day, so Sunday is like any other days....We had a real good time coming up on the boat, & also on the river boat...we are getting along okeh & I am feeling fine. You know I cant concentrate very much as there are too many here— we are only going to have 10 for dinner; how would you like that many for every meal?
Oct 3, 1936
Dear Auntie & Everyone:
This is going to be a hurried up note again as the boys just came in today and are leaving again in the morning, and we didn’t expect them to leave for about three days. We are all feeling fine & I have tried to have school every day, but have too many interruptions to get anywhere. Mrs Bolsted & her husband eat over here & she spends most of her time here, so haven’t a minute to myself, will tell you more about that situation later, it sure is the bunk right now, but the dredge will be closing down in about two weeks, & I guess there will be some changes. (Our cook) is still over here baking & Al & Alvin [Jr.] are trying to sleep, boy if there ever was a boss she sure is one... Al works about fourteen hours a day & is sure tired in the evenings. I like it up here so far; we had some more snow today, & it is freezing tonight...Also Mrs Cowdin said to tell you to be sure & send anything you are going to get Alvin for Christmas to send it right away or otherwise he wont get it...It seems so funny to be away up here & not be able to go to the store. I have had so much company tonight haven't had time to do anything I wanted to do.... I am trying to write this letter with seven people laughing around me so excuse any mistakes.
Will write a better letter next week—
Will all our love—
Mil, Al + Alvin [Jr.]
Oct 13, 1936
Dear Auntie, Auntie Lue, Thelma & John:
I just got thru writing some letters for Alvin so must write a few lines, the only mail I have gotten was from you Lue & Auntie, Mrs Bolstad gets about ten letters every mail, but then I don’t expect to get mail when I don’t write, but I have been so busy, haven't had time to do anything, not even time to think, & Mrs Bolstad has been at our house since she came up & there has been an undercurrent all around, but we have things straightened out now, so maybe things will go along a little more smartly…[Mrs. Bolstad] was spreading stories down at the camp about me (we live two miles from camp) & you know that seems to be all people think about up here is talking about one another, & she thought she was going to get some place by making up things about me, but Al has so many good friends up here they told Al what she was saying & said they didn’t believe a word of it & they all treat me so nice & everything & want us to run camp this winter so I guess that is what we are going to do. It will be a little hard for me but Al is going to help me a lot, & I am going to enjoy it. Mrs Bolstad wanted to get Al’s job away from him this winter & tried her darndest to say everything bad she could about him too, but Mr Cowdin thinks the world of Al & promised him this job a long time ago, & told him absolutely he was to run camp & also told Mrs Bolstad so….I was telling Al it sure is too bad, there isn't some kind motherly lady here with us, I only wish there was, I don’t like that petty larceny stuff, she even told down to camp that I was dirty & lazy & I have been working harder than I have for a long time, but am feeling fine, so don’t worry about me…. I haven't been able to teach Alvin very much as yet, & I don’t care to have Mrs Bolstad do it although she would like to... I will write you a longer letter then & tell you about our house, what we cook, & about carrying water, & so many things. Don’t let anyone see this letter about Mrs Bolstad. Write often please & address all letters to Dawson.
Nov 3, 1936
Dear Auntie, Lue, Thelma & John:
Some of the boys are leaving in a few days so will try & scribble off a few lines to you. It seems I never have time to write, always someone coming in & interrupting, but this winter I will have more time to write, I hope. The dredge shut down a few days ago so that means winter is really here, although we haven't had such real cold weather as yet, it has been ten below several times. Was just interrupted again one of the fellows came in to get a cup of tea, said he was sick, but just an excuse, cause he just left & is he feeling fine. Mrs Bolstad made some peanut butter cookies & he only ate ten of them & two cups of tea. I have been doing quite a bit of typing & bookwork for the Mr Cowdin, besides helping with the cooking & trying to teach Alvin, etc., that I don’t know where the time goes, up at six most every morning but do I go to bed early at night— I don’t think any night later than nine o'clock. Oh! Yes. I forgot only on bath night, & then do we have fun. Al bought two big tubs, thinking Alvin would use the smaller one, but nothing doing he wants to take the large tub, which is really only big enough for him, but he sure misses his showers every morning. Quite a few of the boys are going out & Alvin is sure begging them to take him with them, he misses his school & everyone so much. I try to make school interesting for him but he misses the other children...
to be continued....
