Bound for Alaska

75th Anniversary poster by Douglas Girard

75th Anniversary poster by Douglas Girard

On March 14, 1935, Colonel Lawrence Westbrook, an engineer, agriculturalist, and director of FERA’s Division of Rural Rehabilitation, called social workers from Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin to a meeting in Washington, D.C., where planning sessions were laid out and criteria explained for selection of the settler families. The Minnesota contingent of the Colonist families would be traveling west to depart from San Francisco, while the families from Wisconsin and Michigan would board the ship at Seattle two weeks later, in an effort to mollify the Seattle businessmen who complained that the San Francisco stores and businesses were reaping all the financial rewards of supplying the Colony.

As the social workers returned home to their respective states and set about their task of screening and selecting suitable families, there was an unmistakeable air of urgency. Because of the short Alaskan season for building and farming, any delays in the hastily arranged plans would mean postponing the project for a year, so time was of the essence, and most families had to make almost immediate decisions about whether or not they wanted to be part of the project. If they did, they had precious little time to ready themselves for the life-changing trip, and for some, that meant a matter of only a few days.

OrlandoMillerOrlando Miller described the cross-country travels of the first group of families in his book, The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony:

“Before leaving home, the colonists disposed of inadequate or unsuitable clothing and furniture and were supplied with replacements by the state relief authorities. Those from Minnesota gathered at St. Paul, where they heard a lecture on Alaska by a former member of the faculty of the University of Alaska. They traveled across the country in railroad day coaches, followed and interviewed by newspapermen, and were greeted in San Francisco with speeches and dinners. Before they sailed on May 1, they were given toys for the children, a motion picture projector and film to amuse them during the voyage, and a farewell concert by a hillbilly band. Newspaper accounts described the excited children, tearful women, and grave men, all facing a great adventure, a little frightened but determined.”

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Chicago Daily Tribune, April 28, 1935 – “270 Minnesotans Depart for New Homes in Alaska.”

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Chicago Daily Tribune, May 2, 1935 – “274 Board Transport for New Homes in Alaskan Valley.”

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Anthony and Alys Vickaryous, from Bandette, Minnesota, boarding the train with two of their four children [SERA photo]

Anthony and Alys Vickaryous, from Bandette, Minnesota, boarding the train with two of their four children [SERA photo]

In October, 1920, fifteen years before it would be pressed into service for the Matanuska Colony, the transport ship St. Mihiel was launched for the United States Shipping Board, destined to be operated by the United States Army Transportation Corps. Built by the American International Shipbuilding Corporation in Hog Island, Pennsylvania, the St. Mihiel was 448 feet long, weighed 7,500 tons, had a capacity of 800 passengers, a speed of 15.5 knots and a cruising range of 24 days.

Named for the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, France, a World War I battle fought in September, 1918, under the command of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the ship saw frequent travels to Alaskan waters. In the spring of 1935, the St. Mihiel was chartered for six months and dispatched to San Francisco to await arrival of the Matanuska Colony families.

The North Star was a Bureau of Indian Affairs ship which, among other duties, delivered supplies for medical and educational services to isolated villages in Alaska. Chartered for service along with the St. Mihiel by Colony manager Don Irwin, the North Star sailed from San Francisco on April 23, 1935. Aboard were Irwin and many other officials, several assistants, an architect, a photographer, several construction supervisors, and 118 transient workers who would be starting construction of the Colony buildings. Tents, stoves, trucks, tractors, well-drilling equipment and other necessities for creating the new colony were supplemented by massive orders of lumber from Alaska’s southeastern forests, brought aboard at Ketchikan and Juneau.

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The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1935 – “San Francisco: Midwest Exodus to Alaska Valley Is Under Way. The motorship North Star, loaded with picked men and farm equipment, ready for first trip to ‘promised land’ for impoverished farmers on marginal lands of several states. Planned Economy Forty Acres Each. Creaking winches and groaning cargo booms hummed the overture here yesterday to another American epic of adventure and pioneering– the impending departure of a new band of pilgrims for a promised land.”

