Story last updated at 10/10/2012 - 12:48 pm
At the entrance to Stephens Passage in Frederick Sound are two islands called East Brother and South Brother, collectively known as The Brothers. George T. Scove leased West Brothers for a fur farm in 1904, when raising fur bearing animals on islands had started in Alaska. That year, using a new launch "The Fox," he stocked the farm with blue foxes, likely from his fox farm on Patterson Island in Kasaan Bay. Scove, originally from Manitowak, Wisc., stocked Patterson Island in summer 1899 with foxes brought from a Prince William Sound farm.
Scove operated both farms until 1908 when he abandoned the one on Patterson Island after deciding it was not suitable for foxes. Around 1913, he started raising a few raccoons and skunks. Undoubtedly his main income came from his Kake business - packing king salmon and herring in barrels.
Another farmer, Lewis Long, put marten on one of The Brothers at some time but abandoned this endeavor by 1918. I haven't found if this was in conjunction with Scove or on East Brother.
In 1919, The Brothers were available for lease again. Charles E. Zimmerman, his wife Minnie, Fred Patton and Patton's wife moved to West Brother. Both families were from Petersburg, and Zimmerman had been a barber there.
In November of 1919, the men stocked the island with three pairs of foxes he purchased from Hercules Fox Co. at Sokoi Island in southern Frederick Strait. He named his operations Zimmerman Blue Fox Farms. He also found a few raccoons and skunks that remained from Scove's operations. In 1921, he asked the Forest Service if he could capture marten to raise commercially. None of the latter three animals are mentioned again. Maybe skunk coats were not popular?
To make the farm more homelike, he cleared for a garden. On board his "Aurora" boat, he brought from Petersburg perennials such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and horseradish. Likely every summer, vegetables flourished under the care of the wives. Around the buildings he sowed clover seed.
By July 1922, Zimmerman and Patton had 80 pairs of foxes, and every pair reportedly had a litter of four pups. He estimated 400 foxes on the island because he hadn't pelted yet. He fed the foxes fresh or smoked fish and an imported grain mash, but half the food was rustled by the foxes from beaches: mussels and "sea ants" (maybe what I call a sand flea?) were their favorite foods.
Sometime after July 1922, the Zimmermans and the Pattons dissolved the partnership and divided the fox stock. Zimmerman remained at West Brother. It is unclear where Patton moved.
Not long after the split, the first case of fox poaching took place on West Brother. Zimmerman found box traps set to catch foxes, so he removed them and reported the attempted poaching. In November 1922, L. B. McCoy, who had reached the island in his boat the "Patrol," was charged with larceny. Before this no definite proof of poaching could be obtained, so no poaching came to trial. But a new territorial law required registered marks and brands on pelts and animals. After a jury trial in late 1923, McCoy was sentenced to 18 months on McNeill Island. McCoy had a fox farm on Gavinsky Island since 1921. He transferred his lease to John Reck while in prison. Apparently this became part of Sitka Fur Farms after the transfer.
Zimmerman's farm had spread to East Brother by 1925, but Zimmerman said that he had two hired men, not two farms so he didn't need two permits. Each man received a guarantee of so many pairs of foxes and a certain percentage of the income. Most ranchers had adopted this policy.
Zimmerman's health declined, but he had a caretaker. In 1938, he decided to list his farm for sale. By the late 1930s, changing fashions lowered the price farmers received for pelts. No one wanted to rush into the business. Zimmerman was unable to sell out.
After the caretaker pelted most of the foxes and left the island without telling the owner, the U.S. Forest Service offered Zimmerman a five-acre homesite permit. He declined, and Sarah Isto, in her new book The Fur Farms of Alaska, states the fur permit was withdrawn in 1941.
In February of that year, Sigurd "Si" Hadland, pleaded guilty in Juneau Commissioner's court to taking blue foxes illegally, trapping them without the necessary permit or license and was fined $100. Perhaps there were the last of the foxes on The Brothers.
As for Zimmerman, a resident of Petersburg for nearly 30 years, he and Minnie left in 1941 to Seattle. He died there in late December 1943, still working as a barber.
By the 1990s, according to Isto, fur farms no longer existed in Alaska, the end to an industry that in the 1930s was the third largest in Alaska after fishing and mining.