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In 1898, Valdez was a gold rush tent city. The streets were muddy and lined with canvas wall tents where people lived and ran businesses. In May of 1898, Valdez’s first doctor arrived in town. His name was Dr. Andrew Von Gunther and came to Valdez with his wife, Lena. The couple, originally from Germany, was now moving from Seattle. The Von Gunthers spent their first night in Valdez in the tent of an acquaintance, then set up housekeeping in their own tent down the street.
During Valdez’s formative years, Dr. Von Gunther became a well-known and somewhat controversial resident. He also contributed to many of the new city’s Firsts.
For example, he constructed the first permanent building in Valdez on the corner of Reservation Avenue and Sherman Street. He purchased several other city lots and built more houses. It was here that he introduced Valdez to what became known as his famous “Malt Blossom” – a beverage that was reported to “make a housefly wipe his feet on a merry widow spider”. He brewed this concoction of malt, hops, alcohol, capsicum, and chewing tobacco; marketed it as “medicine”; and labeled it with this prescription: “Take a wine glass before each meal and as often as required”.
This was during the national temperance movement, and the good doctor was reported to the authorities. When Dr. Von Gunther appeared in court, the judge questioned him thoroughly about his product and then dismissed the case, calling the doctor a “public benefactor”. Later, Von Gunther applied for a patent for his Malt Blossom “tonic”, but it was declined because the “medicine” was a little too much like booze.
Dr. Von Gunther, however, continued to contribute to Valdez Firsts. He donated to a relief station on the Valdez Glacier in Sept. 1898; was a charter member of the Order of the Alaska Moose in 1899. He built the Valdez Opera House and hosted the first annual costume ball there. Also in 1901, Dr. Von Gunther opened the first telephone company. He had two employees – his wife, Lena, the first telephone operator, and a lineman. The phone company had nine subscribers. In 1902, the newly formed City Council of Valdez passed an ordinance establishing a Health Officer and appointed Dr. Andrew Von Gunther as the first doctor to fill this post. Apparently not a man to be deterred, Von Gunther built the town’s first brewery in 1902 and named it the “Malt Blossom” brewery.
Dr. and Mrs. Von Gunther lived in Valdez until the early 1930s when they retired to Washington State.