Patt Garrett was 16 and pregnant when she followed her man to Alaska in 1963. She’d dropped out of high school, since “pregnant girls couldn’t go to school back then.” Pregnant girls could move north to Alaska, though, and she did. They stopped in Taos, New Mexico on the way to get married. That wedding (and eventual divorce) was the first of four for Patt. Now a 71-year-old grandmother living in a historic dry cabin in McCarthy, she was honored last week with a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Project Award.
In addition to naming artist Gertrude Svarny of Unalaska its 2017 Distinguished Artist ($40,000), the Rasmuson Foundation also awarded nine fellowships ($18,000 each) and 25 project awards ($7,500 each) to 34 artists. A fellowship is an unrestricted award for mid-career and mature artists to focus their energy and attention for a one-year period on developing their creative work. Project Awards, like Patt’s, are designed for emerging, mid-career, and mature artists for use on a specific, short-term project that has clear benefits to the artist’s growth and development. This year’s awardees include poets, choreographers, writers, multi-disciplinary artists, carvers, composers, folk and traditional artists, and performance artists, chosen from 450 applicants and representing 14 Alaskan communities.
Patt was at the Apple Store Genius Bar in the 5TH Avenue Mall this spring waiting for news from a computer tech when her cell phone rang. Incredulous tears welled right up when Jeff Baird told her she’d been selected to receive a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award to support her work of researching Kate Kennedy’s life and telling both their stories. Kate was a prominent business owner in boomtown McCarthy during the mining era and a woman who Patt relates with. Patt laughs, thinking about the Apple employee who thought it was the ailing laptop that had finally brought her to tears.
Though her decision to apply for a Rasmuson Foundation grant was prompted in large part by many years of research on Kate Kennedy’s life story, Patt has had quite a life herself, one that has paralleled Kate’s in many ways.
New to Alaska, Patt first found work in Anchorage as a Military Auxiliary Radio System split key operator on Government Hill, patching morale calls through for soldiers stationed in Southeast Asia. Vietnam was in full swing. Patt listened in, monitoring call clarity but also keeping an ear open for classified information. She listened as husbands called home and learned their wives were out with other men. She listened to awkward conversations and disclosures, absorbing the erosions of distance and time. “You could hear their lives being sucked away,” she said. “It was a horrible job. The Air Force gave us valium to handle the stress. It was ‘mother’s little yellow helper’ then. Everyone could get valium, and they recommended it to us.” She references Lily Tomlin’s famous TV character, Ernestine, the sassy telephone operator. “It was just like that,” she jokes.
Another pregnancy eventually prevented Patt from working the switchboard any longer, but in time, she found work cooking at Sparrevohn and Tatalina—remote, continental defense radar stations designed to provide early warnings of attacks on Alaska by the Soviet Union. She worked as an exotic dancer in pre-pipeline Spenard, too, and as a bull cook in placer gold mining camps. She also spent seven years at Valdez Terminal Camp, or “Val-disease,” as they called it. “So many people had the clap, or pneumonia.” It was rough and wild, but an incredible time, she said. “Women had a chance to get into the labor unions for the first time.”
She would be 40 and tending bar in Wasilla before she got her GED, finished college, grad school, and licensure, beginning a career in social work that would last almost 30 years. She worked at the old 6th Avenue jail, the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, and around the prison system. She did domestic violence work with Army personnel. She worked at the Anchorage Pioneer Home and the Alaska Native Medical Center, and spent the better part of seven years as a social worker in Barrow.
Now that she’s finally retired, she’s intent on completing a years-long writing project pairing her own life and that of a kindred spirit named Kate Kennedy, a controversial McCarthy business woman during the “Copper Bonanza”. Kate followed the gold camps north, ascending the Chilkoot Trail into the Klondike in 1898 (like Patt, she was sixteen and following her husband) before going to Nome and finally McCarthy. Her frontier marriage didn’t last, and she became a successful and respected business owner in McCarthy’s boom days of copper and gold.
