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Old woman reflects on life lived in Alaska

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- When Mary Johnson looks back on her life, she remembers the hard work required of carving out a living in the Fortymile Mining District.

''We needed the money and I wanted to help my husband so I went down to the mines and helped him,'' Johnson said, sitting in her favorite chair with a cup of coffee. ''We thought we were going to get rich.''

Johnson, who celebrates her 103rd birthday next Sunday, was born Mary Felix on April 16, 1897, in Kechumstuk, a village between Tok and Chicken. She was the third of five children and attended schools in Tana Crossing, which later became Tanacross and Franklin.

When she was 7, her mother died and she spent time with her father and her aunt Belle Abramham in Kechumstuk. She and her aunt took to the road during the summer months looking for odd jobs to make ends meet.

''She worked like a man,'' her daughter Elsie Simpson said. Johnson now lives in Fairbanks with her daughter.

Johnson married Norwegian immigrant Engbret Johansen in July 1922 in Jack Wade, a small village near Boundary and the Canadian border. The two settled in Chicken, which was a thriving mining community.

Johnson learned the mining trade from her husband. She learned how to operate a hydraulic monitor, a heavy device that provides water pressure to move dirt into sluice boxes. Water carried the dirt through the sluice, which separated the gold from the dirt and deposited the precious metal in riffles at the bottom of the box.

''You had to be strong to operate the monitor or it would flip on you with all that water pressure,'' Simpson said.

In 1942, the couple moved to a new mine on Ingle Creek. Johnson mined for gold 12 to 14 hours a day, which sold for between $8 and $12 an ounce.

They had three children; Agnes in 1923, Elsie in 1930 and Edward in 1938.

Mary also hunted caribou and rabbit to help feed the family.

The children were taught everything from working the mine to making clothes and picking berries in the fall. With her .22 rifle in hand, Johnson also taught them how to hunt grouse and ptarmigan. They also learned to trap and fish.

''We didn't even know what beef tasted like until we moved out of the country,'' Simpson said.

Nearly everything was done by hand, including the laundry, the clothes they wore and the food on the table. Everything else came via Eagle by horse-drawn carriage in the summer and sled in the winter.

In the 1970s, the couple moved to Fairbanks to live with Simpson in the winter. They continued to spend the summers at their mine. They were married 56 years when Johansen died in 1978.

As Simpson made the final preparations for the party, she marvels at her mother's longevity. Her mother was diagnosed with a weak heart years ago and since then has outlived five doctors.

''I am amazed she has made it this far,'' Simpson said.



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