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Converse, Wilbur & Myrtle (Bland)

by Betty West Miller, Granddaughter

Myrtle was the fourth child born in Edison, Territory of Washington, to Joseph and Margaret Bland in 1895. Wilbur Converse was born in Wisconsin in 1887, and moved to Washington in 1903. Wilbur and Myrtle met in Edison and were married there in 1914.

Wilbur had a strong desire to travel to Alaska to find work in the mines. The birth of Wilbur and Myrtle’s first child, Clarence in 1916, in Edison, set them back a little, but shortly thereafter, they moved to Douglas, Alaska, to join other family members who had arrived earlier.

Wilbur went to work in the Treadwell Mine as an oiler and they lived in The Pines, houses built by the company for their employees. Their second child, Berna, was born there in 1917. After the mine caved in, Wilbur took work across the channel at the Juneau mines. In 1919, another daughter, Myrtle Viola, was born in Juneau. The family was living on Gastineau Avenue when the mud slide wiped out a section of that area, so the family moved back to Douglas and were living on St. Ann’s Avenue around 1920.

George was born in Treadwell in 1921 and shortly thereafter, the Converse family made their final move back to Juneau. Wilbur continued to work for Alaska- Juneau Mines and Myrtle was a full time mother with the children to raise. Robert was born in Tacoma, WA, while Myrtle was south visiting family in 1924. They returned home and through the years, four more children were born: Ryder (1925), Sammy (1928), Betty Jean (1930) and Wilbur Jr. (1931).

The family lived in a house that later became the Spruce Delicatessen between 9th and 10th Streets on Glacier Avenue. Goldbelt Inc. building stands in this space today. Kitty corner across the street used to be the ballpark where Clarence Converse used to play baseball on the Moose Team but he couldn’t continue his ball career as he had heart problems. Consequently, he died before he was 30 years of age in the spring of 1945.

Across the alley from the Converse home was where LeRoy West lived with his mother and stepfather, Adelaide (West) and Carl Collen. Berna and LeRoy went to school at Juneau High and became sweethearts and this story is documented in the West section of this book.

Viola Converse went through the Douglas and Juneau school systems and graduated from Juneau High in 1937. She married Ove Hanson in 1939. They cleared the land and built their home on Douglas Island less than a mile from the Juneau-Douglas Bridge. Three children (Bernie, Christine and Julie) were born in Juneau. The Hansons left Juneau to live in Seattle and later on in Tennessee where Viola still resides. Ove passed away in 1975.

George Converse worked for Red Holloway driving his Yellow Cabs for many years. He had earlier worked for the sawmill on South Franklin Street but cut off many fingers in a sawing accident so found driving cab a much safer and easier task. George married Doris LeVan in 1956. He later went to work for Alaska Electric Light & Power Company as a watchman, living at remote Annex Creek and Salmon Creek powerhouses. They enjoyed their life of isolation in the wilderness. George and Doris retired to Sequim, Washington, where George still resides. Doris passed away in 1997 and George remarried Elinor Foss in 1998.

Robert Converse was in the Army in Yakutat at one time with his brother Ryder. He loved airplanes and learned to fly a Piper Cub in eight hours of training at the Juneau Airport. One day in September 1946, Robert and his girlfriend flew to Skagway to visit their friends. Upon arriving he left the girlfriend and another lady on the ground at the airport while he took his friend up for a quick flight over town. The girls stood in horror and watched the plane crash on landing. Both men were killed.

A year later, Sammy Converse was in California buying an airplane and getting ready to bring it back to Alaska. He took a girlfriend to her home in California and on his return to Seattle got caught in a snow storm and crashed and was killed. Myrtle survived the loss of her two sons to airplane accidents but she also warned her other children YOU WILL NOT FLY YOUR OWN AIRPLANES AND END UP LIKE YOUR BROTHERS! The rest of the boys decided boating was much safer and that pleased their mother.

Ryder Converse was stationed in Yakutat during the war years. He met and married Martha Valle in 1946, a resident of Yakutat. They had four children (Evelyn, Carolyn, Robert and Ronald, all residents of Yakutat today). Martha was killed in a car accident and the children were than raised by her family. Ryder returned to Juneau. He met and married Vicki Davis in 1955. Ryder worked construction for years and then went to work for Alaska Electric Light and Power Company. He used to run his boat out to Annex Creek for the company delivering supplies and mail. Ryder and Vicki retired and moved to their home they built in Tenakee Springs enjoying the life of subsistence and adventure. Ryder’s home was open to friends, family and even strangers. To many people, Ryder personified the title “Mr. Alaska.” There weren’t many bays or coves that he hadn’t explored by boat. He had no fear of the unknown and loved to see what was around the corner. Ryder died of cancer in 1990, and according to his wishes, his ashes were spread over his favorite bay up Tenakee Inlet. Vicki is active and amazes everyone—at 93 she lives between Tenakee Springs and the Juneau Pioneers Home and still travels to visit the family in Yakutat.

Little Betty Jean was born in 1930, and died a “crib death” before her first year. Berna, in honor of her baby sister, named her first-born daughter Betty Jean.

The last born child of Myrtle and Wilbur was Wilbur Jr., more popularly known as Billy. He was the last of the adventurous Converse boys. He loved to boat, hunt and fish. Billy and his wife Dutchy sold their home in 1980 and lived full time aboard their boat the Myrtle C. Billy retired from the State of Alaska where he was the head of maintenance at the newly built State Office Building. After retirement, they cruised all over Alaska and took the boat south a couple of times to spend the winters. Billy loved life to the fullest, he worked hard and played hard and he died at the age of 63 in the spring of 1994. Dutchy still lives aboard their boat at the Aurora Boat Harbor in Juneau.

Wilbur Sr. (nicknamed Bern) continued to work for the A-J Mines and when the mines closed in 1943, Bern became a watchman at the powerhouse located at the very end of South Franklin Street heading toward Thane. On his way to work one morning in 1955, he drove his car to the parking lot but never made it out of the car. They found him slumped over the wheel of the car where he died of a heart attack. In 1974, Myrtle had celebrated her 79th birthday two weeks before she went out to Annex Creek to visit son George and Doris. While there she had a stroke and they flew her to Juneau where she passed away, never regaining consciousness. Both Bern and Myrtle are buried together at the Evergreen Cemetery.

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