I first met Patt in the Old Hardware Store in McCarthy, a historic building that serves as headquarters for the nonprofit Wrangell Mountains Center (WMC). That false fronted historic building looks a bit like something out of the old west, someplace where you might have encountered her name twin, Pat Garrett, the sheriff famous for killing Billy the Kid. Maybe there is a relation—Patt’s father was originally born in Alabama, same as the sheriff.
For years, Patt’s writing output mostly consisted of long letters to friends and family and SOAP notes for her patients, though she published a few pieces here and there along the way. Patt started coming to McCarthy back in 2001 for the week-long creative writing workshop organized by Nancy Cook through the WMC. Over the years, she worked with some fantastic writers—Frank Soos, Scott Russell Sanders, Kathleen Dean Moore, Robert Michael Pyle, Seth Kantner, Tom Kizzia, and the poet Sandra Alcosser, among others. The workshop was an excuse to come spend time in a place that drew her. It also wrung some good writing out of her, lots of memoir heavy on her childhood in mining country and her adult experiences at Alaska gold mines. She’s done a lot of work fleshing out the story of her own life on the page.
By the time I showed up at one of the annual Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop literary open mics in 2007, having rushed straight there from the airstrip after a backcountry trip, Patt had been coming to McCarthy for years. Those open mics only happen once per year and give the workshop participants and others around town a chance to mix. That first time I saw Patt read some of her writing, she shared an essay about dogs in Barrow that left the packed room speechless.
Patt was a spunky old soul and I was delighted to learn that we had childhoods and ongoing family ties in North Idaho in common. Although our childhoods were decades apart and quite different, the iconic Kennecott Mill Building up the road from McCarthy was a variation on an architectural theme familiar to us both from mining country back home. Patt’s father and grandfathers were miners, and she was born in the old miner’s hospital in Wallace, Idaho, and raised out in Burke Canyon, one mile downstream from the country’s richest lead mine during and after World War II.
Wallace, Idaho and McCarthy, Alaska’s histories bear some resemblance. Sherry Eckrich, of the Ten Poets group, and Maria Shell, writer-turned-quilt artist and fellow Rasmuson grantee, helped Patt recognize the many parallels between the two places. Wallace was producing more silver than anywhere else for a long time, plus a great deal of lead. Kennecott produced at least $200 million worth of copper ore by shutdown time in 1938, launching one of the largest mineral companies in the world. Wallace had a reputation for labor uprisings, heavy drinking, gambling, and prostitution, and McCarthy was rife with liquor, red lights, and cards. Sex work was legal in Wallace until the mid-70s and tolerated through the late 80s by a local populace that thought it curtailed rape and helped the economy. The local police knowingly ignored the brothels for over a century, and the madams in Wallace were respected and powerful businesswomen. It took the feds’ involvement to final shut things down. Kate Kennedy, McCarthy’s madam, was likewise respected and tolerated by many, and even the upstanding high class women in nearby Kennecott, a buttoned-up company town, then, were known to travel down to raucous McCarthy on occasion for tea with Kate, a known bootlegger and brothel owner.
Patt’s family left Wallace in 1959, when she was 12, but by then, she’d been so well-steeped in mining culture that coming to McCarthy felt a bit like home to her. Her first job ever as a kid was running errands for the “working girls”, fetching them Kotex, panty hose, and nail polish from Rexall and getting paid in silver dollars. Patt remembers the madam, Dolores Arnold, who “pretty much ran the town.” Dolores operated brothels in Wallace from 1943 through the 80s. The industry was strictly managed and kept relatively safe, especially after the introduction of penicillin. “Dolores bought the high school sports teams new flashy uniforms every year. That was her future market, when those men were old enough,” Patt said. “She was a business woman. The working girls were just a norm for me. In the 70s they were going to close down the whorehouses, and it made 60 Minutes. It was a big deal. I just didn’t get it.”
