Cordova Chronicles: Only in Cordova

Forget credit cards: charging of merchandise in our town is a link to the past 

Cars stop for a shopper crossing Main Street on the day before Christmas. Don’t try this anywhere else in the world. Photo by Dick Shellhorn / The Cordova Times

Many of the things we love about our town are so common that we take them for granted.  In actuality, they often leave visitors scratching their heads.

A classic example is the unwritten rule about stopping on Main Street to let pedestrians cross from one side to the other.  How this custom began is not clear, but everyone does it, regardless of the weather, the age of the cross walkers, or the size of their parcels.  Often it is initiated by a car coming one way, and the vehicle approaching from the opposite direction responds.  Sometimes traffic backs up, but no one seems to mind. I have yet to hear impatient drivers honk their horns.

However, be careful when crossing in front of vehicles during the summer, when the demographics change due to an influx of Outsiders.  They don’t know some of our unwritten Ordinances, buried in the Only In Cordova Section of the City Codes.

Only in Cordova moments happen all the time.  A couple weeks ago my daughter Gretchen and granddaughter Ellie came rushing into our house, excitedly announcing “You can’t believe what just happened.”  They had been shopping at A.C., and when heading back glanced over at their favorite diner, Baja Taco.  Closed for the winter, it was covered in snow and frost.  Both may have been recalling sunshine and chicken quesadillas, but instead noticed something aqua-colored hanging on the edge of the white board used to announce Baja Specials.

Gretchen hopped out, walked over, and here was her daughter’s favorite sweatshirt.  The zip-up hoody had been missing in action for two months.  It might have as well been Christmas, as far as Ellie was concerned.  Who found it and put it up there remains a mystery, and another Only in Cordova moment.

While telling the story, Gretchen laughed.  “You know, that reminds me of the time I was thinking about finally getting a new car, but couldn’t make up my mind.  I was talking with someone about Ford Escapes, and Susie Scutt, who I didn’t really know that well, must have overheard us, for she came up, gave me her car keys, and said Here, take mine out for a drive and see if you like it.”

Try that in Anchorage sometime.

Another Only in Cordova moment that we casually overlook is the charging of merchandise in various stores, a hold-over from days gone by.  Forget the credit cards.  Grab your groceries, verbally tell the clerk your phone number or account number, scribble a signature, and off you go.  One time a new clerk at A.C. looked at me and said “Sue Shellhorn, right?”  The Johnny Cash tune  “My name is Sue….” flashed through my mind, but the rest of the lyrics might have set off alarms, so I politely said,  “Ah, that would be my wife. Thank you.”

Old time Cordovans may remember the days of “PAF” accounts at many local stores, especially for hardware, clothing, and fishing supplies.  The initials stand for Pay After Fishing, and in essence the local businesses advanced credit to the fishermen until the end of the season, when they had finally made enough money to pay off their bills.  Which, usually, they did.

It is noteworthy that Only in Cordova’s are almost as old as Cordova itself.  At one time the Cordova Times was a daily newspaper, and for some entertaining rainy-day reading, try reviewing some of them.   Ira Grindle, one of Cordova’s great researchers into this city’s past, occasionally sends me gems of interest.  Here are a couple from the 7 October 1937 paper.


“Don Shellhorn, close follower of the diamond game, picked a winner today when he backed the Yankees to win, thereby getting himself a new shotgun from Paul Herring.  However, yesterday, Paul did quite well, taking the clothing merchant for a new tailor-made suit on the results of the opening game.”

Dad came to Cordova from Seward in the early 1930’s, and played a mean third base for the Town team.  He once admitted to  “losing his shirt” in a poker session on the CR&NW Railway train returning from a baseball series against the Mine Team up at Kennicott.   Odds are he had some other Only in Cordova stories that I never heard.

The same 1937 Cordova paper ran another noteworthy article alongside the latest gambling report.

‘Robert Robinson Is Found Insane’

“A jury in the commissioner’s court this afternoon found Robert Robinson, who recently arrived here from Valdez, to be insane.  Although Mr. Robinson is not violent, he is extremely irrational and has many fixed delusions, which Dr. W. H.  Chase stated might lead to violence under certain conditions.  A telegram from a Washington institution stated he had previously been confined there for maniac depressive psychosis.  The government was represented by Warren A. Taylor, assistant U.S. attorney, and the defendant by Joseph H. Murray.”

Now that’s a trial that would have been worth attending.

And truly a Top Ten Only in Cordova.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at