A 1920s fox farming kitchen and guard house. Photographer unknown.
Photo provided by the Kasilof Hi
Fur farming was significant in Alaska, where in the early 1800s Russians started the practice of releasing fox on islands. If the fox multiplied they could be trapped. After the Civil War, market demand for fur surpassed production from trapping. Fur farms responded to this economic opportunity. Mink farms sprang up in the states and fox farms grew in Alaska. The Alaska Commercial Company stocked islands near the Pribilofs with fox in 1886. By 1901 there were 30 islands in Alaska where fox were raised.
A rise in fox farms after 1900 coincided with the failure in whale markets as kerosene replaced whale oil for lamps and baleen corsets went out of style. Some whale hunters turned briefly to supplying meat for fox farmers. Those were unusual cases. Most fox farmers located near sources for salmon, and added rabbits, porcupine and other available meats. Fox farms were especially important on the Kenai Peninsula from 1920 to the late 1930s. That worth was paramount in Kasilof, where the cannery closed in 1923.
Concurrent with the “booming ‘20s,” fur prices soared after World War I. A good fox pelt could go for $200. Some sold for more than twice that amount. For comparison, stateside potatoes were 3.5 cents a pound in 1925. By 1926 there were 400 fox farms raising 36,000 fox in Alaska. Kasilof was the pride of such farms. A 1928 Anchorage newspaper reported: “The fact that nearly all the prize winning silver foxes from last week’s fair came from Kusilof shows the advance of this growing Alaskan industry in that vicinity.” Fox from Kasilof were even exported to Scandinavia for breeding.
Eventually, seven farms were established in Kasilof. F.W. Williamson started the first in 1920. Other farms were owned or operated by: Pete Jensen, Pete Madson, Abe Erikson, Louis Nissen, Archie McLane, Allan Petersen, Al Hardy, Heine Berger, John Sandwick and Perry Cole. Cole’s grandson, Lyle Cole, and granddaughter, Dolly Christl, still live in Kasilof, as does McLane’s daughter, Joan Lahndt. McLane’s son, Stan, lives in Kenai, as does Nissen’s granddaughter, Mary Ann Tweedy. Petersen’s daughter, Peggy Arness, lives in North Kenai.
Farmers built a special building for cooking fox food, which may not have always smelled great. Some built a third-story lookout to guard their fox. The animals were delicate at whelping (birthing) time. If disturbed, mothers were known to kill their own kits. For precaution against such disturbance, a pregnant Enid McLane was sent to the cannery in 1927 to have baby Joan.
Islands fell out of favor for raising fox because their fur couldn’t compete with penned pelts. The Great Depression lowered the boom on fur prices in 1930. A shift in style further besieged prices later and World War II dropped an economic bomb on remaining markets. Williamson moved his operation to Kenai Lake in 1930 but closed down a year later. McLane was the last Kasilof farmer to pelt his stock, which he did in 1943. There were still 160 Alaska fur farms in 1939. By 1950, only 18 remained.
This column was provided by Brent Johnson with the Kasilof Historical Society. Peninsula Reflections appears each Monday on the Community page.
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