The growth of Kasilof owes a lot to an unusual kind of farming.
Kasilof in the 1920s was about as far from high society as you could get, with only a dozen year-round residents living off the land, no road, no grocery store, no bank, no post office and none of the creature comforts to be found in a civilized city of the day. Yet, for a little over 20 years, Kasilof helped supply one of the most haute couture trends of the fashionably elite.
“In the early 1900s there was a high demand for fashion and warmth,” Catherine Cassidy said, talking at a Kasilof Regional Historical Society meeting earlier this month. “No, they didn’t have any Polypropylene. Furs were warm clothing and fashionable, and the trapping supply couldn’t keep up with the demand and that encouraged the investment here.”
Fox-farming existed in Alaska since Russian times. By the 1900s it was happening from the Aleutians to the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak, Prince William Sound and Southeast. In Kasilof, the silver black fox, a variation of the red fox, was the cash crop.
“Here’s an advertisement for what sort of thing was being done,” Cassidy said. “The wrap is primarily made of ermine, and combined with black fox trim. There you go — that was the fashion.”
Fox farms need large, isolated plots of cleared land, abundant food sources and accessibility to market. With the Homesteading Act, acreage could be obtained in Kasilof for essentially free. And while there was no road at the time, travel was possible up and down the Kasilof River, then by gas-powered boat to Anchorage, by railroad to Seward and by steamship to the rest of the world.
The first fox farmer in Kasilof was Louis Nissen, a Danish immigrant who came to Alaska in 1906. In 1917, he and his partner moved to Kasilof and started Silver Fox Ranch five miles up the Kasilof River.
“He writes, in ‘Once Upon the Kenai:’ Not many people living here, about six the first few years. Very nice folks always sharing what they had with the neighbors, the way people were all over Alaska in the earlier days,” Cassidy said.
Six other large-scale farms followed, and a handful of smaller operations.
By 1927 it was a lucrative endeavor. The average statewide value for a silver fox pelt that year was $111.66 — equivalent to $1,504 in today’s purchasing power.
But it was not easy money. First, the pens had to be built, with individual pens and houses for individual foxes.
“The pens, the sides and tops were chicken wire, and then this is a perimeter fence, with an overhanging fencing going over the inside because they could climb and they were escape artists,” Cassidy said.
Post holes were dug with 8-foot long shovels, a pair of which was recently donated to the Kasilof museum.
“This was the carver. You’d put this down to loosen up the soil,” Cassidy said. “After you loosened up the soil you’d put this one down to pull the dirt up. Look at all those posts! I have to go lie down.”
The pens had to be built in an isolated area away from disturbances, and they required regular attention.
Feeding the foxes was a never-ending challenge. Farmers would catch fish, hunt and trap snowshoe hares and porcupines, and some kept goats to use for meat.
By the 1930s, the fox-farming boom was declining. The average statewide value for a silver fox pelt went from $90 in 1931 to $44 in 1932.
“It’s a big drop,” Cassidy said. “But most the farmers actually continued through the’30s, though they were clearly not making as much money.”
Archie and Enid McLane kept their fox farm going the longest, until 1943. Some fox farmers turned to commercial fishing for their living, and others sold their land moved on.
There’s no tidy end to the demise of fox farming in Kasilof. Cassidy thinks it was a combination of dropping fur prices, the continued grind of the hard work required to run a fox farm and the beginning of World War II.
“The war. That put the kibosh on the industry for sure,” Cassidy said.
The Kasilof Regional Historical society meets periodically through the winter. For the next meeting, follow them on Facebook.