Doors closing at Brown & Hawkins after 110 years
A local family business as old as Seward is closing its doors at the end of September.
Brown & Hawkins, founded in 1904 by T.W. Hawkins shortly after his arrival with the Ballaine party on the Santa Ana in 1903, has passed through four generations of family including Hugh Darling and his wife Iris, the present owners. According to the Seward Historic Preservation Commission, the enterprise is the oldest continuously operated business in Seward, a legacy that will end this fall.
Iris and Hugh say it’s time to see what the outside world looks like after having been tied closely to the operation of the clothing, gift and candy emporium that in 1956 became known as the Brown & Hawkins Mall.
In the years since 1989 when they came to Seward to assist Hugh’s ailing mother, Virginia, the Darlings have only been away from Seward a handful of times. As Hugh says, “When you own three 100-year-old buildings you don’t have much spare time.” Upon his Seward reentry in 1989, Hugh was almost instantly occupied with the demands of upkeep for the aging structures.
Right from the start, Iris became absorbed in the retail side of the business and soon set about making it her store, taking the lead in merchandising and retail operations. She soon became inspired by the idea of remodelling the candy store and restoring the front of the building to its historic 1920s appearance.
Another dynamic Seward alumni, Dorene Lorenz, pitched in on that project collaborating on the design of the store’s interior. Lorenz also discovered historical documents lurking in dark corners of the building which are now displayed on the store walls.
With his background in contracting and construction, Hugh was well prepared for the remodelling of the three buildings. The late 1990s project resulted in the store as it stands today with the picturesque restoration of the storefront.
As the oldest business in Alaska still run by the same family, the Darlings have a lot of history behind them. In addition to her work building the modern Brown & Hawkins, Iris has helped make some Seward history of her own, having participated in establishing the downtown business association as well as being past president of the Seward Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps her most significant, and controversial, legacy grew out of her leadership role in Washington’s Army.
At its peak of activity in 2008, the group of concerned citizens actively opposed the construction of a modern, multi-story, governmental office complex in the heart of the downtown historic district. The one-time shot at a major construction project worth tens of millions of dollars had many supporters in the Seward community.
However, Iris and her associates prioritized maintaining the historic heart of Seward over the imposition of a large metal and glass building that would overshadow the waterfront, require vacating a city street and change the character of downtown.
Hugh, who has served with distinction on both the Seward City Council and the local planning and zoning commission, also has seen his share of community projects as a member of the downtown business community. One renovation project that resulted in the current Petro Marine building didn’t end up as expected. The historic Seward Trading Company building is somewhere inside the green cube. However, beyond Seward, he has an appreciation for the roots that Brown & Hawkins spread through the area and the state.
Those roots go back to the founding partners, Hawkins and Charles Brown, who played a central role in commerce throughout Southcentral Alaska. They made a big splash in 1912, establishing a store and an assayer’s office on a barge anchored in Ship Creek near the intersection of the Knik and Turnagain arms of Cook Inlet. Because of the presence of that trading post on the SS Bertha, the term “anchorage” was popularized as a destination to the extent that it became the name of Alaska’s biggest city.
The two businessmen first teamed up during the Nome gold rush of 1898 and they initially set up a Valdez-based business in 1900. However, the federal preference for the railroad route pioneered by Seward’s Alaska Central Railroad over the competing venture in Valdez saw the partners shift their attention to Resurrection Bay after a few years.
Due to Seward’s increasing prominence and heavy use of the Iditarod Trail, Brown and Hawkins had a good part of the wealth produced during the gold rush days of Alaska pass through it’s mercantile banking operation. The large Mosler vault, now used as an office, secured shipments of gold bullion worth up to at least $1 million at a single time from mining in Nome, Iditarod, Hope and elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula.
Changes in regulations forced the divestment of the banking operation and resulted in the founding of the Bank of Seward and the Bank of Anchorage. The Bank of Seward operated from the corner of Fourth Avenue and Adams Street next to the Van Gilder Hotel. It was merged with the First National Bank of Anchorage and the building was replaced with the current bank branch building in 1979.
The stores were initially operated from tents with wooden sides, much like the rest of the railroad camp of Seward in the early 1900s. Within a few years the canvas had given way to wooden buildings and Brown and Hawkins remains in the same two buildings that were raised in 1906. Through the years, the 1964 Earthquake, and several major downtown fires the original buildings stand untouched.
Hawkins bought out Brown in the late 1920s and Brown returned to New York in 1929 where he passed away months later. Brown & Hawkins kept the name and continued in the hands of James Hawkins after the death of his father T.W. in 1946, expanding to take over an adjoining building which housed a saloon and gambling joint, the former Seward City Club. James Hawkins operated the business until 1956 when he turned it over to Virgina (Hawkins) Darling who promptly set about reorganizing the going concern.
That’s a tradition that Iris has continued, progressively reorienting the business and introducing new merchandising even as her thoughts have wandered toward an eventual exit strategy involving avoiding another winter slipping around on Seward’s pernicious well-lubricated ice.
Although, as Hugh says, “We decided we are in a place in life where we wanted to do something else,” he still has a deep connection to Seward. “Seward will always be home,” he says with a laugh, considering Iris’s lack of enthusiasm for Alaska winters.
The couple are still going to operate the candy store seasonally and they hope that a buyer comes along for the entire operation. Considering that, with solid financing, someone could step into a profitable business with the impressive pedigree of Brown & Hawkins, Hugh and Iris are somewhat mystified that the opportunity hasn’t been snapped up.
As the weeks until final closing time for the gift shop and clothing store count down, there’s still the chance that Brown & Hawkins could be someone’s turnkey dream. All it would take would be the commitment that Hugh and Iris have shown in their 24 years on the job. And a check.