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Colonist families at the train station.

Colonist families at the train station.

Ironwood, Michigan is the westernmost city in the state, an iron mining town close to the shores of Lake Superior. In the late spring of 1935 the local newspaper, the Ironwood Daily Globe, reported that 67 farm families in neighboring Wisconsin were ready to begin the long trek from their homes to the Matanuska Valley in far-off Alaska.

“Mrs. Winifred Ferguson, field representative of the Wisconsin Emergency Relief Administration, selected the families after a long survey throughout the state. ‘They are all very eager and exceptionally enthusiastic over the prospect of carving out new and better homes in Alaska,’ she said. ‘I painted a not too bright picture of Alaska to many, but virtually all were ready and eager to gamble hard work and hardships against a chance to become independent.’

“Tomorrow the prospective Alaska settlers will load their choicest belongings on freight trains. They are limited to 2,000 pounds so most are expected to leave behind inexpensive furniture, machinery, etc., and to take musical instruments, and any other articles having a monetary or sentimental value.'”

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Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 26, 1935 – “Get a New Chance in Alaska – New hope has come to this Arcadia, Mich. family, a chance to escape from relief rolls and start life over as pioneers in far-off Alaska. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Synder are among the first of 200 midwest families to be chosen for the United States rural rehabilitation colony in the Matanuska valley and will leave San Francisco in May. Son Billy is all ready and wherever Billy goes, his lamb is sure to go, too.”

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The Washington Post, May 12, 1935 – “Green Bay, Wis., May 11. 67 Wisconsin Farm Families Off to Alaska. Party Numbering 317 in All. Pioneers New Land in FERA Project. With hopeful visions of the future eclipsing the sadness of hurried farewells, a group of sturdy Wisconsin families today severed bonds of kinship and friendship and started the first lap of a journey to Alaska — their land of promise.”

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UP MichiganIn the 1930’s there was no bridge spanning the five mile wide Straits of Mackinac which connected the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. In late April, 1935, the Ironwood Daily Globe detailed the impending departure of the settlers’ train from St. Ignace, at the southeastern tip of the Upper Peninsula. The specially chartered train had begun the trip in Sault St. Marie, in the far northeastern end of the peninsula, across the border from its twin city of Salt Ste. Marie, Ontario. The train would make its way westward along the Upper Peninsula, making scheduled stops to take aboard groups of families along the route:

“One hundred fifty-nine members of 36 Michigan families will leave here (St. Ignace) at 3 o’clock this afternoon for Alaska. Twenty-nine other Michigan families will entrain at Manistique to make the trip with the Wisconsin contingent. Two other Michigan families will leave with the group going from Rhinelander.

“Four baggage cars were packed with provisions and personal belongings of pioneers in the train here. Dogs, cats, and one canary were brought to the train and put in a baggage car.”

The Ironwood Daily Globe continued explaining the complex logistics in an article datelined from Green Bay, Wisconsin, the same day:

“The nine families of about 80 men, women, and children from the northeastern section of the state will entrain tonight at 8:45 o’clock (central standard time) for St. Paul. Meanwhile, another train starting from Sault Ste. Marie with emigrants from Michigan, the third state participating in the project, will be speeding westward to Superior, Wisconsin. Another train will leave with colonists from north central Wisconsin from Rhinelander at 2 a.m. tomorrow. The Sault train will pick up others from northwestern Wisconsin at Superior at 8 a.m., and all trains will meet at St. Paul from where the group will travel on to Seattle.”

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Colonists en route to Seattle selecting Washington apples from a vendor in Wenatchee.

Colonists en route to Seattle selecting Washington apples from a vendor in Wenatchee.

