Every spring, a woman named “Alaska Nellie” reemerges to share her story with people from across the globe who travel to see that magnificent state. Alaska Nellie was a woman from Missouri who had always dreamed of traveling to Alaska. She would eventually lead a hardworking life in Alaska while hunting and even managing a post office.
Although Nellie lived in Alaska during the early 20th century, Peggy Burnette reenacts and tells her story with such mesmerizing eloquence and soul that visitors to the Chugach National Forest sometimes leave in tears. Meet Burnette, a summer volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service who resides in Oregon, but travels to Alaska every summer as an interpreter guide and brings Nellie back to life. She and her husband received the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2005 from President Bush.
How did you find yourself in Alaska playing “Alaska Nellie”?
My husband and I volunteered with the Forest Service on the Oregon coast for many years. We actually volunteered 28,000 hours over 15 years starting in 1995, serving as interpreters and helping run theCape Perpetua Visitor Center on the Siuslaw National Forest. We wanted to go to Alaska, and we tried it for a summer. We were in Cordova for one year as volunteer campground hosts for the Child’s Glacier Campground on the Cordova Ranger District in the summer of 2001 before becoming temporary seasonal employees at the Begich Boggs Visitor Center on Portage Lake, part of the Chugach National Forest for the past seven years. So we spend the winter in Eugene, Ore. and during the spring, we go up to Alaska.
One of our supervisors in Alaska always wanted someone to do Alaska Nellie. So, I read a book on her and fell in love with her character. I read it all winter long while we were on the Oregon coast. I began doing programs and somehow I put myself in Nellie’s place and I became Alaska Nellie. I’ve done that now for five years.
Who is Alaska Nellie?
At first, I had no idea who she was. She went to Alaska in 1915 when the railroad was being rebuilt for the government. She found a place there and got a contract with the government running roadhouses. She was just an amazing woman. Being so small (about 5 feet tall), people could not believe the energy she had. She even rescued the mailman who was nearly freezing to death while carrying his mail.
I heard you’ve made some people cry while listening to your interpretive history.
There was a couple from Louisiana and the lady told me, “Oh honey, your program is so wonderful… you had such a hard life.” She invited me to have a coffee, but I had my outfit on so I told her that I better stay here. She told me that I had such a rough life and to visit her in Louisiana!
People have cried several times. I told my supervisor, “I can’t do this! …because they believe me!” My supervisor said, “Oh Peggy, that’s what you want them to do!” People at work started teasing me. I eventually realized that people did enjoy my program. It’s a 20-minute program, but sometimes it goes much longer than that because people ask me questions. Sometimes they ask me to sign their books and I sign it as Alaska Nellie. Some people have even told me, “If you were running for president, Nellie, I would vote for you!”
Do you have any kind of acting background?
No. I never had that. We didn’t have that in school. I thought I could never even do interpretive training. The first time I played Nellie, I was petrified. Each time, I’m still scared but I have this energy. I want to make sure I tell it right and that I don’t leave out anything important.
How often do you share her story?
I usually play Nellie three times a week and usually the audience numbers about 40-something people. One time, there were more than 70 gathered around. I share her story in this little area called our weather lab. The whole front part of the building is glass and it overlooks Portage Lake. Visitors will come and sit on the floor or stand.
When the story’s over, they still think you’re Alaska Nellie?
They mostly seem to think that I’m her. Sometimes people tell me that I aged really well, or that there’s something weird about this. Some tell me, “I don’t think you’re the real Alaska Nellie.” I respond to them that I’m Peggy Burnette.
Who are some people you would want to meet from history?
Alaska Nellie and some of the people she knew in her life, including the mailman she rescued, and her second husband. I also would have liked to meet President Harding who met Nellie when the railroad was completed in Fairbanks. She claims that he made a pass at her.
What do you love most about playing Alaska Nellie?
Just trying to keep her story alive. She’s been dead since the mid-1950s and I’m just trying to let people know that there really were people like that. Alaska women led a different lifestyle with the bad winters, and Nellie didn’t have modern facilities. Her story is about determination.