Alaska's state historian talks how to can salmon and more at final weekend of 'Mug Up'

    "Mug Up" (Photo courtesy of Jasz Garrett/KINY)

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Katie Ringstrum, Mug Up project leader and Alaska's state historian, talked about the Mug Up exhibit at the Alaska state museum Saturday.

    Bristol Bay Night at the Alaska state museum Saturday was 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. with free admission.

    Mug Up is a term Alaska canneries use for a coffee break.

    Above: Mug Up time, ca. 1940s. Courtesy of Alaska Packers Association (APA) Museum, Drayton Harbor Maritime, Blaine, Washington.

    It assembled a diverse crew who shared the common language of work.

    Mug Up brought together a diverse workforce: men and women, the young and seasoned, the global and local.

    Katie Ringstrum said how the idea for the Mug Up Alaska cannery exhibit came to be.

    "Really this was part of a much bigger project called the NA Cannery project which was a collaborative community effort to document and preserve the history of a cannery in Alaska in South Naknek called the NA Cannery. I realized it was getting to a point in my career that we needed to just tell the story. Because you know if I didn't do it it would be a long time before someone actually did. From an environmental perspective, conservation, and fisheries management. Not to mention the economics of salmon and seafood generally. I mean it's still our number one employer. It still puts food on people's plates and gives them a paycheck and so yeah our seafood is super important."

    She commented on the personal significance the cannery exhibit has to her.

    "I actually grew up in Washington state, but my dad was part of work in the industry, the superintendent, and worked for APA, the Alaska Packers Association. So we would go north, like the salmon, spend our summers there, and then we'd come back and then be working for the park service. I met my husband and now we live in Alaska and we live in Eagle River with our two boys. What's also really interesting about canneries, are several hundred canneries are here in Alaska. In many ways, you tell the story of one cannery you really are telling the story of most canneries."

    Above: A Norm Rockness suitcase, ca, the 1960s. Courtesy of Pete Rockness.

    Early superintendents, often trained as machinists, sea captains, or sailboat fishermen, used local knowledge of landscape features such as creeks and tides for site selection and the design and layout of the cannery complex. By the mid-century, business acumen had replaced local wisdom and know-how. This briefcase represents the shift to business principles of the corporate-minded "company men," who rose in ranks to cannery superintendents after World War II.

    Ringstrum explained the idea behind the exhibit setup.

    "Kind of following the flow of the fish, from the working waterfront and the beach gate to you know, the inside of the cannery and the inner workings of the fish house, the egg house. Where the fish gets put into the can, the labeling process and then the second part was the social aspects."

    Ringstrum elaborated on the social aspects.

    "What we were mostly interested in was telling the stories of the multicultural communities who did the work. That was actually a real challenge, how do you tell the story of a place that a lot of people haven't ever been to? It has so many different layers of stories. The Chinese to the Mexicans to the Filipinos to the women's stories, African American stories, the corporate owners, and the Alaska Native people who live there. So what we decided to do is actually use one place and allow the visitor to experience a cannery by going building by building."

    Canners relied on highly skilled Chinese workers to conduct nearly all the tasks required to can salmon.

    Despite their contributions to the canned salmon industry, Chinese immigrants faced racial discrimination in the late nineteenth century.

    The mostly out-of-work white laborers blamed Asian competition for depressed wages.

    The growing shortage of Chinese workers compelled canners to mechanize the canning operation.

    By 1900 the only part of the cannery not mechanized was the butchering process.

    Smith's machine proved to be a great success, cleaning 40 salmon per minute, the equivalent of an eighteen-man Chinese butchering gang.

    As a result, Smith Cannery Machines Co. dubbed its product an insulting ethnic slur, for the machine that replaced the once central important Chinese butchers.

    Above and below: An example of the exhibit, and the different 'buildings' to wander through and relive.

    Some of the other exhibits included a mess hall, the Monkey Wrench gang (mechanics), a laundry room, labeling, the hospital, the egg house, and the fish house.

    She also summarized her lecture given at the Alaska State museum's APK lecture hall Saturday afternoon.

    "I gave my lecture today on how to can salmon and looking at the rise of advertising, national advertising, and how canned salmon played a central role in selling a product to a national audience versus that face-to-face selling. Gallery one, the story salmon gallery tells that story through the various labels that we have."

    Above: Salmon and How to Serve it Advertisement, gift of Karen Hofstad, Alaska State Library, MS 300.

    Below: Sledge Brand Can by Schmidt Lithography, gift of Karen Hofstad, Alaska State Library, MS 300.

    Boxing or casing salmon generally contains 48 one-pound cans or 96 half-pound cans.

    Initially, salmon cases were made of wood, as shown below.

    Stencils were used to mark wooden salmon cases.

    To save money and labor, canners converted to cardboard in the 1930s.

    Saturday evening Ringstrum gave a second lecture about the NN Cannery and the Influenza Pandemic of 1919.

    The Bristol Bay outbreak in 1919 was the final manifestation of influenza in Alaska, where more people died in greater percentages than any other people in America.

    The flu buried most of Bristol Bay's adult population, claiming anywhere from 250-400 people, a death rate higher than that of the Seward Penisula in the fall of 1918.

    Alaska's Territorial Governor Thomas Riggs wrote that only 238 orphans out of Bristol Bay's entire Native population of 800 to 1,000 people lived to see 1920.

    Above: Woman and child setnetting for salmon in Bristol Bay, ca. in the 1930s. (Heinbockel-Payne Family Collection.)

    While men from the village were drift fishermen working from drifting boats, women participated in the salmon fishery as setnetters, placing their nets along the beach. Women also worked in the mess hall, the laundry room, and the egg house.

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