by Stuart Sliter and Bob Johnson
Carl (Charlie) Joensuu was born in the northern Finland area which borders on Norway. He immigrated to Douglas to work at Treadwell. Charlie’s brother, who lived in Michigan had taken the name Johnson so Charlie did too. Matilda (Tillie) also immigrated from Finland, at the age of 15. She worked first as a maid in New York City. She journeyed by train across Canada to Alaska to join cousins and worked as a maid at the Garside home on Sixth Street in Juneau, before marrying Charlie.
Charlie was also a fisherman. He and his son Leonard made several trips up Taku River with a miner in search of gold. Gold was never found, but they swamped their boat on one occasion. Luckily, they were able to right it and continued with their exploration. Charlie died about 1934.
Tillie ran a boarding house on Fifth Street in Douglas. She later married Gusti Nurmi. They lived in Juneau where they had a wide circle of Finnish friends who gathered at their home at the Koski Apartments near the Baranof, above Gastineau Avenue. Her grandchildren, Bob and Stuart, remember when Tillie would come to their home to care for them. Arriving with crocks of salted fish, she prepared wonderful Finnish dishes for them. Tillie died in 1959.
Charlie and Tillie’s children were Daisy, Leonard Arne, born in 1912, and Violet. Daisy died as a young girl in a diphtheria epidemic. She was taken to Juneau and placed in quarantine where her parents were never allowed to see her again. Violet attended college in Fairbanks where she met and married Morris Butler, an engineer working on the construction of the Alaska Canada Highway. His family were pioneer settlers of the Skagit Valley in Washington. Leonard attended the Douglas schools and graduated from Douglas High in 1928.
Robert Johnstone Fraser married Jessie Kennedy in 1906, in Glasgow, Scotland, and their first daughter, Elizabeth (Bunty) was born there in 1907. Robert came directly from Scotland to Treadwell in 1908. As an experienced old country craftsman he worked at the foundry as a moulder, and later as a core maker. Jessie and Bunty followed Robert in 1910. The Frasers had three more daughters after arriving in Douglas, Roberta Johnstone, born October 4, 1911, Mae, born in 1912, and Jessie, born in 1917.
Robert and Jessie Fraser and Bunty, Glasgow, Scotland, 1908. Portrait taken in order to leave a picture behind when they moved to Treadwell. When they first arrived in Douglas, they lived in a little gray house on the waterside of St. Ann’s. Located between the Catholic and Congregational churches and St. Ann’s Hospital, it was the exciting center of much activity. They later moved to a home on Fifth Street which was near a two-team horse barn. On funeral days, the girls watched as harnesses were polished and horses were curried, then draped in black net and tassels, in preparation for the funeral.
In 1918, after the flu epidemic and the cave-in, the family moved to Treadwell. The mine tracks were directly in back of their house and Roberta and Mae had a little flatcar of their own which they used to take lunches to their father at the foundry. Bunty, Roberta and Mae attended school at Treadwell until 1922, when the Ready Bullion closed and so did the school. They then walked to Douglas for school. Their mother, Jessie, was the last postmistress of Treadwell.
Life in Treadwell and Douglas revolved around the schools, churches and social clubs. If an organization had a function, the whole community attended, including the children. There were often picnics by boat to Hilda Creek or Marmion Island. Rare leisure time was spent in the area. One time the whole Fraser family went to Sentinel Island on the Alki, then were transported to Yankee Cove by the Bones family who lived on the island. The Frasers camped at the Fox Early-McWilliams bunkhouse, a part of the old Eagle River Mining Co.
In October, 1926, Roberta was on her way to Sunday school when she saw smoke and flames in Douglas. She ran back to tell her mother of the fire and that was the last time she saw her until 10 that night. Her mother went to assist people in saving their possessions, her father went to fight the fire and the four girls helped others. Suddenly, the winds changed and Treadwell was in danger.
