Earl Nicholas Ohmer
1882 – 1955
By Judy and Susan Ohmer, granddaughters
Earl Nicholas Ohmer made his way west from Dayton, Ohio, then north from Seattle, arriving in Petersburg in 1914. His Alaska-bound map was the words of a new friend Mr. DeArmond, “keep the land on your right.” With these directions Earl made his way slowly into the Territory of Alaska, following the entire coastline without a chart. Arriving in the developing Norwegian fishing village of Petersburg in 1914, he pioneered the shrimping industry in Southeastern Alaska.
Earl began to experiment with the catching and processing of shrimp aboard the Osprey, and by 1916 he and his brother-in-law were in business, Earl in Alaska and Karl in Seattle. They added boats to their fleet over the years – boats of character and colorful history. One of their first was the Kiseno that took its name from a combination of their initials: Karl I. Sifferman and Earl N. Ohmer. There was the Charles W., a schooner they noticed when a crowd had gathered on a Seattle dock for a Marshall’s sale; they realized bidders were deliberately keeping the price of the boat low and that that was a sad and wrong thing for the widow who had little else. Earl and Karl went to opposite sides of the crowd and began bidding the price higher – until they realized that they were bidding against themselves and finally bought the boat, dubbed it the Charles W. after Karl’s grandfather. Soon after they purchased another boat, and named it the Charles T. after Earl’s grandfather. They painted the boats gray, with red trim, a tradition that stood throughout the history of the shrimping business in Petersburg.
Earl had the ready appearance of a pioneer scouting new territory; and he ran his business in the same manner. He expanded from shrimping into salmon, halibut, and butter clams, fur farming and gold mining. At one point he had 12 cannery boats in the shrimping fleet and another processing plant in Cordova.
Generations of many families have worked along side the Ohmers in the shrimping business. Most notably are the Kainos, the Greiners, and the Kawashimas.
Earl Ohmer was dubbed the “Shrimp King of Alaska.” His cannery, Alaskan Glacier Sea Food Company, with its label “Frigid Zone” set the gold standard for quality of handpicked shrimp across the country. He took great pride in his product, the crew who produced it, and the nomenclature on his window and stationery: “Earl Ohmer and Sons.” A sense of family, community, and legacy were important to him.
Earl was adventurous, industrious, and hospitable – a one-man chamber of commerce, employment office, museum curator, and 24-hour loan officer. He served on the City Council, was elected Mayor, was chairman of the Alaska Game Commission, was sought out as Territorial Governor, and in the words of his granddaughter Penny/Katelyn Ohmer “Any other thing he could get into for the good of the city, his neighbors, and friends.”
He was accepted and respected outside the town he called home. The Martins of Kake, Tlingets of the Eagle clan, adopted Earl; his Native name was “Tatuten,” meaning “Still Waters Run Deep.” National and territorial politicians, stateside businessmen/ industrialists, and movie stars also welcomed him. To all, he answered the telephone, “Ohmer talkin’.”
He was easily recognized, sporting a winsome smile, a twinkle in his eye, and blue smoke that he blew from his pipe. While a description of Earl may sound like one of Santa Claus, he looked like a cowboy – clad in riding breeches, leather leggings and a ten gallon hat, his seal skin vest open to show his gold watch chain, gold nugget, and along with various ivory-handled jack knives dangling from his belt.
His cowboy appearance was real. Prior to venturing to Alaska, Earl graduated from St. Boniface University in Canada where he’d planned on being a Royal Mounted Policeman. He was disqualified as being too short, but spent five years breaking horses for the men who rode. Earl then packed up, headed west, and settled into ranching in Eastern Oregon. He roped and wrangled for many years, and served as deputy sheriff along the way. But then people began building fences, and cowboys don’t like fences. It’s then that Earl set out for new territory in Alaska and what became his home.
In 1943 a fire destroyed his cannery at Citizen’s Dock. Earl rebuilt, determined to provide jobs for the many workers who relied on him. By all counts he should have been a rich man. But, he added things up differently than most, and people came before profits. Earl believed it was more important to extend a loan or provide a job (even if he had more workers than were needed to get the job done) than it was to see his profits soar. He knew the dignity that work affords.
Earl came from a long line of entrepreneurial, hardworking businessmen. When Earl first departed Dayton, Ohio, he left behind a family tradition in manufacturing and invention (Ohmer cash registers, taxi meters, trolley car fare boxes, and lawn mowing machines). He also left a family history of horticulture from wheat farming in Argyle, Minnesota, to the developing and propagation of the Nick Ohmer strawberry. His family home at 1350 Creighton Avenue is on the National List of Historic Houses.
He loved the Territory of Alaska and knew he was home. He’d often sit on the porch in the evening, smoking his pipe and commenting, “It’s 60 degrees, best temperature in the world, by golly. We’re living in God’s country.”
Earl Ohmer married Loyla Von Oston in 1918. They raised three sons and a daughter: Bob, Dave, Jim, and Patti.
When Earl passed on in 1955, his son Dave assumed the leadership and presidency of Alaska Glacier Sea Foods. Dave left his father’s office untouched, even to the last ashes in Earl’s pipe. In 1983 this office, a landmark on Main Street, was repositioned at the Clausen Memorial Museum. This decision came with an unknown blessing, for in 1985 the cannery burned to the ground again, taking with it all historical memorabilia and family treasure. Earl’s collection ranged from Native totems and carved fishing hooks to machine wax recordings, from pocket watches to pipes, from a gun collection to baleen carvings, from furs and flying fish wings to glass balls. His office wall was a community bulletin board completely covered with pictures of friends and visitors, cartoons, and certificates.
Earl’s artifacts and the spirit he created around him can be experienced at the museum, or you can glimpse it in a talk with family members who carry on some of his traditions.