On July 9, Alaska celebrated its state Flag Day. In 1959, Alaska was the second-to-last state to join the Union, and while the territory of Alaska didn't become a state until almost 1960, the flag itself has been around for nearly 100 years.
Benny Benson, an Alaska Native designed the flag in 1927. He was born in Chignik and lived at the Jesse Lee Home—a former Methodist orphanage and boarding school—in Unalaska, until he moved, along with the home, to Seward in 1925, according to historian Ray Hudson.
Now, the fate of the Jesse Lee Home is up in the air, as city officials in Seward work to decide whether to demolish the structure.
KUCB's Maggie Nelson sat down with Ray Hudson to discuss Benson, his time at the Jesse Lee Home, and the origins of Alaska's state flag.
KUCB: Just to start off, I was wondering if—whatever you know about [Alaska's] Flag Day and about any Benson's role in the creation of the flag—if you mind kind of going through that.
RAY HUDSON: Well, Benny Benson is famous for having designed the Alaska State flag in 1927. And he was born at Chignik in 1912. And when he was four years old, he came to Unalaska—he and his younger brother Carl—and they were taken to the Jesse Lee home, which was sort of a combination orphanage, boarding school that was operated by the Methodist Episcopal Church. And they say Benny entered the home in 1916. And the home itself moved to Seward in September 1925. And Benny was one of the 25 boys who went along. At that time, there were 35 girls who went to Seward at the same time. And then about a year and a half later, the state legislature—not the state—the territorial legislature had a contest to design an Alaskan flag. And the contest opened on January 1 of 1927. And you had two months, January and February to submit your design. There were 142 designs and Benny Benson submitted a design, and it was selected and eventually became the territorial flag and then it became the Alaska State flag.
KUCB: Okay, and could you maybe say a little bit more about the Alaska State flag and about Benny's design specifically?
HUDSON: So you know, it's a very simple flag, a blue background with the Big Dipper and the North Star and Benny Benson included in his sketch and if you go on to onto the web, you can see it, and that the blue stands for forget-me-nots, which becomes a state flower a bit earlier than 192--or the territorial flower. The Big Dipper represents a bear for strength, the North Star for the future state of Alaska. Well, Benny received, I think, $1,000 and a gold watch for his design, and he became very famous. And after that, he eventually became a mechanic and worked on airplanes in Kodiak. And he died in Kodiak at a fairly young age. I think it was in his mid or late 50s when he died of a heart attack in Kodiak. But the flag—it's so familiar and anybody who's been in Unalaska—on a clear night and away from town where the lights are, and you see the glorious stars in the sky—you can sort of see where Benny Benson might have gotten his inspiration. In one of the early, old-time stories, there’s an account by Anfesia Shapsnikoff—who was around at that time—and she insisted Benny had designed the flag at Unalaska. Well, I'm afraid that wasn't true, but he might have gotten his inspiration certainly from looking up in the night sky at Unalaska.
KUCB: So is there anything that you want to share—about anything we talked about, about Flag Day, or any questions that you think that I should have asked you.
HUDSON: One of the neat stories, I think that is pertinent for this time, Benny Benson was at Unalaska in June 1919, when the influenza epidemic struck and within about two weeks 40 people died. And Simeon Oliver, who was another resident of the home and became quite a famous musician, said, and I'm quoting here, that, "Only five children at the Jesse Lee home did not come down with the flu. And Benny Benson is one of these." And Simeon said, "Why he didn't come down with it, no one seemed to know, probably too ornery, or something of that sort. He was a lonely boy, we'd hear him outside singing to himself. He never strayed far from our open windows. We could always hear him singing or talking to himself or tapping stones. There wasn't even a dog aroundm with which he could play." So I think this is a very sort of poignant story for this time, when we're isolating ourselves and so on.