ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – When Albert Whitehead moved into his downtown Anchorage home in 2002, there were a few unusual things that came with the house. One was the ability to keep a pet reindeer named Star on his property, and the other was an assortment of large jade boulders right outside his door.
“There’s 40,000 pounds of jade in my front yard,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead isn’t sure exactly where the boulders came from, but he has a good idea. His house was formerly owned by Ivan and Oro Stewart — good friends of his who started the tradition of keeping a pet reindeer named Star — and who also owned Stewart’s Photo Shop on Fourth Avenue. Whitehead said Ivan Stewart was on a photoshoot in Kotzebue the early 1960s when he heard about a nearby jade mine that was for sale.
“Well the Stewarts have always been interested in rocks, they were kind of rock hounds since they were kids,” Whitehead said. “So Ivan came back, talked to Oro about this fantastic idea of owning a jade mine north of the Arctic Circle and she bought in.”
Stewart worked summers in the mine near Kobuk, sending jade back to Anchorage to be cut and processed. Whitehead believes that’s how some of the boulders landed in his front yard. For 20 years he stared at them, wondering how much value they added to his home. About two years ago, a property assessor set him straight.
“(There’s) 40,000 pounds of jade in my front yard, which are pretty rocks, value zero,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead got to thinking about the thousands of pounds of jade on the property and how to use it. He said that raw, cut jade is selling for $50 a pound, making it obvious to him what he needed to do. He then convinced a friend with a front-end loader to deposit a boulder or two in his garage.
Then he resurrected Ivan Stewart’s original rock saw, an 8-foot diamond toothed blade that can cut through the tough jade at a rate of about an inch an hour. He purchased additional equipment and got to work.
Now, Whitehead is making jade bookends, selling jade to jewelers, and polishing large slabs of the stone that will become the tops for unique Alaskan coffee tables.
Whitehead says it takes hours of work to turn out a polished piece of jade, but it’s worth it. For one, it’s lucrative. He sells his creations to local shops where the bookends retail for several hundred dollars, and the tables can fetch $3,000.
Whitehead said it isn’t all about the money. For one, he wanted the boulders out of his yard and he really wanted to see what’s inside. Now, with every creation that’s sold, he feels like he’s sharing a slice of Alaska’s history as well.
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