Arctic & Northern Biographies
July 8, 1916
DAWSON, YUKON TERRITORY, July 8. - This is the story of Chicken Bill and his Ten Thousand Dollar potato patch. It is the story of a young American who became the poultry king of the Klondike, and then went into farming with such success that he has one field of potatoes that will bring in $10,000 this fall. That is a sample of what farming can do on the banks of the Yukon, and a suggestion of the fertility of Alaska as well.
Chicken Bill is a good type of the farmers of the far north. I first met him yesterday afternoon. He called at my hotel here in Dawson.
A rough looking young man of less than medium height, his face is bronzed from the hot summer sun of the arctic and his hands are horny with handling the plow. He wore a pair of rough boots that reached to his knees, blue jeans trousers somewhat the worse for the wear, and a shirt of flannel, open at the neck, that showed his brown chest. He was in his working clothes for he had brought some of his crop of hot house vegetables into Dawson for sale. He introduced himself as William Anstett, nicknamed Chicken Billy, and asked me to go with him up the river to look at his farms. I accepted the invitation, and have just returned from the trip, the most interesting I have had yet on the Yukon.
Farming Near the Arctic Circle
But first let me tell you something about farming in the far north. Dawson is near the Arctic circle, and the country about it is thought by many to be snow and ice year round. The fact is the winters only last until April or May, and the short hot summers are almost perpetual daylight, so that nature puts on its seven league boots and works the greater part of the night. As to the farming in general, the most of it is in very small patches.
There are gardens about the miners' cabins where they raise potatoes and turnips, green peas and beets, and carrots and celery. Last year one man grew forty tons of turnips, or 1320 bushels upon afield of one acre, and from another acre the same man raised 561 bushels of potatoes. His crop of vegetables all told weighed 200 tons. Another farmer recently brought in a cauliflower which measured ten inches in diameter, a turnip weighing fourteen pounds, and six heads of cabbage which when put on the scales registered 139 pounds light. I have these figures from Albert E. Lamb, one of the government officials of Yukon territory, and a man entitled to credit. He is an enthusiast on farming in the Yukon and says the day is coming when no vegetables will be brought in from outside.
Many Homesteads Taken Up
Already a number of homesteads have been taken up in the territory, and there are little farms here and there on the banks of the Yukon river and on the islands which pepper its surface. There are also great farms under glass. Dawson itself has acres of hothouses, and there are other hothouses belonging to Joseph W. Boyle in the heart of the Klondike. He keeps them to supply his miners with the earliest greens and vegetables that the arctic sun will produce.
Chicken Billy a Bachelor
And now a word about Chicken Billy. He is an American, a bachelor, only thirty-seven years old and good to his mother. I know this, for the old lady, although she is over four-score, is now on her way from Seattle to the Klondike. She likes the cold weather, and prefers to spend her winters in Billy's cabin rather than with her well-to-do son in the states.
Billy was born in Philadelphia, and went to school there. He was still under twenty when he passed the examination for appointment to the navy at the time of the
Cuban war. He was so excited over his success that when he came into the hands of the surgeons to be tested as to his physical fitness his heart was throbbing at te rate of a hundred and odd beats to the minute, and the doctors pronounced him unfit for the service. They said he had a heart disease.
Billy then worked at off jobs, without great success, until one day he saw a paper describing the strike in the Klondike. The article was headed "Gold at the Grass Roots," and Billy tells me he decided to get into the grass and dig out a fortune. He had only $17 ahead at the time, but with that he got to St. Paul and thence worked his way onto Skagway.
He walked in over the Dyea trail and fought for his own with the miners of Dawson. He got some gold from his various ventures, but made no big strikes, and finally gave up mining and went into chickens.
Buys An Island on Yukon
For this purpose he bought an island on the Yukon not far from the mouth of the Klondike, and built him a henhouse of logs with glass windows facing the south. For a time he did well. His eggs sold for 50 cents each, and his fat chickens brought in $40 or $50 a dozen. He built up his flock until he had 900 chickens and his fresh laid eggs became so well known that he acquired his nickname, Chicken Billy which he holds to this day throughout the whole region.
He thought he was on the fair road to fortune, when competition came in. The other poultry raisers cut prices and chickens dropped to a dollar apiece. Billy found that his hens did not do so well in large flocks. He was losing money and looked about for other kinds of farming instead. He is now raising only fancy chickens and is devoting his energy to hogs and potatoes with crops of turnips and oats now and then on the side.
I went to see Billy's farms in company with him and Dr. G. M. Faulkner, the acting United States consul at Dawson. Dr. Faulkner has a dairy farm of 200 acres on the opposite side of the river from where the Klondike flows in. He has Jerseys and Holsteins and supplies most of the milk and cream for Dawson, charging $1.50 a gallon for his milk and selling cream at $2 a quart. He is poste don farming conditions, having some land on the islands, as well.
