Chances are if you’ve lived in Alaska long enough, the story of how Chicken received its name has been talked about at least once. For those not in the know, consider this a history lesson.
Depending on whom you talk to in Chicken, the why and the how of Chicken’s near-mythical origins can depend upon what they find more interesting about the town’s history. Neither is necessarily wrong, and both have something to do with the town’s gold mining history.
Perhaps the most popular theory may be also the toughest to refute. It, of course, begins with the original settlers’ – gold miners – love for the area’s most plentiful bird, the ptarmigan. The bird outnumbered the miners. They filled their soup bowls with ptarmigan. They loved the bird. They just couldn’t spell its name. Well, ptarmigans are kind of like chickens, right? They certainly taste similar. Let’s just name the town Chicken. That seemed easy enough.
The rumor was also easy enough to believe. Chicken being where Chicken is, the time period, the lack of people, who would refute it?
Michael Busby might. He at least likes to believe there is another origin for the town’s name, one seeped more in the town’s history.
Busby first came to Alaska in 1972 and quickly fell in love with the state, its rugged history and an appreciation for its natural resources.
That first trip prompted a permanent move in ‘74. Busby and his wife Lou would bounce around Alaska, learning about the science of gold mining. He spent time as an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, offering lessons in mountaineering, kayaking and other Alaskan outdoor activities. In his learning, Busby grew a deeper appreciation for the outdoors. The knowledge he gained in gold mining helped him gain a deeper respect for the preservation of Alaska’s finite resources as well.
“Once it’s been tapped into and extracted, you can’t put it back in the ground,” Busby said.
Busby learned the lay of the land and became knowledgeable in the ways of gold mining. Soon that knowledge began to pay off in a claim he found 30 miles north of Chicken. Like the men and women who founded the town in 1898, Busby came to Chicken to mine for gold. By ‘98 Busby’s hard work had afforded him the opportunity to purchase 50 acres in his town.
Chicken hadn’t changed much in the 20 years since Busby had moved to Alaska. Indeed, Chicken hadn’t changed much in the 200 years since it’d been founded, for that matter. However, soon after moving to the town, Busby got to work helping to ensure Chicken would get on the map and stay there.
In his years of working around Alaska, Busby had made an assortment of friends, each with their expertise in things outdoors. One such individual happened to be very good at moving things. His name is Bernie Karl, owner and operator of the Chena Hot Springs. Karl had his eye on a very prominent piece of Chicken history: the Pedro Dredge.
A relatively young dredge as far as dredges go, the Pedro was assembled on the Pedro Creek north of Fairbanks in ‘38 by the Fairbanks Exploration Company.
Also known as Dredge #4, it was the smallest in the FE Co. fleet. In ‘59, the dredge was disassembled and trucked to Chicken. By October 1967, the dredge produced its final cleanup, although several claims on Chicken Creek remained to be dredged. Over the dredge’s final eight years, it produced over 55,000 ounces of gold and was determined to be un-economical. It would lay dormant in the same pond for 31 years.
That’s when Karl and Busby got involved.
The Alaska Gold Company had acquired the FE Co. and was looking to liquidate a vast majority of its aging resources, including Dredge #4. For $1 Karl purchased the dredge from the mining company. Together with a small workforce, Karl and Busby set to work moving the dredge one mile to its present location on Nora Bench.
The moving process was unprecedented and it included flooding the land around the dredge and floating the mostly intact structure onto a trailer they constructed to hold as much as 500 tons. The team managed to successfully float the dredge onto the trailer and truck it to Chicken where land was again flooded and the dredge was again floated to where it currently resides. The move was such a success Busby believes the dredge could still operate with only a minor amount of repair work.
The dredge now resides on Busby’s 50 acres close to the Chicken Gold Camp Busby and his family now own and operate. Since moving the dredge, Busby has set up tours along with a number of other attractions at his outpost, including mining.
Busby and his family are preparing for their eighth annual Chicken Stock, a music festival that has grown each year. Last year the festival attracted more than 600 people to his little town, possibly the largest number of people to ever visit Chicken at one time.
Preserving Chicken’s history and culture while also bringing attention to a town he truly loves, Busby and his family have plans for the town’s future.
For Busby, part of the preservation includes imparting what he believes is the true origin of Chicken’s name. Like so much of the gold he helped dredge out of its nearby creeks, much of Busby’s success in gold mining came in small nuggets, almost the size of chicken feed. All of that chicken feed added up, though, growing in value over the years, much the same way Busby hopes the town will prosper as well.