FAIRBANKS — Wilbur Brothers Sheet Metal, in one form or another, has been a family-owned Fairbanks business since 1914.
During the winter of 1913-14, Alden Wilbur Sr., who was living in Seattle with his wife and children, sailed to Alaska. Promised a job in Fairbanks, he made the journey alone, planning to send for his family once he became established.
Landing in Valdez, he walked the 360-plus miles along the Richardson Trail to Fairbanks — a not uncommon feat in the early 1900s. With roadhouses situated every 15-20 miles along the trail, a well-provisioned hiker could, with luck and determination, walk from one roadhouse to the next each day.
After arriving in Fairbanks, Alden Sr. accepted a job in the tin shop at Samson’s Hardware. Roy Wilbur, the grandson of Alden Sr., told me that after six months, Alden left Samson’s and established A. L. Wilbur Sheet Metal at the corner of Second Avenue and Lacey Street, where the city parking garage is now. He also brought his family north to Fairbanks.
When Alden’s son, Alden Jr., joined the business, the business’s name morphed to A. L. Wilbur and Son and the shop moved to Third Avenue in the vicinity of the present-day Nerland Building. A second son, Jack also joined the business.
Later, when the Wilbur boys’ brother-in-law, Kenneth Bell, joined the team, the business became Wilbur and Bell Company, specializing in plumbing, heating and sheet metal fabrication. The expanded shop moved across the street to Second Avenue. Wilbur and Bell installed all the plumbing in the Northward Building.
In 1954 the business moved one final time, to 1241 Noble St., near Airport Way. That area was first homesteaded by George Kolde in 1908. The neighboring farm to the west was Paul Rickert’s. The area remained agricultural until the 1940s and '50s when Fairbanks’ burgeoning population forced farms on the city’s fringe to either liquidate or move farther out of town. Part of the Kolde homestead was absorbed into Fort Wainwright, and the remainder was developed as Sutherland Subdivision.
The building that became the Wilber brothers’ shop was erected in about 1950. It is a 36-foot by 100-foot wood-frame gable-roofed structure covered with corrugated metal sheathing — de rigueur for industrial buildings in early Fairbanks. Roy told me there used to be an identical building a few hundred feet to the south that was torn down during the construction of Airport Way.
Growing up, Roy spent considerable time at the family’s business. He remembers helping sort through plumbing fixtures in the old wooden bins at the back of the the shop. (The bins’ final resting place was the Chandler Plumbing and Heating shop on Minnie Street.)
Ken Bell eventually left Wilbur and Bell Company to establish a separate plumbing business, which is when Alden Jr. and Jack changed the business’s name to Wilbur Brothers Sheet Metal. The shop is now owned by Alden Jr’s son, Roy.
In a 2014 Daily News-Miner article, Roy said one of the mainstays of his father’s and grandfather’s sheet metal business was selling stoves. Now, Roy spends much of his time restoring old stoves.
The historic shop, in addition to the tools of the metalsmith’s trade, is filled with history, including a 1917 Ford truck that Doug Colp and Earl Beistline saved from a fire near Manley; the dog sled used by Don Young when he lived in Fort Yukon; and mementos of Irene Sherman, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Fairbanks.” Another of Roy’s projects is resurrecting John Miscovich’s homemade washing machine from Flat (near Iditarod) for the Pioneers of Alaska. It seems that other people’s treasures often find a home in Roy’s shop.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• Conversation with Roy Wilbur, owner of Wilbur Brothers Sheet Metal
• Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
• “Like a Tree to the Soil, a History of Farming in Alaska’s Tanana Valley, 1903 to 1940.” Josephine Papp & Josie Phillips. School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Science, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. 2007
• “Wilbur-Bell provides plumbing.” In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 2-29-1952
• “Wilbur Bros. Sheet Metal turns 100.” Robin Wood. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 7-20-14