Thursday, January 24, 2013

Claypool/Berry house a reminder of Fairbanks judicial history

Claypool/Berry houe in early winter of 2011

When James Wickersham became sole judge for Alaska’s new 3rd Judicial District in 1900, he was not a lone ranger tasked with bringing justice to Interior Alaska. As a representative of the U.S. government, he needed a considerable staff to manage the far-flung district.

According to the 1901 report from Alaska’s governor to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the court’s staff in Eagle alone (the district’s headquarters) consisted of the judge, marshal, deputy marshal, U.S. attorney, assistant attorney, clerk, stenographer, and commissioner. Additional court representatives, including 15 commissioners, were scattered across the district, from Kodiak in the south, to the Colville River in the north, Unalakleet in the west, and Eagle in the east.
Commissioners were court-appointed representatives — the equivalent of magistrates or justices of the peace. They provided the court with local representatives, albeit with limited powers and jurisdiction.

One of those commissioners was Charles Claypool (who, by the way, was from Tacoma, Wash., as was Judge Wickersham). Claypool came to Alaska in 1900 and was first stationed in Circle City. He transferred to Eagle in 1901 and then to Fairbanks when the court’s headquarters moved in 1904.
Claypool was accompanied to Fairbanks by his wife, Annie Cowles Claypool, and their two children. They built a house on the outskirts of town at 1309 First Avenue, across from what is now the Aurora Power Plant.

In the early 1900s the bank of the Chena River across First Avenue from the Claypool house was where steamboats were pulled up on “ways” (long wooden rails) during the winter. Early winter-time photos of Fairbanks looking west show the Claypool house surrounded by log cabins, with beached steamboats in the background.

The house’s exact year of construction is a bit of a mystery. Borough records estimate it was built in 1922, but other records indicate 1911. However, biographies of Claypool, including one in Volume II of “Biographies of Alaska-Yukon Pioneers,” state that Claypool left Alaska in 1909 and was the city attorney for Olympia, Wash., until 1913, when he was appointed as judge to the Washington State Superior Court.

A photograph in the Alaska Historical Society collection shows Charles Claypool and family in front of their house and is dated to about 1906, which fits in with the claim that the Claypool house is one of the earliest frame houses in Fairbanks.

The house is a square-built structure, with a basic design similar to the Joslin House on Cowles Street. The Claypool house is a 24-foot by 22-foot two-story frame home with a hipped roof, and is symmetrically designed with a centrally located front door. What is now an arctic entry was originally a covered front porch supported by Doric columns.

Otis Berry, Sr., purchased the house in 1925. He jacked it up during the 1930s and put in a center cross-beam salvaged from an abandoned steamboat beached across First Avenue. During the next 50 years, Berry’s son-in-law, Robert Young (married to Virginia Berry); and his son, Otis Berry, Jr.; built a shed-roofed kitchen addition at the rear of the house, replaced windows, changed the siding from ship-lap to bevel, and enclosed the front porch. In recent years a deck was installed over the rear addition, but the house remains faithful to its original design.

By the way, the inverted-u-shaped window at the rear of the house on the second floor is not original. That part of the second floor used to be a bedroom, but was converted into a bathroom. The window is built of glass blocks and wraps around a wall cabinet over the toilet.

The property just went on the market, so if you are interested in owning a piece of Fairbanks history, check it out.


  • “Biographies of Alaska-Yukon Pioneers,” Volume II, by Ed Ferrell, 1995, Heritage Books

  • Correspondence with Debbie Currence, granddaughter of Robert Young.

  • “Early History of Thurston County, Washington,” edited by Geogiana Blankenship, 1914, no publisher, Olympia, Washington

  • “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey,” by Janet Matheson, 1985, City of Fairbanks

  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful work here on your blog, Mr. Bonnell - I love reading about your adventures out to the old mines around town and your insight into the little-known history of Fairbanks.

    I contacted you via your email address available on this website about two or three weeks ago and haven't heard back - I'm a local photographer that focuses on many of the same locations you photograph out at and would love to get together with coffee. You can get ahold of me through my website or via email at jason(at)lucidperceptions(dot)com . Thank you!