Ruth Sandvik: Interview Outline: Section 17
Photo of Nellie Coffin
Tape Reference Number: H2002-09-11
Ruth Blankenship-Sandvik talks with Bill Schneider and Eileen Devinney
in Kiana, Alaska on February 28, 2002.
Ruth Sandvik: Tommy
and I used to accompany our parents seining. I don't think either one of
us was very enthusiastic about it. I remember coming home all wet.
Eileen Devinney: That's
a lot of work.
Ruth Sandvik: Oh,
this was an interesting woman. Nellie -- Nellie Coffin. She lived in the
house right next to us down
there. I named my third daughter after her. She went to school maybe three
months one summer when someone passed through the village of Kobuk. And
when she developed -- when she -- when her health gave way, when she was
in her 60s and 70s, she'd sit there and read Life Magazine and those magazines
and tell me -- one day I went over, I -- I would fix a plate for her to
take -- take over frequently. And -- and one day I went over and she told
me about President Eisenhower's favorite meal. I know she was intelligent.
Nellie Coffin Baldwin
[Photo courtesy of Tommie Sheldon Jr.]
And she said -- she -- she figured her age,
because she was 12 years old, she figured that was the age of when you
began your period. And she -- her family was camped at -- at Salmon River.
And she said that 1898 summer and fall, the -- the would-be miners came
up in their skiffs and their boats and their this and their that and their
-- she said she memorized this word, "how far Pah River?" In other words,
they had heard there was gold up in Pah River, and so all summer long, "how
far Pah River?"
She was married to an Eskimo man, Coffin, but
-- and she -- they -- she always worked hard. She was very good with a
needle. She did very, very good sewing. She had a large -- she was unique.
She had a birthmark between her eyes up here. It didn't distract from her.
I never -- I just -- I just kind of -- you never even thought of it. I
always thought she had an interesting looking face.
Anyway, she decided, well, when she was up there,
they would -- she and her husband would often take fish, fresh fish up
to the people who were mining in back of Kobuk. But she grew weary of her
husband and she told me she took her sewing machine and a bag and there
was a -- a boat that they called a Steam-a-Launch down at the beach owned
by an Eskimo. The Eskimos just inherited some of the boats that the miners
left and they operated them.
So she came down to Kiana where she was -- she
was more from this area, the Salmon River area than she was from the Kobuk.
And she -- I don't know how -- who built her her house, but when we moved
over here, she had a very clean -- a clean house with an added bedroom.
She -- her common law husband was Tommy -- Tom
Baldwin. She had two children by -- by him. And she lived -- she -- there
wasn't anything she couldn't do. She was just very -- a very interesting
woman. And intelligent. Even when her hands were so -- so crippled from
arthritis, she had enough sense to know that she had to keep moving them,
and she made quilts, by hand, just to keep moving. And she -- I recall
just from sewing for the various Caucasians who came by, or even some of
the miners, I recall that she had saved $2,000. And this would have been
in 19 -- 1954 about. She called me over one time and asked me to deposit,
to deposit the $2,000 into the bank in Fairbanks, which I did. First National
Bank of Fairbanks. But how anyone could have been able to save that much
from sew -- from sewing. And then she had the -- the teenage boys, she
had them getting wood and selling wood, and there was not too much cash
at that time.
But she was one of the most interesting. She
has a daughter who lives in Fairbanks. I don't know whether you would like
to contact her. Edith Cummings is her name. Her boy, the teenage boy went
into the Army. And later died out there. I mean, after he got out of the
Army. So she had a lot of heartbreaks, but she always was always optimistic,
but very capable.
She also saw some -- I also saw something there
I never saw before. She could -- what -- she could juggle. She could juggle.
And I had never seen anyone do it this way, this way, I mean. And it's
not something she practiced. I mean, someone gave her two rocks one time
and she was old, elderly at that time, and she could -- she could do it.
She did the other two that were -- that's common, but this is something
she learned as a child, camped up at -- camping up at Coal Mine. But years
later she could pick up two rocks and do it without prac -- without practicing.