A look back at the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum’s past
As a home for thousands of artifacts and decades of history, the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum in Nome has made its mark on residents, passersby and tourists throughout the years. Remarkable in its simple beginnings and impressive in its elaborate transformation, this remote museum on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula has quite a history of its own. Started as a collection of items shown in the “traveling museum” of Carrie M. McLain, it has evolved over the years into a landmark of Nome and a magnificent display of the Bering Strait region.
While some of the museum’s collection items date back thousands of years, one could say that it all began in the early 1900’s when a young Carrie McLain arrived to the Seward Peninsula. McLain had a passion for the people of Nome and the Bering Strait region, and carried that passion with her throughout her life. Cussy Kauer, granddaughter of McLain and a Nomeite born and raised, told the Nome Nugget how her grandmother had amassed quite a collection of historical items and artifacts throughout the years.
“She had her own little traveling museum,” said Kauer, describing how McLain made slideshows and gave presentations throughout the region to various organizations, such as the Nome Chamber of Commerce. Her traveling museum eventually became more permanent when the building to house the collection was erected in 1967 with Centennial Purchase funding. During that time, Alaska celebrated its 100-year anniversary of the purchase from Russia, and many museums were commissioned throughout The Last Frontier in an effort to preserve and showcase state history.
In 1973, Nome City Council named the museum in honor of Carrie M. McLain. Throughout time, the museum went through many ups and downs. “There were many budget constraints over the years,” said Cussy Kauer, who worked as Nome City Controller for 40 years. Kauer said there were times when the museum was closed, and then open again, and it had many different directors. Kauer volunteered much of her time with the city working in the museum, which she called her “extracurricular” work.
“John Handeland and Laura Samuelson were two faithful shakers and movers when it came to working with the legislators,” said Kauer, in regards to the efforts made to preserve the past and seek funding for a new museum building. Kauer said Handeland and Samuelson helped to make sure that the museum was always at the top of the list during city meetings and discussions.
Laura Samuelson was Director of the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum from 1997 to her retirement in 2004. To remember the history of the museum, Samuelson wrote an essay to the Nome Nugget titled “My Passion for the Carrie M. McClain Memorial Museum.” In her essay, Samuelson wrote, “the museum collection was bare bones when I was hired in 1997 as Director of the Museum and as organizer of the four-year Nome Centennial Celebration. Through 17 large-scale community events held between 1998 & 2001, the collection began to grow by leaps and bounds. I traveled throughout the Lower 48 and brought back thousands of artifacts, photographs, journals & diaries which culminated in a vast and previously unknown understanding of Nome history.”
Samuelson, who now lives in Arizona, told the Nome Nugget in a phone interview about the nearly 20 years she spent attempting to secure funding for the new museum building. The original building was not only too small to house the collection, but also sits in the flood plane. A July 1, 2011 press release from the City of Nome reads, “The Museum is crammed into a 1,000-square-foot basement in a 44-year-old building on Front Street. Northwest Alaska’s only museum and its collection are constantly threatened by high water resulting from severe Bering Sea storms. With advance warning, museum staff was able to move the entire contents of the Museum to higher ground when storms in 2004, 2005 & 2012 flooded Nome. A larger, safer facility is needed to properly protect, display and archive the rich history embodied in our priceless, irreplaceable collections.”
Samuelson told the Nome Nugget that during her time at the museum she grew the collection, found the history and got the money. Many discoveries were made during her tenure, such as seeking out the location where gold was actually “struck” in Nome. She said she went with Cussy [Kauer] and figured that out in 1998 – it was on Anvil Creek. “It was so much fun, everything we did to make this happen,” said Samuelson. “We always worked so closely,” she said. When asked about her memories of the museum, Samuelson said, “The spirits of those people that built Nome were alive and well in that building.”
John Handeland, manager of Nome Joint Utilities Systems, was born and raised in Nome and remembers the museum as a child. He told the Nome Nugget that he remembered the museum collection in a very small room of the old city hall, before the one story building was built in 1967, with the second floor added later. Handeland served as mayor of Nome from 1985 to 1999 and was on the Library and Museum Commission for several years. He said that he helped move the museum and all of the artifacts out of the flood zone numerous times. Handeland said, the threat of it being damaged by water was always a real concern.
