Selecting Families

Atwood BookA third-generation Alaskan born in Sitka in 1906, Maud “Evangeline” Rasmuson was the daughter of Alaskan banker E. A. Rasmuson. As a social worker in Springfield, Illinois in the early 1930’s, she met and married Robert Atwood. Returning to Alaska at the same time as the Colonists were settling into their tents in Palmer, the Atwoods enlisted the aid of Evangeline’s father, E. A. Rasmuson, and purchased The Anchorage Daily Times, which had been founded in May, 1915, and had at the time, 650 subscribers. That was over 30 percent of the population of Anchorage, which at that time was a mere 2,200 people.

Evangeline Atwood became an important figure in the fight for Alaskan statehood. She wrote several books on Alaska politics and history, and was very active in Anchorage and Alaskan civic affairs. Her 1966 book, We Shall Be Remembered, is one of the handful of books which reliably chronicled the Colony Project, and Evangeline Atwood’s experience as a social worker in the very decade which spawned the Project gave her valuable insight and empathy. She wrote:

social worker“It was no easy task for the social workers to say no to this family, and yes to another, when so many had come to the end of their rope and could see nothing in the future for themselves and their children. The workers did not realize at the beginning that there would be such an urge to go to faraway, rugged Alaska. But also they had not realized how hopeless and desperate life had become to so many who were still struggling to stay off the relief rolls.

“The idea of starting a new life in a distant place like Alaska was so appealing to the disheartened that the workers found it difficult to determine which ones really were equipped to make the drastic move and which ones were simply motivated by wishful thinking. They reminded themselves of the bases for selection as laid down in the planning sessions in Washington:

Colonist families from Minnesota at the San Francisco train station, May, 1935

Colonist families from Minnesota at the San Francisco train station, May, 1935 [SERA, National Archives & Records Administration]

“Couples must be physically strong and mentally ambitious and be possessed of a rugged, pioneering spirit. No particular attention should be paid to a group of related families, or racial or religious factors, excepting that the group should be basically of the Nordic type and fitted by living habits to adjust to the Alaska environment. The entire group must be selected on a basis to cooperate in a commercial enterprise.

“As far as possible, families should be selected first on their farming ability and secondly, those who may have secondary skills and who may adjust themselves to a diversified farming activity and can assist with carpentry on their homes and then those who may know something about machinery and blacksmithing and who have leadership qualities.”

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Technical Experts, Left to right: Captain Parsons, USN, F.L. Bigg, Dr. R.G. Davis, Anton Anderson, Col. Hunt, S.R. Fuller, Dave Williams

Technical Experts, Left to right: Captain Parsons, USN, F.L. Bigg, Dr. R.G. Davis, Anton Anderson, Col. Hunt, S.R. Fuller, Dave Williams [Willis Geisman, photographer]

One key to understanding how the selection process–as described in the last paragraph–was developed, can be found in an article by Arnold R. Alanen, emeritus professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Wisconsin, for Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Volume 8 in the series from University Tennessee Press titled People, Power, Places (2000).

Alanen’s article, Midwesterners in the Matanuska Valley: Colonizing Rural Alaska during the 1930s, noted:

“There was, however, an important difference between two groups of individuals involved in promoting and planning the Matanuska settlement. One group, typified by Westbrook and M. D. Snodgrass, manager of the agricultural experiment station in Palmer, believed that Alaska’s environmental and economic constraints would never allow the colonists’ farms to proceed beyond a subsistence level; therefore, they felt that individuals with skills in fields such as carpentry and blacksmithing could pursue small-scale, part-time farming for supplementary income. On the other hand, architect Williams, the media, and some Alaskan officials and boosters claimed that the colonists could develop profitable dairy farms and sell their excess produce to the territory’s future settlers and residents.”

As it happened, both points of view were represented in the final analysis, and individuals of both persuasions were later evident in the Colony Project. This disparity of attitudes was complicated by the fact that the Project was never intended to produce a community of self-sufficient farmers. An excess of farm production, spurred by the developments of motorized farm machinery, electrification, and mass production methods, had contributed to the perfect storm which became the Great Depression. Orlando Miller noted that “…the resettlement program was not intended to invite disaster by increasing markedly the nation’s supply of good farms and skilled farmers.”

