Search Library Catalog

Oswald, Peter & Marie

by Erling O. Oswald

I was born in Juneau, on November 24, 1924, and was blessed to have as my parents, Marie and Peter Oswald. Though raised in Juneau as an only child, my sister Marietta Hopkins came along about the time I finished my military service in 1946. She is a lifetime resident of Juneau and has had a long career with the Sealaska Corporation. Her husband, Fred, owns a very successful carpet business in Juneau.

Unfortunately, I never knew any of my grandparents as my fatherís parents lived in Norway. My maternal grandmother passed away before I was born and my grandfather died when I was an infant. As a youngster, I always considered that this role was played by Jenny and Martin Holtz, whom I always referred to as Aunt Jenny and Uncle Martin. Jenny was related to my maternal grandmother and I can remember many happy times I spent at her home on Ninth Street. Martin was a well known fisherman, not only in Juneau, but also by halibut fishermen from as far away as Seattle, because he was a main supplier of fresh herring used for halibut bait. Martin was the owner of the F/V Wilson and in early spring would set his large herring net along the shore in Auke Bay where it served as a holding pen for live herring. Using a small seine, he would periodically replenish his supply by seining nearby schools of herring and transferring them to the holding pen. In early spring when herring were spawning, many people set hemlock branches in the holding pen to collect spawn as these are a delicacy to the native population. It was in those days, that I learned to eat these eggs which we peeled off rocks and seaweed at low tide.

As a young boy growing up in the early 1930ís, I spent many weekends on the Wilson watching the big Seattle halibut schooners coming alongside to load fresh herring. They would load the herring into their bait hatch and sprinkle layers of salt and ice to keep the bait fresh and firm during their trip. Most of these larger boats operated in the Gulf of Alaska with crews of up to 10 fishermen who would work in shifts, 12 hours on and 6 hours off. When the herring season ended, Uncle Martin would load the Wilson with the remaining herring and deliver them to the Juneau Cold Storage where some were salted in wooden kegs and others frozen into blocks to be used as bait.

My maternal grandparents were Marie Moon Orsen and Ole Orsen. My grandmother was born in Klukwan in the early 1880ís. When she was very young, her mother (my great grandmother) was killed during a tribal conflict. Fearing for the safety of his children, her father (my great grandfather) took them in his canoe and headed south, eventually settling near Marmion Island at the southern tip of Douglas Island. He made a living by trapping and fishing, selling his goods in Douglas, which at that time was a boom town. On his occasional visits to Douglas, it was noticed that his purchases included shoes and clothing for small girls. It was then learned that he was caring for his three daughters, Marie, Kitty and Susy, and two sons, John and Archie. When this came to the attention of Quaker missionaries Anna and Silas Moon, they convinced my great grandfather to bring his daughters to the Friends Mission in Douglas where they could receive an education. After completing elementary school, my grandmother and her sisters were sent to the Friends Carlisle Indian Institute in Pennsylvania for further education. After completing her education, she returned to Juneau where she worked as an interpreter in the courts and also served as a church organist. She also became very active in helping to solve some of the social problems involving the Tlingit Indians. She was later to become one of the thirteen founders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. At that time, she was the only woman involved in the organization of the ANB and because of her writing skills became its first recording secretary. She married Ole Orsen in the early 1900ís and had five children: Thelma, Albert, Martha, Marie and Francis. One of her notable achievements was getting her children enrolled in the Juneau Public School. In those days, children from Indian families were required to attend the Government school located in the village on Willoughby Avenue. She died in 1918, during the influenza epidemic and is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau.

My grandfather Ole Orsen was born in Norway, and came to the United States about the turn of the century. I understand that he had taken a job as a cabin boy aboard a Norwegian freighter and left the ship in Seattle. Like many Scandinavians with a commercial fishing background, Ole was drawn to Alaska where he entered into the fishing business. It has been said that he was one of the first fishermen to introduce the Norwegian method of longlining for halibut to the Juneau area. He also fished for salmon in the Chilkat area and when not fishing, used his boat to carry supplies to some of the small outlying mining camps. Though my grandfather died in an automobile accident in 1923, at a relatively young age, he was apparently a very successful fisherman and businessman. He owned more than one fishing boat, built a large boathouse and family home on South Franklin and was one of the founders of the Juneau Cold Storage Company along with Oliver Grange. The boathouse was later remodeled and leased to the Tanaka family who operated it as a rooming house and the original City Cafť. When the Tanaka family was forced to leave Juneau during World War II, the City Cafť continued to operate under different management until the early 1960ís when the City took it over and demolished the building in order to provide parking space for the new ferry terminal.

I know that my parents struggled to make ends meet during the Depression in the early 1930ís. Those years were hard on most people throughout the country, but I think we had some notable advantages living in Juneau. We had an unlimited supply of firewood to keep at least one room warm during the cold months and an abundance of fish and game that could be preserved for the winter. It seemed like my mother was always busy canning salmon, deer meat and berries in the summer and fall, and knitting socks, hats and sweaters during the winter. Dad was a fisherman and he made sure that we always had a good supply of salted cod, salmon and herring which he put up in wooden kegs. As a youngster I probably moaned about the steady diet of fish and venison but I canít remember ever going hungry. Dad would get part time jobs during the winter, mostly at the cold storage. One winter he got a job working at the Pedersen farm near the present day airport. That winter we lived in a small house on the farm and I took the bus to school.

