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Mary Lou Spartz
Mary Lou Spartz
Mary Lou Spartz talks about coming to Juneau, Alaska as a child, Thanksgiving gatherings in Juneau, and learning about the berries in Alaska.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2010-06

Project: Juneau Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Nov 17, 1995
Narrator(s): Mary Lou Spartz
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
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Coming to Juneau

Thanksgiving in Juneau

Learning about Alaskan berries

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MARY LOU SPARTZ: Well it's a pleasure to be here this afternoon and, I hope everyone is having as good a time as I am.

And it's lovely to see so many familiar faces and, and to see some faces that I am not acquainted with.

As I, I'm not tentative. I, I know I'm on the schedule for being tentative, but I'm here.

And I thought would talk a little bit about Thanksgiving. I came to Alaska as a hostage. I did not come of my own free will.

My mother had, had been widowed and, we were living in Oregon and she had been widowed and, we were living in a town called Woodburn.

And I was about seven years old and we were living there with my aunt who owned a restaurant and, the two sisters and I lived together and we had quite a cozy little life there.

I was, given, a lot of freedom and, enjoyed the good life of hamburgers and french fries at my aunt's restaurant, which is a great boon to a child. I especially liked the large restaurant dill pickles.

I don't know if any of you have every experienced that, it's quite a gourmet treat for a child.

And, so when my mother came to me one day in, in, in the, 1941 in actually in, let's see here yes 1941 in, in the winter,

and said that she'd met this fellow who was from Alaska and that they were thinking about getting married, and I too had met him.

But my mother was a very beautiful woman and there were men dropping out of the woodwork, you know out of trees to court her and they would come by her shop, she owned a little shop there, a little dress shop.

And they were almost always salesmen and they would come in and they had very flabby hands, you know and they'd always, always kind of pat me here.

And they would always bring me I don' t know whether, whether they got together and decided this or what, but they would bring me chocolate covered cherries, which was a treat I did not enjoy.

And I had a backlog of chocolate covered cherries.

But they had what I called flabby hands and I was just never very impressed by a man with flabby hands.

And so I, she said she'd met this fellow, he was a very nice man and I had met him too and what did I think of him?

And we talked and she said he'd, he'd suggested they get married and she liked him and he lived in Alaska and she was going to go to Alaska.

What did I think of that? And I thought very little of it.

I said she could go if she wanted to, but I was going to stay where I was.

And she I would live with my aunt, I had it all planned. My aunt and I got along.

She wanted to go to Alaska, her business, I was 10 years old I was old enough to take care of myself.

Well I wasn't quite 10 then but close enough.

She said oh well you know these things come up in life and perhaps we should go to Alaska.

There would be a train ride, there would be new clothes in Seattle, there would be a hotel which I had never stayed in.

There would be a boat ride on a ship out of Vancouver and the, if for no other reason I might just want to go along for the ride just to see what the country was like, and if I, if we didn't like it when we got here we didn't have to stay.

Well you know that was a very good bribe, I got to thinking about it, and I had, I thought time for a change.

Living in the Willamette Valley was not that romantic or exciting.

Our biggest event that happened around there was when the hops grew in the fall, you know, and the canning industry took over the prominent parts of the conversation.

So we, she married in March of that year and, we trundled on up here to Alaska and true enough we rode the train. We ate food on the train.

We went to Seattle, we stayed in a hotel, excuse me, a hotel there and enjoyed peppermint ice cream something of a treat I had never experienced before.

And then we went on to Vancouver where the people spoke a very strange brand of English and had funny money and just were, were, were close but not the same.

And we trundled out of, the harbor there on the Princess Nora and came to Alaska.

Well, of course, she was dealing with, transporting of, of fairly undisciplined youngster who'd been pretty much left on her own for a several years.

Not that that I wasn't, that I wasn't within, arms reach of some adult because living in a small town in Oregon you always are but, on the other hand I'd been given a lot of freedom.

So she, she came, we came and here of course we were putting a little family together.

We were all trying to get juggled around for position, who's going to do what. This was, this was the way we were going to it, and that was the way we were going to do it.

And, we came to our first Thanksgiving, of course, and we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner by a charming couple named Frank Metcalf and his wife.

Frank Metcalf was the city engineer and a delightful couple and friends of my dad's at that point.

And, we went up to their house and my mother was not feeling well and she was just, just kind of sick.

And, it was a nice dinner they had gone to a lot of work and my mother sort of spent the day on the couch kind of looking out the window and it was not like her.

She was a lovely lively woman, always presented herself very well socially.

And this was just, we just all thought mom was sure being a drip, you know, today. Well the next day we discovered she had the measles.

She had come down with a case of the measles over Thanksgiving.

We went on to have many Thanksgivings together and as we do today, as you do today, we created a family because we didn't have family here, you know, blood family.

So we had friends and we had what my mother referred to as "the gang" which consisted of a number of families the Kytons (phonetic), the Forest family, Jean and Lynn Forest and Tony and Ed Kyton.