A staff reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Carolyn Anspacher, was one of the many writers who wrote glowing reports of the Colonists’ trip across the country. Evangeline Atwood wrote about her in We Shall Be Remembered; Anspacher joined the families in St. Paul and rode with them to San Francisco, penning these memorable lines along the way:

“The last of the covered wagons is rushing through the night. The great trek from America’s main street to Alaska’s wilderness is on. Sixty-seven drought-stricken families, 285 men, women, and children are jam-packed into 21 coaches–a modern version of yesterday’s ox-drawn wagon. They sit here now, in endless diaper-hung coaches, wearing trappings of a civilization that has swept them to ruin. The same spirit to motivate their fathers and forefathers in seeking out new land is driving them onward. They hope to hew for themselves an economic freedom in a new land.

“The picnic gaiety which crept into the departure from the railroad station, as the brass bands were playing, began to fade as the gas lamps of the old-fashioned cars were lighted and the small children were wrapped in blankets for the night. Then men and women sat silently, their faces chiseled into masks of weariness and frustration. Some complained loudly that the government had promised them Pullman sleepers and here they were having to ride in plain day coaches.

Passenger train interior

Passenger train interior

“Of this group, 128 are children, 62 under 12 years of age, 66 under five. There are 21 babes in arms, the youngest being 15 days old. Small grimy faces peer from behind high plush chairs and laugh at life and the splendid excitement of choo-choos.

“In the baggage car where H. L. Richards, in charge of the government project, and his assistants are headquartered, are six dogs that couldn’t be left behind. ‘We’ll need ‘em,’ said a blond young man crisply. ‘We’re going to have cattle, and dogs know how to round ‘em up better’n men do. As a matter of fact, we need six more collies or shepherds or police dogs, who can stand the climate and who’ll work with us.’

Already the colonists, recruited from all parts of the state, have become a closely knit community. During the day, women, until last Friday strangers, are planning how they’ll make comfortable homes. A few read, but for the most part they talk quietly, seriously, about a tomorrow that is almost with them.

“Of the group, six are registered nurses who have already been pressed into service by the government physician aboard. Two are college graduates and upper grade teachers.

“For the children, the trip so far has been crowded with excitement. They have eaten enormously in the diners and have been pampered and petted by train officials. They are wearing new clothes provided in most cases by the government and for the moment baths are out of the question.

“Besides, every night in every car just before bedtime, there’s a concert. It’s not a regulation orchestra, but zithers, mandolins, guitars, mouth organs and accordions do very well.

“Little by little the train quieted down for the night. Upright chairs miraculously became beds. Flowered quilts and striped pillows appeared. A pleasant lassitude came over the colonists–a bride of four days hid her face on the shoulder of her young husband, yawning prodigiously. ‘Abide with me,’ hummed a sad voice. ‘Fast falls the eventide–the darkness deepens. Lord with me abide–when other helpers fail and comforts flee–help of the helpess–O, abide with me.’”

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Colonists abord the St. Mihiel.

Colonists abord the St. Mihiel.

In We Shall Be Remembered, Evangeline Atwood described what happened when the train reached California:

“In preparation for their arrival in San Francisco, tall John S. Givens, Jr., government sociologist and rural rehabilitation expert who was to accompany the group to Alaska, entered each car accompanied by officials of the Federal Transient Bureau in San Francisco. Families were tagged, each toddling child properly identified, and baggage carefully marked. The group was divided into three parts, each going to a different hotel and each family supervised by a federal social worker.

“The colonists were told that San Francisco was set to give them a warm and enthusiastic welcome. The children were carefully washed and dressed in their shabby best. Red, blue, and yellow berets found their way out of gaping suitcases. Suits were brushed, shoes polished, babies nursed, and an unnatural calm settled over everyone. The camaraderie and gaiety of the past days disappeared as they realized they were reaching another significant milestone on their long trek to their new home.

