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Juneau-Douglas City Museum

Varness, Patricia Ruth Fleek

by Bobbi Ann Varness, Granddaughter

Being the average teenager that I am, I have never really stopped to think about the past. So when I think about the oldest person who I know, I think of my Grandma Patricia Ruth Varness.

On May 14, 1927, my grandma was born to George A. and Elizabeth Berg Fleek, in their home in Cactus Garden, Arizona. Her oldest sister, Leona, who was 17, was the one to name her Patricia Ruth. Having two brothers, Sonny and Bob, and two older sisters, Leona and Marjorie, my grandma was the baby of the family.

She says she does not remember too much about Cactus Gardens, but she does remember that the houses were owned by the Inspiration Mining Company. It was actually just a canyon with a few houses on each side. When she was 5 years old the family home was one of five houses that were burned to the ground. After the fire, the family moved to Inspiration, Arizona, that was close by.

In 1934, grandma, together with her mom, brother Bob, her sister, Marjorie, moved to Douglas, Alaska, to join her dad who had preceded them. Brother Bob was 11 and grandma was 7. They docked in Juneau and she remembers asking her dad how they were going to get to Douglas. He replied that they would take a ferry as the Juneau-Douglas Bridge was not built until 1935.

Douglas was so different from Arizona. Grandma was used to walking around in bare feet, but in Douglas it was too cold for that so she wore shoes all the time. She remembers getting teased by all the kids as she was always saying, “Well down in Arizona...” but she soon got over that and was one of the Douglas kids. One thing that she liked about moving to Douglas was that she had lots of cousins; Alfreda and Clayton Fleek were close to her age.

In 1937, when she was 10 years old, she went through a fire again. Half the town of Douglas was burned down. Grandma remembers her mom waking her up and telling her to get dressed and go tell her brother, Sonny, and his family that the town was on fire. Grandma remembers the Taku wind was really blowing and the cinders were flying near her as she ran to her brother’s house to warn them, but they already knew about the fire heading their way. Sonny’s rental house was destroyed in the fire and they lost everything.

At the time of the fire, grandma was living in the Catholic Church house located by the baseball ground. The Department of Highways and post office is there now. Across from the church house was the Russian Orthodox Church that was also destroyed by fire; also the Odd Fellows building that was on the Juneau side of the church house. Tony Simon’s store next to the church house was also destroyed. The church house has recently been remodeled with a full basement and the new owner has purchased the Catholic Church and is using it as his carpenter shop.

After the fire, they went to different places for school such as City Hall and the Episcopal Church until the new school was built.

Every child has a special teacher they remember and grandma’s was Grace Naghel. In addition to her regular classes, Grace Naghel taught dancing. Grandma remembers the Irish dance and Spanish hat dance. Once, Grace Naghel took grandma and the class to her home in Juneau where she opened a large trunk and let each of them pick out something they would like to keep. My grandma does not know why, but she picked out a pair of those old-fashioned laced shoes that certainly would not be in style today. When it was time for their school picnic, Grace Naghel took them to her folks’ summer home by Jordan Creek. After playing games and riding in a rowboat, they went across the street to Kendler’s Dairy and had some of Mrs. Kendler’s delicious ice cream. Kendler’s Dairy has been replaced by the Juneau Airport. Grace Naghel is ninety years old now and lives in California. Both grandma and her brother, Bob, correspond with her.

Even though she grew up at the end of the Depression and World War II, grandma says it was a good time. They didn’t have computers, TV, McDonalds or Taco Bell, but they knew everyone in town. They played baseball, rode their bikes, played “King of the Hill” and “Red Light, Green Light.” Grandma said that we always felt blessed growing up in Douglas. “It was a small town then, and even though everyone knew everything about you, it was like a big family,” she said.

Grandma went to school in Douglas until her freshman year. Her dad worked for the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mining Company and was a powerhouse operator. During her second year of high school, they lived in the Coliseum Apartments that were later destroyed by fire. After the Coliseum Apartments, they moved to the Salmon Creek Powerhouse. Grandma’s dad’s next move was to the Nugget Creek Powerhouse by the Mendenhall Glacier.

While living at Nugget Creek, grandma would walk to the Loop Road to catch the school bus used to transport all the school kids to Juneau. Sometimes she would ride her bike to catch the bus and then hide the bike in the bushes. Grandma remembers waiting for the bus in the dark of the morning and hearing the wolves howling. It was very scary as there were no houses nearby.

Grandma’s dad was later transferred from the Nugget Creek Powerhouse to the main powerhouse at the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mining Company on South Franklin Street in Juneau. During the time grandma’s dad worked at the main power plant in Juneau, the family lived at the Odd Fellows Apartments that was located across the street from the Baranof Hotel. Grandma said, “Looking back on all the places that I lived makes me sad as not one is there anymore except the Catholic Church house in Douglas and the Odd Fellows Apartments in Juneau.” At Salmon Creek Powerhouse, the three houses that were there when she was 16 years old have been torn down. The house at the Nugget Creek Powerhouse near the Mendenhall Glacier has been torn down.

During World War II, there were over 10,000 service men stationed in and around Juneau, mostly at Duck Creek.

When she was 17 years old, grandma worked the summer at the USO Club in the kitchen making hamburgers, hot dogs, milk shakes, etc. Zack Gordon was the director and Alida Matheson was the assistant director. It was interesting work, and it was also interesting for grandma to meet all the different men from around the states. The men at the USO voted grandma “Queen of the USO” in 1945.

After graduating from high school in May 1945, grandma went with her mom to visit her sister, Leona, and brother-in-law George Hill. After the visit, grandma’s mom returned to Juneau but grandma stayed with her sister and started working for Rheem Mft. Grandma did not work there long because she got homesick and took the boat back to Juneau. Returning to Juneau, grandma got a job with John Young and Joe Werner who were accountants. Giving me advice she says, “Most of my working years were in banking. I figure if you didn’t have money, you might as well be close to it.”

In September 1945, grandma went with her parents and brother Bob to Seattle and then to Salt Lake City, Utah, by bus where she attended the wedding of her best girlfriend. After the wedding they attended Bob’s wedding on September 14, 1945. Brother Bob married Georgia Lee Wilky who he had met in Phoenix, Arizona, while stationed at Williams Air Corps Base nearby.

After Bob’s wedding, grandma returned to Juneau while her folks headed for Pennsylvania to attend a family reunion. Grandma headed for Juneau because she was in love with her future husband, Ingvald Varness, a Starr Hill kid. They were married February 10, 1947. This was the day of her folk’s 38th wedding anniversary. Grandma and grandfather had 42 years together until his death on January 26, 1988.

Grandmother and Grandfather Varness had four children: John Michael, Ingrid Elizabeth, Linda Kathleen and Robert Arthur. From their children they have 15 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. Grandma says, “If you want to stay young you should hang around young people. That is what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years, off and on, as I have been doing day care in my home. It keeps me young at heart!”