Thursday, January 22, 2015

R. C. Wood, a neglected city father of Fairbanks



 
R. C. Wood's house in the mid 1980s

Richard Crowther “Dick” Wood, a pioneer Fairbanks banker and civic leader, was born in Winnemucca, Nevada in 1876. He spent much of his childhood in Tombstone, Arizona where his father built the city’s water system and first natural gas plant, and ran a bank.

In 1898, after finishing school, Wood moved to Dawson City as a clerk with the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. (Construction of the railroad wasn’t completed until 1901).

He sought richer diggings in 1903 and moved to Fairbanks, securing a job with the Northern Commercial Company as a bookkeeper. During his early years in Fairbanks, Wood also served as City Clerk and was on the board of directors of the “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.”

In 1906 Wood built a one-story, hipped-roof frame cottage at 927 First Avenue (on the corner of First and Kellum Street). It was a distinctive structure—in a style the book, Fairbanks, A Historic Building Survey, calls “Decorated Pioneer House,” with a bay window topped by a small gable, and large open porch facing First Avenue. I think this type of architecture, with its asymmetrical design, fish-scale shingles in the bay-window gable, and large front porch could also be classified as a simplified "Queen Anne" style cottage. Early photos show the house surrounded by an extensive garden.

It wasn’t long before Wood followed his father’s footsteps into the banking business, becoming a cashier in E.T. Barnette’s Fairbanks Banking Company. He left Barnette’s employ in 1908, and in 1909 Wood and several other partners purchased a competing bank, the First National Bank of Fairbanks. He was the major shareholder and eventually assumed the bank presidency.

Wood became an aviation enthusiast in 1915 after taking a ½ hour demonstration flight in a Loughead Hydro-aeroplane at San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition. (The pilot, Allan Loughead, become one of the founders of Lockheed Aircraft Company.)

His interest in flying was still high when school teacher and aviator Ben Eielson moved to Fairbanks in 1922. Eielson had temporarily given up aviation, but soon convinced a group of Fairbanks businessmen to purchase a plane for him. The Farthest North Airplane Company, with Wood as president, was formed in 1923 and bought Eielsen’s first Alaska plane, a Curtiss-Wright JN-4 “Jenny.”

The next year the Fairbanks Airplane Corporation, also with Wood as president, was formed. Noel Wien was the pilot, and Noel’s brother, Ralph, was the company mechanic (referenced as a “mechanician” in a newspaper article. (The Wiens established Wien Alaska Airways in 1927.)

Wood sold the bank in 1924, and in 1926 moved to Seattle. He returned to Fairbanks in 1934 as owner of the Fairbanks Agency Company, a brokerage firm. During this latter period he was on the Board of Regents of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. He died during a fire in 1944 and is buried at Birch hill Cemetery.

C. W. Snedden and then Gordon Wear owned the First Avenue residence after Wood. They expanded the house by building an attached shed-roofed garage and adding a 1/2 story with gable roof.
 (The drawing depicts this house.) During that time they continued to maintain the elaborately landscaped yard.

When Gordon Wear died in 1997, Snedden’s widow, Helen, re-purchased the property. Inspections showed the structure was too badly deteriorated to renovate so Mrs. Snedden had the building demolished, and a new building roughly following the original floor-plan and in the original style was built.

The new structure is slightly longer than the original and has a full-height second story, but otherwise remains faithful to the original design, including the front porch (now enclosed), bay window and other exterior details. The current owners, Cowell and Christmas Fuller, still maintain a beautifully landscaped yard and the house remains one of the highlights of the downtown Fairbanks walking tour.

End

Sources:

  • “Bank changes its Ownership and Personnel.” In Fairbanks Weekly Times. 5-15-1909

  • Conversations with Chuck Gray, personal friend of Helen Snedden

  • Conversations with Rick Winther, R. C. Wood’s grandson

  •  Fairbanks, a Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985

  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records

  • “Dick Wood is Flying High in San Francisco,” In The Alaska Citizen. 12-20-1915

  • “Our Nome Flyer’s are entertained by Organization.” In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 6-23-1925

  • R. C. Wood records in the possession of Rick Winther




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