By Suzanne Norquist
When I think of hostessing, the name Martha Stewart comes to mind. A carefully decorated space. Matching placemats and napkins. The perfect Crème Brûlée. However, none of those things would have survived the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1900s.
Nellie Neal Lawing, also known as Alaska Nellie, served as a larger-than-life hostess along the railroad between Seward and Anchorage. She ran a dog sled team, shot wild game, fished, and gardened to provide food for the various roadhouses she ran.
In July 1923, President Harding and his entourage stayed at her establishment as they traveled to an Alaskan Golden Spike-driving ceremony. In her warm kitchen, she served him pancakes just like everyone else.
A transplant to Alaska, Nellie Trosper was born in Missouri on July 25, 1873, the eldest of ten surviving children. There she learned to hunt, trap, and survive in the woods. She helped care for the large family alongside her mother and codntinued after her mother died. Her father remarried when she was twenty-seven years old, and she set off on her own adventure.
Although she dreamed of Alaska, she didn’t go there immediately. For a time, she ran a boarding house in the mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Probably not much different than taking care of her large family. There, she married Wesley Neal, a mine assayer. Unfortunately, “that demon, rum,” destroyed the marriage, and she left, making her way to Alaska.
Once there, she cooked and drove freight for a mining crew. When they stopped work for the winter, she pulled a sled thirty miles into the wilderness (by herself, wearing snowshoes) and set up housekeeping at an abandoned miner’s cabin. She fell in love with the beauty of the rugged wilderness and experienced the glow of the northern lights.
The following spring, she learned of the railroad’s plans to build and applied to run an eating house at Mile 45. She was the first woman to be awarded that kind of contract. She called the place Grandview and made a sign from blue letters cut from an old coat sewn onto white canvas.
A space above the dining room held thirteen bunks, used as sleeping quarters for the men. Nellie slept in a small room above the kitchen. Cold water flowed from the mountain and was piped into the building.
As an expert hunter, tracker, and musher, Nellie’s exploits became legendary. She was known as the female "Davy Crockett" of Alaska. When the mail carrier didn’t arrive, she took her dog team out and rescued him. While he warmed at her place, she delivered the mail herself. Another time, the train got stuck two miles away, so she cooked up a hearty meal and delivered it to the digging crew.
After her contract ended, she ran a larger boarding house at Dead Horse Hill, a key location in constructing the Alaskan Railroad. There she employed staff and could seat 125 workers. This is the one where President Harding stayed. After the railroad was complete, she moved to a railroad stop on Kenai Lake and opened another boarding house. She also built a museum to hold all of her hunting trophies.
While contracted with the railroad, she became engaged to Kenneth Holden, one of the workers. Unfortunately, he died in an accident before they could marry. Sometime later, she married his cousin, Billie Lawing. He joined her at the new boarding house, and it was renamed Lawing. She referred to Billie as the love of her life and enjoyed thirteen years with him before he passed away.
For many years, she greeted visitors to the area with a tour of her museum and stories of her adventures in the wilderness. She died in 1956 at age 82.
She spent most of her life as the larger-than-life hostess of the Alaskan wilderness, feeding and caring for travelers. I don’t think even Martha Stewart could argue that she should have done it differently.
”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
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She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.