“The train pulled into the Southern Pacific Station at Third and Townsend streets, and a SERA band was playing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ The waiting crowd sent up cheer after cheer as the colonists appeared on the platform, lugging suitcases, bird cages, guitars, and other personal effects.

“Mayor Angelo Rossi, wearing a frock coat, accompanied by Police Chief Quinn and Fire Chief Brennan, stepped forward and began shaking hands, extending the city’s official welcome. Hundreds of townspeople crowded forward to wish the colonists good luck.”

Atwood shared a few lines from the Mayor’s enthusiastic greeting: “I regard these good people making this long, arduous, yet thrilling journey with as great respect as I would were one of the forty-niners to rise from his grave and tell me he had sailed around the Horn to these sunny shores so long ago. They are valiant, every one of them, and I want every moment of their two days’ stay in San Francisco to be filled with delight and pleasure.”

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In Brigitte Lively’s book, The Matanuska Colony, Fifty Years, Colonist Laurence Vasanoja, writing after their departure aboard the St. Mihiel, described the reception they had received in a letter to his brother and sister in Minnesota:

“They sure gave us some welcome signs all over (Welcome Alaska Colonists), the city band, the Mayor and Chief of Police met us at the depot and escorted us to our hotel. They gave us street car tickets, theater tickets, fruit and presents for the kids, and again yesterday on board ship the captain and nurse dished out birthday cake, candy and presents to the kids, and movies were taken of the whole performance. We have several news agents and Paramount Sound Movie operator on board. When we left Frisco there must have been at least eight movie cameras clicking and fifty newspaper cameramen; they shot 3-4 pictures at a time. Must have been some 3500 or 4000 people seeing us off, mostly curiosity seekers and newspapermen. Someday you may see us on the newsreels in moving pictures.”

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Colonists lined up to leave the St. Mihiel.

Colonists lined up to leave the St. Mihiel.

In 1990 a report was written for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places, titled The Settlement and Economic Development of Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Prepared by Fran Seager-Boss, Archeologist; and Lawrence E. Roberts, Historian, the report opened the door to permanent protection for many of the Colony buildings and related structures. Seager-Boss and Roberts deftly explained the fascination factor of the Colony families:

“Seizing on the romance of pioneering, the media provided extensive coverage on the colonists. Newspaper editorials commented that the ‘eyes of the world’ were upon the colonists. Entertained by big city mayors and interviewed by journalists while traveling from the Lakes states to California for their departure, the colonists became overnight celebrities.”

“Part of the colonists’ appeal to America was a result of the then strong Agrarian/Frontier myth. Many Americans believed that a simple agrarian existence was more virtuous than other types of labor. And the Great Depression, still going strong, presented a powerful case against free market industrialization. Perhaps Alaska, in spite of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s pronouncement that the frontier was closed, could provide a safety valve for the population.”

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Writing in an unusual third-person format, Colony Manager Don L. Irwin wrote of his unexpectedly complicated trip north in his book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley:

“Irwin left Washington April 20 and flew to San Francisco. He took passage on the North Star, Bureau of Indian Affairs boat, along with several people on his staff. Colonel Frank U. Bliss and his staff, in charge of the transient workers, were also on the boat. In addition, 150 transient workers from the California transient camps were being brought to Alaska to help with the land clearing and home construction of the colonists. The North Star was delayed, it stopped at Ketchikan and Juneau to take on lumber, kitchen ranges, and other colony supplies. It arrived in Seward almost at the same time as the St. Mihiel, bringing up the Minnesota colonists.

“Irwin was detained in Juneau for three days conferring with the three incorporators of the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation. The incorporators were hostile at first because they were not being advised by the Washington officials of F.E.R.A. what was being done. Finally, after a particularly heated session, Mr. E. W. Griffin, Territorial Secretary and one of the incorporators, said ‘Mr. Irwin, it is our fault that we are not handling the affairs of this project. The incorporating papers came in February during the legislative session. They didn’t get out of the Governor’s office until after the legislature adjourned in April. I wasn’t so busy but what I could have taken care of that matter. We owe you an apology.’ Irwin had the full cooperation of the Incorporating Board for the remainder of his stay in Juneau.

