An article in the Jan-Feb issue of Alaskan History Magazine focuses on the author of several classic Alaskan books such as Baldy of Nome, Navarre of the North, and Boris, Grandson of Baldy. An avid fan of the sled dog races in Nome, Esther Birdsall Darling was also the kennel partner to the King of the Alaskan Trail, Allan Alexander “Scotty” Allan.
Esther Birdsall was born into wealth and privilege, the daughter of a prominent family in the early history of northern California. Born in 1868, Esther grew up in a fine home, tended by three live-in servants, in the state capitol of Sacramento. In 1907, at the relatively late age of 38, Esther married the co-owner of the Darling & Dean Hardware business in far-off Nome, Alaska.
Charles Edward ‘Ned’ Darling was born in Ireland in 1871. He was working for a west-coast based paint company in 1900 when he decided to transport a supply of fireproof paint to the Nome gold camp for fire-proofing the miners’ tents. After looking things over he determined that a hardware store could prove profitable, and by 1915 his store, the farthest north hardware store on the American continent, would boast a $150,000 inventory of hardware, ship chandlery, roofing, dredging supplies, and mining and mill supplies. Darling & Dean Hardware outfitted several Arctic expeditions, including explorer and anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who in 1913 purchased $21,000 in supplies for a three-year scientific study of the Arctic.
Charles Darling was also a musher, and in February of 1906 he set a world’s record for long distance mushing when he drove his dog team from Nome to Seattle—via Valdez and ship—in only 42 days. Dog teams were held in high esteem, for a string of strong huskies was the most reliable mode of transportation over winter trails. The secretary of Darling & Dean Hardware, a Scotsman named Allan Alexander Allan, known as “Scotty,” partnered with Charles Darling in a dog kennel, and when the new Mrs. Darling met the furry residents of this kennel it was love at first sight, and that love would blossom into a literary legacy.
Baldy of Nome, published in 1912, was kept it in print by popular demand for more than forty years. It was filled with exciting true stories such as the time during the 60-mile Solomon Derby when Scotty, leaning over his sled to look at a broken runner, hit his head on an iron trail marker and was knocked unconscious. Baldy stopped the team, returned to his injured driver and roused him with nudges and howls, and then led the team to win the race. Stories of Baldy’s descendants followed, including Boris, Grandson of Baldy; Navarre of the North, and collections of prose and poetry about Alaska.
Charles and Esther Darling left Alaska in 1918 and moved to Berkeley, California, and so also did Scotty Allan, taking along his old friend and trail mate Baldy. When Baldy died in 1922 Esther Darling and Scotty Allan obtained a special permit from the city to bury the famous dog in the back yard of the Allan home in Oakland, overlooking San Francisco Bay. A rose bush was planted over his grave, and a lengthy obituary ran in The New York Times.
Esther Birdsall Darling spent her later years as a popular speaker at civic, charity, and other social events, describing life in Alaska during the heyday of the All Alaska Sweepstakes to her attentive audiences. She was justifiably proud of her partnership with A. A. “Scotty” Allan, who she always described as the best dog man in Alaska, and their champion leader Baldy. Esther passed away June 2, 1965, at the age of 96, in Auburn, California, near her childhood home. She was buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery, close to her parents and her husband. ~•~