Chugiak artist joins effort to restore Seppala’s historic Nome home

Friday, July 13, 2018 - 10:06
  • The Leonhard Seppala House in Nome. The legendary musher lived in the home in the early 1900s, the same time he participated in a life-saving serum relay from Nenana to Nome. (Photo courtesy of Urtha Lenharr)

A Chugiak artist and dog musher is helping preserve a crumbling piece of Alaska history.

Iditarod Hall of Fame member Jon Van Zyle is well known for his official Iditarod prints, which have been a staple of the annual sled dog race to Nome since 1977. Now he’s turning his keen eye on a long-forgotten bit of Iditarod Trail lore.

“We basically believe in the fact that history should be saved and not just discarded,” said Van Zyle, who finished the race in 1976 and 1979 before becoming the race’s official artist.

The project he’s working on is an attempt to preserve the house Leonhard Seppala lived in while the legendary, life-saving Norwegian made his home in Nome during the early 1900s. The house has long since fallen into disrepair, and was slated for demolition until former Nome schoolteacher Urtha Lenharr got involved. Lenharr said he’s long been fascinated by the house, and approached owner Patrick Krier of Krier Enterprises about purchasing the home. Krier told Lenharr in March he could have the house as long as he moved it by July 1.

“He said, ‘If you still want that house you better get on it,” Lenharr recalled in a June 28 interview.

Lenharr hastily formed a nonprofit, with Van Zyle serving as vice president. Lenharr said the house will be moved to a location near the monofill site on Center Creek Road. The city of Nome donated $3,000 to help cover the cost of moving, and the new nonprofit will take care of the restoration project, which Lenharr said will likely take more than a year.

Once the home is moved, the next step will be to evaluate how much work is needed on the wooden structure and raising money to get the job done.

“We’re looking forward to getting people out there to start appraising what it needs as far as material-wise and raising the funds or donations of support to go ahead and start it,” Lenharr said.

Seppala is perhaps the most famous musher to participate in the legendary serum run from Nenana to Nome during a diptheria outbreak in 1925. During the life-saving relay, Seppala’s dog team ran the most miles of any of the 21 mushers involved in the perilous trek to deliver serum to the stricken town, and it was his dogs — in particular Togo and Balto — that were singled out for praise after the successful mission.

Van Zyle said he’s always had a keen interest in Seppala due to their shared love of Siberians. Although he no longer races, Van Zyle said any Siberian owner owes Seppala.

“He basically started the Siberian husky breed,” Van Zyle said.

The Chugiak artist said he’s passionate about the history of Nome and the Iditarod. Although the serum run wasn’t the reason Joe Redington Sr. started the Iditarod, the historic event has since been inextricably linked to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which honors the serum run and covers some of the same trail the relay mushers used in 1925.

That rich historical significance is why Van Zyle thinks it’s so important to preserve Seppala’s former home.

“Some of us get tired of seeing history destroyed,” he said.

Lenharr said the small wooden home is about 17 feet wide by 24 feet deep. After it’s restored, he’s hopeful it can be moved to a location near the city’s new museum to become part of a historical district. But that’s still a long way down the road, and for now the nonprofit is focusing on planning and lining up donations.

“We’re taking baby steps,” he said.

Lenharr said he can’t estimate how much work and money will be needed for the project until he has a contractor take a look at the home, which he said is “needs quite a bit of work.”

If the nonprofit can pull the project off, Lenharr said it will be a proud moment.

“It’ll be kind of neat to be able to see a building that was something he lived in or a piece of our history that reminds us of our past,” he said.

To read more about the project or donate to the restoration, visit the group’s website at leonhardseppalahouseproject.com.

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