“On May 8, Miss Gladys Forrest, Secretary for the Alaska Relief Office, L. N. Troast, Colony architect, and Irwin flew to Fairbanks on the PAA. They came by rail on a gas car from Fairbanks to Matanuska on May 9. Next day they were at Palmer on the location of camp site No. 1 helping prepare for the arrival of the Minnesota colonists’ families.”

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Colonists boarding the train in Seward for the trip to Anchorage and then to Palmer.

Colonists boarding the train in Seward for the trip to Anchorage and then to Palmer.

As the Colonists, project officials, and other contingents gathered and made their way north, there were rumblings from pioneer Alaskans who voiced misgivings about the whole idea. The Alaska Territorial Chamber of Commerce actually passed a resolution stating that if the Colony failed the state would be saddled with hundreds of indigents needing food, clothing, and shelter. The territorial legislature insisted that Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Alaska Delegate Anthony Dimond take steps to provide adequate funds for the potential failure of the project–including return passage to the west coast for the would-be settlers.

The Anchorage Times weighed in on the side of the Colonists, saying the project might prove to be the most economically constructive idea for the territory to ever come out of Washington. Publisher Robert Atwood was a strong supporter of the Colony Project, and the Anchorage Times chided the nay-sayers by pointing out that Alaska had been exploited many times over the years by absentee interests, but the Colonists were cut from a different cloth and they were coming to Alaska to build homes and help settle the land.

When the legislature balked at appropriating funds to build schools for the Colonists’ children, the Anchorage Times took them to task, asking: “Is the territory going to establish a precedent against expanding its school services to additional population? Where would other states be if they called a halt on schools after they received their first pioneer settlers?”

The legislature subsequently approved the expenditure of $100,000 for additional school facilities in the Matanuska Valley.

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Ironwood Daily Globe, Ironwood, Michigan. May 15, 1935 – “Mr. and Mrs. Walter Anderson and families left Monday night by special train for St. Paul, Minn., where they joined others on the trip to the Matanuska Valley in Alaska. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson have five children, the youngest being six months old.

“On Friday evening the community gave a farewell party at the town hall for the Anderson family. Music was furnished by Camp 662 orchestra. Dancing and games were enjoyed. At 11:30 lunch was served to a large number of friends. Supt. H.O. Johnson gave a farewell speech. A purse of money was given to Mr. and Mrs. Anderson from the community.”

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night_trainBakersfield Californian, May 15, 1935 – Green Bay, Wisc., May 14. “400 Persons on Their Way from Wisconsin and Michigan to Alaskan Valley. Spirits high as they envisioned the thrills of starting life over again in a strange land, more than 400 pioneers from Wisconsin and upper Michigan today were rolling westward in a steam-driven Mayflower toward new homes in Alaska. While crated dogs barked and whined in coaches up front and children of all ages roamed from seat to seat through the long train, the adults chosen by the federal government to colonize the Matanuska Valley under a FERA project were acquainting themselves with new neighbors. Nine families from northeastern Wisconsin and six from Minominee County, Mich., 103 persons in all, left here last night. The remainder of the 67 Wisconsin families entrained at Rhinelander and Superior, and those from Michigan at Sault Ste. Marie. Tears were shed, but mostly by kinfolk gathered for farewell on the site of old Fort Howard. Their noses flattened against windows, the children received adieus from those on the platforms while parents waved happy responses.

St. Mihiel coming into the dock at Seward.

St. Mihiel coming into the dock at Seward.

