A family story of the early gold rush days in Alaska was featured in Anchorage on May 14th at the Alaska Jewish Museum. The documentary, A Rose in Candle, was directed by Anchorage history enthusiast Russ Reno and tells the story of a young Jewish woman who was a violist from Romania.
Rosa Robinson toured Europe and then the U.S. with a family orchestra in the early 1900s. She married in Seattle and moved to Candle with her husband to mine gold. Rosa’s granddaughter Beverly Churchill recorded her grandmother’s stories.
Churchill and Reno spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Lori Townsend about the film.
CHURCHILL: When the orchestra settled in Seattle, she was the conductor, at that time, of the orchestra, which was unusual in those days. So I kinda like to think of her as an early feminist.
TOWNSEND: And did they come to Alaska specifically because the lure of gold was there?
CHURCHILL: Well, she met her husband in Seattle and he came out because his father, my great-grandfather was a gold rusher. He came originally to the Klondike and then he, when gold was discovered in Nome, he came over to Nome. So yeah, he was very involved with the mines and the Gold Rush. But my grandmother was there just because she happened to be married to his son.
TOWNSEND: Russ, I want to get you in here now. Russ Reno, you’re the director for this film, A Rose in Candle, which is Beverly Churchill’s grandmother’s story. How did you get involved in this? How did you even hear about it?
RENO: Wow. What an amazing story it is. Beverly approached me; she had these old cassette tapes, and she wanted to have them put onto a DVD. So I said, “Sure. I’ll help you with that.” And I did, we got them over and put them on there. Well, I started listening to these stories, I thought, “This is amazing. This is some really cool stuff here.” So I went back to Beverly, and I said, “Beverly, how would you like to put this to be a little bit more than just changing over those cassette tapes over to DVD? Let’s make a documentary out of it.” And three years later, we went for it, and we put together a 53-minute little “mini-movie” about her life.
TOWNSEND: Why was this important for you to get involved in this project that took quite a bit of time?
RENO: One word: history. It’s an amazing thing, and I learned a lot of things on this. And one was the influence of the Jewish immigrants that came up to Alaska. And I was surprised to hear how large and how acclimated Nome became with the 20,000+ estimated people that lived there during that time. So it was a really neat experience to understand how it got started, and these people that started out as originally coming up to gold mine then found a niche or a need for all of these little shops and merchants, and they started the first infrastructure for major cities and populations up in Alaska that was more modernized. Just an amazing story, from coming up on the SS Victoria and from dog mushing to Nome from Candle in order to just have her baby to walking all the way from Candle to Nome… Things like that that just… real true stories about Alaskan history.
TOWNSEND: Is Candle still there? Is there still a village there?
CHURCHILL: It is not an active community, but it is still there. The hospital was probably the best structure made there; it’s still standing. I believe a family still lives in it now. I took my father up there when he was probably about 86 years old, and this is where he was born, and my brother kind of puttered my father around on this four-wheeler. And there was some active mining going on up further from where we were, but it was funny to me because my father kept going down to the beach and looking around going, “This isn’t how I remember it. This isn’t how I remember it.” So I don’t know what’s happened. I do know probably about 1930, there was a major fire that pretty much leveled Candle, so it’s never been quite the same.