A Rose in Candle highlights the tale of Jewish immigrants during the Gold Rush

(Alaska Jewish Museum graphic)

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.

Listen now

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.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori