Bob and Tiny Buzby Interview
September 27, 2001
In 2001 Bob and Tiny Buzby were interviewed by writer Kathy Price for the US Army history of the Homesteads on Fort Wainwright, Alaska. This article is a transcript of the interview, edited slightly for readability.
Bob Buzby: OK, I'll have to go back. My father came to Alaska to Nome in 1900. After that he went to Skagway and then helped build the railroad from Skagway to Whitehorse. He ended up coming down to Fairbanks and he homesteaded in Fairbanks in 1905, and I was born in 1911 in Fairbanks. I was the youngest of the family.
After a trip to California, then Tillamook OR, and then my dad rounded up a bunch of dairy cattle and brought em to Fairbanks. So we had a 1926 - early 30s we had a dairy in Fairbanks and my job was raising hay & delivering door to door the old-fashioned way. And once upon a time I thought I knew everyone in Fairbanks. Now it's a rare occasion to meet anyone I know. Anyway, this homestead he took in 1905 was where I grew up after a while and . . . eventually the military bought our place, my dad's place, we had another place by that time . . . it became Ladd Field, and Ladd Field now is Wainwright.
I was the youngest of four boys and two girls. I had two sisters, my oldest sister had a daughter who's fifteen months younger 'n I was. My older sister died in a car wreck going from Los Angeles to San Diego. And all my brothers have done their thing in their own way. I'm the only one who's still living of the family, the original family. And I married Tiny 68 years ago.
This growing up in Alaska, I became an Alaskan, and I've stayed that way. They call them pioneers now, in the . . . when I started school, I had dogs. We were two miles from town, and I used a coupla dogs to . . . things at school when I was 7 yrs old. I gravitated into dog mushing.
And then you gotta jump way ahead to in the 30s. I won the major dog race in Fairbanks 3 years in a row.
It was known as the Signal Corps trophy. The Signal Corps was the military of the country at the time that we had the first phones and they were the ones that took care of all the long distance calls and things of that kind. They were military and they took the little deal out of the people that worked for them to pay for that trophy, and it was a beautiful thing. My daughter Alice, who's here now, it's in her possession. In winning that three times in a row, I retired the trophy.
One of the interesting episodes of dog mushing, I won the third time with seven dogs against teams with twelve. The famous man whose picture's everywhere around the country, Leonard Seppala, he had a team, he had a twelve-dog team. There was a man in Fairbanks who had a dog that Seppala had in his team. The man that drove his team, was not a friend, but anyway, Seppala's team, they thought that they would hurt me because we lived on the trail out of Fairbanks to Valdez, 2 miles out, and they run that 80 miles [of the race] by going past my home. They thought that would be a little problem for me.
It didn't work out that way. Cause my dogs were trained on a trap line and they knew what it was like to do what I had to do. Seppala's dogs was all trained in town and the road was to our place two miles. We kept the road, the Valdez trail, open that far, I'm just talking about dog mushing; we went to Salcha and back, Salchaket they called it in that day.
My father-in-law, Tiny's dad, had a place in town, he had a shop, where he did blacksmithing and that sort of stuff and we fixed up [in] his shop a place for my dogs and they had straw to lay on and they, when they come in they relaxed, and it was a good thing.
Well naturally when I come by my home two miles out of town, my dogs knew the one in town was where we was going to end up, and they never even hesitated. But Seppala's team saw broken road then and they thought they were home and they quit at my place. And this man that was driving 'em, you know, instead of using some brains, he started licking 'em and then that's no way to treat a dog. They ended up sending a truck out and hauling 'em in those last two miles. You don't see that picture among his collection down there in Knik.
Kathy Price: Can I ask you a little bit about the road, the Fairbanks-Valdez trail, did it run right through your property then?
Bob Buzby: Yes. Paralleling the bank of the Chena River through there. Our home was between the trail and the river. So it was more or less dependent on the road for everything except the river, and it may be of interest to some people, that the river was the place where the early planes with floats landed.
Pacific international airways, (?) was the first. They had 4 airplanes, they had the first mail contracts out of Fairbanks down the Yukon, and as it happened, I worked for them taking mail, weigh mail with the dogs, and that was an interesting year or two; that was in 1931. I don't know if that had anything to do with it but I ended up becoming a pilot myself and flew 15 years. I had a trap line all my life and I guided big game hunters for 55 years. I did some flying for myself, and I flew for Shell Oil the first year they came to AK on the west side of Cook Inlet.
Bob Buzby: My life began when we got the dairy because delivering milk in bottles to houses was the way it was done. There were three dairies in Fairbanks of which we were one of them. The usual thing was delivered with a horse and wagon in summer and sled in winter, and eventually we had a vehicle as well and that was a good vehicle, a 1914 Dodge. (laughs)
Tiny Buzby: They had hay in the sled and blankets over the top and everything and heaters around so that it [the milk] stayed warm.
