Down on the farm

Siblings reminisce about raising foxes in Kasilof

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

By the shore of little Loon Lake, beneath the birch trees, nearly hidden by brush, stand about half a dozen tiny structures. The Lilliputian log cabins and plank huts are the remains of the central Kenai Peninsula's last commercial fox farm and relics of an industry that once dominated the area's economy.

This past winter, Stanley S. McLane and Joan McLane Lahndt, a brother and sister who grew up on the Kasilof homestead, collected mementos of that era and made presentations to area historical societies about life on the fox farm.

Their recollections and records that survive paint a colorful portrait of an extinct way of life.

Furs: Alaska's first economic boom

 

A group of young foxes sit in a pen at the Loon Lake Fox Farm in Kasilof. Traces of the wire and fox houses remain at the McLane family homestead.

Photo courtesy of McLane family

Fox farming in Alaska dates back to Russian times. Fur traders learned early on to supplement the income from hunting sea otters and trapping land-living fur bearers by putting pairs of foxes on islands, letting them multiply and returning to harvest their offspring later.

Generations later, biologists expended considerable effort to extirpate descendants of those foxes from islands in the Aleutians, where the predators had decimated sea bird and waterfowl nesting areas.

After the Americans took over Alaska, sea otters dwindled to the brink of extinction and the economy was in dire straits. Alaskans turned to fish and foxes for income. Fox farming sprung up on islands around the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak and Prince William Sound, where it started around 1885. To increase production, companies hired Natives and pioneers to hunt and fish for additional fox food.

The Seward Gateway reported on July 20, 1915:

 

Harriet "Mickey" Williamson poses with a black fox. She was one of the few people who tamed some foxes enough to handle them like pets. The McLanes purchased their initial breeding stock from her and her husband, Billy Williamson. The Williamsons farmed foxes in Kasilof and Lawing. They left Alaska and moved to California. Both are deceased.

Photo courtesy of McLane family

"By looking in the door of the Bank of Seward at present, one can see at a glance no less than twenty thousand dollars worth of furs hung up around the office. One shipment of blue foxes included in the bunch was worth ten thousand dollars. The greater part of the furs came from Attu island."

Farms gradually became more domesticated. Especially on the mainland where foxes could not run free, people began keeping them in pens, breeding them like livestock.

The arctic fox, in its blue phase, was used initially for release on islands. But with pens, people also could raise red foxes, selected for the desirable silver, black or cross color varieties.

To get started in the early days, trappers simply brought home good-looking animals alive and kept them for breeding. Later, farmers kept pedigrees and prime breeding pairs could fetch thousands of dollars.

 

Kenai Peninsula fox farms are nearly forgotten, their remains moldering in the woods. At the McLane homestead in Kasilof, volunteers from the Kasilof Regional Historical Associtation dug out old fox houses and put them up on the concrete block to arrest decay.

Photo by Shana Loushbaugh

When the Gold Rush petered out and the Roaring '20s fashions placed a premium on fur coats, fox farming became "the next big thing" for Southcentral Alaska.

Soon people were touting the Kenai Peninsula as a perfect place for foxes.

The farm at Loon Lake

Archie and Enid McLane came to Kasilof (or, as it often was called in those days, Kussiloff) in 1922 as newlyweds looking to build a life together.

 

Stanley S McLane stands with an old plank fox house from his parents' fur farm 60 years ago.

Photo by Shana Loushbaugh

But they were no starry-eyed cheechakos.

Archie McLane came to Alaska before World War I, working with the railroads and logging in the little tent town by Ship Creek that later became Anchorage. "Mac" was among a group of 40 young men who walked from Ship Creek to Seward to sign up for military service. After the war, he high-tailed it back to Cook Inlet country where he met a young school teacher, Enid Stryker.

Enid's father, Jim Stryker, had climbed the Chilkoot Trail during the Gold Rush. Although his family lived for years in Washington, the Strykers kept up their Alaska connections. In 1912, Jim's wife, Bertha, toured Cook Inlet with her friend, Ninilchik schoolmarm Alyce Anderson. Both the Stryker girls, Jetret "Jettie" and Enid, became pioneer school teachers in Cook Inlet, and their parents moved to Seldovia. Many of their relatives still live on the Kenai Peninsula.

Archie's and Enid's romance blossomed on a hunting trip to Lake Tustumena in 1921. The next August they wed among the fireweed on an island in Kachemak Bay.

