FAIRBANKS — Joan Skilbred has taught herself to scan for garbage in the background of century-old photographs of Fairbanks.
“Wherever people go, they make trash, and trash was a much bigger problem then than people think,” she said. “No one ever takes a picture of trash. It’s in the background, but it’s always there.”
Skilbred is a former gold miner, owner of a cold weather clothing company and a historian who researches and gives presentations on gold rush-era Alaska history, including the history of the garbage dumps of the era. She likes to find unusual stories about everyday life in the historical records that don’t always make it into the main narratives.
“I like to take the audience out of the here-and-now and immerse them in a snippet of our history. Something that hasn’t been written about over and over again,” she said.
Originally from Eielson Air Force Base, Skilbred has been interested in Alaska mining history since a sixth-grade teacher read to the class “Klondike Fever,” a history of the gold rush.
Skilbred got a taste of gold rush life herself in 1978 when she was 18 years old and took a flight up to visit friends in Livengood for the weekend. She ended up staying in the small mining community north of Fairbanks for the next eight years, working to set up a rural cabin, and prospecting pockets of stream that had been overlooked in previous gold rushes.
“The price of gold was booming in those days, so I kind of lived through a mini gold rush,” she said.
She met her first husband, another gold miner, in Livengood. It was in their Livengood-area cabin that Skilbred started making outdoor clothing out of necessity. Cold weather clothing for small children wasn’t widely available. She started by making clothing for her son — the first of four children — using a foot-pedal sewing machine at their cabin. She now realizes that she inherited some of her skills as a seamstress.
“I did not know it at the time, but my mother was a pretty amazing seamstress. I could just draw on a piece of paper what I wanted, and we would go to the fabric store, pick the fabric and she would make it. I had no idea how unusual that was. I thought everybody’s mom did that,” she said.
In 1986, Skilbred moved to the comparative civilization of Two Rivers off Chena Hot Springs Road. In 1990, she started Dogwood Designs, a cold weather clothing company that specializes in poggies — warm hand pouches for ski poles and the handlebars of fatbikes and snowmachines.
Skilbred got into historical research through the Fairbanks Genealogical Society, which maintains local records on births, deaths and marriages. Alaska’s records were haphazard until the territorial government began keeping records in 1913.
Today, much of her historical research is through the Pioneers of Alaska, a fraternal organization that she describes as very different than she thought it would be. She’d thought of it as simply a social club for old Alaskans. Instead, she found a dedicated group of fellow Alaska historians.
“The Pioneers is an organization that is based in history. Their mission is to preserve the incidents and literature of Alaska’s history and to promote the best interests of Alaska. So we’re a historical organization that’s been around since 1906,” she said.
The members are not all old, either, she said. People have to have lived in Alaska for 20 years to be in the Pioneers. Her nephew became one of the youngest members when he signed up at 20.
Skilbred is now researching historical topics, including the 1907 Keystone shootout between rival railroad companies near Valdez, and the history of early African American miners in Alaska, such as William T. Ewing, a former slave who made a fortune in Fairbanks through gold mining and real estate investing.
She’s working with the Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad to plan a Golden Days 2019 reenactment of the 1905 golden spike ceremony that marked the completion of the Tanana Mines Railway.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter:@FDNMoutdoors.