Kathy Price: Question on size of cowherd?
Bob Buzby: Oh, I don't know. We always had about a dozen milking, and we were always raising a few. One incident which might not be of interest to some people but it was to me, we had a bull that was Jersey and not the petting kind, and my dad was riding a horse, driving the cattle in and this bull gored the horse, right in the chest. Upended him, and knocked my dad of course ended up on the ground. I had the ability or the privilege, what ever you want to call it; I killed that bull the next day. The remedy for such a thing as that, my dad went in and got a part of a sack of flour and filled that wound in the horse with flour, and that was probably a couple of months before that horse was usable . . . but he did recover.
I never knew, of course nobody would have suspected, that that accident with the bull throwing my dad off the horse and as a result of it he had a stroke about two weeks after that. It may have been the cause of the stroke. But anyway, after my dad died, we sold the dairy. There was a family in Nome that had a cow and they got a lot of our bottles. You might find a Buzby bottle in Nome yet today.
Naturally with that many head of cattle, we had to raise a lot of hay. That was always part of my job. My brother, I only had one brother that was born in Alaska, two years older than I was. He worked in town for money. He worked at the NC Company for a number of years. My oldest brother was agent at Manley Hot Springs for the NC Company for, eight years, I think.
In 1931, when I drove my dogs hauling mail from Nenana and I always left Nenana with 800 pounds, and I had nine dogs. My job was hauling mail as far as Ruby, and then the airplanes were getting into action, and they'd pick up the mail from there. I had a wheelbarrow-load of Sears Roebuck catalogs that I'd drop off at Ruby and they'd pick em up to take em the rest of the way.
Bob Buzby: Homesteads then were 320 acres. This part here is where our home was. (indicating map)
Kathy Price:So the house was right there by the river. Discussion of where Richardson Hwy was.
Bob Buzby: Actually, the road . . . this part here was in field. The slough came in right below our home. We always had a fishnet in there. That was a normal thing, those days.
Kathy Price: Question re house itself.
Bob Buzby: It was a log house, you would find nowadays, it's probably a three-room equivalent. It was one, with another one added on, typical.
My dad and I were the dairymen. My mother of course took care of the milk once it got in the house. I did the delivering. We sold cream by the pint, and butter, and eggs, and the usual.
Kathy Price: Where was the barn in relation to the house and other buildings?
Bob Buzby: Log house. Barn was not fastened to the house. One barn for the chickens and another one for the cattle.
Kathy Price: Was it your sister who married the Spencer, which was also an adjacent property?
Bob Buzby: Yes, he filed on a piece between us, between the Joy home and my dad's place. Naturally, that was two miles from town, that was along ways out, and the ladies used to come out and commiserate with my mother for having to live so far from town.
Tiny Buzby: You had to be a pretty dedicated person to be willing to do that. And she was.
Tell her about the big mill they had for processing the wheat and making flour.
Bob Buzby: That was history, I guess. They had the flourmill shipped into Fairbanks and my mother to decorate the system. She took wheat from the first that the flourmill was able to make and she made little loaves of bread, I don't know, several hundred of them probably, for whoever wanted them, just to show they could do it. And of course my dad always had a good garden and the family always had garden forever.
Kathy Price: What type of produce were you growing in the garden?
Bob Buzby: All of it. All the hardy vegetables. And we had a greenhouse. Tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuce, stuff like that in the greenhouse.
Kathy Price: Did you sell that in town, also, like you did with the dairy products?
Bob Buzby: Sold it to anybody that wanted it. And there was the first fairs my dad was one of the principal people involved in having one. I remember one little incident there that wouldn't be any fun for anybody else, but he took some of the dairy cattle to the fair and they had a butcher doing the judging. Made my dad mad and he took the cows home!
Bob Buzby: Being on the river, we always had boats, and I built a few boats. And my brother was a good boat builder, and we had one of the first, for a while the only boat with a . . . tunnel boat. The tunnel comes from the bow back to the motor and then to the stern to the rudder and so on, and this would allow you to go in the shallowest of water, because it didn't draw any more water running than it did sitting. And that was, my brother built the boat, about thirty feet long, thirty two feet long, and I had enough money, I had bought a . . . The NC Company was agents for Chrysler and I bought a Chrysler marine engine for that, which was a wonderful boat.
There was another coupla boats built similar to that, but they didn't know what we knew, to build that boat proper. It had to be airtight, the tunnel. People didn't know that, and when you leave it set overnight, that water was still up in the tunnel in the morning, and people didn't know that, and one of the first ones copied our boat went down the river and then they had to be towed back up cause they didn't know that they could keep it running.
Our riverboats was designed originally back East, and they were about twenty-four foot for an average in length, and eventually they were, what do you call them, poling boats, but eventually we got outboard motors. But they were kinda slow to take over, and because . . . I have to jump over the fence a little bit, now. The sawmill at the edge of town got the timber up the Chena River and drove the logs down the river, and they don't permit that anymore because it might be something in the, hurt the water. But anyway, Fairbanks was built by logs that I helped cut a lot of 'em, and I drove, I probably drove more logs than any one person down there, to the mill.
