In 1853 a Finnish "red wood worker", his occupation in translation, finished placing the veneer on a large chest of drawers he made in Sitka, the capital of Russian America, and wrote his name and the date on the bottom of one of the drawers. Around a century later Father Andew Kashevarov, descendant of a longtime Alaska Creole family, translated the words and the resulting note remains in the top drawer.

My family acquired the chest and a secretary from Bob and Dale DeArmond around 1972. Bob's father had purchased the pieces from a longtime Sitka physician, Dr. Johnson. The DeArmonds were living in Juneau and had the pieces stored with friends since they had left Sitka around 1955. The friends were moving and the DeArmonds thought it would be nice for the furniture to stay in Sitka. We thoroughly agreed..

It took a bit of time to discover a fair selling price, but one was found. When I left Sitka in 1989 I sold my house to my sister. All the furniture stayed with it with a very few exceptions, the two bits of furniture among them. I returned to Alaska in 1992 and had the two pieces shipped over to my new house in Juneau. I felt rather guilty about removing them from Sitka, but I do love them so. Perhaps someday they'll return.

All we could learn about the secretary is that it is from New England and of around 1829 in style. As the original owner, George Kostromitinov's father, Iona, traveled to San Francisco in the 1850s aboard a Russian American Company ship selling ice to the thirsty 49ers, we assume he bought it there. It is not particularly grand; I recall a Governor Winthrop secretary my grandmother had in the old family home, built in 1847. It had been brought out from New England when the family moved west. Far better quality. But my little secretary is charming and holds a surprising amount of papers.

But back to the chest of drawers. Louise Brightman, life-long Sitkan and the city librarian for many years, once told me about the history. (Her family name was Bolshanin; one of the few Russian families to stay on in Sitka after the Transfer in 1867.) Louise said the town was quite bemused when the elderly Russian who lived alone in his little house was found dead. There was no question of foul play, but in his storage shed in the backyard the bureau was found, mutilated. Someone had taken an axe to the four drawers, each of which locked in the center. No one ever knew why as there had been no rumors of wealth, but there they were. The physician wound up with the piece, and as he liked to work with wood, carefully restored it.

Over the years some of the veneer has come loose. I have not restored it as I am clumsy, but the pieces are carefully saved, awaiting a skilled wood-worker.

So there's another authentic Sitka story to add to the many mysteries surrounding the little town.

 

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