Former Alaskans make unique donation

Posted: Monday, June 07, 2004

The Soldotna Historical Museum recently received a donation of gifts from two longtime Alaskans, whose collection of artifacts spans across both the state's lengthy history and its diverse cultures.

The gifts were presented to the museum Friday by Mary Lou and Charles "Charlie" Ledbetter of Mercer Island, Wash. The Ledbetter collection includes Native masks from across Alaska, stamped letters from the homesteading days, a Russian tea set from Kodiak and a scale model of a unique boat that served as the primary mode of transportation for seagoing Natives for hundreds of years.

During Friday's presentation, Soldotna Historical Society President Colleen Fassler said the donations came as a thrilling surprise to the society, which operates the small museum complex near Centennial Park.

"We were just excited and thrilled," Fassler said.

Some of the most interesting pieces include the Native masks, which the Ledbetters collected during almost a half century of living in Alaska. They include pieces from all across Alaska, from a whalebone mask carved in the Northwest Arctic to wooden totem masks carved in Southeast.

Fassler said the museum plans to create a special display for the masks, although she also thinks that in the future, the collection can be used in educational programs for children something the Ledbetters said they believe is a priority.

"I like Mary Lou's thought about taking them to schools in the area and getting kids involved in the history and telling them about Native people," Fassler said.

Although most of the masks did not originate on the Kenai Peninsula, Mary Lou Ledbetter pointed out that the area did serve as a major trading crossroads for Native groups from around the state.

"While these are not particularly indigenous to this area, Native people traveled a lot, and the Kenai Peninsula is an area they traveled to," she said.


Mary Lou and Charles Ledbetter have donated items from their collection to several museums in the state.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The movement of oceangoing Natives also can be illustrated in a piece Charlie Ledbetter picked up while working in the Pribilof Islands in the early 1950s.

A bidarka is a large wood and skin boat used by the Native people of Western Alaska for hauling both people and supplies. The boats were still in use when Ledbetter worked in the Pribilofs, and he was so taken with the ingenious crafts which his company employed in shuttling steel beams from large ships to the beach that he had a local Native artist construct a scale model of the craft.

"Everything that got on the island came on those boats," Charlie Ledbetter said.

The model he received is built on a 1 inch equals 1 foot scale, and is about 30 inches long. It depicts a craft that would have been built for 12 rowers, and is made of wood and seal skin.

In addition to the masks and model, the Ledbetter's collection also includes the tea set an antique from the state's oldest Russian settlement in Kodiak, as well as letters the Ledbetters kept from the early 1950s when Alaska was a far different place from today. So different, in fact, that the site of the Ledbetters' original homestead in Anchorage is now the site of the Dimond center, Alaska's largest shopping mall.

Although they now reside in Washington state, the Ledbetters still return to Alaska during the summer, and Mary Lou said she and her husband decided the pieces would be a perfect way of giving back to the state where they have spent much of their lives.

"I wanted these things to go to some place in Alaska," she said.

The Ledbetters already had given a number of pieces to museums in both Anchorage and Homer, and Mary Lou said she thought Soldotna would be a perfect place to give to next.

"I thought the Soldotna museum could use some of these," she said, pointing to a dozen colorful masks from around Alaska.

Once the collection is researched and cataloged, Fassler said the historical society has big plans for its newest pieces, including a new display, special educational programs and even possibly a touring exhibit.

"You can do a lot with a small collection like this. We'll be able to use it as an educational tool, as well as a showpiece," she said. "We're just so glad they thought of us."

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