These are names that you may or may not recognize going back quite a ways.

And of course, the Park family, Tom and his wife were, were part of the group. We had, always added to the group.

The table was long and big we had two ping-pong tables that we'd put up and we went to the home of the Kyton's and that that's you'll know that the house.

It's the house that's falling down out there on Norway Point as you go around it. It's on the Madison property.

It's the house that's all in disarray. When I go by there I think, "oh you poor sad house, why don't you just fall down and be done with it."

But like everything else it's just going to hang in there until the last minute.

We would go there to that house and set up the ping-pong tables. And the table was always spread with good linen and good china.

And everybody brought something to add. And of course, it was a potluck, like we do in Alaska.

Everybody brought something of course, it took, the turkeys were cooked and we would sit around and we'd all get dressed up for Thanksgiving dinner.

That's kind of unusual these days because everybody wears their underwear any more but, you know we all wear sweat suits and we're very informal.

But in those days men wore their ties and, the even the boys would get into a white shirt with a tie and a sweater.

And we would have our dinner together and it was always a, a big event.

Of course like any group there were those that were better cooks than others.

There were those who were on time. There were those who always delayed the serving of the Thanksgiving dinner.

There were those who brought their children who were, not well behaved and there were those brought their children who were just angels.

And then afterwards we would, of course go ice skating.

Which meant changing clothes and getting into someone's pick up truck or usually it was a truck arrangement, some kind of a pick up or a large vehicle like that.

And we would go to wherever the ice was, and there was always ice by Thanksgiving Day and we would go out and skate around for a while and work off that Thanksgiving dinner.

We all had our favorites a lot of, a lot of the fashion at that time were gelatin desserts. I remember lots of gelatins.

It's this year my daughter said to me, "Mom are you going to make grandma's gelatin salad?" And I thought, "Oh, again?"

Well, one of the things that we, when we first came here my, my mother and I were fascinated by the many berries and one of the berries that we enjoyed.

All these berries its just wild throughout woods and we were of course form the Willamette Valley where berries are very important.

And we, we took a shine to the highbush cranberry which is really not a cranberry at all, but that's what it's called.

Does everybody here know what it looks like, familiar with it?

It grows tall, it grows up on a big bush and it's easy to reach so it's a lot easier to pick than the little lingonberries or the little, little, berries that grow along the ground.

We were very interested in those berries and, and my mother and I went out and picked a big bucket.

We thought, "This is going to be great jelly, great jam, whatever we wanted."

And we processed these berries and you know, they have a huge seed in them, great large seed.

And we went through all the process of getting everything ready.

And then we, we were living in an apartment, in the Coliseum apartments, which is since gone the way the things go.

It was on South Franklin Street there about where Lucky Lady is now, in that area.

And these apartments were, were, had a long corridor, interior corridor with very poor ventilation.

There were, there were smells from people's meals that had been in there for weeks, you know, somebody had pork roast, oh that was Friday's meal.

Somebody had fish, that was Saturday's meal.

So we had all these smells in the hallway, they just there was no place to go so they just hung.

We started to cook the highbush cranberry. Now the highbush cranberry has a very pungent scent.

It smells like a cross between a faint sewer smell and gasoline.

We cooked that, we cooked that and the more we cooked it the stronger it got, the stronger it got.

So pretty soon we, we didn't know what to do with these berries. We thought that maybe that, by this time we'd become away that these were not the same kind of berries that we were used to.

And, so mom and I went out in the hallway trying to figure out a way to escape with our big bucket of cranberry juice.

And by this time all of the neighbors down the hallway were standing out there and they were, the smell was just ferocious.

And they were, they were all looking around like "Who is cooking those highbush cranberries? What damn cheechako is doing that?"

And so we stood outside our door in this dimly lit passageway and this lady came over to us and said, "Some fool is cooking those highbush cranberries."

And my mother said, "Oh, yeah, I noticed that."

Well, things cooled down a while and then we were able to sneak our batch out the back door and into safe disposal area, which was what we had to do, of course, with that.

And then we learned how, you know you either cook them outdoors, or you cook them in the privacy of your own home, or you find someplace that is secluded enough so that you do not annoy the neighbors.

That was our highbush cranberry story.

But I'll never forget my mom standing there in the hallway commiserating with all the neighbors on this fool who had done that.

Very clever woman, my mother. And as a matter of fact for those of you who may know her, she is still alive 96 as of last month, living in California.

How is she doing? Well, for 96 she is doing ok, she's doing ok, she's doing all right.

I'm going down to see her and that will be, in a couple of weeks. So I'll bring her all your heartfelt greetings.

She'll be, she'll be very glad to know that people still gather in Juneau and still tell stories about Thanksgiving,

still celebrate Thanksgiving and still have those extended families that we, we talk about with all the affection of a, of, of a real family, sometimes more so.

I think that's all I have to say today. Thank you.

WALLY OLSON: Thank you.