Many of us are pretty protective of our berry patches. But if you come across Sharon Major, don’t worry about revealing the whereabouts of your secret stash. It’s not likely that she will grab the nearest bucket and race to that favorite site.
Three years ago, I had just collected a bucket full of blueberries in one of my favorite berry patches when I ran into Sharon. I enthusiastically told her that it was a bumper crop for berries this year.
Sharon didn’t seem impressed. Then she proceeded to tell me that, when she was a girl, she and her siblings were expected to pick berries for a family business.
Once Sharon established why she wasn’t a berry enthusiast, she talked about her mother, Helen Horton, who came from the village of Unga on the Aleutian Chain. The more she talked, the more interested I became in her story. A few weeks later I’m in the home of Sharon and her husband, the late Jim Major, with my tape recorder.
Sharon was born and raised in Seward. Her family was hard working. Her parents, Henry and Helen Horton, met at the Uganik processing plant on Kodiak Island. Henry was operating a tender at the time. Henry’s family came from Denmark.
Sharon’s family lived in downtown Seward near the railroad tracks.
“Every summer we would have to go berry picking,” Sharon said. “Mom would make jams and jellies and they sold gift packs: blueberry, low and high bush cranberry.”
The berry business was a means of raising funds for Henry Horton’s new business venture — developing a halibut processing plant.
Henry had a lot of jobs in his life. He was a police officer and a marshal who traveled by boat to places where his services were needed. He also became a garbage man.
When Henry couldn’t work anymore, he started a little cannery in Seward.
“Mom would smoke fish out of our home. Dad put the fish in the cannery. He finally got a patent on how to can halibut.”
The Hortons lived on Seventh Avenue near a cold storage facility. When Sharon was in fifth grade the school system in Seward ran out of space. They shifted the kids so that they could go the Jesse Lee Home for classes. The Jesse Lee Home was an orphanage that also ran an elementary school.
“We interacted with the kids there. I met this young girl named Ruby Correa. Ruby and I became very good friends, so Ruby says to me, ‘Sharon, do you want to come to lunch?’ Oh, yeah. I thought that was the greatest thing I ever did.”
The inside of Jesse Lee Home was beautiful, said Sharon.
“There were all natural hardwood floors. Really beautiful. We’d stand in line, go through the Jell-O line and we’d have our lunch.
“I got home that night from school and said to my mom, ‘You’ll never guess what I did today.’” She responded: “’What did you do Mugsy?’ (Her mother often called Sharon by that name.)
“I said that I went to lunch at the Jesse Lee Home and told her it was a lot of fun. She blew a cork. She said, ‘Don’t you ever, ever go over there again.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘I said, don’t you ever go there again.’ “That was the end of it. She was bitter. I really didn’t know why.”
Eventually, Sharon found out that her mother had been a resident of the Jesse Lee Home.
“My mother wouldn’t talk about when she was young,” said Sharon. “I had the feeling that my mom resented the fact that they ended up in that Jesse Lee Home.”
Sharon was never told the circumstances of why her mother and siblings were taken to the home. I don’t know if the kids were taken away from their mother.
Sharon credits her father for being a hard worker. Her mother depended on him a great deal. “She hardly even drove a car until dad passed away.”
Sharon apparently inherited her father’s strong work ethic. She went to work as a teenager. At age 17 she worked in the cleaners in Seward. “I was making $1.25 an hour, when all of a sudden, Eastpoint Seafood Co. was coming to Seward. They were paying $2.25. That was a lot of money so I decided I was going to put my application in.
“We lived at mile 3-and-a-half on the Seward Highway, and my mom and dad did not have a phone because we could not afford one,” said Sharon. But she would need a phone to find out about work. “I went ahead and put a phone in because I knew if I worked in the cannery I had to be on call all that time when the boats would come in.”
Sharon got hired by Eastpoint. She worked the night shift on the line picking shrimp and eventually advancing to scaler, “which was a really good job because you’re weighing cans,” she said.
While working at Eastpoint, Sharon met a tall, handsome man by the name of Jim Major. He was advancing his way in the fisheries as well. But he was on the administrative side of the business. The two married and, in 1962, moved to Kodiak where Jim would become superintendent of the Eastpoint processing plant in town.
In Kodiak Sharon was a busy mom. Not only was she raising kids, but she worked in various positions such as bookkeeping, billing and office management. She was employed by the North Pacific Medical Center, a processing plant, the Kodiak Island Hospital and other entities.
“Look at my life,” she said. “I was a fortunate person. I do not have a high school diploma and I even went to college. I worked in the cannery, I worked for Eggemeyers at their store. From there I worked for Nancy Sweeney at Normans as a clerk. I ended up at Kodiak Western working for Bob and Helen Hall. Dick Madsen was my boss and he hired me” — as an accountant, something that she knew nothing about, she said. “I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to do this job when I don’t know what I’m doing?’ But I learned it.”
Sharon got promoted to accounts payable, because “I knew how to do accounts receivable. (Madsen) said, ‘Sharon, you should take a course in accounting.’ That’s when I went to college.”
Sharon went to work for Kodiak Western, a local airline. Gifford Aviation bought that airline and later, another airline, Sea Air, and began operations on Kodiak Island. Eventually pilot Fred Ball and Dave Clasterman formed Air transport Services. Sharon worked for both airlines.
Space does not allow me to share the intriguing stories that Sharon told of her time at the airlines. Sharon’s husband, Jim Major, died earlier this year and Sharon sorely misses him. But she treasures the life she shared with him. She realizes that she is the person she is because of him.
As she reflects over her life, Sharon said she didn’t even know that she was of Native heritage until the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act came along. She wishes she would have dove more deeply into her family history.
It’s a sentiment that she hopes will inspire others in the community to find out about their roots.