That winter they lived in the old Winter Watchman's House at the mouth of the Kasilof River. When spring came, they moved into a tent on the property they had claimed up Coal Creek several miles from the river mouth.

Jettie had married Allan Petersen, and of the four fox farms in the area, the Petersens were caretaking one started by Louis Nissen.

"We were impressed with the life of a fox farmer, and the future for the industry looked very promising, so by spring we had decided to homestead here and purchased three pairs of fox puppies in the fall at $500 a pair," Enid said in a 1962 talk in Soldotna transcribed in "Once Upon the Kenai."

While a pair of Finns they had hired built the log cabin for the family, she and Archie set up the fox farm. They built pens and started collecting food.

"Each day we spent hunting wild rabbits, fortunately very plentiful at that time, which constituted the complete diet of the foxes. The surplus meat was dried and ground for future use," she said.

In the spring of 1924, Enid was expecting. She went to Seldovia to be close to the hospital and her family. Stanley arrived at about the same time as the first crop of eight pups at the Loon Lake Fur Farm. In the years that followed, two daughters and a lot more foxes joined the family.

"In 1924, $40,000 worth of live fox and fur pelts were shipped out of Kasilof," Enid recalled nearly 40 years later.

The pelts were sent by dog team to Lawing at the south end of Kenai Lake, then via train to Seward to be shipped to the United States.

Growing up with foxes

For Stanley, Joan and their sister Jettie Jean, who now lives in Washington, a normal childhood was living on a primitive Alaska homestead surrounded by fox pens.

"Your lifestyle was determined by caring for the foxes," Joan said.

Feeding foxes was a time-consuming task for the whole family.

Snowshoe hares were the preferred food, believed to help the females produce more young. Fox farmers ran lines of snares, and at the peak of the hare population cycle, they caught 50 per mile every two days. When hares were scarce, porcupines were a treat. Game laws at the time forbade the farmers from feeding moose to their foxes.

Catching wild food had its pitfalls.

Stanley told about a misadventure his parents' friend Sam Pratt, for whom the Homer museum is named, had back in 1939. Pratt liked to visit the McLanes and pitch in around the farm by snaring rabbits and porkies. But that day he stumbled into an occupied bear den.

"When he got back, he had to change his underwear," Joan said.

Fish made up a lot of the fox fare. When the canneries on the Kasilof River got a glut of salmon, they would notify the fox farmers and send a scow of humpies up the river for them. Families worked during the salmon runs to catch enough for their voracious stock along with their family's subsistence needs. The McLanes, as the only farm not on the river, had to "commute" to work during the fishing season.

Stanley and Joan said their father would brew up a stew of meal grain and dried fish in big batches to last the foxes for several days at a time.

The animals' housing was elaborate. Each breeding adult needed a separate dwelling secured so it could not escape.

The fox houses surviving at Loon Lake are stout log structures made with the same careful dovetail notching as the bigger barns. The lids are hinged to open, and some contain nest boxes and entryways.

The chicken wire fencing had to be buried to a depth of six feet to prevent the foxes from burrowing out. A tall, outer fence surrounded the compound of pens so that if an animal escaped from its private quarters someone could catch it in a dip net before it got away into the forest beyond, Stanley and Joan said.

Chutes, opened only during the breeding season, connected the pens of male "dog" foxes to the female foxes.

After about 52 days gestation, they produced litters. Some whelped inside the prepared nest boxes; others dug holes in the ground outside. The McLanes' foxes had an average of four kits per litter in April or May.

The pupping season was a time of high anxiety, they recalled.

The foxes were skittish and temperamental, especially when giving birth. If disturbed, the females would kill their own young. For four to six weeks, fox farmers put signs at the ends of their driveways warning visitors to stay away or approach quietly.

The young were kept for one or two years, then "pelted" in December. The killing was swift, done by snapping the fox's neck and crushing its chest in a single motion.

Archie and Enid gave each of the three children a fox of their own to raise.

Joan said the foxes were too wild and nervous to make into pets. Like many farm children, she and her siblings were attached to their animals but unsentimentally pragmatic about their fate. Those animals were always among the last to be pelted, she said.

She and her sister were so accustomed to the routine that they played at their own fur business when they were about 9 or 10 years old. They would pelt the mice that turned up in droves when their father mowed his hayfield.

"There was no shortage of mice," she recalled. "The fur was kind of nice."