While this might seem incongruent with modern perceptions of rugged pioneers setting forth to conquer the wilderness, that was not, in fact, the goal of the planners. Miller explains:

American farm scene, Currier & Ives print

American farm scene, Currier & Ives print

“The ‘real farmers,’ who according to critics should have been chosen for the Matanuska project, were found only rarely in backwoods America. Journalists and others, influenced by received ideas about the pioneer past, regularly praised the pioneer character and found it little in evidence in the colony. However, what they saw among the colonists–the careless methods, the fondness for endlessly unresolved bickerings, the suspicion of expert advice or authority–perhaps resulted less from the disappearance of the frontier character than from its spotty persistence. FERA officials and others concerned with rural poverty and resettlement often made ceremonial references to the frontier and pioneers, but their problem was the reduction of relief rolls and the rehabilitation of rural families.”

Arnold Alanen’s article described the route planners took to define the process of selection:

“In March 1935, representatives from relief agencies in the three states were called to Washington, where they received information about the envisioned project from Westbrook and other FERA officials. The assembled representatives were informed that they should coordinate the selection of two hundred families, giving consideration only to ‘honest-to-God’ farmers and ‘families who love the soil.’ Inquiries by ‘fly-by-nights, weaklings or curious folks’ were to be discouraged. County social workers were then charged with the task of developing a pool of possible applicants, with the names being forwarded to the state office for final selection. Detailed procedures were adopted to judge the families ‘from the standpoint of relief eligibility, health, ability to fit into a cooperative enterprise of this nature, initiative and resourcefulness, credit rating of the family before the depression, school records of all the children and special talents of members of the family.'”

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BingleThe ARRC forms and records of the Matanuska Colony Project, maintained in the National Archives in Anchorage, tell the stories of the families who were selected in stark black and white, and show the extent to which the potential families were grilled and scrutinized by the caseworkers. The names of the individuals have been omitted, as I’ve chosen to respect the privacy of the families, but I’ve tried to replicate the forms as closely as possible, and no words have been changed from what appears on the original paperwork.





THIS AGREEMENT made this _____ day of _____, 1935,  between the ALASKA RURAL REHABILITATION CORPORATION, whose principal office is at Juneau, Alaska, hereinafter known as the Corporation, and __________, of the county of __________, State of Michigan, whose Post Office address is __________, hereinafter known as the Colonist, in behalf of himself and family, consisting of the following members: _____________________, W I T N E S S E T H, that

WHEREAS the Colonist and his family desire to settle on tillable land in the Matanuska Valley in the Territory of Alaska in order to obtain subsistence and gainful employment from the soil and coordinated enterprises, establish a home, and enjoy the benefits of the Rural Community now being formed there; and

WHEREAS the Corporation is a non-profit organization and has been organized and established to assist worthy and well-qualified individuals and families to accomplish the above mentioned purposes and it desires to assist the Colonist and the members of his family in doing so;

THEREFORE BE IT AGREED, for and in consideration of the above premises and the mutual covenants herein contained, as follows:




The Corporation will assume the obligation to the transportation companies of the freight transportation of household and other effects up to two thousand (2,000) pounds of the Colonist and the above mentioned members of his family from the point of departure to Palmer Station in the Matanuska Valley, and advance and pay for the purchase of, and include in said freight and its transportation, such needed household furniture, small tools and home equipment as shall be agreed upon; some to be ultimately repaid by the Colonist at the same low cost and special Colonist rates as that charged by the Corporation.*

*The expense of travel of the Colonist and the members of his family and the carriage of their baggage from the point of departure to destination in Alaska is to be attended by the Emergency Relief Administration of the home state at no cost to the Colonist or members of his family and with no obligation of repayment.




Upon arrival of the Colonist and his family at the Palmer Station the Corporation will make available tents for their temporary shelter and habitation pending construction of their dwelling house and their moving on the land which they expect to make their permanent home.




