When word of the Federal Government’s new program reached the press there were very mixed reactions and many misunderstandings, but the Alaskan colonization program quickly gripped the public’s attention with images of brave pioneers setting forth to recreate the Manifest Destiny of their forefathers in opening new lands. This mysterious territory of Alaska was, like the frontier west before it, the stuff of legends, with towering mountains, endless forests, unknown coasts and wild uncharted rivers. But there were also captivating stories of immense glaciers, still-active volcanos, and the vast unknown expanse of the Arctic.
Reporters of the day, always on the lookout for compelling human interest stories, seemed to delight in characterizing the adventure in outrageous phrasings. The March 10, 1935 issue of the Los Angeles Times ran an article headlined: “Alaska Cold to Colonies: Farm Migration Held Dubious, New Deal Plan to Transport Drought-Stricken Families Viewed Askance: The Northern Lights may see such sights as a Minnesota farmer plowing Alaskan fields for rutabagas, shooting big game and catching game fish in an effort to beat the drought by a revival of the old-time American pioneer spirit.”
On March 26, 1935, the Boston Globe purred: “Pioneers on a New Frontier: One of the experiments our Government is conducting for the relief of families stranded in the mid-West, because of the destruction of their lands, promises to stimulate attention the Nation over. There is in it just that touch of romance which lends appeal to the imagination.”
And the March 24, 1935 copy of The Washington Post expounded: “Its Fertile Valleys Await ‘Model’ Group: They Will Build Log Cabins and School Houses in Region of Great Abundance, Where Vegetables Grow to Giant Size. 200 Families to Go, And 400 Laborers. Drought Areas of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota Provide Population for Just Such Project in the Far North. A tent colony similar to those of the ‘Klondike or Bust’ days of ’98 will soon greet Alaskan eyes.”
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Beyond the popular hype of the headlines, surveys were made on the land removed from homestead entry, the land was subdivided into 208 plots ranging from 40 to 80 acres in size, and plans were made for transporting the families to Alaska and building a new community for them; laying the groundwork for the new colony was moving ahead.
In Matanuska Valley Memoir, Johnson and Stanton explained the formation of the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (ARRC), aka the Corporation in the official paperwork, which would be charged with managing the new colony:
“Direction of the Colony was to be the function of the ARRC, better known as the Corporation. The AARC was incorporated on April 12, 1935 under the Alaskan laws relating to charitable agencies. It was to be a non-profit corporation, given broad powers to operate anywhere in Alaska for no longer than fifty years. The Articles of Incorporation were drawn up from a standard form used for the incorporation of Rural Rehabilitation Corporations in the United States.
“The primary purpose for which the Corporation was formed is stated to be ‘To rehabilitate individuals and families as self-sustaining human beings by enabling them to secure subsistence and gainful employment from the soil, from coordinate and affiliated industries and enterprises or otherwise, in accordance with economic and social standards of good citizenship.’
“Eleven other objects and purposes in the Articles defined specific powers by which the corporation was to accomplish its primary objectives. Express provision was made that the statements shall not be considered to restrict the Corporation’s power in any manner.”
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In the general elections of November, 1932, the Senate had gained a Democratic majority of over two to one, while the House came out of the elections with a three to one Democratic majority. President Herbert Hoover famously said the 1932 election had not been a “contest between two men” but one between “two philosophies of government.”
The stage was set for major change.
In 2009 Time magazine published “The Legacy of F.D.R,” which capsulized one of the most notable eras in American history, beginning with the new President Roosevelt’s taking office:
“March 4, 1933, was perhaps the Great Depression’s darkest hour. The stock market had plunged 85% from its high in 1929, and nearly one-fourth of the workforce was unemployed. In the cities, jobless men were lining up for soup and bread. In rural areas, farmers whose land was being foreclosed were talking openly of revolution. The crowd that gathered in front of the Capitol that day to watch Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Inauguration had all but given up on America. They were, a reporter observed, “as silent as a group of mourners around a grave.”
“Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address was a pitch-perfect combination of optimism (‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’), consolation (the nation’s problems ‘concern, thank God, only material things’) and resolve (‘This nation asks for action, and action now’). The speech won rave reviews. Even the rock-ribbed Republican Chicago Tribune lauded its ‘dominant note of courageous confidence.’ F.D.R. had buoyed the spirits of the American people — and nearly 500,000 of them wrote to him at the White House in the following week to tell him so.
“Hours after the Inauguration, Roosevelt made history in a more behind-the-scenes way. He gathered his Cabinet in his White House office and had Justice Benjamin Cardozo swear them in as a group, the first time that had ever been done. F.D.R. joked that he was doing it so they could ‘receive an extra day’s pay,’ but the real reason was that he wanted his team to get to work immediately.