Un-mailed, Mil's November 3rd letter remained, so she took up her pen again today, and continued writing to her family back in Washington State, telling of work and Thanksgiving:
Well this is November 26th, Thanksgiving Day & just got thru work, 8:30, have been trying to find time to write to you, but haven't had the time. Al & I have the cook-house this winter & when the Dredge closed down there was eighteen to cook for & did we work. Mrs Bolsted & I did the cooking, there is eleven of us now & it sure keeps us busy every minute, most every day we have breakfast at 7:30—Dinner at 12, & supper at 5:30 & have to have three cooked meals a day—can you imagine me doing it that & dishes, dishes, dishes; we have to plan all the meals & there are as many things we havn’t got which makes it rather hard. Mr Duisner is going to Fairbanks tomorrow so wanted to write you a few lines as I haven’t written to anyone for so long, & haven't had any mail from anyone, but it seems I am so busy haven't time to be lonesome. Today was Thanksgiving & have I been busy, we had breakfast at 9:30—which usually consists of fruit, creal, bacon, pancakes & toast. Then at one o'clock they had coffee & doughnuts & at three o'clock we had a big roast oh I amagine it weighted about 12 lbs, it took 5 hrs to roast it, & is it hard to turn, but Al usually does that, then we had corn, & mashed potatoes, & Jelly & cookies for desert, then after that I made two chocolate cakes, fudge icing, & they just got thru eating again & Al is doing the dishes...Tell everyone we wish them a “Very Merry Christmas, & Happy New Year”, & I hope they understand that I really want to write but just am so busy—Also Tell Sam & Emma & Jack & Dude/ Well will see you in the movies, ten oclock, & am I tired.
Jan 14, 1937
Dear Auntie + Everyone!
This is going to be a hurried up note, as one of the men came in & said he was going to Steele Creek this morning, & as I was so tired last night, couldn’t put my mind to writing a letter. We have been so busy these last two months haven’t had time to write to anyone, & what do you think, I haven’t heard from any of you folks for about 3 months, & do I get lonesome to hear from you. Alvin just got your Christmas package three days ago & you should have seen the package, it was a mess, they dropped it from the airplane & the Jelly was smashed & some of Alvin's things- his slippers & my pajamas were covered with jam etc.,so I am sending you the slips so you can get a refund, as they are not supposed to drop things from an airplane...The nuts were just all mashed, & another toy of Alvin's I couldn’t make out, it was smashed up so— It certainly is too bad, as we do look forward to packages up here so much. Alvin has a lot of packages at Steele Creek that we haven't got yet. The mail service up here is terrible, & we have a lot of accidents, so don’t ever send anything without insuring it. Gee, my pajamas are real cute even though they are full of jelly, & Alvin's slippers are just filled with jelly, so we haven't been able to try them on.... Well our Christmas was quite a different one, we had eighteen here to cook for, they all came down from the woodcamps & then some of the fellows that live around here came also, so it was just work, work, & then some more work. I am glad I had some things sent for Alvin for Christmas otherwise he wouldn’t have had anything, & it didn’t seem like Christmas anyway. We did have a Christmas tree though, & Mrs. Bolstad had some Christmas tree decorations, so we got along fine with the tree. We are having a mild winter, & makes it hard traveling on account of overflows, all the mail was lost in the 40 Mile River--horses and all, they say the horses are just frozen right in the ice. Alvin is feeling fine, but is awful homesick for Seattle, & would go back in a minute if he could, but he is getting to mush dogs pretty good, & we got him a parka & gloves for Christmas, also some skis, & he can ski pretty good. We haven’t had time to teach him, so I guess he will have to get his schooling this summer, and we will be thru with this job the first of April I hope...
