Willis T. Geisman, A.R.R.C. Official Photographer

BIA ship North Star at San Francisco, April, 1935

BIA ship North Star at San Francisco, April, 1935. Photograph by Willis T. Geisman for the A.R.R.C. [ASL-PCA-270, Mary Nan Gamble Collection, Alaska State Library]

In the spring of 1935 a large contingent of Matanuska Colony officials, including Colony Manager Don Irwin, architect L. N. Troast, Col. Frank Bliss and his staff, and many others, left San Francisco on the Bureau of Indian Affairs ship North Star, bound for Seward, Alaska.

They were transporting the tents, stoves, trucks, tractors, well-drilling equipment and other materials necessary for creating a new community in the Alaskan wilderness, along with the first group of 118 transient workers who would be building the homes, barns, and roads for the new colony.

Willis GeismanJoining this advance guard was a young graduate from the University of California at Berkeley named Willis Taubert Geisman, who played rugby and had lettered in Political Science. Before setting sail, Geisman photographed the Emergency Relief Administration headquarters on 4th Street in San Francisco, and the workers loading trucks and farm machinery onto the North Star at Pier 50.

As the official photographer for the Matanuska Colony Project, Geisman documented every aspect of the venture, from the kitchen help aboard the North Star to the colonists’ children playing in the tent city, from officials posing stiffly for portraits to farmers working together to build homes before winter. His photographs portray proud farm wives showing their neat tent kitchens, and a small girl sitting in an Alaskan berry patch grinning at the cameraman.

Title_pageIn the Official Photographic Album of the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (A.R.R.C.), Matanuska Colonization Project, Geisman’s 939 photographs are notated: “Complete Album photographed and produced in the field with portable equipment by Willis T. Geisman, official photographer, A. R. R. C. Palmer, Alaska, 1935.”

Little is known about Willis T. Geisman after 1935. He was born in San Franciso in November 1, 1911, to Clarence John and Florence N. Geisman. At some point he married, and he joined the Marine Corps, where he attained the rank of Captain. He was captured by the Japanese after the fall of Corregidor, Philippine Islands, on 6 May 1942, and was held as a Prisoner of War until his death while still in captivity. Burial was at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Manila, Philippines. His awards included the Prisoner of War Medal and the Purple Heart.

Colony kids in a tent camp. Photograph by Willis T. Geisman for the A.R.R.C. [ASL-PCA-303, Mary Nan Gamble Collection, Alaska State Library]

Colony kids in a tent camp. Photograph by Willis T. Geisman for the A.R.R.C. [ASL-PCA-303, Mary Nan Gamble Collection, Alaska State Library]

Willis T. Geisman’s documentation of the 1935 Matanuska Colony project was a monumental achievement, and has become the most frequently referenced work on that part of Alaska’s history. Geisman’s compelling photographs have appeared in hundreds of books, magazines, news articles, on television, and in films.

His photographs played a major role in the award-winning 2008 documentary, Alaska Far Away, and they were lauded by Valley historian Jim Fox, author of The First Summer, a splendid collection of some of Geisman’s most memorable photos: “Geisman’s work is of tremendous importance in its documentation of the Colony’s history and its technical skill, artistic and documentary style.”

The complete A.R.R.C. photograph album by Willis T. Geisman can be viewed online at Alaska’s Digital Archives for the Alaska State Library.

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Laying the Groundwork

W. D. Berry. Copyright Griffins, Alaska 1967

W. D. Berry. Copyright Griffins, Alaska 1967

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.

newspaper_bwReporters 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.”

 ~ ~ ~

1920s_Surveyor_Gurley_TransitBeyond 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:

ARRC“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.”

 ~ ~ ~

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.

FDRinauguration

Inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt

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.’”

 ~ ~ ~

great-depression-lessons.png.400x300_q90_crop-smart

Great Depression soup kitchen

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.

Dorothea Lange

Nipomo, California, 1936. Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress

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.’

 ~ ~ ~

David R. Williams, FERA Architect

David R. Williams, FERA Architect

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.

Texas Modern Home designed in 1932 by Architect David R. Williams

Texas Modern Home 1932, by David R. Williams

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.

Classic Matanuska Colony barn, art by Susan Patch

Classic Matanuska Colony barn, art by Susan Patch

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.

 ~ ~ ~

Don Irwins bookIn the April 13, 1935 issue of the Ironwood Daily News, Ironwood, Michigan, the following article appeared under the heading “Alaskan Expedition to be Led by Wyoming Rancher:”

“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.'”

The Frontier in AlaskaIn 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.

 

 

 

The Matanuska Colony

A friend talks to Margaret Nelson (with daughter Norma) upon their arrival at Matanuska (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-225 Alaska State Library)

A friend talks to Margaret Nelson (with daughter Norma) upon their arrival at Matanuska (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-225 Alaska State Library)

Anyone who travels through the eastern part of Alaska’s dramatically beautiful Matanuska Valley soon finds a Colony barn enhancing the landscape. These striking Valley landmarks are the enduring legacy of an all-but-forgotten chapter in American history, when the U.S. government took a direct hand in the lives of thousands of its citizens, offering Depression-distraught farm families an opportunity to begin again in a far-off land with government financing and support. The Matanuska Colony Project was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of economic programs designed to provide the “3 R’s”: Relief, Recovery, and Reform.” Relief for the poor and the unemployed, Recovery of the economy to normal levels, and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression.

