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Thread: Way out in Alaska in 1905, he made his own dentures

  1. #1
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    Nov 2008
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    Default Way out in Alaska in 1905, he made his own dentures

    Erwin A. “Nimrod” Robertson came originally from Maine, where he had been a jeweler. He was also a champion rifleman in the Maine National Guard in the 1890s.

    But the Klondike Gold Rush called to Nimrod just as it called to many others. In 1898, Nimrod came over Chilkoot Pass and headed down the Yukon River to Alaska. He arrived at Eagle, just 12 miles downstream from the Canadian border, and there he stayed for the rest of his life.

    At that time, the town of Eagle was just a year old. It already had 700 residents, many of whom had arrived too late to stake a good claim at Dawson, and who had drifted down the Yukon to Eagle to see if they could find good “color” there.

    Nimrod staked his claims on Flume Creek, a tributary of the Seventymile River, and he puttered around on those claims for the next 42 years. But he loved hunting, trapping, and fishing more than mining, and he loved inventing things best of all. He spent his winters in his cabin in Eagle, and although Nimrod never married, he was friendly and popular. Over the years, he served in every office of the Eagle Lodge of the Improved Order of Red Men, he served on the City Council, as Chief of Police, Marshal, Magistrate, and City Attorney.

    His dream, however, was to build a “bird machine.” He always thought if he could just make $1,000 from mining, he could build and patent a novel flying machine. He did build a model, covered with real bird feathers. The whole town turned out to watch the test flight, but the model crashed before it left the ground. Still, Nimrod didn't give up his dream. In the 1930s, Nimrod described his dream to a famous writer who came through Eagle, and the writer mentioned it in his book, Home Country. The writer was Ernie Pyle, later famed for his front-line stories of Americans in combat.

    Out on his placer claims in the summer, and especially during the long winters in town, Nimrod invented gadgets to make life easier. He fixed things for people, he invented things for them, and he was always thinking up new things to do. He made excellent snowshoes, did knitting, tanned leather for moccasins as soft as chamois. He repaired watches. He devised gizmos for opening and closing doors automatically. He charged only a pittance for his services, and it was said that he could make anything but a living.

    He made hunting knives from large wood files. Because of Nimrod's secret tempering process, the knives were very popular. He was famed for his “nail-cutting blade,” which he would demonstrate by easily trimming the corrugations off a silver dollar.

    He made an amazingly accurate 60” x 80” relief map of the area around Eagle from pulped newspapers and magazines, mixed with hematite and moose blood. Many geologists and surveyors over the years have expressed amazement at the accuracy of this map, considering that Nimrod did not have surveying instruments – just his eye and complete familiarity with the terrain. The map was sent to Seattle for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and then again in 1962 for the World's Fair. Except for this, it has resided in the Eagle Historical Society Museum, where I saw it in 1994.

    However, Nimrod's most famous invention was his dentures. In 1905, Nimrod developed scurvy and lost all his teeth. After giving the matter some thought, he took a large wad of black spruce gum, and made a mold of his mouth. From that he made negative molds for upper and lower dentures, using … what? … plaster of paris, clay? … I don't know. And in these negative molds, he poured aluminum that he had melted down from a large pot lid. Once he had aluminum plates, he embedded in them incisors from a Dall sheep, premolars from a caribou, and molars from a bear. The teeth were generally a success, and his friends loved to watch him eating with his “animal teeth.” The design had one shortcoming, however: the plates got too hot when Nimrod was drinking hot tea or coffee, so he would have to remove his teeth to drink hot beverages.

    Eventually, Nimrod decided that he needed some nonheating teeth. So he went to Seattle – his only trip “outside” during 42 years in Eagle – and found a dentist who offered to trade him some real dentures for his handcrafted masterpiece. Nimrod returned to Eagle and afterwards performed less extravagant dentistry for his friends. For many years, the people of Eagle did not know what had become of Nimrod's “animal teeth.” They were found in 2001, however, and supposedly are now on exhibit in Eagle's Museum.

    [Note: The legend that Nimrod used his new teeth to eat the bear who had supplied the molars was alas, untrue.]

    Nimrod met his end in 1940, while on a prospecting trip to the mouth of the Seventymile. It was early November, and the weather suddenly changed from unseasonably warm to very cold. Nimrod started back toward Eagle, but big blocks of ice were running in the river, forcing him to bushwhack through trackless forest. He ran out of food and then out of energy. He was unable to get a fire started. He realized that his time had come, so he leaned his rifle against a tree, lay down and made a few notes in his diary, then pulled his parka hood over his face, folded his arms, and went to sleep.

    It took the townspeople quite a while to find him. By the time they did, Nimrod had become encased in a block of ice. The would-be rescuers chopped him out of the ice, took him back to Eagle, and The Improved Order of Red Men eventually buried Erwin A. “Nimrod” Robertson in the Eagle Cemetery on 29 Nov 1940.

    Sources

    Elva Scott: Historic Eagle and Its People (Eagle Historical Society, 1993).
    This has been republished as Jewel of the Yukon: Eagle City (1997).
    Available from the Historical Society at http://eagleak.org/store_books.htm

    John McPhee: Coming into the Country (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976).
    Eagle is the subject of Book 3: The Bush.

  2. #2
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  3. #3
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    That's an interesting story and a reminder that even after 40 odd years experience in the wilderness you can still get caught out. Unless of course he chose that way. Bet those teeth were great for frightening the kids...

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