My mother, Marie Rose Orsen Oswald, was born in Haines in August 1905. She received her elementary education in Juneau and shortly after her mother passed away in 1918, she and her sister Martha were sent to the Indian school in Chemawa, Oregon, for their secondary education. After returning to Juneau in about 1923, she married my father, Peter Ellingson Oswald, a fisherman who had emigrated from Norway several years earlier. He was born in September 1895, in Aarsvol, Norway, a small farming community near Stavanger. He served in the US Army during the latter stages of World War I and was stationed at the Army base at Port Chilkoot. My mother later trained as a beautician and during her lifetime, owned beauty shops in Juneau and Seattle. She, like her mother, also became involved in issues pertaining to Alaska native rights which eventually culminated in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1973. She had a very outgoing personality, loved meeting people and was happiest when among friends, of which she had many. She was also fond of working in her garden and picking berries during the summer. During my early years we lived in a small house built over piling on Eighth Street. Later we moved to a larger house at Tenth and B Streets which was just a couple of houses away from my closest friend, Harry Sperling.

Sometime after I left home in 1942, my folks moved to Seattle and bought a home in Ballard where my mother opened a beauty shop. They were in Seattle for three or four years before returning to Juneau and buying a house on Eleventh Street. Many years later, my mother married Ed Engberg, a carpenter who was originally from Sweden but had lived in Juneau since the mining days. They lived in our old house on Eighth Street where my mother operated another beauty shop. They later moved to a new house that Ed built on North Douglas Highway. Ed passed away in 1994, and not long after my mother became too ill to be on her own and was taken in by my sister Marietta. For several years, Marietta and her entire family provided exceptional and loving care to our mother until she passed away in October 1999, at the age of 94.

My father owned two commercial fishing boats during his lifetime. The first was a 35-footer named the Marie which he used for fishing halibut during the spring and early summer, and later trolled for salmon in Icy Straits and Cross Sound. He sold the Marie in about 1939, and bought the 43-foot Ina J which he renamed the Tundra and operated it exclusively for fishing halibut and blackcod with a four man crew. As a youngster still attending elementary school, I would occasionally accompany my dad during the summer when he trolled for salmon. As my dad fished alone during those days, I was probably more of a worry to him than a helper but I enjoyed those trips. Dad worked hard all his life. He sold the boat in the late 1950ís or early 1960ís and retired to Seattle. He passed away in the spring of 1963 at the age of 67.

I have always felt that Juneau was an ideal place in which to grow up. During the 1920ís and 30ís, it was a small but vibrant town despite being isolated from other populated areas. The AJ Mine was operating with three shifts and the town served as home port for a sizable fishing fleet. One of the highlights of living in Juneau during those early days (at least for me), was the frequent arrival of the Alaska Steamship vessels. Whenever possible after hearing an arriving shipís whistle, I would run down to the dock and watch them bring the ship alongside. I often wondered how those captains could find their way to Juneau during dark winter nights in snow storms, fog or stormy weather without the use of radar, depth finders or gyro compasses. It was not until the war, that these navigational aids came into general use and it still amazes me how those captains got along without them. Apart from myself and others who would meet these ships was Patsy Ann, a deaf mongrel dog. I never knew who owned Patsy Ann, but somehow she knew when ships were arriving and rarely missed being on the dock when a ship tied up. She got to be well known by shipís crews who made sure that she was well fed while the ship was in port. As a youngster, a fantasy of mine was to be on the bridge of the SS Aleutian or the SS McKinley in an officerís uniform helping the captain bring the ship into port. Little did I know that this fantasy would more or less come true in less than a year after I graduated from high school.

During the latter part of our senior year, there was little talk among the boys about going on to college after graduation. We knew that we had a choice of either enlisting or being drafted. I had made up my mind to join the Navy but had to wait until I turned eighteen. Other than knowing that we were destined to serve our country in a world war, the only thing that marred our graduation ceremonies was the absence of my good friend and our valedictorian, Johnny Tanaka. During the early part of the war, the government required all Japanese Americans in the western part of the country to be interned, so Johnny and his family were sent south in the spring of 1942. Though Johnny did not attend the graduation ceremonies, he was not forgotten. Superintendent A.B. Phillips kept an empty chair for Johnny and lauded his accomplishments and hard work during his school years. I have always admired Mr. Phillips for doing this.

I was recruited in December 1942, to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and received orders to report to their basic training facility in California. Because of the war, the training program was accelerated to eighteen months rather than four years, including three months of basic training followed by at least six months at sea and then nine months of intensive courses at the academy in New York. Following training I was assigned to the USS Trego.