Robert had come home to try to save their own house. He told the girls to take what they could carry and they started for the foundry over the railroad track. A fishing boat took them to Douglas where they were taken in by the Felix Gray family. Their home was lost as were all of their possessions, among them photos and cherished family treasures from Scotland. Only a few houses had not burned but they were able to move into one, at Fifth and Treadwell, a neighborhood populated by many Scottish families.
Mr. Fraser died in 1939. Jessie became the telephone operator for Douglas. The telephone witchboard was located in a little house on St. Ann’s Avenue where she also lived. (It is still there today.) She retired when the telephone system was converted to dial. During her years at the switchboard, she made many unlikely friends, some that she never met but conversed with during the late night hours. One was a local “lady of the night.” Mrs. Fraser died in 1952.
After graduation from Douglas High, Bunty earned her teacher’s certificate at Bellingham Normal School and first taught school in Petersburg and then first grade in Douglas. She died in Seattle in the early 1950’s, as a result of complications from cancerous brain tumor surgery.
Roberta and Mae were on girls’ basketball teams in high school, traveled to playoff tournaments, and worked in the cannery during the summers. Roberta graduated from Douglas High in a class of six in 1929. She then attended Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (predecessor of University of Alaska) at Fairbanks. At that time it took six days to get to Fairbanks, traveling for three days by steamship to Seward and then three by rail. In 1929, she was one of eight women in her class. In 1930, there were sixteen. She spent two years there before returning to Douglas.
Leonard Johnson and Roberta Fraser were married in Douglas in 1935. After the 1926 fire, Charlie and Leonard had built a house, including a modern Finnish sauna at the back, on St. Ann’s Avenue. When Roberta and Leonard married, they moved into that house and she lived there until just recently when she moved to the Juneau Pioneers Home.
In the early morning of September 2, 1935, a car containing Leonard Johnson and eight Douglas friends, including the mayor, A.E. Goetz, was successfully driven to Juneau. It was the first car to cross the “almost” completed Douglas Bridge. Another car soon followed with five more unofficial emissaries from Douglas Island. The Juneau mayor, Isadore Goldstein, entertained them all at breakfast at the Gastineau Hotel. The official dedication was not until October 13.
Leonard and Roberta had two children, son Robert Leonard, born in July, 1936, and daughter Stuart Fraser, born in May, 1939.
In October, 1937, Douglas experienced another catastrophic fire. Leonard was working out of Douglas when the fire started and again the Taku winds were blowing. As the fire spread from Front Street to Fourth, a neighbor, Urho Kronquist, suggested that Roberta keep her eye on the theater at the corner of Third and C Streets. If it “went” she should leave. She spent a frantic day loading the old Packard from floorboards to roof top, keeping an eye on one year old Bob, and on the progress of the fire. The fire was stopped just before it got to the theater. She later recalled that she had spent all day packing and all night unpacking!
During World War II, Leonard worked on military construction projects on Shemya Island in the Aleutians. (Like many Alaska men, he was more valuable working in Alaska for the military than being drafted and sent elsewhere.) As an electrician, he later was the foreman of the installation of the power lines to Annex Creek - Camp 6. To return home, he hiked the trail from Annex Creek and Roberta and Bob would often hike the trail halfway to meet him. Everything used on that project was carried in on the mens’ backs, over a 12 mile trail from Thane. His family remember Leonard packing a huge generator using a back pack and head strap to stabilize it. He also spent two winters at Annex Creek.
Leonard was the President of the Douglas School Board in 1954, during the divisive period of consolidation of the Douglas and Juneau school districts. Many residents of Douglas seriously disagreed with consolidation and were angrily vocal in their protests. Voters of the two towns decided by a narrow margin that the districts would be consolidated.
Leonard bought the Douglas Trucking Company in 1947, from Irwin Fleek. In 1955, the Johnsons sold Douglas Trucking to Jim McCormick, and were purchasing Standard Airport Products when Leonard died. Roberta asked Lou Bonnett to join her in the new business venture.
