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Pioneer Seward Doctor: A Story in Glass Bottles

“Pioneer Seward Doctor: A Story in Glass Bottles” is an essay by Michael Hankins. Mr. Hankins grew up in Alaska and graduated from East High School in Anchorage in 1972. He wrote this essay out of a desire to share his experiences with the current Seward community, and for his children and grandchildren to learn about his early life in Alaska. He currently resides and writes in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

Pioneer Seward Doctor: A Story in Glass Bottles

By Michael Hankins-
Historic Glass Bottle Bearing JA Baughman’s name. Photo: Michael Hankins

It’s been nearly twenty years since friends Jeff Thimsen, Doug Harvey, and I sat on a sloping bluff near Old Knik, Alaska. We were quietly eating lunch that day taking in the sights. A downed tree trunk made the perfect backrest. Jeff was drinking hot coffee from a thermos. Doug had cold water in his canteen, while I sipped lukewarm Pepsi from a plastic bottle. You probably wonder how I remember minute details from so long ago. Easy! Those 3 drinks were ever present during our numerous outdoor expeditions.

The city of Anchorage loomed large, seemingly out of place several miles across muddy Knik Arm. Seagulls squawked relentlessly overhead being more pests than guests. With permission we’d traveled to the area in late July searching for old bottles. Early 1900’s Knik residents tossed garbage over the bluff’s edge. That was common practice back then. A good portion of the original home site was destroyed during the 1964 earthquake. Erosion, forest regrowth, and development took care of the rest. We still hoped to find remnants of trash.

Munching on sandwiches and talking trash, Jeff ran his 3-pronged garden rake through loose moss and soil at his feet. Upon hearing the pronounced sound of “tink” indicating glass on metal, all eating and drinking stopped. Jeff carefully dug through the root infested ground with both hands uncovering a small bottle. The artifact was unbroken. Brushing away layers of dirt – writing began to appear. Embossed on the medicine bottle was: The German Doctor – J.A. Baughman, M.D. – Seward, Alaska. We were stunned to say the least!

For the next several hours the 3 of us searched like deranged hyenas for additional treasure. None was found. With the historic Iditarod Trail winding its way through Knik, most likely this lone Seward drug bottle came to town via dog sled. The fragile glass vessel survived close to 100 harsh winters before Jeff miraculously uncovered it.

Driving back to Anchorage we stopped at Loussac Library for research. It took several books on Seward plus eye-straining microfiche before we came across information on Dr. Baughman. Bruce Merrell in ‘The Alaska Section’ was most helpful in our quest. What we found about Baughman’s life was both good and tragic. I’ll touch on history specifics as to not bore anyone with excessive dates and years.

Pioneer Seward Doctor JA Baughman Hunting. Photo: Seward Community Library.

John Albert Baughman was born March 10, 1856 in Ohio. He received medical training in Michigan at Bellevue Hospital Medical College. John Baughman graduated with high honors. On February 25, 1897 John married Mina May Barber. Soon afterwards he headed alone to Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada hoping to cash in on the quickly developing gold rush.

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Unable to practice medicine because he wasn’t a Canadian citizen, Dr. Baughman returned to the states. He was most likely dejected, yet still had a passion for the Klondike. Loading up goods and bringing along wife Mina, the couple made their way to rustic Skagway, Alaska. Dr. Baughman practiced medicine in the wild and raucous town from 1899 to 1904. Tragically during this time the young couple lost their 4-year-old son Paul and an unnamed newborn baby to illness. Both children are buried in Skagway’s Pioneer Cemetery.

It was after their last child’s death that the twosome moved to Seward. This was 1904. More than likely they were hoping to leave bad memories behind. The population of Seward increased ever so slightly after the Baughman’s set up residence. In 1906 daughter Beatrice was born. Two years later little Dorothy entered the world.

Dr. Baughman’s medical practice immediately took off. New doctors coming to Alaska were most welcome during that era. A drugstore owned by the physician was established. He also helped start what was called Pioneer Hospital. Being a person that liked to hunt wild game J.A. Baughman worked as a guide on the side. He later became Game Warden for the Third Alaska Division which included Seward. Dr. Baughman never lost ‘gold fever’.  He was a principal investor in a gold mine several miles north of town. I was fortunate to visit that site a few years ago.

In the year 1929 Mina May Baughman became ill and left the state. She died on January 14, 1929. Mina is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Barry County, Michigan. Three years prior to that Beatrice Baughman passed away at the age of 20 in Seattle. Dr. Baughman was left with daughter Dorothy. J.A. Baughman and his only child moved to Juneau where he practiced medicine for 5 years. He eventually became too ill to continue. The good doctor died November 28, 1937 at the age of 81. An archived obituary states that he was Jewish in religion as well as a Mason. Dorothy Baughman Russell passed away in 1985 while still residing in Juneau.

After my friend Jeff’s discovery of Dr. Baughman’s bottle I began a search of my own. Hiking, biking, boating, and flying to various Alaska locales, I added medicine bottles from Skagway, Valdez, Petersburg, Juneau, Douglas Island, Fairbanks, Wrangell, Eagle, Iditarod, Ketchikan, and Anchorage to my collection. Missing was the elusive Seward specimen.

As a last resort I placed an ad in the Seward newspaper offering to purchase one. One winter afternoon I received a call from Barbara Shea saying she had what I sought. Agreeing on a price without ever seeing it, I jumped in my truck and headed to Seward.

Meeting the lady at a local diner, I chatted with her a while over coffee. Asking how she spelled her last name Barbara cheerfully replied, “It’s like the baseball stadium…. S – H – E – A.”  The woman went on to tell me her late husband Seward Shea had been born and raised in town. His parents cleverly named him after it. Seward Shea was a member of the Alaska Territorial Guard during WWII. After the war he became quite a successful businessman.

In just a brief period of time I came to know Barbara Shea quite well. She was a wealth of knowledge where local history was concerned. We chatted about old times in Alaska. Seeing the eagerness in my eyes Barbara quickly reached for her purse. From it she plucked the Baughman bottle wrapped in newspaper. It was slightly larger than the one Jeff discovered. Handling the artifact with both hands I was amazed at the condition. There was a slight chip in the neck but not serious. Barbara told me husband Seward found it while they were out walking. That was in the 1950’s. It was one of her husband’s most cherished treasures. She mentioned he always kept the relic in a safe place.

We said our goodbyes that night and I drove back to Anchorage. Two years later I read that Barbara Shea had died. The town lost a much beloved resident when she did. If only we’d had more time that evening to shoot the breeze. I’m sure there were plenty more stories to hear.

I keep my Seward medicine bottle along with the rest of the collection tucked away in a fire resistant safe. What intrigues me most is not an antique’s value or rarity. Knowing that Dr. Baughman held this artifact, an unknown customer did the same, along with Seward and Barbara Shea make this relic near sacred where early Seward history is concerned. Of course no mortal will ever own such. It’s been proven time and time again that we’re mere caretakers and only that for a very short while!

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