Parks and Recreation Image

Juneau-Douglas City Museum

Meherin, J.J. (Joe)

by Mary (Merrill) Whitaker

In November of 1910, Alaska had the good fortune of welcoming John Joseph Meherin as its newest resident. Uncle Joe was born in San Francisco, one of 10 children of Denis Meherin and Margaret Ellen Hart Meherin. Denis Meherin was born in County Galway, Ireland; Maggie was the daughter of Irish immigrants. The family had survived the Great Quake of 1906, living for a time in Golden Gate Park.

Joe’s older sister, Anne Meherin, who later became the mother of Mary (Merrill) Whitaker and Ralph, Jr., married Ralph Dodge Merrill in Salinas, in November of 1910. Joe attended the wedding and shortly, thereafter, left to start a new life in Alaska. He was a salesman, representing at least forty products, the largest of which were Folger’s coffee, Hunt Brothers canned goods and Imperial Candies. (He always said he was proud to have introduced Folger’s to Alaska.) He traveled all over the territory by dog sled, resupplying miners and trappers. Family legend has it that he never went anywhere without checking the weather first with the Native Indians. The stories that follow appear in clippings from the local newspapers that have been kept in family scrapbooks but unfortunately no one thought to note the dates.

According to an Associated Press dispatch, Joe Meherin was the first man to penetrate beyond the Arctic Circle on a commercial airplane flight. He flew out of Fairbanks with Noel Wien as pilot and arrived in Fort Yukon 2 hours and 15 minutes later. As usual he carried a cargo of general merchandise samples. At that time, the trip to Fort Yukon ordinarily took two weeks by river boat. Noel Wien was reported lost in an Arctic storm shortly after this trip with my uncle.

He bowled, not very well, for the Juneau Elks and made the local paper when “‘Handsome’ Joe rolled 219, thereby annexing the gold bowling fob for a few days.” A little while after that triumph he lost the fob to Jay Bell, who rolled 253, and it was reported there was much moaning and gnashing of teeth in the office of the Admiral Line, where Joe hung out.

According to the newspaper clippings, “O. L. Coward and J. J. Meherin returned yesterday from Sitka Hot Springs where for several days they have been searching the sands for one of Captain Kidd’s gold caches.” Meherin tells a story on Coward which takes the prize. Coward saw a goat. He grabbed a gun, crawled 75 yards, aimed carefully and shot. Then he put four more bullets into the kicking animal. When he arrived the goat was tied. It was later discovered the animal was a pet owned by Mrs. Goddard, wife of the proprietor of the Springs. Its tragic death was universally mourned.”

A newspaper report early in 1915, reported that J. J. Meherin, “commercial ambassador for the J. A. Folger Spice house” had just returned from a trade conference in San Francisco. He is quoted as saying, “The year 1914 showed a tremendous increase in the volume of business done by our house. . .The exposition year is expected to be the greatest the entire Pacific coast has ever experienced, from every standpoint.” But war was breaking out in Europe and Joe enlisted in the Army and served his country for the duration of the First World War.

After the war he returned to Alaska to resume his career. He married Stella (“Becky”) Beckstrom on Christmas Day, 1931. Becky had a career of her own with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Joe Meherin’s business flourished under his energetic leadership. He became a civic leader in Juneau and built the Baranof Hotel in 1939. In his later years, he was a wealthy man and was always generous with his family, especially towards his sister Anne after her divorce. He and Becky retired to Seattle where they lived happily until Joe’s death in 1964.