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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