“Bjerremark” reads a neighborhood gateway sign installed when 23rd Avenue was repaved in 2015. 

Bjerremark is a four-block side street next to South Cushman Street and the name of a subdivision in south Fairbanks.

It wasn’t a name widely used outside references to the street and formal property records, although the new neighborhood gateway sign, which depicts a figure leaning on a shovel, gives it more visibility. 

The long last name (pronounced BEER-mark) belonged to August and Jessie Bjerremark, a couple who moved to the Interior two years after the 1902 Fairbanks gold rush began and operated a farm on the land. A core part of the area today known generally as “south Fairbanks” was farmland operated in the early 20th century by the Bjerremarks and the more famous farm to the north owned by Paul and Stacia Laurene Rickert, whose names also live on in street names. The Rickert neighborhood also got a neighborhood gateway sign with an image of a flower. 

As part of a Daily News-Miner series about the names of Fairbanks neighborhoods, here is a brief history of the Bjerremark and Rickert farms, and subsequent subdivisions.

The “vegetable king”

The Rickert homestead covered 320 acres in an area that’s today bounded by 12th Avenue, 19th Avenue, South Cushman Street and Cowles Street.

The Rickert farm, known as Fairbanks Garden, is described in great detail in the 2007 early history of Tanana Valley farming, “Like a Tree to the Soil,” whose authors describe Paul Rickert as “perhaps the showiest and most articulate of the Fairbanks farmers.” The Rickerts were known for being large vegetable producers and for their efforts to promote agriculture in the region.

Less is known about the Bjerremarks who, like the Rickerts, came to Fairbanks in 1904. August was from San Francisco, and Jessie was from Canada, according to “Like a Tree to the Soil.” The couple set up a homestead about a mile south of the Rickert farm. The home they built there burned down soon after it was constructed in 1916.

First black community

South Fairbanks had recently begun transforming from farm fields to neighborhoods in 1955, when Debra Pearson (then Debra Ward) traveled up the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks. Pearson, then 4, lived with her family at 23rd Avenue and Gillam Way, where they built a house among the mostly empty lots.

The subdividing of the Rickert and Bjerremark farms began in 1941, according to the borough Planning Department.

Pearson’s family was among the first wave of arrivals in what became the first black community in Fairbanks. Individuals came to Fairbanks during the gold rush, but there wasn’t much of a community until the postwar military boom in the 1950s, said Pearson, who is writing a master’s thesis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks about the migration of African Americans to the circumpolar north.

Pearson’s family wasn’t in the military, but word about good military construction projects convinced the family to move north, leaving behind Galveston, Texas, where her father, Raymond Ward, had a good job as a longshoreman.

“It was the opportunity,” she said.

“They heard that there were jobs. It didn’t matter if you were black or white or Native.”

The first black churches in Fairbanks were established in South Fairbanks. The first one, the First Church of God in Christ, was founded in 1949 on Ladd Avenue, where it’s still located.

The second black church, St. John Baptist Church, began meeting in 1953 in a Quonset hut on 17th Avenue.

Community landmarks

The JP Jones Community Development Center was built in 1985 on Rickert Street after nearly a decade of organizing by residents who wanted a space for community events and services. Originally known as the Southside Community Center, it was named after Fairbanks civil rights activist JP Jones shortly before his death in 2002.

A few blocks away is Bernice Allridge Park, named after a woman who organized the South Fairbanks Children’s Community Garden on a lot near the current park. Allridge was known for advocating on behalf of seniors and children.

The Fairbanks Community Hospital Foundation is a major landowner in the south Fairbanks area. The hospital, built in 1972, has grown and expanded several times.

References

• “Like a Tree to the Soil: A History of Farming in Alaska’s Tanana Valley, 1903 to 1940” by Josephine E. Papp and Josie A. Phillips.

• Roundtable discussion of Fairbanks street names at Tanana Yukon Historical Society meeting April 23, 1970. Accessed online from the University of Alaska library catalog. 

• Daily News-Miner archives

Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter:@FDNMoutdoors

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect the following correction. 

Saturday's "Our Town" page about August and Jessie Bjerremark and the eponymous street and neighborhood misspelled their last name.