“‘It’s a chance that comes once in a lifetime,’ said Kenneth Foster, of Menominee County, Michigan, as he sat in the coach with his wife, Marlon, and one boy. Some were from farms, others from small towns, but all were vigorous, sturdy, and high spirited with the prospect of earning a livelihood of which they had been deprived in the states. Leaving st. Paul with the remainder of the Wisconsin and Michigan group, the colonists will embark from Seattle Saturday on board the U.S.S. St. Mihiel for the six-day trip on the Pacific to Seward.”

Ironwood Daily Globe, Ironwood, Michigan. May 15, 1935 – “Biggest Brood Among the Alaskan Pioneers.” The new ‘pioneer colony’ in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley is going to thrive, prosper, and grow if the family of Williams Bouwens of Rhinelander, Wis. is any criterion. The Bouwens, in taking all their 11 children with them, make up the largest complete family among the emigrants. Bouwens is a skilled butcher, and a deputy sheriff.”

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In Brigette Lively’s book, Matanuska Colony Fifty Years, the daughter of Colonists Irving and Lila Newville, Dorothy Woods, described what it was like to set off from Seattle, voicing a feeling and an experience which was undoubtedly shared by many of the colonists:

“Boarding the boat was exciting. A lot of us had never seen an ocean, even the boat was something I had not seen. It was all very wonderful until we started to pull away from the pier with the band playing and most of Seattle at the dock seeing us off. Then came the thoughts of how final this adventure was. My Mom tells of her misgivings, there were tears and second thoughts.”

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The award-winning 2008 documentary 'Alaska Far Away' tells the story of the Matanuska Colony.

The award-winning 2008 documentary ‘Alaska Far Away’ tells the story of the Matanuska Colony.

The trip to Alaska was formally underway and there was no recourse now. Six mothers remained in Seattle with their children because of illness, while their husbands traveled ahead with the other Colonists on the St. Mihiel to be present for the drawing of land tracts. The women and children would later make the trip to Alaska on the North Star.

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One of the most compelling and detailed publications on the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project is a study undertaken for the government’s Interior-Agriculture Committee on Group Settlement in Alaska, which was intended as a factual, objective appraisal of the project.

The report, Alaskan Group Settlement: The Matanuska Valley Colony, by Kirk H. Stone of the University of Wisconsin, was published in 1950 by the United States Department of the Interior. A 95-page side-stapled booklet, the publication offers valuable insights to the project, such as this commentary on the transportation expenses:

“Moving the colonists possibly cost about $70,000. Exact figures cannot be obtained. It is known that $18,436 was paid by the colonists’ home states for transportation to the west coast. The Corporation’s expense for chartering the St. Mihiel was $60,000 and for the North Star was approximately $10,000; however, each ship was used to haul equipment and supplies as well as colonists and possibly half of the expenses are chargeable to general organization of The Colony. What the ARRC paid the Alaska Railroad is not obtainable but it is estimated that shipment of the colonists and their effects cost about $12,000. Originally these costs of transportation were to be paid by Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin with funds from the F.E.R.A. However, the records indicate that the Corporation assumed all of the expenses of the colonists after they reached the west coast. Although the funds for colonization eventually came from the same source, the Corporation’s assumption cost probably $50,000 that were not budgeted in the plans for The Colony.”

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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.

 

ALASKA RURAL REHABILITATION CORPORATION

-o0o-

MATANUSKA VALEY SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT

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:

 

1. TRANSPORTATION TO ALASKA

 

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.

 

2. TEMPORARY CARE

 

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.

 

3. LAND AND HOME IN THE RURAL COMMUNITY

 

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.

4. FARM MACHINERY AND EQUIPMENT

 

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.

 

5. SUBSISTENCE

 

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.

 

6. COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES

 

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.

 

FULFILLMENT OF THIS AGREEMENT

 

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.

 

ALASKA RURAL REHABILITATION CORPORATION

 

BY ____________________    _____________________

(Name)                              (Title)

 

____________________________________________

(The Colonist)

 

WITNESSES

 

_____________________

 

_____________________

 

 

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SOCIAL HISTORY SHEET

 

Case #____

Name of Colonist and wife

Address of Colonist

 

SOURCE

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

 

DIRECTIONS FOR REACHING HOME

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.”

