episode 8


Episode 8

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Ephemera Hope in Hard Times
Washington During
the Great Depression
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Audio Transcript - Episode 8


MP3 - Mollie Satko


Sometime around three in the morning of May 25,1940 the Anacortes fishing fleet took to the water. Even in late spring, the wind was brisk and the water choppy. If you'd been watching from the shore you'd have been hard pushed to notice, circled by fishing boats like a protective flotilla, the Ark of Juneau. On board were Paul and Mollie Satko and their seven children. In defiance of a court order preventing the children who were under 18 from boarding the boat, the Satko family were together again and en route to Alaska and a new life. In other words—they had done a runner.

Or so one story has it.

The Satkos left behind the City of Anacortes—that had treated them like long lost celebrity relatives—hosting receptions, donating gifts of clothes, food and gasoline—and generally falling in love with their can-do spirit. Or maybe their 'WILL do no matter what the authorities say—spirit'.

Anita Mayer grew up in Anacortes in the 1930s. Her dad—Paul Luvera—was a grocer of Italian descent, an enthusiastic member of the town's Chamber of Commerce in 1940 and probably the man most responsible for inviting the Satkos to make Anacortes their last US stop-off before open water. But just before we get to that—to give you a picture of the town at this time—when Anita's growing up it's a maritime community of around eight and a half thousand people. And it's still very much in the grip of the Great Depression:

Anita: Fishing and logging were the two major industries that were going on. And if there was a good run of salmon in the summer then the community felt that economically, because not only did people from here go out on the fishing boats, the women worked at the canneries, they bought their supplies here, they had their credit accounts at my dad's store. If there was a good year then the whole town benefited. If there was a bad year of fishing with a low catch then we all had to carry the load of that. And we were very aware of it.

It was also a radical town, partly because of the industries it relied upon and partly because many of them were fast going out of business. It's said that at one point Anacortes had more communists per head of population than San Francisco. That free thinking tradition might have been part of what led to the Satko's getting such a warm reception. Well, that and the fact that Paul Luvera of the Chamber of Commerce knew that whatever the Ark's failings as a sea-going craft, as a publicity vehicle for his town it couldn't have been better:

Anita: My dad promoted Anacortes at every opportunity. And he—he should have been a PR person—he was a master. I would wager, and I don't have any facts for this, he saw the article and he saw it in a positive way, an opportunity to advertise Anacortes, to bring something to the community that was exciting and unique at that point in time. He was a promoter.

Facts or no facts, the Satkos were entertained in grand style at the Luvera house, as was the custom for all the passing dignitaries of the time. Mollie, Paul's wife, was now pregnant with what would be her ninth child, and looked tired. But the wheels of the publicity machine kept grinding, as the Empire Theater played host to the Satkos for an evening of speeches and interviews to raise money for the ongoing journey, and a grand send-off was planned for May 24,1940.

Just what happened next is as murky as the weather was that early summer morning. Here's Paul Satko's version of events as recounted to Amos Berg of the Smithsonian. Paul knew that the coast guard was watching him. And not for the first time on his Odyssey to Alaska, to evade them he determined to leave town 'before breakfast':

Paul: I called at the customs office just before closing time—five minutes before closing time—and asked for clearance papers and of course I was given the clearance papers and by daybreak the next day I was missing at Anacortes. At daybreak some steamer, I don't know what it was, probably was surprised to see the Ark taking some high dives into Ruzeera (?) Straits. Happened that a storm blew up during the night but, according to my opinion if I didn't leave then we never would so storm or no storm we went. However it was a good test for the Ark whether or not it would take the storm and it did. We continued and the last port we had in the States was Friday Harbor.

Which all seems straightforward enough, you might think. But questions persist: why didn't the coast guard see them leaving? There's a story that someone—maybe the harbor master at Anacortes—sent the coast guard on a wild goose chase to Lopez Island to get them out of the way. There's another story that says that by the time the Satkos reached the Canadian maritime border, the coastguard was closing in on them. Once they saw the Ark of Juneau cross into Canadian waters, though, they stopped chasing, raised their hands in salute and turned back towards Anacortes.

One way or the other, by the time the Tacoma News Tribune printed the headline 'Satko and Ark Gone' exclamation mark—Paul Satko, his expectant wife and seven children were somewhere on the water north of the border.