Gelles, Gustav "Gus"

1881-1943 | Sales Agent

Gustav "Gus" Gelles was born in Vienna, Austria, on April 10, 1881[1] when his parents were visiting the European city. An American citizen, he was brought back to New York when he was a few months old.

As a young man, Gelles came to Alaska as a representative of the National Grocery Company for the entire territory. His headquarters was in Juneau but he made frequent trips to the north prior to the time that Anchorage became a tent city. In 1920, he permanently moved his headquarters to Anchorage, where he became the manager of the National Grocery Company’s interests in western and interior Alaska.[2]

On March 18, 1921, Gelles married Wanda Marie Nolan, who was employed as a bookkeeper and clerk at the Bank of Anchorage. Wanda Nolan was born in Almota, Washington, near Colfax, in Palouse County, on September 18, 1892. She came to Anchorage in 1918 to be a cashier for the Bank of Alaska. In spring 1921, she was locked in the bank vault with the only customer during what was reported to be the first bank robbery in Anchorage. She left her position at the bank to become a mother and housewife. She served on the Anchorage School Board for nine years and ran Gus's office as well.[3]

Gelles was known throughout the Territory of Alaska as the "Optimo Kid" because of his prowess as a sales agent for Optimo Cigars. He was on the first commercial flight from Anchorage to Kodiak with Russel Merrill. He was also instrumental in organizing KFQD, Anchorage's first radio station, the Evan Jones Coal Company, and the Alaska Guides. In 1926, along with A.A. Shonbeck and Alonzo Cope, he organized Anchorage Air Transport, Inc, with Russel Merrill as chief pilot. The first two airplanes were bought from Travel Air Manufacturing Company in Wichita, Kansas. Other local residents who were stockholders in the new venture were Oscar Anderson, Jack Collins, A.D. Balderston, Robert S. Bragaw, Jr., Pete Olson, and Fred Parsons.[4]

Gelles had chartered aviator Russel Merrill in late August 1925 to fly him to Kodiak to meet his customers. The flight was plagued with mechanical failures as well as difficult weather, and they were forced down near Seldovia and the airplane wrecked in a storm, but made it back to Anchorage where Gelles was reported to have stated: "It was a wonderful experience and one I wouldn't have missed for a whole lot. I never saw so many beautiful lakes and such wonderful scenery in my life."[5]

Gelles was constantly promoting Anchorage, and was considered one of its best boosters. In 1935, along with Grant Reed, Herb Reed, and Frank Dorbandt as pilot, he left for Seattle in a Bowman Airways Travel Air. He returned with Dorbandt to Anchorage, becoming the first round-trip passenger on an airplane between Anchorage and the States.

Wanda Nolan Gelles died on October 30, 1940, after a lingering illness. Gustav "Gus" Gelles died on July 27, 1943, at his home after an illness of a few weeks. Their remains are buried in the Elks Tract of the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. They were survived by their two daughters, Wanda Gelles Griffin and Katherine Urie, and son, Robert. [6]


[1] Gus Gelles, U.S., Selective Service System, Selective Service Registration Cards, World War II: Fourth Registration, Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System, National Archives at St. Louis (St. Louis, MO); U.S., World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942 [database on-line], (accessed July 28, 2016).

[2] “Mrs. Gus Gelles taken by Death,” Anchorage Daily Times, October 31, 1940, 8.

[3] “Mrs. Gus Gelles taken by Death,” Anchorage Daily Times, October 31, 1940, 8.

[4] John P. Bagoy, Legends & Legacies Anchorage, 1910-1935 (Anchorage: Publications Consultants, 2001), 208-209.

[5] Robert Merrill MacLean and Sean Rossiter, Flying Cold: The Adventures of Russel Merrill, Pioneer Alaskan Aviator (Fairbanks, AK: Epicenter Press, 1994), 32-38.

[6] “Gus Gelles, 63, Succumbs,” Anchorage Daily Times, July 28, 1943, 1 and 8.



This biographical sketch of Gustav "Gus" Gelles is based on an essay which originally appeared in John Bagoy's Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1935 (Anchorage, AK: Publications Consultants, 2001), 208-209. See also the Gustav "Gus" Gelles file, Bagoy Family Pioneer Files (2004.11), Box 3, Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, AK. Photographs courtesy of the Gelles family.  Edited by Mina Jacobs, 2012.  Note:  edited slightly by Bruce Parham, April 8, 2016.

Preferred citation: Mina Jacobs, ed., “Gelles, Gustav ‘Gus’,” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940,

Major support for Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, provided by: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Atwood Foundation, Cook Inlet Historical Society, and the Rasmuson Foundation. This educational resource is provided by the Cook Inlet Historical Society, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt association. Contact us at the Cook Inlet Historical Society, by mail at Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501 or through the Cook Inlet Historical Society website,