Patt was among the first baby boomers, born into a town with 5,000 single miners and a culture that had totally normalized prostitution. “My mother said she could be a virgin when she got married because of the working girls. My dad could go ‘do what a man’s gotta do’ while she waited down in the car with her girlfriends and the boys went upstairs. Because gasoline was rationed, they would double and triple date, and the ladies would stay down on the curb and visit and the guys would go upstairs and get serviced and come back and all the ladies were still virgins when they were married, and that was a big, important thing in the 40s…. Nobody was a virgin in the 60s when they got married.”
Her exposure to mining-era Wallace as a kid made her tough to impress even among the flagrant excesses of pipeline-era Alaska. “Ruthie would bring RVs down from Fairbanks with whores on payday and enough money to cash the guys’ checks, and she’d set her RV up right on the road to the airport and…. Some people thought that was horrible, and I just thought it was clever of Ruthie—branching out from Fairbanks.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Patt’s father, still alive and kicking now in Wallace at 96 years old, had a bad relationship with Patt’s mother. His southern values and emphasis on the “Madonna/virgin thing”, encouraging Patt to be like her mother, soured her relationship with him for years, too. Patt was independent, believing women should be as free as men to determine the course of their lives. Later in life, Patt joined her father on a journey to Alabama to visit family members she’d never met, and he warned Patt to be careful what she said, and not to say much. “They’re not going to understand your politics. They’re not going to understand where you’re coming from,” he told her. She did manage to befriend one cousin and started sending him letters from Barrow full of stories from her days working in mining camps and Valdez. “Sounds like you were a hard dog to keep under the porch,” he told her.
“Dolores and Kate were similar in my mind,” says Patt. Like Wallace’s Dolores Arnold, McCarthy’s Kate Kennedy was in the business of servicing miners, and then some. She was the most successful business person in McCarthy in the early 1900s. She rode out the boom when copper and gold were both discovered in the Wrangell Mountains and set up shop to meet the needs and wants of weary freight haulers, adventurers, prospectors, and miners. She distilled whiskey, ran card rooms, served good food and clean places to sleep, and ran a brothel. She partnered with Sig Wold to provide taxi service between the Kennecott mill town and McCarthy, assuring miners that they could return from McCarthy in time for work. Kate’s experiences in mining camps made her a student of miners’ and freighters’ wants long before she reached McCarthy, which turned out to be the perfect place to put that knowledge into practice. When Kate’s husband decided to return to Nome, Kate stayed in McCarthy, ending the marriage.
Patt found herself relating with Kate Kennedy, and resenting what she perceives to be a rather condescending treatment of her, at times, in the historical record. Patt said “My hope is to merge my research about Kate and my own personal knowledge of miners and mining towns into an intertwined narrative that encompasses mining, women’s history, sociology, and the working class.” That will involve a bit of setting the record straight.
Like Kate, Patt knows blue collar work well. She was raised in a mining town, eventually got educated, and found McCarthy. Kate could read and write, and she was “clever with numbers,” as Patt puts it, “to run her businesses. But I know she had a dirty mouth. I know she did drink herself. I have worked in mining camps and like Kate, I was a woman in a male-dominated setting. I know she came here and stayed here, and she had people that had been in the Klondike and in Nome out on the Nizina here that she knew. She was happy here. I’m happy here.”
Patt’s initial fascination with McCarthy resulted in her involvement with the McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum, itself a recipient of grant support from the Rasmuson Foundation over the years, along with the WMC. For nine years, Patt has volunteered as a curator and docent. Her work has focused on incorporating women’s stories into the area’s copper and gold mining history. For years, she’s been researching Kate Kennedy’s life in the museum’s documents and photos and speaking with old timers who know the oral history of the place.
In 2009, “the year of the big fires,” as Patt remembers it, she stayed in the museum’s caretaker cabin, working as a volunteer in exchange for housing while she sorted out the purchase of her cabin. Patt commuted that summer between Anchorage and McCarthy, working blocks of twelve hour shifts before driving to McCarthy with almost two weeks off, on repeat.
