Allman, Ruth Coffin
by Renee Guerin Blood
Ruth Coffin Allman was born August 17, 1905, in Boston, Massachusetts. She died on September 22, 1989, in Juneau. She was a graduate of the University of Washington School of Music.
Ruth came to Alaska in the early thirties to join her aunt Grace Bishop, who had married Judge James Wickersham. Ruth taught music and art in the Juneau public schools from kindergarten to high school. She was one of the organizers of the first Southeast Alaska Music Festival in 1934. Judge Wickersham died in 1939.
In 1949, Ruth married Jack Allman, an early day newspaperman. They set up housekeeping at mining cabins in the bush. Ruth brought her sterling silver and Lenox china, and on the first day of every month the Allmans donned clean wool shirts and socks and dined at a lace covered table to celebrate another anniversary.
Ruth and Jack eventually established Tongass Lodge at Excursion Inlet. There Ruth experimented with Native berry recipes and jams and developed many of her sourdough recipes. She was made an honorary member of the Eagle Clan of the Tlingit, and given the name Kut’aan-Sa-Wu- St’aan which means “waiting for summer to come.”
Ruth nursed Jack in the Wickersham residence until his death from cancer in 1953. She again became a caregiver in the 1960s when Mrs. Wickersham was terminally ill. It was then Ruth had to face losing the Wickersham House and breaking up the judge’s collection, or finding a way to pay Grace’s hospital bills and hold on to what she knew was an important part of Alaska’s history.
Out of this dilemma, the House of Wickersham as an historical site was born. She opened the house to paying visitors, set the dining room table with linen and fine china, and served coffee from a family silver service. Ruth made her famous “flaming sourdoughs” from her own starter. For two hours guests were transported in elegance back to a more colorful time as Ruth entertained them with stories of her uncle. Since the judge was active in the early foundation of Alaska’s law and education, Ruth’s story telling amounted to an oral history of the state.
Ruth enthusiastically shared this living history with thousands of visitors for over 25 years. In so doing, she preserved Judge Wickersham’s memorabilia, the largest and finest collection of Alaskana, historical books, diaries and documents as well as early artifacts and treasures dating back to Russian-American days.
In 1961, Ruth was named Juneau’s Woman of the Year. The U.S. Coast Guard gave her their special award for “outstanding unselfish voluntary commitment.” They also made her an official Coast Guard Mother, which pleased her enormously.
In 1976, Ruth wrote the book “Alaska Sourdough, the Real Stuff by a Real Alaskan.” It is a marvel of recipes and anecdotes, lovingly handwritten and illustrated by Ruth herself, and is still one of the top selling Alaska books.
In 1984, the State bought the House of Wickersham, making it Alaska’s first historical home. Today the Wickersham Society is the custodian of Ruth Allman’s legacy.