“Rhubarb King” Henry D. Clark and his daughters crate the sour stalk in the summer of 1914. Photo courtesy NPS.

Fairgoers stare in awe at veggies harvested in this northernmost state. Palmer and Delta Junction farmers engineer Guinness-record cabbages and 2,000-pound, Cinderella-carriage pumpkins. But Anglo horticulture took hold first in soggy southeast Alaska’s Skagway. (Russian colonists long before grew food for their soldiers, traders, and missionaries.) During the Klondike heydays, multitudes moiled for nuggets; a few green thumbs did so for nutrients. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1898 tasked the former Kansas State Agricultural College farm foreman George Sexton with testing the distant territory’s potential as its own breadbasket. 

“No manure was used for any of these trials,” Sexton specified in his report.

The seeds went into “virgin soil…new, raw, and sour,” sandy loam with some silt, atop gravel. The Midwestern transplant sowed in early June, three weeks late, because the town then was just eight months old, the rows tough to hoe. Stumps had to be “grubbed out,” and the soil dug up with mattocks. Luckily, Lynn Canal sees 18-hour midsummer sun and less rain compared to the Panhandle elsewhere. 

Sexton’s cornucopia of two dozen species—54 varieties, with unnamed Russian cultivars and diverse outcomes—included beans, beets, cabbage, cauliflower (“did not produce any heads”), carrots (“a magnificent crop”), celery, celeriac, cress (“2 feet high”), kale, kohlrabi, lettuce (“large yield and very tender, crisp heads”), mustard, onions, parsley, parsnip, peas, radishes, rutabagas, rhubarb, salsify, spinach (“nearly all ran to seed”), sage, thyme, and last but not least, turnip. “Alaska appears to be the home of the turnip,” the agronomist crowed. White Milan, no wallflower either, “attained prodigious size,” weighing over four pounds.

He observed Skagway’s homestead gardens, noting stellar results for those prepared early. J.W. McIntyre’s “well-manured” Early Rose potatoes yielded 653 bushels per acre, almost 20 tons of “very large, smooth tubers,” while sales from another man’s 50-by-60-foot lot fetched $125—farm workers stateside earned $20 monthly. Onions that year cost $1.50 each on the goldfields, the price of two steaks at Delmonico’s in New York. 

Turning his ploughshare into a business share, Sexton by 1899 co-owned Skagway’s Manhattan Grocery, which The Daily Alaskan deemed “one of the best stocked grocery and supply stores to be found on Lynn Canal.”

black and white photo of women in dresses holding a leave the size of their torsos
Two women in southeast Alaska display a rhubarb leaf. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

The Rhubarb King

By 1901, farmers delivered door-to-door; the buzz surrounding homegrown had abated. Local produce now sometimes fed Haines, Whitehorse, and Juneau. The Wisconsinite Henry D. Clark started a farm across the river. This future “Rhubarb King” carted piles of cold-loving “pie plant” into town, where folks canned or froze stalks for the winter. Perhaps carrying seeds from back East, he’d watched stampeders suffering scurvy. In a 1913 photo, he raises one toxic leaf like a stop sign in a shoulder-high rhubarb jungle. 

Clark’s pink-stemmed, monstrous foliage still thrives around Skagway. During WWII, the army seized his property for a fuel depot, but citizens gathered and dispersed the tart crop before it was leveled.  

Ironically, war demands had finished a burst of ornamental yards, “flowers, trim lawns, and prolific gardens” that White Pass & Yukon Route Railway and cruise-ship travelers like President Warren Harding admired. An editor-dentist in 1916 had effectively branded his burg “Garden City.” In those days, fresh fruit besides berries remained rare—in the 1915 September Skagway Horticulture Fair, Charles Anway from Haines won an award for “the first mature apple in Alaska.” Now, with the Japanese on Attu and resources flowing toward armament, the newspaper reported, “nearly all the available space in the yards and lawns was [again] given over to raising things needful.”

Jewell Gardens, a tourist attraction founded by the one-time model, art history graduate, and organic gardener Charlotte Jewell, absorbed Clark’s homestead, honoring him with an annual rhubarb festival and at Poppies Restaurant.

The Tlingit potato

Another heirloom strain keeps the hands of area residents in the dirt: the “Tlingit potato,” really “Maria’s potato,” named for a Haines woman whose family for generations refined this spud. Its origins lie shrouded in coastal mists—genetic analyses show that it sprang not from Europe’s earth but is rather related to Chilean and Mexican starchy species. It likely came into the country with Native traders. Tlingit clans tell multiple stories about its journeying north following expeditions. The tater inured to rain and banana slugs caught on since it fit traditional cycles. Beds planted near the forest’s edge in the spring and fertilized with fish guts or seaweed could be abandoned during summer-camp sojourns and reaped when people returned in the fall.

Skagway’s Traditional Council, seeking sustainable alternatives for expensive store-bought foods and ways to connect tribal members to the past and the land had a small batch lab-tested for diseases. Sitka’s Tlingit already partnered with Forest Service officials to promote and successfully tend the yellow, elongate, knobbed fingerlings. Forget Yukon gold—both kinds. Survivors of plague or famine know this: only renewable wealth at your doorstep truly offers security.


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

Comments are closed.