Up the Yukon in Gasoline Boat
Leaving Dawson, we started up the Yukon is a gasoline boat about three feet in width and 40 feet long. The boat had a big paddle wheel at the end and this was attached by a long iron shaft to the engine. We had gone only two miles up the river when the shaft broke and we had to row ourselves to the nearest island and walk.
The island was devoted to farming and we found the farms the best going. We left the beach and made our way through the potato rows from one little patch to another. The first farm we visited was owned by a Swede named Nelson. He has 11 acres under cultivation, one-half in potatoes and the other half in oats. The oats is grown for hay and it is now being cut. Some of it stood in shocks as high as my head. The remainder was uncut and the grain reached half-way to my waist. As we looked I asked Billy the price the oats-hay would bring. His reply was "Sixty dollars a ton."
Potato Vines in Blossom
The potato vines were in blossom. They were in long rows of a beautiful green spotted with flowers of a delicate white. I asked Mr. Nelson what he expected to get for his crop. He fixed the price at $90 a ton, saying that it might go as high as $100. Thereupon Billy told me that Nelson was a good business man and gave me the details of one crop from three acres that had yielded him $3700 in cash. That was when the Guggenheim syndicate began to dredge out of the gold of the Klondike. They were employing large numbers of men and potatoes were scarce. Nelson, who had just harvested a crop of 13 tons, got 13 1/2 cents a pound or $270 per ton for the whole. Since then he has raised nothing but potatoes and oats.
As we left Mr. Nelson it was after 9 o'clock in the evening, but the sun was still high in the heavens and I was able to take a snapshot of him standing in front of his cabin. Like Chicken Billy, he is unmarried.
The ext farm we passed through was devoted to potatoes and carrots. There was a woman in charge. She told me that the carrots paid as well as the potatoes and said that she and her husband enjoyed their summer home on the Yukon. They live in Dawson in winter.
Leaving this farm, we found ourselves at the end of the island, but there was another island upstream about a half mile away. Billy put his hands around his mouth and shouted, whereupon a man came out of the bushes of the second island and waved his hands at us. It was Billy's farmer. He was told to bring a canoe and carry us over the water from one place to another. As soon as we landed Billy ordered him to start getting supper and to have the meal ready by the time we had taken a look at the stock and the farm. He went with the man to the hothouse and picked a half dozen big cucumbers to cut up for salad, and then sent him on to the henneries to gather some eggs.
Cucumbers $4 a Dozen
In the meantime, Chicken Billy, Dr. Faulkner and I took a look at the hothouse, where cucumbers and tomatoes are raised for the markets of Dawson. This is one of the most interesting features of farming in the far north. There are more than 25 big hothouses in Dawson itself, and they are all doing well, although Billy says his farm makes more than any two of the others. Up to July of this year he has sold over 900 cucumbers, and by the end of the season he will have sold twice that many more. His first cucumbers brought him more than $4 a dozen, the next dropped to $3.50 a dozen, and on the average the crop of the year will net about 20 cents for each and every cucumber sold. If his figures are right, his cucumber receipts from the hothouse this year will be over $500. He picked 11 this week, and the vines are still loaded.
The prices of tomatoes are equally high, and he has a good crop under glass.
This hothouse is about 30 fete wide and 50 feet long. It consists of a great pit walled with logs to the surface of the ground and above that a framework covered with glass, forming glass walls and a glass roof. The house is kept warm by wood fires, a hundred-gallon gasoline tank having been made into a stove for the purpose. The plants are set out in beds upon low tables which are connected with a network of wires. The vines of the cucumbers and tomatoes are trained on the wires. They run up the walls and hang down from the roof. Many of the cucumbers are over ten inches in length and the largest tomatoes are bigger than the heads of some babies.
Stoves Keep Hogs Warm
Leaving the hothouses, we took a look at the hogs. During the summer they are kept in inclosures out in the open, although they have sleeping pens or covered platforms on which they crawl at night. In the winter they live in the log henneries which have been turned into pig pens. The buildings are warmed with good stoves and the fires have to be on day and night. There are 13 log buildings on the farm and most of them are devoted to pigs.
Chicken Billy started into the hog business with 14 suckling pigs, the most of which had taken prizes at the agricultural fair at Vancouver. He bought them there and shipped them into the Klondike and they cost him $60 apiece, or $870 in all. They arrived in good shape and are now full grown hogs. They are Duroc-ereseys, Berkshires and Yorkshires.
He keeps them for breeding only. He has already had a number of litters and sold them at a great profit. He gets from $15 to $25 for each pig when it is 6 weeks of age - that is, ready for weaning. He sold 100 last year.
