by Jrene (Olsen) Cashen
My grandmother, Hannah Hatlin Pileberg, arrived in Alaska, in the year 1924. She migrated as a widow with her family from Norway. Life was hard for her with her five youngsters. From what my mother, Kirsten Orbin, has told me, Grandma had made a very good marriage. Her husband, Isaak Pileberg, was at the time, the youngest man ever to be elected to the Norwegian parliament. He was ambitious and very successful. Besides being involved in public office, he was an astute businessman. He owned several apartment houses and fishing boats. He had been inspecting one of his boats when he was injured and ended up with blood poisoning. This was the cause of his death. Hannah’s life from then on became very difficult. She ended up losing most of Isaak’s investments to the lawyers. The livelihood of her family was her complete responsibility.
She followed several of her brothers to Petersburg, Alaska, to begin a new life in the new country. She brought several of the children with her, and the others followed as she could afford to send for them. She always worked; as a midwife and a cook at a cannery, and when her family was grown, she moved to Juneau and worked as a cook for the Perseverance Mine. In 1935, when we moved to town, she was the cook at the Bergman Hotel. Juneau was a mining town then and I remember that mostly miners lived at the hotel. It was a treat for me, at seven years old, to help her set up the tables in the big dining area.
When she left the Bergman Hotel, it was to start Hannah’s Boarding House. It was first located at Third and Main Street, where the drive-in for Behrends Bank is located now. She moved to Third and Gold Street and bought a big older home and it became the new Hannah’s Boarding House. From the old folklore of Juneau, we learned that during prohibition, it had been a speak easy.
Years later when Grandma retired, Frank and I bought her place. It had five bedrooms and we had five children. At the time it was the only house we looked at that seemed large enough for us. When we first moved in she had a huge table in the front room that she had built for her boarder’s meals. It was too big to move out so we had to break it down to get it out. We had three more children. If we had known how big our family was going to be, we would have kept it!
Grandma had four daughters, Sigvarda, Marie, Kirsten and Nelly, and one son, Per. She was married again when I was in college, to Charlie Dinsdale. When he died, she retired from the hard work of running the boardinghouse. My mother, Kirsten, is now the only surviving member of her family.
One recent Mother’s Day, Amy Lou Barney and her daughter, Renee Guerin were doing a segment of the “Our Town” radio program. They asked four generations of the women in our family to participate. Kirsten Orbin; her oldest daughter, Irene Cashen; her oldest daughter, Kirsten Waid; and her daughter Eldri Waid, took part in that program. My mother consented with the words, “Okay, if I don’t have to talk.” I said, “Mother, it’s RADIO, where you have to talk.” She wasn’t too enthusiastic, but we sat around a table and Amy Lou and Renee asked friendly questions. My mother relaxed and was the star.
When she was asked if she came to this country through Ellis Island, she said “No” and proceeded to tell us that she (16 years old), and Marie (18 years old) came across Canada by train to Prince Rupert. Then proceeded by boat to Alaska. The boat had mechanical problems and they went to Hydaburg, the first American port. That is where she and her sister went through Customs. They were the first to go through the procedure there. She said it was quite an occasion.
My mother led a colorful, eventful life. She had three children. Ray Olsen, Irene Olsen (Cashen) and Sandra Shirk (Robinson). She was a good business woman. In the course of her business life she operated beauty shops, starting at first in her own home and then branching out of the home with always better shops. She operated the Orpheum Rooms. It was a rooming house that was located across from Merchant’s Wharfwhere the Sealaska Building is located now. From there, she and her new husband, Lyle Orbin, started the Douglas Washeteria on the waterfront in Douglas.
Mother is 93 years old now and is living at the Pioneer’s Home in Juneau. She no longer remembers much about the past. She lives entirely in the present. She loves a good story. Laughs at all the right times. We remind her about her past accomplishments. She asks if we have any children. When she heard the answer, “We have eight children,” she looked stunned, and responded, “Oofdah!”
On August 21, 2001, Frank and I will have been married 53 years. Our children are Kirsten, Philip, Rebecca, Daniel, Nicholas, Robert, Raymond and Joseph. Two of our sons are fishermen. Phil died in 1996. He fished out of Elfin Cove. Rob fishes out of Petersburg. The other sons, Dan, Nick, Ray and Joe work for the state. Our daughter Kirsten is now working in the Senate Secretary’s Office. Rebecca is living in Edmonds and works for Snohomish County. We have 15 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren.
Recently, we watched a TV rerun of a 1976 House of Representatives session. It was the first time a session of the Legislature had been televised for “Gavel to Gavel.” I was in it because I was the Chief Clerk of the House. It was fascinating because it showed passage of the Permanent Fund legislation. Twenty-five years ago and everybody was so YOUNG. I started to work for the Legislature when I was 20 years old and Alaska was still a Territory. The Legislature met every other year for 60 days. (Sometimes they had special sessions.) It was a way to earn a little extra money and still not have to work all year long. I retired from the Legislature in 1990. Frank retired from working for the state in 1976. By then we had purchased the old Crass Apartments next door and he was operating it as a small hotel and called it Cashen Quarters. We sold the two places to our son Dan and his wife Cindy. They operated it as a bed and breakfast for ten years and just sold it this year. So, our old place went from being a speakeasy, to a boardinghouse, to a small hotel, and then to a B&B. Part of the history of Juneau, too.
My sister Sandra and her husband Leonard Robinson also settled in Juneau. Robbie died in 1994. Their son and three daughters all live here too.
Ray and Alice Olsen and their family of six settled in Seattle, Washington. All of the family have been involved in the Alaska fishing industry.
Ray and I have a sister Karen Haltiner, living in Petersburg, the daughter of our father, Chris Olsen. Karen has three sons.