1929-1949 John William Gilson

1929-1949 John William Gilson


Portrait of John Gilson
Portrait of John Gilson

John William Gilson was one of the early settlers of Valdez, coming there as a lowly accountant for a firm which in later years he purchased and operated until his death almost a half century later. His sphere of influence as one of the town’s most influential citizen was aptly summarized in a letter to his sons, after his death, written by a fellow townsman several years his junior, in these words:

Over the years, without fanfare, he contributed generously and unselfishly to the betterment of Valdez and to the individual welfare of many persons now prominent in business and government in other areas of Alaska. Bill Egan (the writer) was one of them. People of Valdez will miss his pleasant demeanor and dry wit and helpful hand, as well as his way of life.

John William Gilson was born on November 4, 1877 in Jordan Valley, California, shortly after the family arrived in a covered wagon from the East; he was the fourth son of five boys and one girl. His father, William Garrison Gillson was of Scottish and English descent and his mother, Emma Doud Gillson, was of English descent.

The family moved to Antelope Valley near Lancaster, California, where they homestead. The old homestead is now part of an airfield. Besides homesteading, his father was in the water drilling business.

After completing his elementary education, Gilson went to San Francisco to take a business course and then went to work as an accountant with Haywood company, holding that job until 1906 when the firm was wiped out by the big earthquake which caused a fire destroying much of the city’s business district.

Gilson moved north to Seattle looking for a job and there learned from Burroughs Adding Machine Company that there was an accountant’s job opening with the S. Blum Company in Valdez. He applied was accepted, expecting to stay one year and then return to California; the year stretched to 48 years.

After arriving in Valdez in 1906, Gilson decided to drop one “L” in his name to avoid constant need for correction as no one ever spelled it correctly.

Five years later a bookkeeper arrived to go to work for the Valdez Mercantile Company, a rival to Blum’s mercantile firm, She was Miss Mary Ellen (Nellie) Latham Handley, the niece of the store’s owner, George Robbins, who had been in business in Valdez since 1903. Miss Handley, born in Birmingham, England on December 23, 1880, had come to the United States with her family when she was six years old. The family settled in Chicago. When she came to Valdez in 1911, she planned a brief visit with her uncle but upon securing a position in one of his commercial enterprises, she decided to stay.

On April 14, 1913, Miss Handley and John Gilson were united in marriage in a ceremony performed by U.S. Commissioner Shepard in the bride’s home in Valdez. Three sons were born to the couple; the first died shortly after birth, next came George and the third was John William, Jr.

The Gilsons bought out the Blum interest in 1923. The Blum bank had become the First Bank of Valdez in 1914 and the name remained with the new owners but the dry good store was renamed the Gilson Mercantile Company.

Always interested in education, Gilson served as president of the local school board for sixteen years. He also served for twenty years (1929-1949) as a member fo the board of regents of the University of Alaska. He never missed a meeting even though getting there was often a problem. He was originally appointed by Governor Parks and re-appointed by Governors Troy and Gruening. Carl Earl Albrecht was appointed to take his place on the board.

Fire destroyed much of the business district of Valdez in 1947 but the Gilsons re-built the following year. Their son, George, then became manager of the mercantile business. He had graduated from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado in 1939, with a degree in mining engineering. Son John continued in the bank with his father.

Mrs. Gilson became ill in 1945 and was taken to Anchorage for medical treatment; she died in the hospital on December 9.

Due to his own ill health in 1954, Gilson retired from active work in the bank although remained president until his death. Late in June he entered the Glennallen hospital where he died on July 11. He was buried beside his wife in Anchorage.

The Gilson sons were proud of a letter, which they received from then Delegate Bob Bartlett, who wrote them after their father’s passing:

Mr. Gilson was an oldtimer, one of that breed of men attracted, thank goodness, to Alaska. Alaska is all the better for the presence of such men who found so well the early days. He was a man of great integrity, a man for whom I have entertained admiration and, if you permit, a measure of awe ever since I was a youngster. He had a full life and a good one.


BOR file