By Clark Fair and Rinantonio Viani
AUTHORIAL NOTE: Part One introduced a former Kenai resident named Peter F. “Frenchy” Vian, and the attempt to tell his story by Clark Fair in Alaska and Rinantonio Viani in Switzerland. The next three installments revealed Frenchy’s true heritage and discussed his many successes in Alaska and elsewhere. They also demonstrated that Frenchy, in his 40s, was beginning to miss home and family.
Frenchy in Charge
By many accounts, P.F. “Frenchy” Vian appears to have been at least an adequate game warden for Kenai. Even as an unlicensed hunting guide, he was being told that he would make a good game warden because of his knowledge of animals, big game hunters and the territory in which predators and prey moved during hunting season.
When the U.S. Congress in 1908 passed legislation allowing Alaska to license its guides and to hire its own wardens, Frenchy applied for a warden job and was the second man hired to patrol on the Kenai Peninsula. After Christopher Shea was hired July 3, 1909, and assigned to Seward — the main point of entry for most nonresident hunters — Frenchy was hired on July 10 and assigned to Kenai.
Although he served in this capacity for the next three years, his performance did not lack controversy.
In October 1909, Alaska Gov. Walter Eli Clark received a letter and a petition from Kenai guide William J. Hunter and about 15 other Kenai residents denigrating Frenchy’s performance as warden and asking that he be removed from office.
Vian survived the accusations, retained the support of the governor — who chided Hunter, instead — and continued in his job. In late 1909, he wrote to the governor to suggest changes in the game laws to better protect moose populations and check hunting abuses. As required by his job, he made regular reports to the governor’s office and coordinated his efforts with Shea over in Seward.
He also made sure to jab at his critics whenever possible. One official report in July 1910 included this line: “W.J. Hunter and Philip Wilson are not good guides as they will violate the game law every time that they will have a chance to do so.”
When Hunter jabbed back, Vian again defended himself and hung on to his job. Speaking in third-person, he wrote to the governor: “Mr. Vian respectfully submits that his reputation as a law-abiding citizen is a full and complete answer to [these] false and unfounded charges.”
A year later, however, there were indications that the road ahead for Frenchy the game warden might be bumpy. On Nov. 3, 1911, Vian received his regular monthly paycheck ($125), but arriving three weeks later was a notice from the governor’s office explaining the ramifications of Alaska’s financial difficulties:
“I write to advise you that your salary as game warden will be discontinued on … December 31, 1911, and until further notice,” said the governor. “This is made necessary on account of work in other parts of the Territory which cannot well be discontinued. It will be appreciated if you will continue to make monthly reports, as was done last year of conditions at Kenai, for the information of this office.”
Although Frenchy was financially well off, it had to have stung a bit to be asked to continue doing his job without compensation. In late December, he left Alaska for vacation.
In July 1912, Vian received a letter from the governor’s office informing him that his salary had been more than halved. Only $600 was available to pay him for the next fiscal year. He could work every month and be paid $50 per month or just the next six months for $100 per month. Frenchy chose the six-month option.
When Chugach National Forest ranger Keith McCullagh came through Kenai in March 1913, tasked with securing the government’s abandoned Agricultural Experiment Station there, he was surprised to learn that Vian was living in the station residence free of charge.
Frenchy was out of town at the time of McCullagh’s visit. In fact, he was visiting family in Italy. McCullagh padlocked the property and posted it with “No Trespassing” signs. (Only a few months earlier, according to the memoir “The Clenched Fist,” Frenchy had prepared a lavish meal in the government facility and had feasted there with the two new teachers in town.)
Vian’s vacation from Alaska — like his residence as the agricultural station — had been unauthorized. By the time McCullagh appeared in Kenai, Vian had already been suspended for “leaving the Territory without permission.” By the following autumn, the governor was actively seeking his replacement.