 

DATE OF HOME VISIT

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.

 

LEGAL SETTLEMENT

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.

 

HOME

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.

 

PERSONAL HISTORY OF M

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.

PERSONAL HISTORY OF W

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.

 

CHILDREN

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.

 

RELATIVES

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).

 

HEALTH

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.

 

RECREATION AND RELIGION

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.

 

EMPLOYMENT HISTORY OF W

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

 

EMPLOYMENT HISTORY OF M

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.

 

FINANCES

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.

 

SOCIAL PROBLEMS

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.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

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

(COUNTY NAME) EMERGENCY RELIEF COMMISSION

 

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

 

RELIEF INVESTIGATION

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

None.

 

D. Religion

None.

 

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

None.

 

L. Marital Relations

The family get along well together.

 

M. Debts

None.

 

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

 

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.’”

 ~ ~ ~

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.”

 ~ ~ ~ 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A Context for Understanding

DomeCityOttoFrei

Otto Frei’s design for a domed city in the Arctic

The history of Alaska is fraught with schemes for populating the state, from the first Russian attempts at colonization in the 1700’s to the outlandish 1960‘s plan to build a domed city near Point Mackenzie, named John F. Kennedy City. That plan was researched by Julia O’Malley for her Anchorage Daily News column in February, 2010. She dug through the basement archives of the old Anchorage Daily Times and reported:

“On the last page of a dusty binder, I came across a clipping the size of a matchbox: ‘Alaska Town is Re-Named JFK City.’ It was date-stamped December, 26, 1963. The town had previously been called Bay City.

“In a proclamation on the name change, Mayor George Mor stated: ‘John Fitzgerald Kennedy City is a new and frontier city which will rise as a great city …’ the article said.

“The population was 30.”

There is no such place on the map today.

 ~ ~ ~

Matanuska Agricultual Experiment Station

Matanuska Agricultual Experiment Station

The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project was an audacious plan to move 200 hard-hit farm families from the drought-stricken upper midwest to new homes and farms in Alaska, then an only barely-settled frontier land. Farming in Alaska had been proven feasible by the U.S. government’s agricultural experiment stations, the first of which was opened in 1898 in Sitka, which was at that time the capital of Alaska, by Dr. Charles Christian Georgeson.

Georgeson had been tasked with investigating Alaska’s agricultural potential, and his work in opening several agricultural stations around the state marked the beginning of a substantial federal investment in Alaska.

Soon after the Sitka station, Georgeson oversaw the Kodiak Station opening, followed by another at Kenai in 1899. The following year, 1900, Georgeson toured other areas of Alaska and opened more experiment stations, including Rampart Station in the Yukon Valley and the Copper Center Station in the Copper River Basin in 1902. Each of these stations was tasked with exploring the agricultural potential of their region.

Matanuska Agricultural Experiment Station

Matanuska Agricultural Experiment Station

In 1902 the town of Fairbanks was established in the Tanana Valley, and in 1906 an experiment station was opened on a 1,400 acre site outside Fairbanks. The Tanana Valley became Alaska’s first prominent agricultural area as farmers grew grain, hay, and vegetables, raised cattle and produced milk; the Tanana Valley was the center of agricultural production in Alaska until 1935, when the Matanuska Colony Project took shape.

Unfortunately, finding the funds to operate the experiment stations was a constant struggle and the Kenai and Copper River Stations both closed in 1908. The Rampart Station closed in 1925 after many years of successfully growing cereal crops. In 1931 the Sitka and Kodiak stations closed and all of the remaining experiment station facilities were transferred from federal ownership to the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines at Fairbanks, renamed the University of Alaska.