The Corporation will make available to the Colonist for a farm and home for himself and his family not less than forty (40) acres of land on terms of payment running over a period of thirty years.**

The Corporation will finance the Colonist in building his dwelling house and other permanent improvements on the land. The Colonist will repay for the same on an amortized plan over a period of thirty years.


**The Corporation is in a position to make available to the Colonists timbered land as low as Five ($5.00) Dollars an acre and other land at prices in proportion thereto depending upon the location and the extent to which the land has been cleared.



The Corporation will furnish the Colonist farm machinery, equipment, livestock and other supplies and furnishings on such use-charge, lease, rental or sale as may be agreed upon.




The Corporation will furnish subsistence to the Colonist and the above members of his family at actual cost from their arrival at Palmer Station until such time as the products which the Colonist and his family raise will enable him directly or by exchange or sale to furnish subsistence for himself and his family.




The Corporation will build and equip such educational, cultural, recreational, health, work, and business centers in the community as the life of the community shall require, and make the same available to the Colonist and members of his family and other members of the community, and will furnish social and economic direction, supervisory and consultation services to the Colonist, members of his family and other members of the community on terms of mutual agreement and accord.




The Colonist agrees that the relationship established by this contract between him and the Corporation is to assist him and the members of his family to become established in a new home on a self-sustaining and self-supporting basis, and that he will repay all loans made to him by the Corporation in connection with the provisions under the above numbered headings of this agreement or otherwise made to him by the Corporation, and pay for all materials, supplies, equipment, furnishings, services, and personal, real, or mixed property referred to in the provisions under the above numbered headings of this agreement or otherwise furnished him by the Corporation, which are rented, leased, or sold to him by or through the Corporation, upon such terms as are agreed upon, and will enter into and perform all obligations and contracts necessary in order to do so; it being understood that interest rates on all obligations shall not be greater than three (3) per cent per annum from the time they are incurred and that payment of said interest shall not begin until the first day of September, 1938, and that payment of installments of the principal on all said obligations shall not begin until the first day of September, 1940, unless the Colonist elects to make such payments at an earlier date.

The Colonist further agrees that he and the members of his family will abide by all Corporation administrative directions and supervision in connection with control of crop production, processing, marketing, distribution, crop rotation, soil management, sanitation and other measures for the welfare of the community, and to cooperate with the Corporation, its representatives, and with the other Colonists in building up a successful Rural Community.

It is mutually agreed by the parties hereto that this agreement is subject to any Federal, State, or Territorial laws now existing or which may be hereafter enacted.




BY ____________________    _____________________

(Name)                              (Title)



(The Colonist)









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Case #____

Name of Colonist and wife

Address of Colonist



Special investigation of this family as they have expressed themselves as being particularly interested in the World Alaska Rehabilitation Project.



A detailed description of how to locate the family’s home. “Large elm tree in front of house and cobble stone part pillars on porch.”



April 6, 1935

Contacted all three members of this family: Man, Wife, and Daughter (child of W by first marriage). All members were immediately neat, clean, and dressed in good taste. M was dressed in sports clothes consisting of breeches, high boots, and sweater. He has a splendid carriage, is most congenial, has a good face and could even be called good looking. His complexion is ruddy and he is the perfect picture of health. One would call him the typical out-door man. He uses very He uses very good English and speaks with confidence. One is immediately impressed with the idea that he is a fairly well read person. He has travelled considerably and is able to discuss places, climates, and peoples with ease. W greeted visitor most courteously and appeared to be well versed in hospitality. She is not as rugged looking as her husband, but nevertheless is in good health, enjoys out-door life and seems to be an agreeable person. M and W treated each other with the utmost respect. D, age 12, is a sweet, self conscious school girl with a nice smile and polite manners.



Having been residents of (county name) since 1930 and without relief until December 2, 1933, he is a legal resident of (county name). They moved to their present location in January 1933.