Kathy Price: Question about homesteads and demand for wood, did homesteaders cut for mills, did others come out, was it cooperative thing?
Tiny Buzby: Wood was your heat. In the winter you had to have wood. And that's what a lot of people did. A lot of people worked when they could in the summer at whatever was open, like road commission, things like that. And then in the winter, they went and got wood and hauled it in, because they could, because of the snow, for the people to use for the year.
Bob Buzby: I can show you houses today in Fairbanks that we, . . . lumber, that we supplied.
Kathy Price: Was that from your homestead property or just from places on up the river?
Bob Buzby: Up and down the river. Anywhere the timber would grow. A bend in the river, would be full of timber. And then there might be a straight stretch, and another bend in the river, there' d be more timber. So, in our logging, we stacked the logs on the bank of the river, and then in the spring after the ice went out, we'd drive it to the mill. Eventually I logged for the first military district engineers bought the mill. I logged for them, then.
Kathy Price: Questions re first year or two of Ladd construction, any recollections
Bob Buzby: This contract that I had with them, I logged with some of the old-timers and used horses for skidding. The military used the first chain saws, and trucks and cats and thirty men and at the end of that contract I supplied a million and a half feet of timber to the mill the old way using the has-beens, while they had all the young good workingmen working for them. Well, I did a million and a half feet for them. While I did that, with all their equipment they got six hundred thousand feet.
Fairbanks was built on the material that we supplied before the military came.
Kathy Price: Question about time on property right before Ladd Field came in, how heard about it coming
Tiny Buzby: Well, they sent people up to look, you know, and of course you knew . . . we heard about of course all the unrest in Europe and war and all that kind of stuff and so what we were doing was just exactly what everybody did: we worked in the summers when there were jobs for cash and then we, whatever else we could do we did to keep on living; like we trapped and we logged and we did things like that and then we could sell that in the spring or whenever, and that's how we lived.
People didn't really have much of any money until after Ladd Field came and established a payroll, because there was just the FE Company, the NC Company and two or three little grocery stores and things like that and that's all . . . oh, the ACS . . . that had an income. The rest of us were lived there because we liked to live there. We sent our kids to school, and they walked and didn't mind and now they do. They like to have a bus! I don't know, as I think back on it, why I don't know, because there really wasn't much of anything to do. We had to make our own amusement and we had to enjoy what was there and that's what it was. But it was then a beautiful place and it's still a beautiful place, in spite of their best efforts!
Bob Buzby: In the early days, the river was the prime condition for everybody to travel. I've known a couple that lived sixty miles up the river that whip sawed lumber and built their own boat to travel with, and this was a normal thing. Poling boats is exactly what they were. You poled your way up the river; of course you could always paddle down.
Bob Buzby: We had a ball game, Fourth of July.
The Fourth of July was a day when the miners had a day off. Us kids helped clear the brush for Weeks Field. Weeks Field became first airport in Fairbanks. In fact, I learned to fly at Weeks Field. It was made for a ball game, where they could play baseball. Maybe they'd have a gunny sack race for the kids, or something, you know.
My brother joined WWI in Portland. He didn't want to do it in Alaska, because in Alaska they didn't send em anyplace, except down the river, Tanana, someplace, you know. He went to Portland at his own expense, or my dad's own expense. He walked to Valdez, but he had his duffel bag on the . . . . (mentions a book, loaned out) The Ed Orr was a man who had several teams of horses, traveling from Valdez to Fairbanks. In this book, he advertised Valdez to Fairbanks in eight days!
When I was going to school, my dad was a hunter, a hunter for the markets. Usually to prospectors, to the miners. He had my two brothers with him, and the principal of the school was going to have him arrested for having the kids out of school, so they sent me to school to take up the slack. (Laughs.) That's when I started school, and the reason for it. But I was taught at home, and the result was that I was ahead of the kids in school. Because I was seven years old, first grade was just kind of forgotten and I was put into second grade and my brother who was older than me, when he did come back and go to school, they put him in the third so we wouldn't be both in the same grade.
We went outside in 1921, my brother and I, with our parents. And the railroad wasn't finished. We went from Healy to Curry by dog team. That cost my dad three hundred bucks for use of a dog team.
Before the railroad was built, we got everything by boat in the summer. Horses from Valdez in the Valdez winter. The way our cattle come, when the railroad was built was our cows come in by boat to Valdez [Seward?] and then when they got em off the cars there in Fairbanks, just drove em through town and on out.
Kathy Price: Wrapping up, would anyone like to add anything
Tiny Buzby: Yes, I would. Cause this has been about him and that's right, because I came pretty late in life, but we have four children, 19 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandson. So we're keeping Alaska well populated.
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