Do you remember the old Bird House?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 20:00

There are some pieces of Alaska’s history that refuse to succumb to the ravages of time. I refer here to the Bird House, a popular Turnagain Arm watering hole that for more than three decades offered a unique Alaska experience that couldn’t be duplicated—not at the Malemute Saloon in Fairbanks, the Salty Dog in Homer or the rustic saloons at Skagway or Dawson City.

The Bird House burned down in 1996, but a few years later was resurrected at the site of Spenard’s popular night club, Chilkoot Charlies, where it is housed today.

Most newcomers probably have no recollection of the Bird House, its history and lore. While I wasn’t a regular patron, the few times I dropped by were experiences I won’t ever forget. To divulge all of the establishment’s jokes and pranks, however, would be tantamount to heresy, a violation of an unwritten code that has endured as long as I can remember. Customers then, as they do today, must discover the Bird House’s secrets for themselves, which remains part of the place’s charm.

Historical background: The original Bird House was located near Bird Creek, south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway. It was opened as a bar in 1963 by Cliff Brandt and his wife. But to trace the establishment’s history you must venture farther back into time, to 1903, when more than 1,500 miners stampeded to the area in search of gold. The original Bird House cabin was built by an unknown prospector that year.

In 1916 the Alaska Railroad construction crews set up a work camp in the Bird Creek area, which consisted of a bunkhouse, cookhouse and horse stable. When that portion of railroad from Seward to Anchorage was completed, the camp was abandoned. One of the buildings survived and was occasionally used by miners, trappers and travelers. In the mid-1920s a miner named Bus Bystedt leased some gold claims at the headwaters of Bird Creek and homesteaded the site where the original cabin and abandoned railroad building were located. In time, he joined the two cabins and made the enlarged structure his home — the structure that would eventually become the Bird House.

After World War II ended, Betty and Earl Mathewson, Bystedt’s daughter and her husband, took possession of the property. Over time, ground subsidence gave the southern half of the structure its distinctive list, or tilt. In 1963 Mr. and Mrs. Cliff Brandt purchased the property and in October of that year, the Bird House Bar opened to the public.

In late 1967 the bar was purchased by Norman Rokeberg, John Tegstrom and Mike Gordon, the latter of whom was proprietor of Spenard’s Chilkoot Charlies, named after the infamous character “Chilkoot Charlie” created by poet and radio personality Ruben Gaines. In 1968 the Bird House changed hands yet again when it was purchased by Anchorage schoolteacher Dick Delak. In 1993 Delak died in an airplane crash and his widow, Susan Delak, took over operating the bar.

Bird House fire and relocation: In 1999, three years after the bar was totally destroyed by fire, Mike Gordon purchased the rights to the Bird House Bar name from Susan Delak. He then began making plans to resurrect the bar at his popular site. The rebuilding project took two and a half years, and required study of old photographs, films, construction of scale models and as-builts. It was rebuilt as accurately as possible, to include decorative essentials such as nylon stockings, lingerie and other items of apparel, old credit cards, graffiti, old photographs and other atmospherics unique to the Bird House. At one point the construction crew tore out an already-installed floor and rebuilt the bar top because the angle wasn’t quite right.

One of the original, longtime bartenders, Jan Berkahn, played an essential role in re-creating the frontier ambience of the Bird House. He, as well as bartenders Matagan Becker and Jacquelyn Horrell, teamed up to make the Bird House what it was in past decades, and more.

The Bird House was always more than a bar, a place to partake in liquid refreshment. It was a social place, a meeting place, a place where everyone was just a bit friendlier, more animated. Jokes were funnier; people were noisier, more boisterous, more outrageous. When you walked into the Bird House you could always expect the unexpected. Anything was possible, and the best jokes — although you didn’t think so at the time — were the ones played on you.

The Bird House and its institutional memory live on today at Chilkoot Charlies, thanks to Mike Gordon and his associates. But a word of caution: be wary of bartenders slyly proferring things in jars.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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