Hi! I’m Laurel Bill (Laurel Downing Bill), author of the “Aunt Phil’s Trunk” Alaska history book series. The series developed after I inherited newspaper clips, research and rare Alaska history books from my Alaska historian aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson, who died in 1993.
Aunt Phil wrote many articles about Alaska’s past for national newspapers and magazines during her lifetime. And she won national awards for many of them.
Once I saw the quality of her work, I knew I had to bring them to light for the world.
I returned to college to get the tools needed for the big project ahead. I graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2003 with honors and a degree in journalism and a minor in history.
The series was born as a weekly newspaper column in The Anchorage Chronicle, July 2002. The short stories soon became one of the most popular features in the paper.
After receiving such an enthusiastic response to tales of Alaska’s days gone by, I turned my attention to developing the state’s history from thousands of years ago – when the Native people first arrived in the country – up to the present.
Then I searched through the archives of museums, libraries and universities around the country to find historical photographs to help tell the stories. I found so many photographs and wonderful stories that my plan for one book has turned into five volumes. And my desire to share Alaska’s history has turned into a passion.
Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4 – released in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 – are flying off shelves of both major and independent bookstores, as well as gift shops and chain stores across Alaska. And the last book in the series, Volume Five – released early in 2016 and featuring the first 25 years of statehood – won the 2016 Literary Classics International award for best historical nonfiction. All five books won for best nonfiction series.
More about the author:
Born in Fairbanks in 1951, I moved to Juneau (the state capital) in 1959 after Dad, Richard Downing, became the state’s first commissioner of public works.
Eight years later, our family began traveling when Dad took a job with a company building roads and bridges around the world. We lived in villages in Cameroon and Liberia (West Africa), Tanzania (East Africa) and Indonesia.
Few schools existed in the areas where we lived, so my parents shipped me off to Spain to study. I graduated from an American high school in Mallorca, in 1969, and then attended one year of college in Leysin, Switzerland.
After returning to Alaska in 1970 (because, at 19, I thought I knew everything and wanted to get on with my life), I went to work as a clerk-typist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. That’s where I ordered my husband.
Let me explain …
For three years, I worked alongside 30 single biologists. But none of them was the right fit for me as a lifelong companion. One day, one of my bosses was heading to Anchorage to interview folks for a new biologist position. I handed him a long list of things to consider during those interviews: Applicant should be tall, handsome, have a good sense of humor, like to dance, play cards, etc.
He hired Donald Bill in February 1973. We were engaged by May and married that November!
Six months later, we moved to King Salmon – a small village about 360 air miles southwest of Anchorage – where Don began managing the world’s largest commercial red salmon fishery, and I worked my way up the ladder of the local telephone company to become its assistant general manager. Over that 20-plus year span in the remote community, Don and I birthed two children, Kim and Ryan, and helped raise our foster daughter, Amie.
After 24 years living along King Salmon Creek, where herds of caribou, big brown bears and lanky moose regularly strolled by, we retired into Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.
That’s when I had the opportunity to go through Aunt Phil’s writings and decided to go back to college in the fall of 1999.
During my junior year at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I took an internship with Alaska Newspapers Inc. My duties included proofreading seven weekly rural newspapers. That experience helped me understand the difference between good and great writing.
When the company started another weekly paper, The Anchorage Chronicle, in July 2002, I became one of its main reporters – and began my column, “Aunt Phil’s Trunk.”
I wrote several award-winning articles for the Chronicle during its 30-month existence. “Life or Meth,” a story that featured methamphetamine cooks, users and the undercover cops who hunted them, earned me sixth place in a national William Randolph Hearst Foundation competition in 2004.
“Condo Catastrophes,” a four-week series that appeared in the Chronicle that same year, covered the shady side of the building industry in Anchorage and won a first-place award from the Alaska Press Club in 2005.
And “Blue Parka Bandit,” printed in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, told the tale of a gold-rush era highwayman in Alaska’s Interior. It received honors from the Alaska Press Club in 2006. That story is included in Volume 1.
It took me six years, but the fifth, and final, book in my Alaskan history series hit the bookstores in January 2016. This last volume shares stories from Alaska’s first 25 years of statehood – including the Great Earthquake of 1964, building the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and much, much more.
I had hoped to have No. 5 finished earlier, but my husband changed my plans by undergoing a triple bypass and aortic valve replacement for his heart in 2010. That operation kept me home caring for him instead of out and about doing interviews and gathering research. The good news, however, is that Don is doing well and I hope to have him around for many more years.
But I did manage to get another book developed during that time, because I changed the way I baked with our sourdough starter.
Most of my sourdough recipes called for sugar, eggs, butter and all the other wonderful ingredients that are not good for folks with high levels of bad cholesterol and blood sugar.
So I developed recipes using substitutes and created mouth-watering desserts like cranberry chocolate cake, white chocolate cherry muffins, whole-wheat pancakes, cookies and more with my 115-year-old sourdough starter. All that experimenting has turned into a cookbook, “Sourdough Cookery,” which has more than 100 heart-healthy recipes sure to delight even the most picky eater in your family. (I included how many real eggs, butter, sugar and what-nots are needed for each recipe, so those with no health issues can enjoy the recipes, too!)
I also learned to dry my sourdough, so each cookbook comes with a starter that dates back to my great-grandfather’s gold-rush days in Hope, Alaska, between 1896-1898.
My next projects were recreations of much-loved books from days gone by. The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses, by Robert Service, debuted Christmas 2015. I added a short biography with photos at the end of that book, which features some of Service’s most well known poems, such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and the “Cremation of Sam McGee.”
In June 2017, I released The Call of the Wild and Other Northland Stories by Jack London. I read the Call of the Wild for the first time this past winter and just loved it. So much so that I researched other London works and found about a dozen more short stories that he wrote in 1899-1900 about the Klondike just as he was developing his fiction-writing career. These stories are included in this book, along with a short biography about his life.
What is my next project? Well, I have some ideas – I’ll keep you posted as they develop!be
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