Love to all
Jan 29, 1937
Dear Auntie & Lue:
Al is going to Steele Creek tomorrow, so must write you a little of the goings on up here. Alvin hasn’t received some of his Christmas packages as yet, so I guess Al will pick them up when he goes to Steele for the mail. They have had a lot of trouble with mail this winter as the weather has been so mild, & the rivers don’t freeze underneath & it causes overflows, the mail I believe has been lost twice & their schedule is about a month and a half late...You know we freeze all our cakes, pies & bread, then thaw them out as we need them, and it is surprising how good they are. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could got to the store & buy cakes, etc once in a while but no such luck here. Lue I am going to try & answer some of the questions you have been asking, haven’t had time to think before, as there has been so many around when I have been trying to write. We use gas lamps & they sure are hard on your eyes, but the days are getting longer now. But for a while we had to have them going most of the time, we have one kerosene light that we use in our bedroom...I do wish I could go out more & take hikes, but I will have to wait until next year. We had a professional baker here for a couple of days. He made me some bread & Oh Boys it didn’t take him long to make up 15 loaves of bread & 110 doughnuts, he told me I was too fussy, as these fellows sure eat a lot & 3 hot meals a day. No fresh onions, eggs – or fruit – but am getting used to cooking with canned eggs, but the canned onions are terrible. Alvin is sure having a good time these days—he takes the dogs out most every day & goes skiing everyday-he is determined to be a good skier. His daddy reads to him every night, & he sure is crazy about his daddy & he is awful good to him, also is very thoughtful of me, but we took the cooking job otherwise Al would be gone so much as it is he is with us all the time, & does all the hard work for me, but it is just that I have to be on my feet so much, but it will soon be over I hope, by the 1st of April...
Lots of love-I am missing being home—
Feb 18, 1937
Dear Auntie & Lue:
Had to get up at 5:30 this morning as the men are leaving & they have 6:30 breakfast as supposed to have and they come straggling in at seven o'clock, I can hear Auntie in the morning when every one is late for breakfast. Well, we have been away six months now and it does seem a long time and I don’t know when well be coming back. This is going to be a hurried up note as the fellows are leaving in a few minutes. It keeps me hopping when they are home, as I have ten to cook for & then they are gone for a few days & I have five to cook for but also have to cook bread, cakes, etc for them to take with them. We baked seven loaves of bread yesterday. Haven't had any news from any of you since November—One of the fellows brought the mail the other day and no mail for me, only a couple of bills...We also received the phonograph records & they are real good, couldn’t have pleased me more with Silent Night and Al likes that real well too. & Alvin sure likes his record to but he broke it two days after he got it, but just at the end so he starts in the middle & plays it. Thanks for sending the needles...I had a real nice present given to me the other day, a coyote skin & there is a $20 bounty on them. This Alaska Native man also gave Alvin a .22 Special gun & he has been practicing shooting and is getting very good...When this job is finished which I hope is April 1st will write you some real long letters.
Well just got a big stack of dishes to do so better get busy. Love from all of us.
Mil- Al + Alvin---
Alvin is feeling fine + having a pretty good time but he misses children to play with & then we haven't much time to be with him but he is having a wonderful experience. He is out playing his record now he knows the words all of by heart — We are thinking of getting a piano accordion; what do you think?