Liked By His Hogs
I went with Billy from pen to pen to examine the stock. It is said that a man may be known by the way animals act in his presence. If they like him he is to be trusted if not he is a good man to watch. If this is true Chicken Billy is fitted to sprout angels' wings. His hogs seem to love him. He talks to them as though they were human. He speaks and they will lie down and turn over just like pet dogs. One of his biggest boars does tricks.
I was especially interested in the babies of the hog pens. The young are of all ages from little red piggies as big as a kitten to lusty black Berkshires of the size of a fox terrier. During the winter the pigs are fed upon potatoes and grain. The food is cooked and fed red hot morning and evening.
In taking care of the animals Billy saves every bit of manure. The soil of the Yukon needs fertilizing and this by-product is worth about $37 per hog per annum. Such fertilizer in the United States Billy says is not worth more than $12.
Dinner at the Farm House
Leaving the pigs we went to the farmhouse. This is a log cabin of two rooms and a kitchen. The earth is banked up around the outside to keep out the cold, and great stoves serve as a heating plant in the winter. We washed our hands in a tin basin outside the door and then went in to dinner. The meal was delicious. We had eggs fresh from the hens, and they were fried with ham cooked in a gravy that made the meat fairly melt in our mouths. We had mealy potatoes grown in the Yukon as sweet as any that ever came out of Ireland, although they had been harvested more than a year. We had good bread made by Billy's hired man, and all the green cucumbers we could possibly eat. Cucumbers are a delicacy in this part of the world. Those on Billy's table were cut into slices and served in a large vegetable dish.
Billy's Potato Farm
After dinner we took a skiff and sailed from the island to Billy's potato farm on the mainland. The farm is right on the banks of the Yukon, and the ten-thousand-dollar crop is within a stone's throw of the river. The field is a half mile in length and of such as width that it makes altogether seventeen acres.
The farmhouse stands in the centre of it. It has a log cabin with a great cellar under it where the potatoes are stored until ready for market. The thermometer here falls at times during the winter to 70 degrees below zero, but the cellar is so made that the potatoes do not freeze. The walls are furred out and made double. The board floors under the tubers are ventilated and there is a dead air space where there is any danger of frost. The potatoes are kept in large bins, each holding hundreds of bushels. I found some of last year's crop still in the bin. They are as solid and sweet as when they come from the fields. Indeed, it is hard to tell them from the new potatoes.
Counts on $10,000 Crop
I have seen many farms, but none better cultivated and freer of weeds than this potato patch. The vines reach to my knees. They are in rows which are perfectly straight, and the plow goes just one mile in the round trip up one row and back down another. Billy tells me he hopes to have six or seven tons to the acre and that the patch should yield about 100 tons or over 3000 bushels. e expects to get $100 per ton, so that the gross receipts should be something like $10,000.
The soil is a sandy loam made up of silt brought down by the Yukon. The virgin land is covered with bushes and trees so thick that it takes $100 and upward an acre to clear it. Farm wages are high. In ordinary seasons a hand gets as much as $100 a month and board, and just now Billy is paying his tenants $75 a month and their board.
He says that he has had farm hands this year as low as $2.50 a day and board, although the prices in Dawson have been $4 a day and on government work as high as from $5 to $7. I would say, however, that the demand for labour is limited, and the market for potatoes and other vegetables is confined to the small population in the mines and in Dawson. Much competition would take the heart out of the business, and if the farms were increased by many new homesteaders there would be a glut in the market and the price would fall.
There is no doubt but that potatoes can be raised in most parts of Alaska. Luther Burbank, the man who originated the Burbank potato and who has become world famous as a plant breeder, was in Dawson two years ago. He says that Alaska and the Yukon will some day be among the chief potato lands of the world and that by proper plant breeding a potato can be evolved that will mature here to perfection. Even now the country is raising about all that it needs, and the potato imports are decreasing. This year the crop is especially good, and the potatoes are equal in quality to those brought in from the states.
Dr. Faulkner Doing Well
Dr. Faulkner tells me that he is doing well with his cows, but that the milk market is limited and the expense of dairy farming high. He is now paying $100 per ton for such feed as hay, oas ad barley, and chicken feed costs 6 cents a pound. Cows sell fr $250 a head and calves ready to wean for about $40. Dr. Faulkner has paid as much as 25 cents for horse feed and he tells me that a man once offered him a dollar a pound for timothy hay. Said he: "That would have been at the rate of $2000 a ton. The only trouble was I had none on hand. I had some hay which had been grown in the country. I could have gotten 50 cents a pound for that, but I needed it for my own stock." The doctor has 65 acres in hay this year, but he will keep the whole crop and feed his own cattle.
This article has been copied in its entirety. The headlines and photos are scans of microfilm copies of the original newspaper. The article appeared in several other newspapers including The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) and The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky).
Dr. G. M. Faulkner died on September 5, 1924, and was buried in the cemetery at Chicken, Alaska.
The story of Chicken Billy Anstett - a summary of the article above as well as more information, by Michael Gates.