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The story of Chicken Billy Anstett

William Horkan had the prestigious job of gardener at the Commissioner’s Residence, but the horticulturist whose name stands out was William Anstett, but was widely known as Chicken Billy.

In the early days of Dawson City, William Paddock ran a large greenhouse operation in West Dawson. William Horkan had the prestigious job of gardener at the Commissioner’s Residence, but the horticulturist whose name stands out was William Anstett, but was widely known as Chicken Billy.

William J. Anstett was born in Philadelphia about 1878, and attended school there. He wasn’t yet 20 years of age when he applied to join the navy after the outbreak of the Spanish American War in 1898. He was rejected for having a heart condition, so he turned his sights northward and came to the Klondike instead.

He came into the Yukon by way of the Chilkoot Trail with another stampeder named Grant Crossan. North West Mounted Police records show him entering the Yukon in January of 1899, and again in July of 1900. Like thousands of others, he tried his hand at prospecting and gold mining, but by 1901, he had turned to ranching and farming, a livelihood that he followed for the next quarter century.

Anstett acquired land on an island in the Yukon River five kilometres above Dawson City, as well as nine hectares in Sunnydale, on the west shore of the Yukon River, across from the Klondike capital. On the island, he built a henhouse made of logs with south-facing windows. He did well at first, selling the eggs at 50 cents each. He built up a flock of 100 chickens and his eggs became so well known that he was given the nickname Chicken Billy, an sobriquet he retained for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, others got into the chicken and egg business and the competition drove down the price of poultry, so he started raising hogs and growing a variety of crops.

Anstett was visited by Frank G. Carpenter, the well-known American travel writer, who passed through the Yukon during the summer of 1916. Carpenter wrote a detailed account of his visit to Chicken Billy’s island farm. It started with a knock on his hotel room door. When Carpenter opened the door, there stood a rough-looking man of less than average height, with bronzed complexion and calloused hands. He wore knee-high work boots, blue jeans and a flannel shirt, open at the neck.

Anstett took Carpenter upriver to his island farm aboard his new boat, a long, shallow draft affair driven by a paddle wheel mounted at the stern. It was named the Flamingo, after its unusual colour. The drive shaft broke before they reached his island, but they eventually got a lift to their destination.

First, Billy showed Carpenter his greenhouse, one of many located in and around Dawson. His building was nine metres wide by 15 metres long and was heated with a massive barrel stove.

In it were tomato plants and hundreds of cucumbers still hanging on the vine. He had already picked nearly a thousand, and expected to harvest at least twice as many before the end of the season. Many of the cucumbers were over 25 centimetres long, reported Carpenter, and the largest tomatoes were the size of a baby’s head.

Next, Billy showed Carpenter his hogs. He started out with 14 prize-winning suckling pigs of the Duroc-Jersey, Berkshire and Yorkshire breeds, which he used as breeding stock. The previous year, he had sold 100 weaner pigs at prices ranging from $15 to $25 each.

In the winter, he kept them in a dozen log buildings that were kept heated day and night, feeding them potatoes and grain grown on his farm. Even the waste produced by the hogs which fertilized the sub-arctic soils of the Yukon valley had value; each hog produced $37 worth of manure a year.

Before continuing on their tour, Billy hosted Carpenter to a home-grown meal of fresh eggs, fried ham and gravy, home-grown potatoes, hand-made bread and cucumbers just picked from the vines in his greenhouse.

Billy took him by skiff downriver to his potato field in Sunnydale, on the west bank of the Yukon River, opposite Dawson City.

“I have seen many farms,” said Carpenter, “but none better cultivated and freer of weeds than this potato patch. The vines reach to my knees. They are in rows which are perfectly straight, and the plow goes just one mile in the round trip up one row and back down another.”

Billy was expecting to harvest 100 tonnes of the tubers, which would sell for $100 per tonne. Luther Burbank, the famous horticulturist and earth scientist had visited Dawson two years before and had proclaimed the Yukon (and Alaska) to be prime land for the growing potatoes, providing the right breed could be developed for the northern climate.

The secret to Anstett’s survival in changing economic conditions seemed to be his ability to adapt to changing market conditions — plus an ample amount of hard work. In the newspapers, you will find advertisements for his “best native spuds,” vegetables, eggs, oats, poultry, “spring pigs” and even firewood. When he wasn’t farming, he hired out his boat for river trips, and even transported people to Mayo by wagon.

Billy had a brother Joe, whom he would visit occasionally, who ran a successful printing business in Bellingham, Washington. Billy never married, and his mother, Mrs. Emery E. Warren, would travel to Dawson to spend the winters with him, which she seemed to prefer over staying in Washington.

This continued until 1924. Billy, 46 years old, placed an advertisement in the newspaper selling 17 hectares for $1,000, as well as two teams of horses ($350 each), brood sows and a boar, young pigs and even the “famous fast gas launch” Flamingo. In a second ad, he offered his poultry farm and ten acres seeded with bromegrass for a mere $500. No reason was given for his decision to sell out.

He must have been successful for the Dawson News in August 1925 reports him leaving town with his mother in the Flamingo, headed downriver to Nenana, where the launch was to be delivered to the Episcopal clergyman, Bishop Rowe. With them were Mr. and Mrs. Maylor, who wished to take a leisurely trip down the Yukon.

The Dawson News does not follow his trail after his departure from the Yukon, but his name reappears in southern newspapers in early November of 1935 in an obituary, after he died near Tacoma. What had he been doing there? Raising chickens, of course.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.