This small farm is worked on shares and is really on the edge of (city name). M’s sister owns this place and she has asked him to vacate as soon as possible so that she can move in. House has seven rooms all furnished but this family own only part of the furniture. In fact, they only own one stove which is small but in good shape and has an oven as part of the chimney arrangement. This makes a good heater as well as an excellent cooker and baker. Six dining chairs, one leather rocker, one wooden rocker, small kitchen cabinet, some dishes, one copper boiler, tubs, kitchen utensils, few books and about 300 lbs. of tools. House looked neat and clean and liveable in all respects.



M was born in (city and county name) in December of 1891. At the time of his birth his father had his own business which was that of running a livery stable. He did this for ten years and he also was Post Master of (city) for 16 years. The first (family name) came from France during the French Revolution and they settled in Hornellsville, New York. When the family first came to Michigan, M’s father was partner in a lumber business. M’s mother is still living and she has been making her home with this son. The agreement was that he would inherit a forty acre tract that she owned if he took care of her in her last days. She has been with them for the past three years. Her mind is gradually weakening since she had a partial stroke some years ago and she has become quite a care. The other brothers will take care of her if other plans are made for M and his family.

The mother had considerable musical talent and gave piano lessons in her younger days. This son inherited his mother’s love for music and a fair singing voice. He used to play the cello but has not touched one for a number of years. M’s father died in 1924 at the age of 70, but believe cause to have been senility. M attended school in (city) and finished 10th grade. At age of 9, he accompanied his mother when she spent the winter months in Phoenix, Arizona, visiting people who lived there. Even though he was a youngster the wide open spaces appealed to him and made a lasting impression. His father was anxious for his children to get a good education. He, himself, had a business education and he was eager for his children to get more schooling than he had the opportunity to get. He was a stern man but kindly to his family. In 1912, M married in (city name). From this union there were three children, two of whom are dead. One child, a boy, is living with the mother. They were divorced in 1928 after a rather unhappy married life.


W was born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1895. Her parents were (names). They are both alive but are divorced and remarried. Her mother lives in Detroit and her father in Pennsylvania. W finished ninth grade in Manitowoc and then took a course in sewing. Parents encouraged their children to remain in school but could not win their point with child. She continued to live in this town until she reached the age of 19. W’s first husband was (name) from whom she got a divorce in 1927. In 1929 she married (husband) in Toledo, Ohio and they have been very happy together.



D, only child of W by her first marriage, was born in Manitowoc, Wis. in 1922. She is now in the 6th grade being an only average student. She is very fond of out door sports, is in excellent health and has only had chicken pox to mar her health record.



Blanche, sister of M died at age 19 of some female ailment.

Floyd, brother of M died in February 1935 at age of 56 of heart trouble, no doubt due to pressure on heart from chronic stomach trouble and gas that had given him considerable worry previously.

Loyal E. (address). Married and with 4 children. Works at Chevrolet Gear and Axle Co., Detroit.

Earl (address). Married and has three children. In business with brother Bert.

Bert (address). Married but has no children. Their business is in the (name and address of company).



All in excellent health, no drunkards as far as can be determined. No insanity and no TB. M’s eyes seem to be in good condition but he has a droopy right eye lid.



Do not attend church and are not members of any church. M is a third degree mason having joined in Bear Lake, Michigan. His dues are ten years in arrears. M is a great reader and enjoys good books especially biographies. W and daughter also like to read. One of the main questions asked by W was “Will there be a library there where good books will be available?” Chess is their favorite game and they manage to spend many a quiet evening around the board.



W had only a few odd jobs clerking but she worked in an ice cream parlor for years before her first marriage.



For five years after leaving school, M worked for his father on his forty acre tract. As renumeration he gave his son room and board and then in 1910 he gave him his second trip to Arizona where he visited for six months. Having visited there in 1900 with his mother, he had a hankering to return as the call of the west had gotten under his skin. From 1912 until 1915 M was employed at the T. B. Eggyl Hardware Store in Detroit, demonstrating and repairing tractors. He had one and a half year’s experience with the General Motors Central Forge Shop in Detroit, in the tool and die department. His wages were cut on this job so M went farming at Bear Lake, Manistee County and was there for four years. In 1928, M spent six months in California visiting with relatives. One uncle is a professor in the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. After returning, M accepted a job with the Brantner Heating Engineer Co. of Detroit as installer and repair man on steam and warm air. During his second year with this concern, he was salesman, returning to (city) in 1930. Since this time M has worked for various farmers for shares and has a good farming record and is held in high esteem in his own town. He loves the land and has been happiest when working on farms. He does not care to ever return to any city and both he and his wife long for the wide open spaces.