After Leonard’s death, Roberta worked for the Territorial Health Department where she researched the vital statistics of villagers who had been born at home and whose place and date of birth had never been registered. Working with scant information but with local knowledge and occasionally church documentation, she was able to establish records for many villages. In 1959, during the statehood transition, she moved to the Attorney General’s office where she managed personnel and accounting. In 1967, she moved to the Court System. Judge Victor Carlson established the Office of Public Defender in 1968, and requested Roberta’s assistance in the organization. Judge Stewart gave her a six-month leave for the undertaking. In 1969, when John Havelock was appointed Attorney General, she again returned to the Attorney General’s office.
Leonard and Roberta’s son, Bob, attended the Douglas schools. He and his friends swam in the Treadwell glory hole, and with his dad he fished and hunted the Taku River valley, staying many times at “Taku Louie” DeFlorian’s cabin. He worked for his father at Douglas Trucking, and remembers many Takuwind-chilled late night oil deliveries. He played ball for the Douglas Huskies, fierce competitors of the J-Hi Crimson Bears, and graduated from Douglas High, in 1954. Attending the University of Alaska then Washington State College, he graduated in 1959, returning to Douglas to work at Standard Airport Products. As a member of the Douglas Fire Department, he served as Chief for several years. He married Jane (DeeDee) Ninnis in 1960. They have three daughters and a son and eight grandchildren. (See Ninnis history.)
Stuart recalls Saturday morning saunas at the Ruotsala home on Douglas Highway. Not only were the saunas entertaining, but the Finnish ladies prepared pastry delicacies to share afterward. Stuart attended the Douglas schools until 1955. After consolidation she graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1957. She was active in high school as an officer in both the Student Council and Girls’ Club, and with the Pep Club. Following graduation she graduated from Mills College with a degree in education. She was Juneau’s first “Miss Alaska” in 1958, competing in the Miss America contest in Atlantic City. She taught for two years in the J-D School District and one year in Kodiak. In her first year of teaching, she met her future husband, Robert Sliter, a new teacher from the “Lake Wobegone” area of Minnesota, who had graduated from UAF in 1961. They were married on December 23, 1961. They had three children, Jyll born in 1962, Beth in 1965, and Rob in 1970. Stuart and Bob fished commercially at setnet sites near Kodiak and in southeast waters with their 45-foot boat, F/V Stjilbe and also gillnetted for thirteen years westward. Not yet retired, Bob still longlines, crabs and gillnets. They live in Douglas.
Stuart and Bob’s children attended and graduated from the Juneau-Douglas schools. Jyll worked for many years for the Department of Highways. She died in 1998. Beth attended the University of Washington, then gillnetted for several years from her boat Seven C’s and later became an EMT for the Juneau Fire Department, the first female lieutenant. She is married to Greg Weldon and they have a son Cody. Son Rob fishes commercially on his boat and with his dad.
The third Fraser daughter, Mae married Douglas Gray, son of Felix and Jetta Gray of Douglas. Doug graduated from Annapolis in 1931. He served in the Navy from 1942 to 1947, at which time his family resided in Yakima, Washington. After returning to Juneau, Doug and his brother Gordon were the proprietors of a hotel at Third and Main. Built in 1913, as the New Cain, it was renamed the Zynda in the 30’s, after the builder. The Gray family later named it Hotel Juneau.
Doug served as a delegate to the Constitutional convention in 1955-1956, and was a member of the Alaska House of Representatives from 1957 to 1961. He was appointed manager of the district office of the Bureau of Land Management in 1965. May and Doug were the parents of three children, David, Alan and Cathleen. David is married to Kristin Kennedy, daughter of Ken and Betsy Kennedy of Douglas. Dave and Kris now reside at the Gray cabin on Lena Beach. They have a son and two daughters. Alan is now married to Kay Dilg, daughter of Howard and Belle Dilg. They live in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Cathy Gray Bevins is married and lives in Kentucky. She has two daughters and a son.
The youngest sister, Jessie Fraser married Ted Mack whom she met when he came to Juneau from Kirkland to work for the First National Bank of Juneau. They have a son Donald and a daughter Bobbie Jess, and all live in the Kirkland-Seattle area.