Strange States: Alaska

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If you want to learn about a place, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. 

This week we’re heading to America’s last great frontier to discover the quirky sights and sounds of Alaska.

The Hammer Museum

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Dave Pahl has been collecting hand tools since he moved to Alaska in 1973.  For many years, he and his wife Carol lived on a small plot of land that had no running water or electricity, so keeping plenty of tools around for home repairs became a necessity.  During the snow-induced downtime of cold Alaskan winters, Dave refit old hammerheads with new handles, giving him a greater appreciation for nail drivers, as well as an ever-growing collection of unique specimens.  By 2001, Dave’s hammer collection had become too large to keep at home, so he and Carol purchased a small house on Main Street in Haines, Alaska, and opened the world’s only Hammer Museum

It might sound like the most boring place in America, but the variety in the collection never fails to amaze visitors. Among the items on display is a small hammer that smacked against the tables at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1920s to show the crowd’s appreciation for a musical act. Another, a ball of solid dolerite, was used by ancient Egyptians to chisel stone for the third pyramid at Giza. There are Masonic lodge hammers used to call meetings to order, warhammers from China and Rome, and even a hammer used to test the quality of cheese.  The collection includes hammers made from Waterford Crystal, whale blubber, and one consisting of hundreds of sheets of paper.  But the pride and joy of the museum is an 800-year old Tlingit “warrior’s pick,” a hammer that was used to whack an unwilling slave across the head so the body could be buried as a sacrifice when building a new longhouse. Pahl found the ancient tool while adding a basement to the building shortly before the museum opened.  

If you ever find yourself in Haines, Alaska, you can’t miss the museum—there’s a 20-foot statue of a hammer in the front. At any given time you’ll find about 1500 hammers on display from a collection that reportedly numbers over 7000 specimens. 

The Fur Rondy

Even with modern conveniences like central heating, high-speed internet access, and hundreds of TV channels, Alaskan winters can be pretty tough. So it’s no surprise that after so many months of cabin fever, many folks need to get out of the house and blow off some steam. Since 1935, Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, has found this sweet release with a festival of sport called the Fur Rendezvous, or “Fur Rondy” for short.

Created to welcome the mountain-dwelling miners and trappers that arrived at the first signs of spring in order to sell their winter haul, the Fur Rondy originally featured fairly standard athletic events like skiing, hockey, basketball, boxing, and a children’s sled dog race. While many of those competitions are still going strong, over time, quirkier contests have been added to a revolving lineup of events that reflect the unique culture of Alaska. Today, one of the highlights of the festival is the outhouse races, where teams see who can push an outhouse on skis across the finish line first.

The Snowshoe Softball tournament is always fun to watch, as is the fast-paced action of Yukigassen—a game of capture the flag played with snowballs—where the winning team goes on to represent the U.S. in the World Championship tournament in Japan. The snow-packed streets of Anchorage play host to two major contests: The Frostbite Footrace features serious competitors and fun runners wearing the craziest costumes they can find, and the World Championship Sled Dog Race, a grueling three-day competition with some of the best mushers and snow dogs from around the world. And not to be outdone by Pamplona, Spain, the Rondy has the Running of the Reindeer, where Santa’s hooved helpers sprint through crowds of costumed runners who try to stay ahead of the antlers coming from behind.

For those less athletically inclined, the Fur Rondy has plenty to offer, including native artwork, snow sculptures, carnival rides, stage performances at the Goose Theatre, the Rondy on Ice figure skating show, and one of the festival’s original events: the fur, horn, and hide auctions, featuring the finest in animal pelts to keep you warm on cold Alaskan nights. You can also buy a ticket for the long-running Miner’s and Trapper’s Charity Ball to see the crowning of a new “Mr. Fur Face” in the Alaska State Beard and Moustache Contest.

The festival has already closed for 2013, but be sure to check the official website for a full schedule of next year’s dates and events. 

Know the story behind an unusual person or place in your state?  Maybe a little-known urban legend that others should hear?  Is your state home to the largest ball of twine or a creepy abandoned theme park? Is there a fun festival that everyone should attend? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

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August 26, 2013 - 12:20pm
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