Messerschmidt, George & Amey
by Roberta (Messerschmidt) Arnold-Spartz
Gustav Heinrich Messerschmidt, my paternal grandfather, traveled from Germany to New York, and then to San Francisco, in the 1890’s. He trained to become a baker under the tutelage of a family member in California. He came to Juneau in the ‘90’s where he worked in a bakery, then established the San Francisco Bakery and in 1914, built the Messerschmidt Building on Second Street (now the Silverbow). He sent to California for a young German woman, Gertrude Rosina Hermle, to work for him and they subsequently married in 1899. My father, George Gustav Messerschmidt (1901-1988), was the second of their nine children (two died in infancy). He and his brother Heinie (Henry Theodore) Messerschmidt (1904-1964) were destined to be part of the business and along with their sisters began their working lives in the bakery at an early age. My dad was still an owner when the bakery was sold in 1980. Gertrude died in 1926 and Gus in 1938.
My maternal grandfather, Forrest Reuben Bates, fulfilled his dream of coming to Alaska in 1927. His wife, Stella Belle (Gunning) Bates, and children Amey and Forrest followed the next year. The Bates family came from the White Salmon, WA area where they had a small ranch. In Juneau, my grandfather worked for the Alaska Juneau Gold Mine, was a gillnetter up the Taku River, fox farmer on Portland Island and homesteader. My grandmother was primarily a homemaker; she was also an occasional domestic worker.
Amey worked in the bakery in her late teen years and in 1930, she and George Messerschmidt were married. They had three children: Roberta (1932), George (1935) and Donald (1940). The family lived in three different houses on 12th Street from 1930 until 1959.
The 12th Street area was a tight little community in the 30’s and 40’s, at least for the extended Messerschmidt family. Aunt Katherine (Messerschmidt) and George (Uncle Red) Shaw and family lived across the street and the Porter family lived up the street. Aunt Rosina (Messerschmidt) and Uncle Jack Schmitz and family lived on 11th Street and my dad’s cousin John Hermle and family lived nearby. We had lots of playmates and cousins and we utilized our neighborhood. We played softball in the BPR lot (now church property), considered “The Hill” (bordering on Erwin Street and now with condominiums on it) our private playground. We roller skated from the top of Calhoun to the bottom of 12th on the sidewalk (and sometimes in the street!). That was a great long hill; in fact when 12th was paved in the 40’s it was closed for a few days to car traffic and open to kids on roller skates and bikes. We only had to promise NOT to skate in the street when it officially opened...
We sledded and skied in the cemetery. We lived near the 9th Street hill-the sledding hill at our end of town- which was closed to vehicular traffic in the winter. We were close to the Evergreen Bowl and played and went swimming there. We hung out at the Juneau Dairy at the foot of 12th Street (now school property) and the boat harbor. At the dairy, we could get ice cream cones for 5 cents a scoop and visit with the dairy herd in town for the winter from their out-the-road location. We played a lot of Hide-and-Seek, Blindman’s Bluff, Kickthe-Can and other street games on great spring and fall evenings.
Our early childhood was fun. George and I loved to go to the bakery with Dad, after hours and on the weekend. We could sneak into the raisins in the bin, play with the boxes in the loft, watch the slicing and wrapping machines at work, have a cookie or two and enjoy the wonderful smells! The smells changed a few times a year when Dad baked other folks’ holiday turkeys and hams in the old brick oven! Better yet, though, was to go with him when he delivered to homes, stores, fishing boats and the steamships. The ships were particularly exciting because we ate exotic foods and used finger bowls, and were surrounded by uniforms and unfamiliar formalities. At the City Café, Mama Tanaka always gave us a big ice cream cone as soon as we came through the door. On the Douglas delivery, George and I were sometimes dropped off at friends’ houses. At one we brought the doughnuts and the friends provided the homemade root beer and games. Mom took us beachcombing summer and winter, we did a lot of berry picking and a lot of fishing for trout and Dollies. We had a cabin sans running water or electricity and spent a lot of time swimming in the rain, walking the rocks, exploring the woods, rowing, fishing and racing up the trail to the car so we could listen to “The Lone Ranger” on the car radio. I caught my first salmon there when I was six-a 25 pound king.
When the Goldstein Building burned in the late 30’s, we were out of bed and on our way to town in a hurry, inasmuch as the bakery was directly across Second Street from the fire. All night long the bakery served as shelter for business owners and renters with their dogs, cats, and caged birds, while the bakery roof was constantly hosed. At sunrise, George and I were sent to our Grandmother Bates’ on Basin Road to be fed breakfast and for me to be readied for school (I was in first grade). The fire embers fell around us and the flames seemed to be above us for at least a block and we were two terrified, bawling kids!
The most memorable event of my childhood, however, was the advent of World War II and how it affected my family and life. I remember hearing about the Nazis and the European War, and helped in collecting clothing for refugees and later tinfoil and umbrella frames with the Girl Scouts. And I recall bits of conversation and activity toward the family that was suddenly and surprisingly unfriendly. It seemed that my dad and uncle were highly criticized for not serving in WWI or WWII. Simply, they were too young for the First World War and too old for the Second. Then there were rumors about our family holding “bund” meetings and having a sock of money under the bed and a German immigrant friend who had German money in his house. And I was being soundly teased enroute to school in the mornings by being “buzzed” by older kids, cousins, and others with, “Here comes Messerschmidt, eeeeeeyyowwwww!” as they pretended to be dive bombers. I lost interest in school, my studies suffered, I cried a lot, it took forever for me to don my snow pants at the end of the day, etc. My mother made a trip to see the teacher and successfully determined action that might make my life easier. I learned about the visit after I was grown.
