Cordova Chronicles: Requiem for a sourdough

A stack of Dorene Wickham’s perfect sourdoughs awaits a hungry diner at the famous CoHo restaurant. Cordova Times photo

Sourdough pancakes have always been a key part of Alaska history. Indeed, fortune seekers who raced north in search of gold in the late 1800s were called sourdoughs for the flat, yeasty flapjack that was a staple in the wilds of the Yukon.

As Cordova was born of a quest for another metal, namely copper, it should come as no surprise that this mining town had sourdough pancakes on the menu of various establishments that sprang up to feed its prospectors and railroad workers. One of those was the Northern Cafe in the Cordova Lodging House, which as built on Main Street in 1908-09.

The Cordova Lodging House, later shortened to the Cordova House, is the first building on the right in this 1908-09 photo. A sign advertising the Northern Cafe within had not yet been added to the front of the building, but clearly there was already competition right across the street.
Cordova Historical Society photo

The key ingredient to a successful sourdough is the “starter,” which ferments and must be “fed” to produce a batter that results in a unique gloriously-flavorful and slightly chewy pancake.

Starter is passed down from generation to generation, and a few lucky households around Cordova may have batter that dates back to the very birth of our city. As evidenced by a recent local spate over who originally owned the starter that has been used to create sourdoughs at the local CoHo, the last bastion of this truly historical fare, one has to wonder if sourdoughs fought over their starter as much as they did over their gold claims.

Not wanting to become involved in a battle between the Hatfields and McCoys, I’ll stick to my personal pancake-dining history. It started in the early 1950s, when our dad, Don Shellhorn, would take my brother Bobby and I out for sourdoughs before going out the road for an early morning duck hunt.

Dad, who came to Cordova in the early ’30s to work at the Cordova Commercial Company after graduating from Seward High, was not known for his cooking ability, but had a typical bachelor about-the-town reputation, and evidently spent many a morning dining at various breakfast establishments. So, he certainly knew where to get the best pancakes.  And in fact, that is where he met our eventual mother, Anita Young, an attractive young waitress fresh off a dairy farm in Washington.

Time marches on, and eventually it was my turn to continue the sourdough tradition. When our daughters Heidi and Gretchen were little, I would take them down for sourdoughs at Marion Wiese’s cafe, which eventually became today’s OK Restaurant. Hers were perfection, and her starter is still a Wiese family treasure.

Soon it became time to take our granddaughter Ellie out for sourdoughs. My wife Sue, daughter Gretchen, Ellie and I would meet up with our friends John and Mary Davis, both teachers at Mt. Eccles, for Saturday breakfast at the CoHo.

Ah, what a cultural and culinary adventure it was. The Cordova House is clearly one of Cordova’s original buildings, and just glancing at the door was enough to frighten off most out-of-towners. A separate entrance led past the bar to the restaurant in the back; the floor had several layers of plywood on it so one wouldn’t fall through. Eventually it became so hazardous, patrons were forced to enter through the bar and skirt around a well-worn pool table in their pancake quest.

The dining area featured seven tables of various size, with mismatching chairs that wobbled on crooked legs. A counter that seated six provided a view through a small opening to the grill. The place was always packed with a panorama of locals drinking coffee from an eclectic collection of cups while surrounded by shelves filled with an intriguing array of porcelain Christmas and farm animal figurines. Dim lights beamed down between dusty exposed sprinkler system pipes, and in one corner within a murky tank was a goldfish that became so big it could barely turn around. Patrons surmised it might someday become a dinner special.

The pancakes, and atmosphere, were great. As was the master chef, Dorene Wickham, who sometimes came across as tart as her masterpiece, but, in fact, has a heart of gold and enjoyed her banter with the regulars.

We started taking Ellie when she was very small. When she became big enough to walk, we would let her wander around a bit, and she met quite a few local characters in the process. Eventually she decided to explore behind the counter, and before you knew it, Dorene and Kelley Gillis had adopted her as an assistant cook, to the point where she was back in the kitchen sitting on a counter opposite the grill helping make omelets. Sort of. Sprinkling cheese and ham on their tops was her specialty.

By the time our breakfast was served, she was so full, she couldn’t eat the plate of eggs, hash browns, bacon and pancakes that came her way.

When we first started taking Ellie in for this weekend dining and educational adventure, almost everyone, including the cooks, was puffing away on cigarettes over their coffee.  Much to our surprise, one Saturday, when we walked in, no one was smoking.

There was a small sign on the counter that said “No Smoking When Children Present.”

Well, as you may have heard, the CoHo has finally closed its doors. Dorene is retiring, and it is likely adieu to 110 years of yeasty tradition.

Yet for many of us, what will always be present, is fond memories of Dorene, and one of Cordova’s favorite morning gathering places.

In April 2018, after 110 years of sourdoughs, and much more, it appears the famous CoHo has finally closed its doors.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times
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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 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.