“The space we had, we crammed as much as possible into it,” said Handeland. “We did a really good job representing much of the periods of time over Nome’s history, but there was more. We felt that in order to continue both for our own citizens and visitors, it made sense to get more of our items out on display and to greater develop our museum.”
Handeland said that even in the old museum of only 1,000 square feet, taking visitors through on a tour was not a 15-minute jaunt. He said there was so much history in there, including ivory carvings and the gold rush history of the community, and especially the various characters that have been part of Nome’s history. Handeland said that everything in the museum collection has some historic value and will be a great thing for the community to have more readily available.
Jake Kenick, current chair of the Library and Museum Commission, was also born and raised in Nome. Kenick told the Nome Nugget that the last two years on the museum commission have helped him to achieve a greater appreciation for Nome, one that he didn’t have as a child. “It’s been a real treasure in my life to be included in this process,” said Kenick. “Growing up in this environment, you learn from family and friends, but having been included in this commission and serving with the other board members brought me into a more appreciative understanding of how important our little town is,” he said.
Kenick said that the old museum building was so packed full of things that you couldn’t walk one foot without discovering something. Kenick looks forward to displaying that vast collection in a larger area and larger format, and is glad to have the museum, library and cultural center all under the same roof. He expressed his joy that the building that now houses the museum will be named after Richard Foster, who he knew growing up, and remembers as a really inspirational character.
Cheryl Thompson, collections assistant at the museum, has worked for there for nearly a decade. She began working part time for three years, and has spent the last six years as a full time employee. Working first under Laura Samuelson and now Museum Director Amy Chan, Thompson has seen firsthand the transformation from the old museum to the new.
“I did pretty much all the packing,” she told the Nome Nugget, explaining how a few years ago Samuelson was able to go to the State Museum in Juneau and received training on how to pack artifacts for moving. During the museum move in Nome, Thompson described how they packed the precious items into acid free archival tissues, bubble wrap and eventually boxes. She even made use of her old book press and its bookbinding capabilities to create custom boxes for odd-shaped artifacts.
Thompson said that the majority of the museum’s collection contains artifacts from the Nome area, although there are also many items from Wales and St. Lawrence Island. There is also a fair amount of Russian artifacts from when the border was opened between 1989 and 1990, during the “Friendship Flight” between Nome and Provideniya, Russia.
When asked about her favorite item in the entire museum, Thompson explained that up until the move to the new museum, her favorite piece has always been the second All Alaska Sweepstakes trophy, a silver trophy made by a Nome jeweler that was discovered, refurbished and donated to the museum by Jon Van Zyle, the well-known Alaskan artist and official race artist for the Iditarod. But, after digging into the boxes while preparing for the big move, she saw things she’d never seen before. Her new favorite piece is a beautiful, lifelike wooden caribou carving.
Cussy Kauer couldn’t pick a favorite piece in the museum, but mentioned that she loved the beautiful All Alaska Sweepstakes trophies and Native artwork. Kauer said she also likes the gold nuggets, which remind her of her great-grandfather. Laura Samuelson said that her favorite thing in the museum is “Fritz”, the preserved Siberian husky dog, who is the foundation sire for the entire breed and was Leonhard Seppala’s lead dog during the 1925 Serum Run. The Serum Run transported diphtheria medicine by dog sled across 674 miles in just five and a half days, saving Nome and surrounding villages from the diphtheria epidemic.
When asked to name her favorite piece, current museum director Amy Chan said that it was almost like trying to pick your favorite child. But she loves an engraved ivory drill bow from Wales carved with beautiful whale hunting scenes, which was donated to former Superintendent Walter Shields and dates back to a time before 1918.
The extensive collection at the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum is comprised of more than 15,000 artifacts and 12,000 photographs. “The heart of this museum is its collection,” said Chan, who wanted to re-emphasize the importance of the donors of objects and photography – literally hundreds of people who have given up their family momentums and memorabilia throughout the last 50 years. Chan said, “this has been the dream of many people in Nome for a very long time, so to see it come to fruition is really wonderful.”