And then came Pearl Harbor! December 7th was on a Sunday, and we were preparing to go to Auntie Rose’s for a family dinner. I was sitting on the hassock, listening to the radio when it seemed as if the phone rang, there was a knock at the door and a news bulletin on the radio, all at the same time. We quickly gathered at Schmitzes’ with Uncle Jack (who was a member of the Home guard). I remember riding with my dad, uncles and some of my older cousins out the highway to the radio tower installation at Lemon Creek, where we hoped to get the very latest update on the news. Everyone was scared.
We soon had ships and troops landing in Juneau to build and man a major large Army camp at Duck Creek, and to build a road network. Gun nests surrounded our fledgling airport (and there was even one on The Hill, which became “off limits”). We had air raid sirens, air raid wardens and practice air raids. My mother made black oilcloth blinds for every window- God help you if any light showed from your house! The older elementary school kids were assigned specific kindergartners and first graders for whom they were responsible and expected to see safely home during air raid practices. Sentry posts were established along Glacier Highway and personal cameras and binoculars became forbidden. More prostitutes were shipped in! A USO was established. Families were encouraged to invite servicemen to Sunday dinner; it seemed as if we always had a couple. Some of the G.I.’s worked part-time for local businesses. The bakery had the pleasure of Ritchie, from Indiana, apprenticing as a baker for a couple of years and developing a lifelong friendship.
My friend, Alice Tanaka, was sent with her family and the few Japanese families in Juneau to relocation camps in Idaho. I will never forget her leaving her Brownie box camera with another friend for safekeeping. Nor will I forget Alice, her mother and sister arriving by taxi at our house for a formal visit before leaving Juneau. Alice and I, playing with the doll house on the landing, made many excuses to go into the living room and see how our mothers were getting along. My mother spoke only English, her’s, Japanese with a very few English words thrown in. The whole experience was embarrassing to each of us for the other. Then came Dutch Harbor and the reports of the bombing and battles there. I recall being one of several horrified girls standing around a telephone pole on 12th Street receiving that news and the accompanying rumors.
We ate rancid butter during the war and tasted our first oleomargarine-Nucoa, I believe. Our cold-storage eggs were “riper” than usual, it seemed. There were a lot of things that were just unavailable to us, but we were not rationed as were the folks “down below.” The line seemed endless at Behrends Department Store when the first nylon stockings arrived. Tires were patched and re-patched. Juneau’s young men readily volunteered or were drafted. The bakery was terribly short-handed and my dad and uncle worked many long hours; they pulled a baking shift after the truck deliveries, or did a doughnut shift followed by a bread shift and then decorated cakes. Supplies were short and dry mixes and eggs substituted for the real thing. All the local businesses suffered. Mom threatened to permanently install a bed for Dad at the bakery.
In about 1942, my father became extremely ill; my mother carried him onto the Estebeth to send him to Tenakee Hot Springs. Then she drove the bakery truck. George and I were sent to our Grandmother Bates on Portland Island. A sitter was hired to care for my baby brother Don. And Mom developed some muscles and some very thick skin, trying to carry on an important part of the family business. Some of the customers, especially in the local bars were crude and obnoxious at a time when there was abject disapproval for women truck drivers.
In time, the war was over. Who of our generation can’t remember the invasions, where they were when they received the news of President Roosevelt’s death and the horrors of the atomic bombings?
But personally time was marching on. I entered high school in 1946, and my brother George two years later. We were active in band, chorus, student government, skiing and many other activities. We graduated and went on to college, marriage and our own families. George became an owner-manager of the bakery (the name had changed in the 40’s to the Purity Bakery) from 1959 until its sale in 1980. From then until his recent retirement, he was in the transportation business and now lives in Washington. He and his wife Dorothy (Robards) have 5 sons and 12 grandchildren.
My youngest brother, Don, graduated from J-D High School in 1958, and following college joined the Peace Corps, going to Nepal. Since graduate school, he and his wife Kareen (Bishoprick) and two children have spent the better part of forty years in Nepal where Don has been a teacher, and is a cultural/social anthropologist and writer. He has also lived in Vietnam, Pakistan and Bhutan.
In 1963 and 1964, I was living in Juneau with my second husband, Keith Arnold (1934-1980) and my five sons. It was a bitter cold November day and our furnace was non-functioning when I learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated. How sad to see the school buses bringing the children home before noon.
When the quake hit in 1964, I was making pudding when the news came. We were living on Douglas Island and were evacuated to Juneau for a night of expected tsunami activity. Keith, who was an information officer with the Department of Highways spent most of the night in the Governor’s office and then was dispatched to special duty to help assess and report on the devastation all over the state. We moved to Anchorage later in 1964, and I still reside there.
Following Keith’s 1980 death, I completed my BA degree in Anthropology and graduate school. During those years and since, I have thoroughly enjoyed being an archaeologist with the state and with Earthwatch in Wales and Ireland. I married Pat (George) Spartz in the 80’s and he is the father of five grown children. My youngest son died in 1999. Between us we have ten grandchildren and one great grandchild. Following Pat’s retirement in the 90’s from the State, University and private industry, we have enjoyed our cabins, traveling, fishing, plays, concerts, archaeology digs and especially grandchildren!
My father’s death in 1988 came at age 86. He has three surviving sisters: Frances Stephenson, Katherine Shaw and Rosina Staveland. They are in their late 80’s or 90’s. My mother Amey Messerschmidt (89) was a resident at Juneau Pioneers’ Home until her death on January 17, 2001.
Back row: Roberta and George; front row: Don, George and Amey Messerschmidt, ca. 1947.