Mar 11, 1937
Dear Auntie, Lue + Thelma:
We received all your letters a couple of days ago when we mushed the dogs down to a cabin about eight miles from here, a man by the name of Geo Winans lives there + he had gone to Steele to get the mail + brought it as far as his place, + was I glad to get out for a day. Lately I have been going out more—Al has mushed me to the woodcamp twice now, that is about twelve miles from here, I am enclosing a letter that Juanita King wrote to me sometime ago, she is very well educated + has worked her way thru College, and is the cook up at the woodcamp this winter + besides that the Cowdins haven't any use for her, for no reason at all, she certainly is twice the lady Mrs Bolstead is, but the Cowdins fell hook, line, + sinker for Bolstead, and she thinks she can get away with anything...The Cowdins consider Mrs King no good, (and she is just the opposite) whereas it is alright for her to go visiting different fellows around here all the time + she went to Sam Esplard’s cabin the other day + stayed all night but there were only three men in the cabin + they stayed up all night playing cards, + one of the fellows came down from the woodcamp (who is crazy about her + he is also crazy) + started a fight, they were all drinking moonshine + one of the fellows got a black eye, + the old men hit the fellow from the woodcamp + Oh! it is a great life up around here. All the fellows are crazy about her, + the bosses nephew is also crazy about her, so just because I try to act like a lady they don’t think much of me. The men up here don’t respect women very much, + it really isn't any place for Alvin, but we are going to spend at least another summer up here, if things go alright, but Old Man Cowdin might come and fire us for all that has gone on this winter, he sure can't pick out real men to run his dredge. + he wasn’t able to pay his men off last fall, so I don’t know how it is going to be we were going to try + get our money when he came in and head for Fairbanks (as this Mrs Bolstead gets in under Al’s skin that he cant stand her around) as Al would be able to get work there, but we will see when Cowdin comes in, this isn't a very promising outfit...The cooking business is a thankless job + I sure will be glad when it is over + I am hoping it will be soon.... I only made four cakes the other day + Batches of cookies, yesterday made three pies + two more batches of cookies + today I am experimenting with bread, we always as a rule have sourdough hotcakes, + what was left put some flour in + let it raise for a while + am using it for making some raisin bread I tried it the other day + it worked out swell...but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Al didn’t blow up when Cowdin comes as he is as fed up with everything + I don’t blame him, he works real hard, + helps me an awful lot, does all the dishes, etc, + besides he is working nights now shoveling coal, but he is going to be in extra time for that, so we might be on one way to Fairbanks any time... The kids are just coming home they took the dogs down with them + Alvin said to tell you he mushed his daddy all the way down + back + only gave him three spills. He will write you a long letter as soon as I get him to write, so usually he + his daddy go over to listen to the radio for a while + I go to bed. I don’t like listening to the Radio, too much static. We are certainly loving warm weather + they don’t want it yet, as they haven't started to haul the wood yet, + have to get it before it gets to warm as the roads are terrible otherwise...Received your letter this time Thelma + was wondering when you were going to write to me as Alvin mentions you a great deal...I wish I was about half as ambitious as you are then I might get someplace in this world, but I really have learned to cook more things this winter than I ever have + I am not sorry for the experience but it was rather hard for me under the circumstances but it is nearly over now + I can get down to business + teach Alvin. We wrote to Fairbanks about books for him + they only sent him reading books + I wanted a speller + arithmetic book, but I think we have enough books to keep us busy for a while. Wish you were around to help me teach him...This getting to be quite a lengthy letter, + will write longer letters as soon as this job is over with. Will tell you all about different people etc...Am going to write to Grandma now + then will have to start working again. Al + Alvin are here eating hash, that’s what I had for dinner last night + the old lady [Mrs Bolstead] didn’t like, but such is life in the far north.
Say Hello to everyone for me + thanks Lue for all the news you write, Mrs King gets the Readers Digest but haven’t had time to read it, but will do so this summer.
It will soon be Easter—so “Happy Easter”— Mil— Al + Alvin
Special thanks to the Special Collections and Archives at the Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage, for allowing the National Park Service to quote from these letters in their collection.
Last updated: August 4, 2020