Her cabin’s restoration needs kept her working longer than she would have otherwise, so she could fund the repairs. “When I bought this place, it was rotting and falling down, and it needed another seven years of maintenance. It needed to be raised and moved and reinforced. So, I had to keep working.”
Her restored, off-grid historic gold miner’s cabin is still not finished—the sheetrock is unpainted, the sink drains into a bucket, and the floor is plywood—but it feels well lived in. Her living space is piled with odds, ends, and books. The covered porch faces the WMC, a kind of home away from home for Patt after years of studying and volunteering there. Patt uses an outhouse, heats with wood, and hauls her own water. She writes by the light of her grandmother’s oil lamp. She loves the lifestyle, but lacks an adequate power source for her computer.
The Rasmuson Foundation grant will provide practical necessities that will equip Patt to write, like a modest solar power system that will enable her to type up years’ worth of notes and stories written out by hand. She’ll also be able to finally get online from home to access historical databases useful in tying up loose ends in the story of Kate’s life. She’ll travel to Valdez and Cordova, too, towns that were integral parts of Kennecott and McCarthy’s mining history, to access court, hospital, and newspaper records that aren’t online. Patt will travel to Cordova by ferry, echoing Kate’s pre-McCarthy streamer travel to Cordova and Nome.
Perhaps equally important, the grant provides a boost of confidence and validation that will help motivate Patt to complete the project. “I never, ever had the sense that I had a story to tell, but everybody that I wrote letters to saved them for me and they would all say, ‘write your book.’ This was before computers, so at the end of the pipeline I got a footlocker full of my letters back. But then I worked as a social worker, and I never took the time.” The friends she made through the writing workshops in McCarthy likewise recognized her writing talent, wealth of story and experience, and nose for history, and encouraged her to apply for the award.
The grant was timed well for Patt after a demoralizing turn of events last winter. Patt’s volunteer position at the McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum and her research on Kate Kennedy culminated in an effort to kill two birds with one stone. The volunteer-run museum is bursting at its seams. After lengthy talks with many interested parties, including the present owner and purportedly willing seller of Kate Kennedy’s house, Patt spent the winter “learning the computer” so she could crowdfund the purchase and preservation of Kate’s home. The modest three-room house has barely changed since it was abandoned in 1939, but it is deteriorating. If she could raise the money, the Museum would buy the house and relocate it to their property, preserving it while repurposing it as a much-needed expansion of their footprint.
The acquisition was to be a culmination of Patt’s years-long obsession with Kate. Along the way, Patt curated a permanent exhibit about women in McCarthy, researched and published a historic downtown McCarthy walking tour, presented parts of Kate’s story in the annual Tall Tales Storytelling Contest, got Kate’s house listed as one of Alaska’s Top Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties, secured preservation funding from the Alaska Association of Historic Preservation, and successfully crowdfunded the balance needed to preserve Kate Kennedy’s historic home. The labor of love ground to a halt, though, when the seller’s silent partner vetoed the sale after all, a major blow after Patt volunteered hundreds of hours on the project.
The fate of the house itself is indeterminate, now, but the story of Kate Kennedy is coming well into focus. Kate died in Oregon in 1964, mere months after a teenaged Patt Garrett arrived in Alaska—just in time to experience the Good Friday quake. With the Rasmuson Foundation support, that story—part Kate’s, and part Patt’s—will be completed and made available. Their lives, viewed together, lend a continuity to disparate eras all too easily relegated to unlike shelves of history. Their stories speak to certain kinds of strength among women that Alaska seems to nurture. Patt’s ongoing project—equal parts historic documentation, literary memoir, and imaginative speculation—enliven otherwise droll records and remind us of our own circumstances, alive and singular in grand narratives unfolding all around.
Jeremy Pataky is the author of Overwinter and the Executive Director of 49 Writers, Inc. He migrates between McCarthy and Anchorage.