Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about a collection of Alaska memorabilia. Last week’s story discussed the collection’s recent re-emergence. This week’s story reveals how the collection came to be and its probable fate.
When Anchorage resident Virgil O. Dahler handprinted his name above the thin horizontal line in the center of his white Fur Rendezvous badge in February 1941, he could hardly have imagined the commotion that badge would cause nearly 70 years later.
The badge — a metal disk with a sharp pin affixed to its back so that it could be attached to a Rondy-goer’s winter coat — served then as a season ticket to all the Rondy events occurring between Feb. 18 and 22.
That season ticket is now referred to as a collector’s pin, and the 1941 pin is one of the rarest distributed in Fur Rondy history.
Dahler, who was only 22 years old in 1941, may have enjoyed the Rondy festivities that season, but he likely had little time to dwell on the significance of a celebration that was then in only its fifth year. Since arriving in Alaska in 1939 — coincidentally the first year Rondy pins were issued — Dahler had been working on the Alaska Railroad and helping build Elmendorf Air Force Base. With boyhood buddy, “Big Jim” Bergsrud, he had ventured north just for the summer, but the two stayed on long after snow flew.
In fact, the only thing that caused them to leave Alaska was the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Shortly after the United States declared war on the Empire of Japan, Dahler and Bergsrud enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Richardson. Dahler served in the Battle of Iwo Jima and in the Aleutians at Attu, and after his discharge in 1946, he and Bergsrud returned to Alaska and decided to homestead on the Kenai Peninsula.
They claimed adjacent properties down a road that would eventually bear a combination of their names — Jim Dahler Road at Mile 89.5 of the Sterling Highway. Dahler spent that first winter in a tent and melted snow for his water. Before the highway was completed, he and Bergsrud had to walk 16 miles each way to Kenai to buy groceries.
Eventually, Bergsrud plied his carpentry trade, and Dahler operated a bulldozer on projects as diverse as Anchorage International Airport, the Seward Highway through Turnagain Pass, and the Wildwood military station.
Bergsrud died in 1972, and Dahler lived until Sept. 19, 2001, when his yellow, 1979 Mercedes 300 was hit by a white 1989 Ford LTD Crown Victoria that crossed the center line and struck him head on. The accident occurred just before noon at Mile 90.7 of the Sterling Highway, 1.2 miles from Dahler’s road.
At about Mile 89, on the same side of the highway, was a driveway leading at that time to the home of Jean and Clayton Brockel, whose original homesite abutted Dahler’s homestead, and who had known Dahler for decades.
“He was our Norwegian bachelor neighbor,” said Jean Brockel.
The Brockels’ only son, John, had also been a good friend of the old homesteader. He had enjoyed visiting with him and helping him around his place. John also had a collection of Fur Rendezvous pins, and after Dahler’s death he bought the 1941 pin from Dahler’s estate.
Through all of Dahler’s years and many activities, he had saved that pin and kept it in remarkable condition.
“Virgil collected everything,” Jean said. “He seemed to have at least two of everything in the world, which I think is partly from being a homesteader. You never know when one is going to break down, so you have to have another one for a backup. When things are not handy, right around the corner at the store, you tend to do that.”
John Brockel, who died three years ago from congenital heart disease, certainly knew that the 1941 pin was special. It became the oldest pin in his collection by more than 20 years. John likely also understood that the 1941 Fur Rondy pin was only the third such item made, although the Rondy itself had begun in 1935.
In John’s startlingly well-preserved Fur Rondy collection, most of the other items — 33 collector’s pins, 13 booster buttons and one commemorative coin — had been purchased and saved by Harold and Inez Loftis, who had begun the collection after moving to Anchorage in the early 1960s.
Inez, who was the sister of John’s father, Clayton, had worked initially as a secretary for a colonel at
Elmendorf, and she later stayed home after Harold was hired to work for Union Oil. Eventually, Harold’s job brought them to Kenai, but they continued collecting Fur Rondy pins throughout the 1960s and into the early 1980s.
“The fact that they were kept in very good condition was typical of Aunt Inez and Uncle Harold,” said Jean. “They were the kind of people who took care of things. If they were going to have a collection, they weren’t going to let it get ratty or dusty or anything like that.”
With no children of their own, they were especially fond of John, whom Jean termed “their very favorite Alaska nephew.”
Harold died in December 1982, followed by Inez in March 1999, and on May 16, 1999, John purchased the pin collection from the Loftis estate. To the collection, he added a collector’s pin and a special commemorative pin from 2000, and booster buttons from 2000 and 2004. It is unclear whether he added any of the late-1980s pins that were issued after Harold’s death.
According to Jean, John had planned to place the pins in a special display case he hoped to build one day.
“He was thinking of making like a coffee table, and having a glass top on it, and then the pins would be displayed in there so he’d be able to enjoy them on a daily basis,” she said.
But the display table never got built, and the pins, after John’s death, were relegated to a cardboard shipping box in his parents’ home.
Last summer, Clayton and Jean decided to put the collection to good use.
“We knew that it had to be worth a certain amount of money,” Jean said. “We also knew that neither Clayton nor I were going to pursue it in any way. There it would be. And after we were both dead, what if somebody just looks at it and throws it out? We made a list of organizations, and thought, ‘Maybe one of these organizations would be interested in taking this and translating it into money.’”
On the list was the Kenai Watershed Forum, a nonprofit organization to which the Brockels had donated for many years. Watershed Forum officials were interested in the donation and promised to do all the grunt work.
Working with officials at Fur Rondy Headquarters in Anchorage, Josselyn O’Connor, the Watershed Forum’s development director, determined that the collection could be worth $20,000 — especially given that the 1941 pin alone was valued by Rondy “pin guru” Charlotte Jensen at $10,000, and, more recently, by a collector at $13,000.
Jensen, who was an expert on collector pins and had been involved in Fur Rondy merchandising since 1989, had been especially keen to see the 1941 pin, an item she had previously viewed only in photographs. Unfortunately, she was in ill health and passed away only three days before O’Connor delivered the collection to Fur Rondy Headquarters on Dec. 13.
“I wish we had been able to connect a little sooner and get that collection to her,” said Fur Rondy
Executive Director Susan Duck. “But you know what? I guarantee that she’s seen it from where she is now. I’m positive.”
As O’Connor imagined that Jensen would have been, Duck and the other Fur Rondy officials were astonished by the splendid condition of the collection. O’Connor laughed as she recalled how they had been so eager for her to open the box and show them all the pins.
“They couldn’t wait,” she said. “They’re sitting there, and I’m telling them about the Brockels and the pins and the estate and the support of the Watershed Forum, and all the time they’re waiting. Then we got to the pins. I just opened up the box and started pulling random pins out, whatever was on top. Every pin that came out, they just got more and more excited about it. Before you knew it, the entire table was full of pins, and they’re looking at them and passing them around. And the ’41 pin — when that came out, it was” — O’Connor made a gasping sound to illustrate their surprise.
The Watershed Forum and Fur Rondy officials have determined that the best means to divest themselves of the collection and fulfill the Brockels’ wishes for a donation is to offer the collection via consignment, with Fur Rondy, as the seller, taking a cut of the proceeds. The donation will be made “in memory of John C. Brockel, and Harold and Inez Loftis.”
There is still hope among these officials, however, for a sort of “dream scenario,” in which a corporate sponsor purchases the collection for the Fur Rondy, meaning that the entire collection can stay with the organization, while the full purchase amount is then passed on to the Brockels so that they can make the donation to the Kenai Watershed Forum.