Thursday, July 26, 2012

UAF's Rainey-Skarland cabin rich with history

Perched atop the ridge just north of the main section of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, the picturesque Rainey-Skarland Cabin seems slightly incongruous surrounded by modern buildings such as the Reichardt natural sciences building, the Cutler Apartment Complex and the Moore-Bartlett-Skarland residence halls. However, the small cabin is still a cherished and important part of the university.

Froelich Rainey (the university’s first professor of anthropology) and his wife had the cabin built in the summer of 1936. When they arrived at the university earlier that year, there was a shortage of housing. With the regents’ permission, the couple’s contractor erected a cabin in the woods about a half-mile above the campus. This was with the proviso that the university had the right to purchase the cabin if the Raineys ever wanted to sell.

It was built in the American rustic style—a romantic vision of earlier pioneer dwellings that emphasized the use of natural materials and melding of structures into their surroundings. The three-room cabin (with basement) is carefully crafted from peeled logs and has unusual exterior design elements such as asymmetrical gable roof, pointed-arch living room window and plank doors with iron strap hardware. The interior is just as distinctive, with its split-level design and massive stone fireplace in the center of the living room. Small clay figures tucked into the fireplace mortar also add to the cabin’s eclectic charm.

The Raineys stayed in Fairbanks until 1942, and the university then purchased the cabin to use as faculty housing. A succession of faculty and visiting scholars, mostly in the department of anthropology, have since resided there. This has included a veritable who’s who of northern researchers including Helge Larsen, J. Louis Giddings, Frederica de Laguna and Henry B. Collins.

The most well-known (to Fairbanks residents at least) was anthropologist Ivar Skarland, who moved into the cabin in the late 1940s and lived there for 15 years. He was as well-known for his hospitality and skiing prowess as he was for his academic achievements. “Ivar’s cabin” became one of the social hubs on campus. After he died in 1965, the university ski trail system and a residence hall were named in his honor. The Rainey-Skarland cabin was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Skarland had several roommates during his tenure in the cabin, including Otto Geist, the pioneering northern paleontologist. I used to work with the curator of ethnology at the university museum in my student days, and she told me an amusing story (possibly apocryphal) about Otto. He recovered bones and other remains of Pleistocene fauna from the Fairbanks Exploration Co.’s dredging operations and apparently amassed a sizable collection of mammoth tusks. With nowhere to properly store them, he sealed the tusks in oil cloth and buried them somewhere on campus. No one had ever found them. It’s possible that beneath the roots of some spruce tree near the cabin where Otto lived lies a small fortune in mammoth ivory.

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