The Erskines were a powerful family in Kodiak in the early 20th century. W.J. Erskine was a successful businessman and his wife Nellie Erskine was central in Kodiak’s social scene.
They made their home in what is now the Baranov Museum and the family’s relationship to books is part of a new exhibit. KMXT got a sneak peak of Nellie Erskine’s Corner and has this story.
An old-looking radio plays classic programs on a loop in the Baranov Museum’s new exhibit Nellie’s Corner. The display focuses on Nellie Erskine and Kodiak’s history of literacy.
Nellie and her family moved to Kodiak in the early 1900s, just before the Katmai eruption and lived in what is now the Baranov Museum. Nellie, the matriarch of the family, loved books and that’s one of the reasons the museum did its best to recreate her reading corner, says Michael Bach, the former collections manager of the museum.
“So you’ll see in front of the orange bookshelf covered with books, a chair with a fox skin on the back and an ottoman in the front with a large basket, if you’re sitting in the chair, to your right.”
Bach says the exhibit is interactive and hopes visitors will flip through some books Nellie may have had, like Jane Eyre, and get a feel for how it would’ve felt to sit with her while she read.
“We invite patrons to come in, sit down, and grab a book off the shelf and get a sense of what it may have been like to be Nellie Erskine sitting in her corner looking out over the channel and seeing who’s coming into town.”
Nellie wasn’t the only person in her family who was crazy about reading. Katie Morrison, the museums assistant collections manager, says Nellie’s husband W.J. Erskine, a successful businessman in Kodiak, constantly had books shipped to the family.
“He would correspond with three to four different publishers in New York and Seattle and if they got a book that they thought he wanted they’d just ship it up to him with the invoice and he paid it.”
The Erskines were very involved in Kodiak’s community in all sorts of ways and so were their books. Nellie would lend out their collection to soldiers who were stationed in Kodiak during WWII and also host a weekly storytime for children.
Morrison says, Her willingness to share literature became a valuable resource for the community, especially for the young. Kodiak’s school system was still developing then, so her storytimes helped fill in some gaps.
“There wasn’t a big curriculum, so a lot of this was supplemental and continuing education and I think that was important to Nellie. I believe also what was important to Nellie is creating and maintaining this building’s history of a community center and a gathering place.”
The Erskines along with many others helped inspire a passion for reading in the region that’s carried on to this day and it’s that legacy Nellie’s Corner is celebrating.