Kitty Hensley House
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Kitty Hensley House
[Kitty Hensley House
Photo by Julie Coghill.]

The Kitty Hensley House

The Kitty Hensley House, built around the turn of the century on Eight Avenue, was moved to lot No. 11 in Alaskaland in 1967.

Probably built just after the turn-of-the-century, the Kitty Hensley house resembles the small Queen Anne-style cottages of the western continental United States.

Each window's upper sash is banded by red glass squares and frosted glass rectangles. But there is a major difference - this house is made of logs, painted purple.

The logs were planed on three sides to form level stacking surfaces and an interior face for plastering easily. The fourth face curved outward to block snow and heat. The original one-story house took up less than 200 square feet of space, while a front-facing gable shed rain and snow.

Kitty Hensley's home and life were linked by providence and fortune to that of Captain Smythe of the Florence S. on which she and her daughter sailed for many years.

The promise of fortune lured Smythe onto the Chilkoot Trail in July of 1898, at the age of 40. He followed the gold trail to Dawson moving to Fairbanks in 1904. There he hauled passengers and freight along the Tanana and Chena rivers during the gold rush which brought the city's population to approximately 10,000 by 1909.

No one is sure who Mr. Hensley was, other than that he had been a partner with Captain Smythe. Rumors that still persist claim that he was a lawyer in Nome, and a couple of miners in Dawson once were named Hensley.

Katherine Hensley, known as Kitty, had owned the cabin on Eighth Avenue for more than two years when the end of the Florence S came.

As the ice on the Chena River went through its annual "break up" one year (probably about 1913, it damaged the riverboat Florence S. in its moorings near Fairbanks. Captain E.J. Smythe dismantled the damaged boat, and  salvaged the wood to remodel the home of his ex-partners' abandoned wife.

Smythe  continued to care for Katherine Hensley for almost 20 years after that, giving rise to rumors about the Captain and Kitty's relationship. Some still think of her as a "kept woman" and Smythe, nicknamed "Cap," as her "lover."

But by 1907, they were both near 50, and Cap's devotion to Kitty through the rest of her life may well have been  more from a sense of obligation and concern for her as a single older woman in the far north than from any romantic passion. And maybe Kitty and her daughter Hazel provided the aging bachelor with the companionship of a family.

Cap himself, after the loss of his ship, settled down on 7th Avenue near the downtown street that still bears his name, and raised goats. Kitty and her log cabin were located on Eighth Avenue, between Cowles and Kellum.

Kitty and Hazel lived in one room, probably sleeping in a loft under the eaves. During the hot summers, Kitty cooked in a lean-to shed at the rear. When the house was moved to its present location in Alaskaland in 1967, the lean-to was replaced by a small room.

Around 1914, Smythe added a second floor and replaced the gable roof with a tall gambrel structure. The front and rear walls of the new level were covered with shingles of varying shapes and patterns. On the first floor, Smythe fashioned a false fireplace from more of the ship's wood. The protruding portion of the fireplace is no longer there, but the remaining mantel pieces hint at the elegance he had in mind for the cabin.

Kitty's furnishing of the house struck her neighbors as a bit on the eccentric side, piled so high with boxes, cans, rags and other treasures that one could hardly get into the rooms.

Kitty cared for herself the same way she cared for her house. When she fell on the ice around 1910, she tried to refuse medical assistance and left her hospital bed early because she thought the women who were cleaning her house were stealing from her. She was known to hide money and jewelry amid the junk she collected, and the women may have discarded some valuables while removing many of her less-than-new possessions.

 Due to the improper healing of her hip, she never walked correctly again and moved about the streets by pushing a sleigh for balance. The Fairbanks News-Miner remembered Kitty Hensley upon her arrival in Fairbanks as "... a fine looking woman with a splendid carriage and a knack of dressing, but the passing years, privation, and disease took their toll." Her self-enforced poverty was strange, considering that a later owner of the house found a bag of Klondike gold dust worth $350 behind the false fireplace.

Kitty's reputation as an eccentric grew rapidly. Children called her a "witch," but the adults just felt sorry for her. She may have been an odd character in a young pioneer town, easy fodder for tales of lovers and hidden treasure, but maybe gossip and history have embroidered the facts as brightly as her purple house.

When Kitty died in 1931, the newspaper reported that her "friend" and "neighbor" Capt. Smythe had been tending her fire during her brief illness. Hensley and Smythe never lived together nor legalized the union that gossips recorded for history. The doctor's death certificate placed her age at about "70" and recorded her nearest living relative as unknown.

The Pioneers of Alaska, Auxiliary #8, now manage the house, with daily tours by volunteers, and operate a small gift shop in the home at its new location in the Gold Rush Town in Alaskaland.

Even nearly three quarters of a century after her death, she is still not accepted into polite society. A hand-written sign over the staircase reads, "This cabin is not a tribute to Kitty but to the many kind and loving homemakers whose children and grandchildren are the solid citizens of today."

 

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