“And that team came through brilliantly. In the next 100 days — O.K., 105, but who’s counting? — his Administration shepherded 15 major bills through Congress. It was the most intense period of lawmaking ever undertaken by Congress — a ‘presidential barrage of ideas and programs,’ historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed, ‘unlike anything known to American history.’”
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When the seventy-third United States Congress convened under the new Roosevelt administration in 1933, the federal bureaucracy was fairly small, and concerned itself primarily with overseeing relatively minor regulations on various growing industries.
The federal government’s role in times of economic crisis had traditionally been to offer loans to state governments through the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), so they could tend to the welfare of their citizens. But with the Great Depression wreaking havoc across the nation, 15 million Americans were unemployed, and their first order of business became working with the administration to draft a program to aid the millions of Americans displaced by the unprecedented hardships of the times.
The Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933, a joint federal-state relief effort, replaced the Emergency Relief Administration with an appropriation of $500 million dollars set aside for the relief effort; $250 million of that was designated for use by the states “to make grants to the several states to aid in meeting the costs of furnishing relief and in relieving the hardship and suffering caused by unemployment in the form of money, service, materials, and/or commodities to provide the necessities of life to persons in need as a result of the present emergency, and/or their dependents, whether resident, transient, or homeless,” as well as to “aid in assisting cooperative and self-help associations for the barter of goods and services.”
To facilitate the administration of this new emergency relief program, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) established a State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA) in each state, but officials quickly learned that the rural areas were not interested in a relief program as much as a rehabilitation program.
In April, 1934, a Rural Rehabilitation Division was established within FERA, with funds designated for use only in rural areas. Rural relief camps were established across the nation, to give families a place to stay until times improved; in time they would be immortalized by the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, and in John Steinbeck’s epic masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.
In order to effectively assist the people who needed it, however, the states needed the power to handle a myriad of additional functions relative to a diversified rural rehabilitation effort, so FERA authorized the establishment of legal entities in each of the states: not-for-profit organizations known as rural rehabilitation corporations which would allow each state to craft rehabilitation programs that met their own needs. By 1935, forty-five rural rehabilitation corporations were formed, with similar corporations in the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
The corporations began to buy huge tracts of farmland, subdivided them into homestead plots, and mortgaged the plots to displaced farm families. In addition to the Matanuska Colony at Palmer, FERA completed three other communities: Dyess Colony, Arkansas; Cherry Lake, Florida; and Pine Mountain Valley Resettlement Community, Georgia.
Over time, nearly 200 communities, including Arthurdale, West Virginia; Greenbelt, Maryland; Farmstead, Alabama; Greendale, Wisconsin; Cumberland Homesteads, Tennessee; and Greenhills, Ohio, would reap the benefits of what came to be known as the federal government’s ‘alphabet agencies.’
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David Reichard Williams, born a twin in his parents’ sod house in Childress, Texas, in 1890, grew up mostly educated at home and through correspondence courses. He started to work for the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway System when he was only 15. At the age of 22 he began a study of architecture at the University of Texas, and in 1916, without having received a degree, he accepted a job as a civil engineer for Gulf Oil Corporation in Mexico, gaining an appreciation for Spanish Colonial architecture while there. He also designed a simple system of pre-fabrication which was adopted by the oil companies and used world-wide; he later became a recognized expert in the field of prefabricated buildings, and he would use the concept in the Matanuska Colony Project.
Williams spent 1922 and 1923 in Europe, and his extensive travels there, along with his exposure to the modern masters, would later influence his work designing distinctive homes which drew upon the tenets of European Modernism, while also incorporating many inspirations from the handcrafted work of early Texas pioneers.
Williams’ goal was to do for Texas what Frank Lloyd Wright had done for the Midwest with his Prairie style home; that is, to design a sturdy, functional type of home, designed to meet regional needs. His successful Texas Modernist style, exhibiting a respect for the environment, an ability to adapt to a region, and a tradition of craftsmanship, was adopted by many other architects, and his development of an indigenous architecture for the American southwest would later lead to the popular “ranch house” home design.
In 1933 David Williams developed the first large-scale community building project in the United States, the Woodlake Cooperative Agricultural Community in east Texas. Designed to give depression-era families an opportunity to become farmers, the project was deemed a great success by supporters of the New Deal, and in 1934 Williams was called to Washington, D.C. to work with FERA, planning agricultural communities.
After researching Alaska’s climate and agricultural potential, requesting information from the Arctic Institute of North America and the University of Minnesota, and interviewing Alaskan construction experts, Williams wrote up guidelines and a proposal, and he and others met with President Roosevelt in February 1935 to propose the Matanuska Colony Project. Roosevelt was strongly in favor of developing an Alaskan farming community which could supply future Alaskan military bases, and the project was given a green light. David Williams was directed to finalize plans for the new Alaskan community.
