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Burford, Mabel M.

by Marie Darlin

The following “brief ” of Mabel’s life comes from her own notes and from a profile about Mabel that appeared in the 1993 publication entitled Alaska Experiences by Juneau Teachers; Juneau Stories of Teaching on the Last Frontier, compiled by the Juneau Retired Teachers’ Association, Juneau, Alaska.

Mabel was born on a farm near Watertown, Minnesota, on February 11, 1905, to Samuel and Olivia Monson, both of Swedish descent. She “delighted in receiving mail addressed to Miss Mabel Melvina Monson, Mayer, Minnesota.”

After teaching primary grades for several years in rural Minnesota, Mabel drove across country alone in her little Model A Ford to Bellingham, Washington. She acknowledged “becoming an expert tire-changer by her arrival on the West Coast.” Mabel’s plan to attend Bellingham State Teachers’ College was interrupted when she received a telegram offering her the second grade teaching position at Juneau Elementary School on Fifth Street in Juneau, Alaska. Accepting the offer, she soon set sail on the SS Yukon and arrived in Juneau in the fall of 1930, where, she had been told, “the streets (of Alaska) were paved with gold and lined with men.”

Her first home in Juneau was the Gastineau Hotel where many school “marms” lived. One thing Mabel liked to do while living at the Gastineau was to “lie in her bed, which she had pushed to the window, to watch the miners wearing their carbide lamp hats descend the hill at shift’s end, 11 P.M., on a trail ... marveling at the likeness to a parade of fireflies.” Their descent signaled her readiness to sleep.

Mabel always enjoyed outdoor activities and Juneau provided many opportunities for these, especially skiing and hiking. Mabel was a charter member of the Alaska Mountaineers Club and spent many a weekend climbing the surrounding peaks or exploring the Mendenhall Glacier in “spiked boots, looking into crevasses so deep and ice chambers so high as to be unbelievable.” In the summer of 1932, Mabel joined a group that successfully climbed 10,778 ft. Mt Baker in Washington, substituting her Juneau hiking experience for the required pre-climb training.

After teaching 13 years in Room 13 as a second grade teacher (plus two years of third grade), Mabel married Jack Burford in 1945, who was born on a Friday, the 13th. Recounting all the thirteens in her life, Mabel considered that a lucky number. Her husband Jack, who owned the J. B. Burford Co., an office supply store he founded in 1923, was a long-time boatman. Together, they ran a summer charter boat business for many years. The Burford home was an apartment named “Topside” above the office supply store. After twenty years residence there, the State acquired the property for the current Court Building. The couple then began an extended “voyage” with their trailer, wintering in Arizona and summering in Juneau. They returned to their homeport, Juneau, in 1985, settling into an Auke Bay condominium. After Jack died in 1990, Mabel acquired Missy, the calico cat, and together they enjoyed many contented years, in a place where, Mabel said, “...the beauty of nature provided her with ceaseless pleasure.”

Mabel was an active member of the Resurrection Lutheran Church, the Order of Eastern Star, the Pioneers Auxiliary, No. 6, and PEO Chapter N. She had many, many friends in Juneau and in other parts of the country that cared for her deeply. At her 90th birthday celebration in February of 1995, she was truly overwhelmed and sincerely touched by the number of friends (and former students) who attended. She died December 22, 1999.

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