Star & caregiver Al Whitehead on a walk 11/24/2013. Photo by J. Polak.
I was born and raised in Anchorage and as far back as I can remember, Star the Reindeer has lived downtown, in a large fenced area off the west side of a house at 10th and I Streets.
That’s just a few blocks from our B and B breakfast table, where Star is a frequent source of questions. ”Hey. What about Star the Reindeer? What’s her story?” The questions made me realize that Star has been an Anchorage icon all my life, but I don’t know much about why. I did a little research to be able to share her story with you.
To start, a little background on reindeer. Unlike their cousin the caribou, reindeer are not native to Alaska. They closely resemble caribou but are shorter and stouter and don’t migrate over long distances like caribou. Reindeer -including Star’s ancestors - were first imported to the Seward Peninsula (537 air miles northwest of Anchorage and home to Nome, Alaska) from Siberia in 1892, as part of a federal program to provide sustainable food sources to the Bering Strait Eskimos and other people of the area.
Star’s story begins with Mr. Ivan and Mrs. Oro Stewart opening Stewart's Photo Shop downtown on 4th Avenue in Anchorage’s oldest building in 1942. True Alaskan pioneers, they were known to be the type to accomplish their goals, no matter how unusual the goal might be. Mrs. Stewart wanted to adopt an Alaskan pet. There were no laws against adopting reindeer and the original Star came to Anchorage in 1962, selected for Mr. and Mrs. Stewart by reindeer herder Larry Davis of Nome. She was named for the starburst of white fur between her eyes. Star I lived to be 23 years old - roughly 15 years longer than the average reindeer. Larry Davis selected every Star to follow (except the current one- who came from a reindeer farm near Palmer) to look like the first Star.
The Stewart’s were assisted in Star care over the years by Albert Whitehead. Whitehead came to Alaska in 1960 with the military. Shortly after his arrival, he met Ivan and Oro Stewart and began working for them part time. Over the years he evolved into their reindeer caregiver, moreso after Mr. Stewart died in 1986. On her death, Mrs. Stewart left Albert Whitehead a life estate to help take care of her reindeer.
Beautiful as she is, Star has not been without her controversies. In October of 1973, she was ordered evicted due to changing zoning laws. The Stewarts appealed and won.
Including the current Star, there has been six. Star II died in the mid-1980s when a newcomer to Alaska broke into her pen, killed and butchered her, and sold the meat. He spent a year in jail for his crime. Star III died in 1986 when she ate plastic bags. Star IV enjoyed 14 years under Mrs. Stewart’s care. She suffered from arthritis and could only tolerate weekly walks. She was assaulted in 1987 when a man climbed into her pen and broke off one antler. She survived that and died in May 2002. Star V was 2 months old when she came to Anchorage from Nome, arriving in July 2002. Sadly, she passed away unexpectedly of a bacterial infection, not long before Oro Stewart herself died that fall.
Star VI, the current Star, was born in April 2001 at the reindeer farm north of Anchorage. Originally named Noel, she was renamed Star by Albert Whitehead, who fell in love with her at first sight. Rejected by her mother, her growth had been stunted. She is only four and a half feet tall, which makes her about six inches shorter than others her age.
In April 2006, Star VI was nearly kidnapped. Whitehead found a hole in the pen's fence with a trail of hay leading out to the sidewalk. Star had stayed in her cage, however, and was not hurt.
You can often find Star VI and Mr. Whitehead on walks around downtown Anchorage, and kids visiting Star at her home. Star may be a symbol of Christmas, but she’s also a symbol of Anchorage, and as it turns out, our founders and our rich history.
The following sources were used in the writing of this article. Links to those and more about Star:
· A link to a beautiful photo of Star and Albert can be found here… http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Star-and-albert-web.jpg
· Watch this fun video… among other things; you’ll see Star visiting our friend Terry Potter in her downtown wine shop, where there’s a lot of expensive wine. Now, Star in a wine shop- that’s Alaskan bravery! http://www.alaskapublic.org/2012/12/24/star-the-reindeer-brings-magic-to-downtown-anchorage/
· A great article about Star, and some old photos, can be found here. http://www.litsite.org/index.cfm?section=Digital-Archives&page=Community-Life&cat=Communities&viewpost=2&ContentId=2717
· This article contains information about Star’s attempted eviction. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19751003&id=JPAjAAAAIBAJ&sjid=yfgDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4741,941094
· And totally off topic but fun- this article tells the story of the Stewarts, their amphibious car (which is still seen in Anchorage parades today) and a 1968 drive 165 miles down the Yukon River, from Eagle to Circle City. http://www.amphicars.com/yukon.htm.
· Star also has her own Facebook page. You can friend her at https://www.facebook.com/starthereindeer.
Viva la Star!
Marilyn Walsh Morgan