Energy and Ambition
Before he wearied of Alaska, and before he found himself becoming “fat” and “old,” Frenchy, with his seemingly boundless drive, found making money in America easy. Spending it was easy, too. After his early adulthood, when he had hunted seals and whales and polar bears, had made a survival run with a team of sled dogs, had guided rich Europeans and Americans on big game hunts, and had acted as a fur trader in Kenai, he moderated his movements but never stopped moving.
He also delighted in describing his adventures for eager listeners and in letters to family members. In 1906, describing for his sister Bianca his time as a whaler in the Arctic, he concluded with: “You think that hunting bears is dangerous; if you compare it with whaling in the Arctic sea, it’s as if bears were sheep and whales were wolves.
“Imagine if you could see me in the front of a small boat with the big gun in my hand raised above my head, with a stern look all focused on where I wait for the monster to appear, pulling the big gun and screaming, ‘Back all! Back!’ and the blowing of a second, and that second many times decides between life and death.”
In his 30s and 40s, Frenchy staked placer claims in remote parts of the Kenai Peninsula, worked as a game warden, acted as a notary public, and owned and operated a Kenai trading post. He also traveled — often to the Pacific Northwest, sometimes to Europe — and he made investments that nearly always paid off.
His nearly complete absence of formal education never blunted his progress. Mostly self-taught, he was adept at finances, spoke several languages, and could write passably well in English, Italian and French.
When his investments paid dividends, he invested those dividends. He made shrewd deals. He was savvy about the ways in which money worked. And by the time he began contemplating retirement back in his home country, he was a wealthy, successful businessman.
He purchased a hotel in Portland, Oregon, and lived in it whenever he was in the area. He bought 6 acres of land containing an apple orchard and a house near the Columbia River and calculated the increasing income he could make at each harvest as his trees matured.
During World War I, he told his parents that he had nearly a thousand acres of grain land and more than 600 acres he hoped to plant in more apple trees and a large vineyard. He outlined how these agricultural lands could either make him money annually or be sold at a profit after the war.
He moved confidently, sometimes spoke brashly, and backed up his talk and actions with results. Still, he was tiring of all the profiteering and the moving back and forth. He was rich, yes, but overall he wasn’t happy.
During World War I, his frustrations mounted. He turned 50, and he had no family of his own. He missed Italy but could not return there during the war. He also couldn’t begin divesting his financial interests in America. He could only plan and wait, impatiently, for his next opportunity.
Signs of Discontent
Frenchy’s dissatisfaction had begun well before the war complicated the marketplace and obstructed most international travel. Many of his family members had returned to Italy before the war: Uncle Nicola, brother Giuseppe and his growing family, and many others, were gone. Soon, most of his immediate family had left the United States.
His displeasure with these developments and his overall weariness with the pace of his life intensified. He was no longer a young man. His priorities were changing.
In letters dating back to 1906 — nearly 20 years after he had immigrated — he began openly contemplating leaving behind everything he had built. To his parents in October of that year he wrote: “Maybe I’ll come home this year and if I do come home, maybe I’ll stay home forever. I can tell you that I’m tired of traveling the world and I think it’s time for me to take some time off.”
“Maybe you want to know what I do,” he added. “I do nothing but eat, drink, sleep and be merry. You think it’s a good life but I will tell you that with all that, I am not as happy as you are when you have a full belly, so you can see that you have nothing to complain about and I wish I had never gone out into the world, not because the world treated me badly, just because I learned so many things that if I had been at home I would not have learned, and the more ignorant a man is the happier he lives.”
But three years later, Frenchy was still making investments, still adding to his bank accounts, and still contemplating moving on. He told his parents, “As for me coming home to stay, I must first sell what I have in Alaska, gold mines and coal mines, houses and a steam greenhouse for clamping boards and other things. I can rent the land with the apples if I don’t want to sell it, but what I have in Alaska I want to sell because I’m tired of going to Alaska every summer.”
This pattern — of continuing to invest, continually expanding his financial resources even as he wrote about walking away from it all — would go on until the war began in 1914. Then, denied the possibility of returning home, his desire to do so grew even more.