The old home of legendary Alaska musher Leonhard Seppala of Nome is on the move.
Nome city fathers who’d once ordered the building bulldozed to keep it from being used by the homeless in the far north city are now onboard with the efforts to save it, according to Urtha Lenharr, president of a newly formed non-profit company called “The Leonhard Seppala House Project Inc.”
Lenharr, who spent a good part of his life in Northwest Alaska and there came to admire the accomplishments of Seppala, learned of the house’s impending demolition when he headed north from his new home in Pennsylvania to watch the end of the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
He quickly and easily convinced the then-owners of the structure to gift it to him, but was facing difficulties in finding a site outside of Nome on which to relocate the building by a city-imposed deadline of July 1.
The city early on voiced support for his house-saving efforts, but said it couldn’t help. Public pressure applied by Alaska fans of mushing and the Iditarod appears to have shifted that view somewhat.
“This past week City Manager (Tom Moran) told the Seppala House Project that they could place the building out by the Doll House at the monofill site,” Lenharr messaged today. “This is so much closer than moving far, far away from town. The city is behind the restoration project and has approved Community Share Funds which the group will use to pay to have the house moved.”
The monofil site on Center Creek Road is where Nome residents go to dispose of “inert waste including construction and demolition debris, scrap metal, tires, white goods, and vehicles,” according to the municipal website.
The house will be placed on blocks there until restoration work is finished, and it can be moved back into the city for use as a historic site for visitors. Lenharr was hopeful house mover Roger Thompson would have the transfer done by the end of the day.
“The floor was pretty rotten and had to be reinforced with steel,” Lenharr said, “but he’s doing an excellent job.”
Restoration does not look to be cheap or easy, but Lenharr and the other founders of the Seppala House non-profit are rallying to the cause. Well-known Alaska artist and Iditarod veteran Jon Van Zyle of Chugiak is the group’s vice-president.
The diverse group of Alaskans joining him on the non-profit’s board include his wife, Jona; Martha Ethridge, the Anchorage-based special projects coordinator for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium; Nona Safra, the owner of the Moose Creek Farm on the Kenai Peninsula; Phillip Dunn, the founder of the old Bering Straits newspaper, later a teach in Northwest Alaska, and now a writer and amateur historian in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley; and Theresa Daily of Chugiak, a graphic artist and sometimes spokeswoman for four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey.
All are fans of the man who was the most famous face in Alaska long before late Gov. Wally Hickel burst onto the national scene as Secretary of the Interior and former Gov. Sarah Palin later set American politics aflame as the Republican candidate for vice-president.
Long before the internet instantaneously sped Palin news around the globe, Seppala became world-famous for his role in the Nome Serum Run of 1925, a dogsled relay to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome because of bad weather that prevented planes from flying and kept the horses used often for transportation in those days in their barns.
Fifty-degree-below-zero weather can easily prove deadly to working horses, which sweat through the skin when exercising as do people. Dogs sweat only through their mouths and their feet, which prevents their furry coats from becoming wet and useless as insulation against the cold.
After the Serum Run, Seppala took his beloved lead dog Togo and about 40 other dogs on a nationwide tour that ended in New York City where Roald Amundsen, the famed polar explorer and Norwegian like Seppala, presented Togo with a gold medal for his role in the Serum Run.
As sled dogs slid out of the public eye, Seppala’s national fame slowly died, but he remained famous in the north until his death and remains to this day one of the best-known mushers ever to travel the trails of Alaska.