The decade of the 1930’s profoundly altered the course of Alaska’s history, as relationships changed between the citizens, the state, and the federal government, and rugged Alaskan individualism gave way to an acceptance of the government’s increasing role in daily life. The Matanuska Colony was not the only government rural rehabilitation project; it was in fact only one of a multitude of complex, ambitious and controversial programs initiated under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Federal Rural Development Program, and other resettlement projects included Dyess Colony, Arkansas; Arthurdale, West Virginia; the Phoenix Homesteads in Arizona; and similar colonies in over a dozen other states.

Colonists hauling logs to their cabin sites (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270486 Alaska State Library)

Colonists hauling logs to their cabin sites (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270486 Alaska State Library)

In his 1968 book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley, author and General Manager of the Matanuska Colony Project, Don L. Irwin, explained, “On February 4, 1935, President Roosevelt, by Executive Order No. 6957, withdrew an area of 8,000 acres in the Matanuska Valley from homestead entry. This area was supplemented by a March 13 withdrawal of 18,000 acres of grazing land. Both of these withdrawals were for the benefit of the Colony Project.”

The areas withdrawn lie generally along both sides of the lower reaches of the Matanuska River in the eastern part of the Valley. Irwin detailed the early days of the Matanuska Valley, noting, “There were approximately 100 miles of graded road in the Valley in the spring of 1935. Not more than 20 miles was gravel surfaced and none of it was paved. There was no road from the Valley into Anchorage.”

Cabin construction (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-488 Alaska State Library)

Cabin construction (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-488 Alaska State Library)

Irwin went on to explain there was weekly freight and passenger service on the Alaska Railroad, but no more than 1,200 acres of land cleared of timber and under cultivation. “One married couple and three elderly bachelors comprised the population of Palmer. There was no doctor, nor were there hospital facilities in the Valley.”

It was into this frontier atmosphere the U.S. government brought their recruited settlers. With thousands answering the call, 202 families were eventually selected and transported to Alaska from the northern tier states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, as it was supposed that residents of these states would be most familiar with the harsh climate to be found in Alaska. A news clip from the Ironwood Daily Globe, of Ironwood, Michigan, explained the selection process for the Alaska-bound group in an article from March, 1935, titled ‘Families in Northern Counties Will Begin Migration to Alaska in April’:

A typical farm scene in the Matanuska Farm Colony. Mrs. E.H. Huseby, colonist mother in the garden behind her tent home picking turnips. In the background can be seen the Huseby’s cabin in construction and their cattle. (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-754 Alaska State Library)

A typical farm scene in the Matanuska Farm Colony. Mrs. E.H. Huseby, colonist mother in the garden behind her tent home picking turnips. In the background can be seen the Huseby’s cabin in construction and their cattle. (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-754 Alaska State Library)

“Madison, March 19–(AP)–Modern pioneers, in the person of 67 northern Wisconsin families now on relief, will begin their exodus to a “new frontier” and a ‘new life’ in Alaska late in April.

“Arlie Mucks, president of the Wisconsin Rural Rehabilitation Corporation, announced that Wisconsin’s quota of the 200 families which will seek to rehabilitate themselves under federal direction in the fertile Matanuska valley, will sail from Seattle, Wash., in May together with similar groups from northern Michigan and Minnesota.

“All qualifications have not been determined, Mucks said, but the eligible families must have been on relief for some time, their members must be healthy and they must have an agricultural background. The husband and wife must be between 35 and 40, and willing to settle in the new Utopia..

“Four hundred CCC men and members of transient camps on the Pacific coast are being sent to Palmer this month to clear the land, build roads and houses, as well as a creamery, school building and community hall.

“When the settlers arrive, each will be assigned 40 acres of land. In rehabilitating the families, the government intends to spend $3,000 on each group, and the ‘pioneers’ must agree to liquidate the government advance over 30 years.”

D.F. Watson holding turnips grown in his garden (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-697 Alaska State Library)

D.F. Watson holding turnips grown in his garden (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-697 Alaska State Library)

Much has been written about the Matanuska Colony Project over the years, both applauding the effort and roundly condemning it. Perhaps the fairest assessment comes from Hugh A. Johnson and Keith L. Stanton in Matanuska Valley Memoir: “The Matanuska Colony was developed during an emergency period and under bizarre circumstances. A national emergency relief program obviously was not the best vehicle for a settlement experiment. The experiment was conducted with nearly all the ingredients as unknowns. It was complicated by some administrative decisions and actions obstructive to smooth development. It may not have been a case of the blind leading the blind–although at times it seemed so.”

Although fraught with inevitable bureaucratic entanglements, frustrating delays, and a variety of other distractions, the Matanuska Colony actually thrived for the most part, and nearly 200 families remained to raise their families and make their permanent homes in Alaska. Highways were built, the wide Matanuska and Knik Rivers were bridged, and the town of Palmer became the center of commerce and society in the Valley. By 1948, production from the Colony Project farms provided over half of the total Alaskan agricultural products sold.

A Colonist's log and frame home, identified as Cabin No. 140 (Photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-322 Alaska State Library)

A Colonist’s log and frame home, identified as Cabin No. 140 (Photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-322 Alaska State Library)

An editorial in the November, 1972 Agroborealis magazine, published by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, beckoned those who would join Alaska’s farming pioneers: “The great American dream! To be independent. To be completely self reliant and, if possible, self sufficient. Not necessarily to be rich, but to be one’s own boss and beholden to no one. This is what brought our forefathers to this continent in the first place. This is the rainbow that led them over the Alleghenies, across the plains, and through the mountain passes to California and Oregon. This is the magnet that still draws people to Alaska.”

Today the Matanuska Valley draws worldwide attention for its colorful agricultural heritage and its uniquely orchestrated history. The iconic Colony barn, often seen around the Valley now in artwork, logos, advertising, and other uses, has become a beloved symbol of Alaskan history.