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Martha Euphemia Tula Macelhaine
aka Mattie Crosby or Miss Tootsie

(1884 - 1972)

Mattie Crosb

Mattie Cosby, circa 1971
Photo: Fairbanks Daily News - Miner

On August 14, 1911 an Afro-American woman nicknamed Tootsie arrived in Iditarod, Alaska. She didn’t see another Afro-American for seventeen years, but in that long interval, she more than held her own in Iditarod and its adjacent mining town of Flat. And, as she told writer Helen Gillette:

“If I wanted to see another dark face, I just looked in the mirror.”
Tootsie, also known as Mattie Crosby, was born in Maine on May 2, 1884 into a family of about 27 children. The exact number was immaterial as Tootsie never knew most of them anyway. Mattie was little more than an infant when her mother died, and Mattie was adopted into the Wade family who as Mattie remarked later “treated me just like a queen” and made sure that she had an education. Mattie traveled with the Wades, as they pulled up their roots to follow the Klondike rush to Dawson, then eventually to Fairbanks and the Koyukuk. She entered Alaska in 1900. She gained her last name by falling in love and marrying a miner by the name of Crosby, who was mining gold on Goldstream Creek in the Fairbanks District, but the marriage didn’t last.

On one of her well-below freezing jaunts, Mattie lost an eye and her hair. She wore a variety of wigs that often made here appear like, according to John Miscovich “another Afro-American woman in town”. She also found alternate ways to make a living—in addition to prospecting and running a ‘steamy’ bathhouse. Tootsie was an exceptional cook and through the years, supported herself by preparing frontier banquets as well as ordinary meals in either her little home in Flat or in larger commercial facilities. She opened a lunch room and tavern in Flat after leaving Iditarod. The original Donnelly and Sheppard Store in Flat still has Tootsie’s luncheon menu tacked to the wall.

She was always an entrepreneur, but a compassionate one. Mattie left Alaska in 1909 but returned in 1911 and went to Iditarod with the aim of establishing the finest bathhouse in Alaska, which very possibly she did.

Tootsie never drank or smoked. Yet, with the passage of the Volstead Act (Prohibition) in 1919, Tootsie became an enthusiastic bootlegger, selling her own moonshine and the product purchased from Andrew (Sr) Miscovich and Donnelley and Sheppard. If a miner consumed his last year’s profit, Tootsie was always good for a grubstake.

Tootsie was a business woman and long before credit cards, she operated a sort of ‘carry on and pay later’ business. While she did lose money to some unscrupulous individuals who managed to skip Flat on a plane before paying, overall her business was profitable. Tootsie sunk nearly all of her loan business profits into a mining ventures on Bear Creek and Marvel Creek in the NYAC mining district. Bear Creek proved to a good placer prospect, but for real success, it demanded more capital that Mattie could put together. It would later be mined by companies with sufficient capital.

In May, 1925, the first ‘commercial’ flight took place between Fairbanks and Flat. Tootsie was the only one on board that inaugural event. She reportedly paid $500 for the flight, which was piloted by a man named Bennett. The cost included some resupplies for her businesses in Flat.

Mattie and Two Men at Flat

Crosby and Two Men at Flat
Photo: Miscovich Family CollectionS

June McAtee, a descendant of Saami reindeer herders active in southwest Alaska, remembers comments made by her mother. Tootsie used to visit the Kvamme reindeer family in Aniak. At the time, Tootise had claims on Ophir Creek south of Aniak in the northern foothills of the Kilbuck Mountains. During the initial 1935 meeting, Tootsie was the first Afro-American woman that June’s mother had ever seen. MacAtee further relates:

“It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall during visits between the two woman. A Saami and an Afro-American in Aniak prior to WWII—so different but both making a living with gold miners all around them.”

Mattie’s non-mining successes led to her one jail term. Out of jealousy, less successful prostitutes turned Mattie in for bootlegging and she served six months in jail in Fairbanks. At the end of her term her jailors were sorry to see her go, as they had never eaten so well. After serving her jail time, Tootsie would never sell illegal alcohol again. Attorney and sometimes gold miner Earnest B. Collins (E.B.) had been the prosecuting attorney on the case. A few years later, E.B. ran for Territorial legislature and John Miscovich took E. B. on a campaign visit to visit Tootsie at her lunchroom in Flat. Mattie told E. B.:

“Mr. Collins, I don’t know if I want to kiss you or kill you.”
She decided the former, gave E. B. a big hug and voted for him (he won). E.B. Collins was a former Speaker of the Territorial House, where he successfully sponsored a bill in 1913 that granted woman the right to vote in Alaska. He was a mayor of Fairbanks during the 1930s and a delegate to the 1955-56 Alaska Constitution Convention. He was inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame in 2008.