M had his life insured with the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. of Newark, N.J. but dropped the policy in 1930 when it became impossible to pay the premiums. Had a savings account in a Detroit bank but has had none since 1930. Very few debts: $4.50 to Atwood Shaeffer Battery and Tire Shop for a battery, $3.24 to Northern Service Auto Co. for transmission work on car, $5.50 to Dr. Parsons for dental work, $10 to Jerome Cole for rent of cow for one year, sold his Dodge Commercial Truck in February for $60 to take care of some pressing debts. Creditors are not pressing now but M states that he can settle up all debts before departing for the north country.



Family seems to be happy, optimistic and cheerful over their reverses, but are most eager to make this real change for they feel there is much to gain and nothing to lose. W is just as anxious as M to take the step.



After discussing at length all these matters with this family, I recommend that this family be given serious consideration for the Alaskan Rehabilitation Project. The only thing that might be an exception is the man’s age, which is 42, but being unusually strong and robust, it would seem that this matter would enter in as an exception.


Lela M. Rahm, Case Supervisor



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Name (Colonist)                                                                     Case. No ___

Address                                                                 Caseworker Mr. Westoff


I. Application

A. General Information

1. Applied March 25, 1935

2. (Name) made application personally.

3. Applied for relief as he was unable to find employment.

4. Application taken by Miss Wensing.


II. (Name) was interviewed at home on March 26th.


A. Description of Members of Family, Home, Property

1. Individuals

The family consists of the husband, wife, and one child. The type of clothing worn by the family is comfortable and warm. They seem to get along very well.

2. Home

They live in a four-room cottage that is clean and very well kept. There are ample sleeping quarters with plenty of bedding. The cottage is lighted by kerosene lamps. The wife seems to be a very capable housekeeper. Did not notice any reading material.

3. Property

The property belongs to (name and address). This man is retained as care taker with no salary. However, he receives the increase from the cows and has ample acreage for raising his own vegetables and a place for a garden. At the present time there are no milk checks.


B. Residence

1. (Name) came from Chicago in 1932. Before coming here he worked for different factories, the last one being the Louis Hansen Co.. He has always worked as a common laborer. In the years of 1930 and 1931 his weekly wages averaged $20.00.

2. (Name) left Chicago because he could not find further employment.

3. His legal residence is in (name of county).


C. War History



D. Religion



E. Race and Nationality

1. The client was born in Germany. He is now a citizen of the U.S.

2. He received his first papers in 1927, his second in 1934.

3. Client claims he is not interested in what is going on in Germany. He is happy he came to America, and has adopted our customs and manner of living.


F. Relatives

There seem to be no relatives on either side of the family, except those remaining in Germany.


G. Health

The health of the entire family is very good.


H. Employment – Other than relief

(Name) has always worked as a common laborer on construction jobs.


I. Education

(Names) completed the 9th grade in school.


J. Recreation

The family live beside the Menoninee River where there is boating, swimming and fishing in the summer season.


K. Delinquency



L. Marital Relations

The family get along well together.


M. Debts



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Farm SaleStories of many of the selected Colony families have been told by previous authors, of course, and the stories shared are quite compelling, detailing the often hard–but sometimes easy–decisions which were made.

In Matanuska Colony, Fifty Years: 1935-1985, Brigitte Lively told of Johan Johanson, who “saw all his corn and other standing crops blown down by a storm one day. The next day, a freeze killed all his vegetables. The third day fire destroyed his home. He told a reporter then, ‘It was the depression more than the drought. After the place was ruined, I couldn’t get work and was pretty desperate.’”

