Story last updated at 12/4/2013 - 2:08 pm
Ever since miners began exploring and occupying Alaska, there have been fraternal organizations like the Pioneers of Alaska. In fact, the Juneau chapter of the Pioneers of Alaska has now been organized for 100 years.
"Fraternal organizations were pretty important in the early Gold Rush days," said Fred Thorsteinson, vice president of Men's Igloo No. 6 in Juneau. "They were not only for socialization, but also for enforcing a lot of the mining laws."
The first organization was the Yukon Order of the Pioneers, which had membership requirements of being in Alaska prior to 1888 (later changed to 1896). Residency requirements have changed over the years.
Then formed the 87 Pioneers, which the Pioneers of Alaska has roots in. Richard Harris, one of Juneau's primary founders, died in November of 1907 in Oregon. His friends in Juneau thought he should be buried here next to Joe Juneau, Thorsteinson said, and figured it would cost $87 to have him brought back. They went and got $1 from 87 pioneers, which is how the name came to be. Thorsteinson said many people think the name comes from the residency requirement year (1887 or earlier). At that time the organization excluded Alaska Natives and women as pioneers, but the goal was to cultivate social intercourse and create a fund for charitable purposes. Members started dying out because the group refused to change membership requirements.
Another organization that formed was the Arctic Brotherhood.
Pioneers of Alaska was founded in 1907 after a gold strike in Nome. Thorsteinson said those miners wanted to form an order of the Yukon Order of the Pioneers, if they would expand their membership requirements to include people who came to Nome in 1900. They said no, Thorsteinson said.
So, they formed their own organization - The Pioneers of Alaska. Some members had been part of the prior organization, but wanted to be able to include other miners outside of the Yukon Watershed.
The pioneers had similar restrictions on membership as the 87 Pioneers in regards to gender and race, and had to reside in Alaska before Dec. 31, 1898. It eventually changed to include all peoples, provided they have lived in the state for 30 years.
"We changed all the racial requirements," Thorsteinson said. "Thank God that's history."
Women also have their own "Igloos" or chapters. The Juneau Women's Igloo No. 6 started in 1922.
The Juneau Men's Igloo organized in April 4, 1913. According to the book published for this year's Grand Convention, most of the men present at the founding were also members of the 87 Pioneers, and more than 40 men enrolled.
There are currently 34 active Igloos throughout the state. The Men's Igloo's in Valdez and Seward also celebrated 100 years this year.
"I believe that date was a sign," Thorsteinson said. "Because the Territorial Government of Alaska was meeting for the first time. We've continued on to today."
The Juneau Igloos hosted the annual (almost) Grand Igloo Convention in September, but it was actually only the organization's 97th Grand Convention because some were not held during WWI. This convention hosted about 200 members coming from across the state.
The role the Pioneers of Alaska has taken on was lobbying for things they felt were important to Alaska - like statehood, development of the Pioneer's Home, and other things that are "for the betterment of all Alaskans," Thorsteinson said.
That role has evolved, and now the Pioneers of Alaska in Juneau seeks to help out the community and hopes to be a resource for local history.
It supports scholarships for Juneau High School students, assisted the Juneau Museum in restoring the photo of the 87 Pioneers, supports the Empty Chair Project, donates to the Pioneer's Home in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, supports the student government information program at Juneau-Douglas High School and Thunder Mountain High School, provides support to the high school Interact program (where students work to provide assistance to other students, predominantly with homelessness), supports Meals on Wheels, Catholic Community Services and Hospice.
"We're working on restoring a Statue of Liberty that was donated to the City of Juneau by the Boy Scouts in 1950. It's fallen in disrepair," Thorsteinson said.
It's future will be much the same - looking for worthwhile projects to support in the community, potential restoration projects, and potential interpretive panels throughout the community, which will share details of Juneau's history.
"We're still playing with ideas," Thorsteinson said. "There are a lot of organizations you have to work with to get anything done."
The Juneau Pioneers of Alaska meets monthly. There are also more chapters in Southeast Alaska, such as Ketchikan, Sitka, Wrangell and Petersburg. For more information on the Juneau chapter, see www.pioneersofalaskajuneau.org. For more information on other chapters, see www.pioneersofalaska.org.
Sarah Day is the editor of Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.