Mattie standing

Mattie Cosby
Photo: Courtesy of Sandy MiscovichS

By the 1950s, Tootsie was a living legend in the Iditarod. In 1956, Verda Miscovich came to Flat from Washington State to cook for the North American Dredging Company operation, which was dredging for gold on Otter Creek at the time. She met her future husband, Andy, there. She quickly grew close to Tootsie and they remained friends for life.

“Tootsie loved music of all kinds—jazz, classical, and contemporary--and would play her favorites on an RCA Victor record player at all hours of the day. People used to stop by her place for a cup of coffee or a sandwich just to listen to the music.”

According to Verda, Tootsie’s efficiency and creativeness at running her own business was admirable. “Tootsie’s place was always clean and well managed. She did not tolerate anyone that would make a mess of things there. I remember with humor one enterprise that she did quite well in. She kept good care of the really fancy gowns that she wore when she was young--during the Iditarod Gold Rush. Women from McGrath, Fairbanks and Anchorage would fly to Flat to rent her gowns for some official event—or maybe just a holiday ball. They always returned them—I don’t recall her ever saying she lost even one.”

Tootsie was an Afro-American woman, and in the days before integration, did have to face racial insensitivities from time to time. John Miscovich remembers a time when he had returned from a Cold War missile development program in Alabama that he was consulting for. He had stopped in Flat to give her his regards. He had told her that he had just been ‘in her part of the country’ when she abruptly stopped him in mid sentence saying:

“Mr. John! I am not from Alabama but from the Great State of Maine. I should hope that my New England accent is proof of that!”
Mattie and John were close friends so nothing negative ever came of the encounter.

Mattie at Flat

Mattie at Flat
Photo: Courtesy of Sandy Miscovich

In her later years, Mattie supported a several old timers, especially Mike Burns, who in turn kept Tootsie in firewood. All the old timers were stove up in one way or another and when Mike lost his sight and Mattie’s legs began to give out, she and Mike moved first to the Pioneer’s Home in Sitka, then to the Home in Fairbanks. On the way to Sitka, they stopped in Anchorage for a few days where Mattie greeted Anchorage pioneers. By then, She was wheel-chair-bound and staying at Providence Hospital. When some Iditarod pioneers came to visit her she exclaimed:

“Great day in the Morning! I have never been so happy in my life. This is one of the greatest meetings I have ever had!”

Later during her Anchorage stay, Tootsie reminisced with Lois Pedersen, the widow of dredge master Fred Pedersen, who recalled, “In Flat those years we were like one happy family—that’s the kind of friends we are.” Tootsie answered,

“Ain’t that the truth, and the Lord surely blessed us.”

Tootsie died in Fairbanks at age 88 on October 11, 1972. Old timers could only remember Tootsie’s funeral turnout like those for Felix Pedro, Fannie Quigley or other beloved Alaskan personalities.

Written by Charles C. Hawley and Thomas K. Bundtzen, October 25, 2012

SOURCES

We are indebted to John Miscovich and Verda Miscovich for information and many insights into Tootsie Crosby.

Sometime after World War II, Mattie Crosby possessed a hand-written autobiography that described her life in Alaska. Someone offered to get it typed up for her. Tragically, when she lent the only copy out for typing and review, it was lost. People are still attempting to locate even fragments of that manuscript. Much of the information provided to the AMHF by John Miscovich are based at least in part on recollections of what was in the autobiography, which he had read while in Mattie’s possession.

Other Sources are:

Buzzell, Rolfe, 1993, Iditarod taped and written interviews available with the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Curtis, Allan, 1973, Iditarod’s Newspapers: Alaska Journal Volume 6, No. 2, 1978 pages 78-83

Letters and oral correspondence with John Miscovich to Hawley and Bundtzen, 1994 to 2012

Helen Gillette, “An Era died at Iditarod-Flat when Old-Timer Tootsie Crosby went to Sitka Home.”

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