The prime of fur farming

In the late 1920s, when the Loon Lake Fox Farm was producing about 30 to 40 pelts a year, fox farming was thriving and the Kenai Peninsula was in the middle of it.

Kachemak Bay, Kasilof, the shores of Kenai and Skilak lakes and islands were hot spots for the business.

"Fur farming has sprung up so suddenly in Alaska that few people realize what the fox industry means to the territory, says F.W. (Featherstone "Billy") Williamson, of the Williamson Silver-Black Fox Ranch of Kusilof (sic) river ..." read a 1925 article in the Anchorage Daily Times.

The article goes on to describe a trip to a Minneapolis fox show his wife, Harriet "Mickey" William-son, made to promote Alaska foxes.

"... Mrs. Williamson stated upon her return to Kusilof that it was conceded that Alaska fox was far superior to the ones raised in the states, as most of the foxes raised in the states suffered from worms or other ailments, while the Alaska fox was not only free from ailments but was stronger and more vigorous.

"While attending the fox show, (she) succeeded in getting the American National Fox Breeders Association to extend their territory to cover Alaska, and that it is possible the association will be able to extend membership to Alaska this summer and send inspectors to register the foxes of the territory."

This they did and sent Perry Cole to the area as "American National Inspector." He subsequently moved to the Kenai Peninsula.

In a 1927 article in the Fox Breeder Gazette, Cole wrote:

"A good many of the ranchers are adapted to breeding animals as they have had considerable experience with trapping and hunting and are a hard-working lot."

Fox farmers around Cook Inlet organized into the Cook Inlet Blue and Black Fox Farmers Associa-tion, headquartered in Seldovia. In 1929, it peaked with 87 licensed fur farmers as members.

International buyers lined up to claim the prime pelts, traveling to Alaska in January and going from farm to farm to buy directly. The pelts brought in good money, but good breeding stock was even more lucrative. The Kasilof farmers sold animals to buyers as far away as Sweden.

"I can remember seeing $5,000 on the dining room table," Stanley recalled of his childhood.

The demise of an industry

The Great Depression of the early 1930s ended the good times. Prices plummeted.

Enid McLane attributed part of the problem to a 1934 trade agreement allowing the import of cheaper furs from Russia.

The national economic woes and changing fashions were other factors.

But a number of the farms held on throughout the 1930s. It was a volatile and depressing time for many.

Joan said their neighbor Abe Erickson had a large fur farm, financial backers and someone offering good money to buy out his operation. He turned the offer down just before the market went sour. A year later, he pelted the last of his foxes and shut down.

Joan's parents scaled back in the 1930s, but kept their fur farm going.

In 1938, Stanley started going to Washington every winter to attend high school. The following year Joan and Jettie Jean joined him there.

Archie and Enid were the last fox farmers in the area to give up. They continued a few more years, but World War II was the final blow.

While the teen-agers were away at school in 1943, their father killed the last of the Loon Lake foxes.

Joan said the family did not discuss the matter much, but it was a business decision with an air of inevitability.

"I am sure he had given it a lot of thought and figured it was time," she said.

Remembering

a bygone era

Fox farming never returned to the area, although some people tried over the years. Efforts to raise mink and martens also failed.

After they closed out the fox farm, the McLanes focused on other interests. Archie concentrated on other agricultural projects, particularly potatoes. Enid went back to teaching, becoming the principal of the Kenai Territorial School and later of Tustumena Elementary School.

Archie died in 1969 at the age of 77. Enid survived him by two decades, dying in 1989 at age 93.

The homestead remains in the family, and one of their great-granddaughters lives in the original cabin.

Stanley is now president and Joan an active member in the Kasilof Regional Historical Asso-ciation.

Recently the society has become involved in preserving old buildings in the area. Last fall, volunteers from the society went out to McLanes' homestead and put old fox houses up on concrete blocks and covered their roofs with new tar paper to retard decay.

The family has transferred old photos onto video and put items such as the fox registry forms into archival sleeves. They hope Kasilof someday will have a museum to display such artifacts of the homesteader era.

But despite the care they have taken to preserve the fox farming history, Stanley and Joan say they are not nostalgic for that way of life.

"It was a lot of hard work," said Joan.



CONTACT US

  • Switchboard: 907-283-7551
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-283-3584
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Business Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-335-1257
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING

MORRIS ALASKA NEWS