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A Rich Vein of History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the hundredth anniversary of its gold rush, Alaska has struck gold once more--this time thanks to a Los Angeles couple.

Caryl and Jack Krug today will donate a treasure trove of rare documents, photographs and Eskimo art collected during the gold rush era to the Alaska State Museum and State Library.

The collection will be accompanied by a heavily researched, 200-page book that traces the unlikely story of how Caryl Krug’s parents came to own the artifacts and offers an unusual take on the famed gold rush.

The book, “One Dog Short,” is being hailed for its depiction of the development of the frontier town of Nome from the viewpoint of educated entrepreneurs instead of the more familiar tale of strike-it-rich prospectors, Wild West saloons and prostitutes.

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Alaskan officials led by Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer plan to accept the donation this morning in ceremonies scheduled in the capital city of Juneau.

The collection “sheds more light on what life was like during this important period of Alaska’s history,” Ulmer said. “The collection is also compelling because the family’s personal story is contained in the Krugs’ book.”

The Krugs, of Rolling Hills Estates, said they decided to donate the accumulation after waving off offers by several well-known auction houses eager to sell the artwork.

The art includes intricately carved walrus, mammoth and mastodon tusks and what experts describe as the world’s largest collection of Eskimo billikens--fanciful ivory good-luck figures.

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“We decided we wanted to return them to Alaska. Our son and daughter agreed,” said Caryl Krug, whose parents, William and Neeta Sale, collected the items in the Nome area between 1900 and 1912. “That’s where these belong.”

William Sale was a businessman who traveled to Alaska to manage a gold mine being operated by his brother. His wife was a concert violinist who met and married him after being marooned there by approaching winter storms during a sailing trip to Alaska.

William Sale went on to become the United States government’s deputy recorder in Nome. His young bride became one of the most popular entertainers in the thriving mining town, performing at balls and concerts for a surprisingly refined and appreciative frontier audience.

The Krugs’ research--which drew not only from Sale’s personal records but from a 10-year study of microfilmed Alaskan records and newspapers--suggests that Nome’s 12,488 turn-of-the-century residents were more social and enlightened than many people think. The town’s present-day population is 4,021.

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“They played basketball, built toboggan runs, raced ice boats and had elaborate parties,” said Jack Krug, an 82-year-old retired oil company manager.

And they had social graces. “I found formal letters written by my father to my mother before they married, asking her to do things like go sleigh-riding with him,” added Caryl Krug, 71.

The Sales purchased Eskimo art directly from the artists, including Alaska’s most acclaimed native craftsman, Happy Jack Angokwzhuk. They also collected handmade buttons and jewelry, and cribbage boards fashioned from walrus and mastodon tusks, along with scale models of sleds, sailing ships, wolves and seals, and Bering Strait-type kayaks carved from the same ivory.

They proudly displayed their art at home after moving to Seattle, where Caryl was born, and then settling in Los Angeles, where William Sale ran a party supply company before his death in 1955.

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Caryl Krug remembers taking the artifacts for granted as a child.

She casually toted pieces of Eskimo ivory worth thousands of dollars to school for show and tell. And she and her brothers and sister routinely gave girlfriends and boyfriends ivory billiken figures as gifts.

“We’d roll our eyes when our parents’ friends from the L.A. Sourdough Club [a social organization whose members had spent at least one winter in Alaska] came and everybody would be reminiscing about the old days. We’d say, ‘Oh no, not Alaska talk again.’ ”

Oddly enough, no one in the family returned to Alaska until a year after Neeta Sale’s death in 1977 at age 91. The Krugs decided to begin their research project after spotting a photograph of William Sale in a history book displayed at an Alaskan gift shop.

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After writing “One Dog Short"--the title refers to William Sale’s 1900 sled trip from Dawson City to Nome, which he had to make with three dogs when he couldn’t find a fourth--the artifacts took on new meaning for the Krugs.

“It was traumatic” to pack up the 400 carvings and other objects and more than 1,200 family photographs and documents for shipment to Alaska, Caryl Krug acknowledged before leaving Thursday for Juneau.

Alaskan officials were stunned by the Krugs’ artwork donation, whose estimated value is more than $500,000, and by the accompanying documentation--which they say is priceless.

Alaska State Museum curator Bruce Kato said copies of the Krugs’ book, published by the Alaska Department of Education, will be sent to universities and libraries across the state and sold by a Friends of the Library group.

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The book’s explanation of frontier life and of how the artifacts were collected makes the Krugs’ donation “one of the most significant” collections in Alaska, according to Kato.

Call it one last nugget from Alaska’s gold rush.


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