It was during the last few months of my Naval service, that I met Beverly who was later to become my wife. She was working as a secretary for the Health Department in Seattle. After serving two years in the Navy, I was released from active duty in July, 1946, but remained on the inactive list for another 17 years.

After returning to Juneau, I finished out the fishing season with my dad. Like many other returning servicemen, I was not sure what I wanted to do. Beverly and I had decided to get married and in July, 1947, she came to Juneau and we were married at the Lutheran Church. We left Juneau and headed for California where I had enrolled at San Jose State College. Through a friend of John Hermle, who owned a grocery store in Juneau, I got an evening job at a tomato paste canning plant in San Jose. That year John Bavard was also attending classes at San Jose. The following year after the fishing season we were in Seattle where I attended the University of Washington. It was then that I came to realize that I could not continue to be a part time student and a part time fisherman. As a student it would take a long time to finish college and I was still not sure what subject I wanted as a major. I decided to fish commercially for a few years. As it turned out this decision was to have a profound affect on my future life in a way that I could never have anticipated.

We settled in Juneau for the next several years. Beverly worked for the Territorial Health Department and I fished for halibut and blackcod in Alaska from spring to September, then for albacore tuna off the coast of California and Oregon until late November. That first winter my good friends Harry Sperling and Bill Odell helped Orrin Addleman build his boat, the Dolores J, a 42-footer being constructed at a boathouse at the foot of Eighth Street. We fished the next season with Orrin and later that fall Harry, Bill and I decided to buy the Sitka from Izzy Goldstein, who owned a fishing supply store on South Franklin. It was an old 90-foot, two masted schooner that was originally built to carry dories for fishing halibut. With a nine man crew, we fished for halibut and blackcod during the summer and in the fall, three of us fished for albacore off the West Coast. After a couple of years on the Sitka, Lars Stangeland (a cousin who had emigrated from Norway) and I decided to buy the 44-foot Oceanic from Ole Westby. The Oceanic was built about 1924 and powered by a three cylinder heavy duty Atlas Imperial diesel engine. The halibut season during those years kept getting shorter to a point where prices plunged due to so much fish being landed in such a short span of time. Albacore tuna prices were also fluctuating wildly because of an increasing supply being imported from abroad. The fall of 1954 turned out to be a dismal season for albacore, when prices took a free fall from an expected $300 a ton to a point where we had trouble finding a buyer who would take the fish for $150 a ton.

Upon returning to Seattle to store the boat for the winter, I happened to meet my old friend from Petersburg, Art Otness, who owned the Brothers. He informed me about a venture that was being put together by the Kayler-Dahl Fish company in Petersburg which would include a couple of boats to fish for yellowfin tuna from Palmyra Island, located about 900 miles south of Hawaii. The next several weeks were spent getting the boats ready. Meanwhile the company purchased the MV Commonwealth, a 110-foot, ex-sailing schooner, which would serve as a mothership. Harry Sperling was hired as skipper and began outfitting the vessel for sea. In early 1954, the two smaller boats sailed from Morro Bay, California, bound for Hawaii. The Commonwealth was well suited for these longline operations because of its extended operational capabilities. However, breakdowns and emergencies with the two smaller boats persisted and Art and I had no choice but to call it quits. In short, we were broke.

I took a job with Pacific Ocean Fisheries Investigation as navigator and relief skipper, and during the next year I sailed aboard all of the research vessels being operated by POFI. In early 1956, Harry Hinkle, Deputy Fleet Supervisor for POFI, asked me if I would consider working overseas in developing countries. Having gone through a previous unsuccessful venture, Beverly and I still seemed to have spirits of adventure, so we decided that I should apply for an overseas job. Ultimately, a career with FAO included assignments in Sudan, Ecuador, Jamaica, Italy, South Korea, Western Samoa and the Philippines.

A major highlight of our first assignment in Jamaica happened while Beverly and I were on home leave in June, 1961, when our son Michael was born in Seattle.

I took a break from FAO in 1981, and worked as Fisheries Manager for Sealaska until 1983. I retired in June, 1984, to Juneau where I had bought a home and built a small apartment building.

My long career with FAO, from 1956, was an interesting and rewarding experience which I thoroughly enjoyed. I have to give a great deal of credit to my wife Beverly and son Mike for being dragged around the world where living conditions sometimes left a lot to be desired. However, they made the best of whatever circumstances we faced. Upon returning to live in the U.S., our son Mike attended college in Washington and then moved to Juneau. He worked there for many years and completed his college education, graduating from the U of A in 1996. He has since moved to Washington and built a beautiful home where he now lives with his wife Jaki and son Forrest. We moved from Juneau in 1988, and now live in Washington. During the winter months we go to Arizona where I take every opportunity I can to beat a former Juneau Mayor, Bill Overstreet, in a round of golf.

Erling aboard the USS Tergo, somewhere in the Philippines, ca. 1944.

Peter and Marie Oswald, 1923.

General Information +
Exhibits and Collections +
Education +
Public Programs +
Juneau History Research -
Museum Calendar
Friends of JDCM