Over the past several years, I composed two short stories regarding a couple of well-known Alaskans.
Nellie Trosper-Neal-Lawing (“Alaska Nellie”) was a rambunctious little girl, born July 25, 1873, to parents Robert and Jennie Trosper. The family lived near Weston in Platte County, Missouri. Weston’s just a stone’s throw from Leavenworth, Kansas. Young Nellie grew up on a farm understanding the virtues of hard work.
After leaving home, Nellie married a fellow Missourian that quickly developed the need for alcoholic beverage. Reading between the lines in her bio, husband Wesley Neal was most likely a physical and verbal abuser while under the influence. The couple set up residence in the rip-roaring mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado.
Things went well for a short time before their marriage unraveled. After separating, Nellie Neal journeyed north to leave emotional trauma behind. A divorce ultimately followed.
Nellie’s claim to fame was operating several roadhouses along the Alaska Railroad during its earliest years. She wrote a book about such called, Alaska Nellie.
The woman loved to hunt and fish more out of subsistence than for sport. Most all trophies that she had hanging on cabin walls were secondary to the harvested meat. She oftentimes traveled in the winter via dogsled spending many nights under flickering stars.
During summer months she hiked hundreds of miles in bear infested country with mere backpack and gun. Mrs. Lawing was a tough individual enduring countless hardships in life. She was also a woman of faith.
Nellie was engaged and about to remarry, when her fiancé Kenneth Holden was killed in an industrial accident. A little over a year later she married the deceased man’s cousin, William (“Billie”) Lawing. Billie proposed to her by mail.
They were husband and wife only 12 years before tragedy struck. On a blustery March day in 1936, Nellie found Billie dead of an apparent heart attack outside their log cabin. He’d been cutting ice and shoveling snow near the edge of Kenai Lake. The unfortunate widow was devastated.
My story regarding Nellie Lawing is not so much about her life. It’s about a railroad trip a friend and I took to one of her former roadhouses. I traveled there to survey the surroundings for my story. The short composition is called, Grandview Station.
Percy John Blatchford was born at Golovin, Alaska, October 9, 1920. He was full-blood Inupiaq Eskimo. At the young age of 20, Percy joined the United States Army eventually seeing action in WWII. After Japan surrendered and the conflict officially ended, Percy left the Army, reenlisting in the Air Force. Sgt. Percy Blatchford fought in Korea and Vietnam where he was a highly decorated soldier.
Percy was an expert at parachuting into dangerous locales where others dared not go. Because of his vast knowledge and skill he taught survival courses to many Air Force personnel. One of Percy’s most unusual accomplishments was training Beluga whales for the U.S. Navy.
Percy “Noseemo” Blatchford was a feared boxer holding the heavyweight crown for Alaska. He sparred with another fighting legend, Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis. Like Nellie, Percy was also a staunch believer going back to his childhood days.
I worked with Percy for several years after his illustrious military career ended. Hands down he was the toughest guy I’ve ever met. My short story about him is titled, Percy Blatchford – Alaska Legend.
There’s plenty of information about Nellie and Percy’s life on the internet. Historian Doug Capra of Seward wrote a wonderful piece detailing Nellie’s rise to fame. In sluicing for data I never came across records showing where Nellie and Percy met. With Alaska being so large it seemed unlikely to me such a meeting occurred. I was wrong.
A while back I decided to read for at least the fifth time, Alaska Nellie. I’ve had the old book 30 years or longer. After briefly thumbing through the first few pages I came across a hand written inscription:
“To Mollie from Percy. December 1, 1942.”
I’d never noticed the entry before. Without question the names referred to Percy Blatchford and his younger sister Mollie Blatchford Galvin. A comparison of Percy’s handwriting confirmed such. Percy gave Mollie the book several weeks before Christmas. This was after he’d entered military service in 1941.
Nellie Lawing sold her books and postcards from a combination railroad station – roadhouse, post office, residence, and wildlife museum on Kenai Lake. It was called Roosevelt Station. Eventually the name changed to Lawing. The location is 23 miles northeast of Seward. She also traveled 15,000 miles by bus throughout the U.S. pedaling them, plus giving lectures in many towns and cities on Alaska.
Nellie and Billie’s place was a popular stopping point for travelers and tourists alike, with many dignitaries such as actress Alice Calhoun, President Warren G. Harding, and author/comedian Will Rogers visiting. At lake’s edge was a boat service including ferry for vehicles. The road from Anchorage to Seward did not go all the way through back then.
The books sold like hotcakes. While Nellie lived in Lawing Alaska Nellie went through six printings. It has since been reprinted for the seventh time by Patricia A. Heim. The specimen I own is a second edition released in 1941. Nellie Lawing autographed this one,
Percy Blatchford evidently traveled to Seward on military or personal business. He would’ve stopped by Nellie Lawing’s place on the way to or from Anchorage. He had relatives living in the small fishing community so trips to Seward weren’t uncommon. With several younger siblings and Christmas only three weeks away, Percy undoubtedly purchased more than one book. That’s pure speculation on my part knowing the man always put others before himself. With Percy being an accomplished hunter I’m sure he and Nellie found plenty to chat about.
A good friend of mine, Britt Behm, mentioned that my copy of Alaska Nellie had come full circle. She’s basically correct in that analogy, although I believe there’s still a portion of the circle yet to fill. The book ultimately needs to go to a museum or Blatchford family member. Unless another manuscript surfaces, this rarity is perhaps the sole survivor with both Nellie and Percy’s signature.
I’ve decided to pass things on to Cecil & Anne Sanders. I’ll leave it up to them on what to do with the book. The young couple own Last Frontier Magazine. Without their assistance my stories regarding Nellie and Percy would’ve never saw ink.
I’ve been the book’s caretaker for some time now. Alaska Nellie had a nice vacation in Arizona languishing inside my gun safe. Time’s ripe for her return to “The Last Frontier”.
After finding out the manuscript’s historical significance, I didn’t want it ending up in a Saturday morning garage sale. I don’t recall where I purchased it, but most likely an Anchorage yard sale or second hand store was the place.
Alaska Nellie is an excellent reference book regarding early 1900’s life in territorial Alaska. Hopefully Cecil and Anne take time to read it. Professor Michael Burwell once told my creative writing class,
“Books belong in hands, not on shelves!”
I’m sure Nellie, Percy, and Mollie would agree. They’d delight in knowing the 78-year-old early Christmas present is still making the rounds. The circle is almost complete!
In a May 11, 1956 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner newspaper article written after Nellie’s death, it was reported that she sold 3,000 Alaska Nellie books the first printing. That would make for a total of 18,000 over the six editions. In 1980, the St. Joe Gazette (Missouri) interviewed Nellie’s nephew, Everett Trosper. He told a St. Joe reporter that 2 million books had been sold for $2.00 each. Some stories, much like the length or weight of a caught fish, seem to grow through the years.
A couple of days after shipping the book to Cecil and Anne Sanders, I decided I wanted an inexpensive and decent edition of Alaska Nellie for reading purposes only. Arriving in the mail a few days later, I was stunned to find my replacement came from the private library of Leonhard Seppala. Things like that don’t just happen! Over the years I’ve truly been blessed by God in this area. Miracles do happen!