Williams oversaw the design of indigenous log and frame buildings, utilizing his concepts of pre-fabrication to orchestrate the pre-cutting of logs for homes, barns, and outbuildings. The first summer was dedicated to building the Colonists’ houses, which were available in five designs. As a measure of expediency Williams only designed one barn, a distinctive structure with a high gambrel roof, measuring 32 feet by 32 feet square, and 32 feet high. The barns were built on small pilings of native spruce, the spruce logs sawn flat on three sides making up the ten foot high log side walls. Above that was wood siding up to the frame-constructed gambrel roof. Outbuildings were also designed, and included a chicken coop/brooder with a shed roof, a well house and an outhouse.
Having never been to Alaska, Williams was not aware that the local trees in some areas were too small for effective sawmilling into useable lumber, so in the summer of 1935 he would travel north to troubleshoot construction problems.
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“Washington, April 13–(AP)–A lean and bronzed Wyoming rancher is in Washington preparing to lead a new-style pioneering expedition into an Alaskan valley late this month.
“He is D.L. Irwin and his title is ‘director of colonization for Alaska for the federal emergency relief administration.’ The fertile Matanuska valley, 125 miles north of Seward, has been selected as the site for the first FERA rehabilitation colony in Alaska.
“Under consideration for several months, the project has attracted attention of the American Red Cross. Chairman Cary T. Grayson announced today that first aid training will be given the 480 relief workers who will spend the summer helping build the colony. They will receive the training before the first contingent sails from California April 20.
“Admiral Grayson added that a Red Cross public health nurse will be assigned to the colony for a year to serve as a visiting nurse and to teach home hygiene, while the junior Red Cross is assembling a library for both children and adults.
“Two hundred families–including 1,000 persons–have been selected from farms in northern Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin to form the colony. Each family will be lent $3,000 and will be furnished a 40-acre homestead. Thirty years will be allowed for repayment of the money. The 480 relief workers who help launch the project will return to the states in the fall, leaving the farmers to carry on.
“Irwin is tall, slightly stooped. His face is weather-beaten. Crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes bear out his statement that he has spent most of his life outdoors.
“Early in 1934, he explained, efforts were begun to get him to leave his ranch to assume charge of the government experiment station in Matanuska valley. He took his wife, two daughters and young son and went there in June, 1934. In January of this year, he was summoned to Washington and told he was to take charge of the colonization project.
“Of pioneering stock, Irwin’s eyes glow as he talks about the venture. He likes Alaska – America’s ‘last frontier.’ ‘I think Alaska is one of the few spots in the world where there is a future,’ he said, simply.
“The colonists should succeed, he said. They will be located within a seven-mile radius of a community center. They must build their own homes and they must clear their own ground. They will be able to kill some small game for food. They will have excellent fishing. It is truly a pioneering expedition, he said–but the government will help take the raw edge off the venture. There will be portable sawmills, tractors and thousands of pounds of equipment.
“‘It’s a great country,’ Irwin said. ‘My family is still up there, you know, and we’ll have to build our home like the rest of them.
“‘I’ll be glad to get back.'”
In his book, The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony, Orlando Miller commented about an interview he had with Irwin: “To his disappointment, he was assigned to planning for supplies and shipments rather than given authority to select the colonists, a job he would have preferred and believed he could have done well.”
Irwin had begun methodically determining standards to apply to the colonist selection process, but his approach was deemed too slow and he was rejected in favor of a committee determining the selection process. Irwin found himself planning the initial procuring and transportation of building materials, construction and farm equipment, and livestock for the colony. He would later write in The Colorful Matanuska Valley:
“This was no light order. Two ships–a troop carrier, the St. Mihiel, and a Bureau of Indian Affairs supply ship, the North Star–were chartered for $50,000 and put into commission for a period of six months. These two ships transported the Colonists, transient workers, equipment, material and supplies necessary for the operation of the project for the first six months.
“Transportation of approximately 1,000 people from their home-counties to the state concentration points and thence across the states to San Francisco by train, was only part of the problem. Feeding them and providing for sleeping and sanitation were more complex. There was criticism of the accommodations by those who opposed the plan. Colonel Ohlson had been in public service long enough to let the critics find fault. He had work to do, and he went about the job in hand, always two jumps ahead of the politicians and fault finders. Many of the ideas of the planners in Washington were obviously out of line with the hard facts and conditions in Alaska.”
Irwin’s last line was a point which would be heard often in the months and years ahead.