Evangeline Atwood wrote about Larry Vasanoja, who was working in the county welfare office in Cloquet, Minnesota:

“His supervisor came over to his desk one morning and said: ‘Mr. Vasanoja, I want you to pick out nine families whom you think could go to Alaska and make successful farmers.’

“Larry’s eyes opened wide and he asked, ‘Can I choose myself?’ Assured that he could, he picked up the phone and called his next-door neighbor, Loren McKechnie, and asked if he wanted to come along. Sure he did. They talked with their wives, and both Helen and Edna were so excited about the idea that they grabbed each other around the waist and began dancing in the middle of the living room, chanting ‘We’re going to Alaska! We’re going to Alaska!’

“Larry also invited Virgil Eckert, another friend, to join the Alaska party. The Vasanojas had five children, the Eckerts two, and the McKechnies five.”

Depression farmIn his article Midwesterners in the Matanuska Valley: Colonizing Rural Alaska during the 1930s, Professor Arnold Alanen wrote:

“Oscar Kertulla of Deer River, Minnesota, expressed both stoicism and hope as he, his wife, Elvi, and their son and daughter set off for Alaska: ‘Nothing can discourage us now,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘The worst has happened that could possibly happen to us. Cattle have died, farms are ruined, dust storms and blizzards have left us little in material wealth; all that is left to us is courage to try and carve new homes for ourselves in the North.’”

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Newspapers of the day found heart-wrenching human interest stories for their readers, such as this report in the Ironwood Daily Globe, in Ironwood, Michigan, headlined ‘Families Pack Up for Alaska,’ dated May 6, 1935, and sent over the wires of the Associated Press:

Depression-era farm wife. [Alfred Eisenstadt photo]

Depression-era farm wife. [Alfred Eisenstadt photo]

“Rhinelander, May 6–(AP)–Fired with the zeal of early American colonists, some with adventure, others with independence as their goal, 67 families from the wastelands of Wisconsin today were packing for their journey to the fertile fields of Alaska’s Matanuska Valley.

“The 317 men, women, and children of the Badger branch of the government’s new FERA colony will leave from here, Superior, Green Bay and St. Paul by train this weekend for Seattle where they will embark on the sea leg of the trip.

“Grimly, they have prepared for the hardships that were predicted. The Alaskan picture was not painted too bright, lest some fancy a new paradise after harrowing years here.

“Those who have felt the sting of Wisconsin’s bitter blizzards or the blaze of the summer sun on parched scrublands wonder if Alaska with all its rough climate and unsettled frontiers can make earning a livlihood more difficult than it has been here.

Depression-era farm family in Wisconsin.

Depression-era farm family in Wisconsin.

“The Martin Soyks of Minoqua, for instance. The demands of a paradise are small after their years here.

“‘We’re going to Alaska,’ said Mrs. Soyk with an inflection of thrilled awe in her voice. Typical of the women of the group is this mere strip of a girl whose countenance worry has marked with the lines that to most others come with age.

“‘We’re going through with it, all the way, we’re enthusiastic about it. I think I’ll have a better opportunity to make a living. Here our place isn’t big enough.’

“The ‘place’ was a shack that Soyk had piled together after one of the misfortunes in a long series befell them. It stood on the clearing Soyk bought after their marriage.

“Once it had a fine long cottage, built by Soyk, a natural born carpenter. There the young mother cared for her first born, Sonny. When the second lad, Jimmie, was born not long after Sonny, the mother grew seriously ill. Sonny became ill and died.

“One day the three were out in the surrounding section and saw smoke from what they believed was a haystack near their home. They returned to find their log cottage and all their belongings in ashes.

“‘All we had left,’ Mrs. Soyk said, ‘was the clothes on our backs. This place here is just a shack that Martin threw together so we’d have something.’

“Living in Alaska, she said, is ‘going to be hard work,’ but she said she felt cheered by the knowledge that some of their neighbors envy them.

“With slight variations, Mrs. Soyk’s story tells that of most others of the group. Some ask only adventure, but the Soyks and others will take thrills as garnish for the fruits of toil they found unproductive here.”

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