With summer bringing more sunshine and energy, an Ester venue is inviting Alaskans to fill warm days with bluegrass, poetry and art.
The Malemute Saloon and Ester Gold Camp is reopening on May 27. After an almost 11-year-long closure and only a few shows happening last season, the owners Scott Swingle and Jill Rosholt filled the Summer 2021 schedule with music performances and community events.
“Live performances are the key and the heart of what we hope to revive,” said Swingle who, besides working in construction and business, has been playing music for 40 years. “We want this to be kind of an epicenter for local arts, entertainment and history.”
Weeks before opening, the spacious wooden stage and an outside lawn await local and visiting bands scheduled for summer.
Inside the saloon, everything breathes history: the bar counter from the Royal Alexandria Hotel in Dawson City is ready to seat guests; the walls feature photographs, train tickets and show lineup notes from past centuries. Below the ceiling, you can see dog harnesses and even a vertebrate of a whale.
But the place also holds personal stories, making the grand reopening even more special for locals.
At Ester Gold Camp twenty years ago, George Peterson took a job at the dining hall, right when he moved to Alaska. On his first day of work, he met his future wife.
“The first person I saw was my wife.” he said. “She was a server and she came in to get ready for a shift and I just knew it right there. She was the first person that I met in Fairbanks. Wearing her green Ester Gold Camp polo shirt and her long black skirt and Birkenstocks — she was just beautiful.”
Stories like that keep coming up — from performers and people who used to work and live at the camp, Swingle said. The new owners don’t have a longstanding history with the place, but they fell in love with it nevertheless the day they saw it.
The couple came out to the camp two years ago looking for a place for the children’s theater that Rosholt runs and owns. Instead, they found a different venue, not for kids.
“We just fell in love with the place because of the history and the old buildings. I love how crooked the floor is,” she said walking into the saloon.
Bringing the saloon back to life is more than opening up a bar or creating a music venue: the owners hope to preserve a piece of Alaskan history.
“So many places in Fairbanks that are historical are either closing or, you know, changing, Rosholt said. “Unique things are disappearing.”
Ester Gold Camp is a living reflection of several historical eras. In the early 1900’s, gold in local streams drew hundreds of gold diggers, and in 1930, the camp became living quarters for a large dredge operation. In the late 1950’s, the place was turned into the Cripple Creek Resort with buffet-style meals and entertainment.
“Since around 1950 it’s been the hub for performing arts,” Swingle said.
Reviving the time capsule was part of the fun for Swingle, who owns a construction company and enjoys working with restorations of old buildings in different parts of the state
“It was kind of sad to see it just sitting and getting rundown and not being used,” he said.“Everything was rundown, broken and not working — rotten wood, rotten roofs, destroyed plumbing and outdated electrical… We had to pretty much go through everything.”
Despite the rich long-time and living history of Ester Gold Camp, Swingle said that a lot of people who have lived in town their whole life have never been here.
“We hope to change that,” he said.
The owners want the place and music to attract the locals — and tourists, as long as they are curious about the real flavor of Alaska and don’t come in big tourist buses, Swingle said.
“We would love this to be a place that locals think, ‘I really want to go have a nice evening and eventually have a really nice dinner, walk around something that has some personality and good talent,” Swingle said. “And when folks travel, they’ll find out where the locals want to go, where the local art is, and what this place is really like.”
For now, the goal is to have live performances in the saloon every night. But the owners also have big hopes down the road, from bringing back singing and dancing shows, to restoring and arranging the rest of the space for historical walks and to even opening a high-end restaurant with farm-to-table style cuisine.
The ongoing pandemic keeps the plans slower and more fluid, but the core of what the owners really want to provide hasn’t changed, Swingle said.
“Fairbanks has always been kind of an epicenter for art and musicians, for years,” Swingle said. “And what is more important to us than anything is re-establishing this as not just a bar, but a place where people go for entertainment. Even more than that — for arts entertainment.”
Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.