Georgeson had opened a new experiment station in the Matanuska Valley in 1915 to help promote agriculture in the area at the same time the Alaska Engineering Commission was established to build a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks. The railroad was, in large part, intended to help agricultural development by making it easier to transport goods to market, and representatives of the Alaska Railroad worked to promote agriculture and attract new settlers to both the Tanana and Matanuska Valleys.

Pioneer Peak. [Northern Light Media photo]

Pioneer Peak. [Northern Light Media photo]

The Matanuska Valley had long been a favored land to the indigenous peoples, providing abundant rivers, creeks, and lakes for various types of fishing; forests, meadows, highlands and smaller Valleys for plentiful game and foraging of favorite foods and materials for clothing and shelters.

Framed on three sides by the towering Chugach and Talkeetna mountain ranges, the fourth side is open to the west and bounded along its southern edge by the tidal Knik Arm and glacial Knik River. The mighty Matanuska River enters the northeastern corner of the Valley and empties into Knik Arm in close proximity to the Knik River.

A trading station was established on the Matanuska River by early entrepreneur George Palmer, sometime between 1894 to 1898, to take advantage of the trails between the Cook Inlet region and the Copper River area. According to Wikipedia: “The indigenous Dena’ina-Athabascan name for the river is Ch’atanhtnu, based on the root -tanh ‘trail extends out’, meaning literally ‘trail comes out river’.”

An early map of the area

An early map of the area

In her small book titled Old Times on Upper Cook’s Inlet (The Book Cache, Anchorage, 1967), Valley author Louise Potter describes the early trails through the Valley: “…the Indians must have marked walking trails through the Upper Inlet country well before 1898 and, after that time, prospectors brushed-out trail after trail, both winter and summer, leading from the coast to the coal and gold mines. Many of these trails were later widened for the use of dog teams and for saddle and pack horses and sleds. Eventually, some even became the government mail routes and, today, are busy roads.”

Louise Potter continues, “A map of the Inlet area, copyrighted in 1899, shows eight such ‘Trails Used by Natives…’” and she describes the one which probably led to the name “trail comes out river”: “A summer trail from old Knik up the Matanuska River, passing ‘Palmer’s Upper House’ (store) and King’s House to Millich Creek and, via Hick’s Creek, Trail Lake, and Nulchuck Tyon Village, to the Copper River (pretty much the route of the present Glenn Highway).”

Matanuska River near Palmer. [Northern Light Media photo]

Matanuska River near Palmer. [Northern Light Media photo]

In October of 1914, an Alaskan pioneer of Swedish descent named John August Springer filed for homestead rights to 320 acres of benchland located on the north bank of a sweeping bend in the Matanuska River, with a commanding view of Pioneer Peak and the Knik River Valley to the south and east, and the Chugach Range to the northeast. Springer built a log cabin and a few other buildings, and cleared and proved up on his land, receiving the patent in 1920. Fifteen years later, in 1935, he sold a portion of his homestead to the United States government for $7.50 an acre, and his land became part of the Matanuska Colony Project.

According to Louise Potter in Old Times on Upper Cook’s Inlet, John Springer was one of 132 people who were listed in the March 6, 1915 issue of the Knik News as having homesteads in the area. In describing early efforts by the pioneers, Potter explained the beginnings of agriculture in the Matanuska Valley:

The Hay Flats. [Northern Light Media photo]

The Hay Flats. [Northern Light Media photo]

“Before the coming of the railroad when pack horses were commonly used to haul freight from the waterfronts to the mines and when the railroad survey parties’ horses were being wintered at Knik and Tyonook, it was necessary to do something about horse feed. At Knik, for instance, fields were cleared for oats by 1904. The large area along the sea from Knik to Cottonwood and east became known as Hayflat as a result of the quantities of wild hay which were cut there. There were also several farms near the mouth of Ship Creek as early as 1911, St. Clair’s and Whitney’s among them.”

  ~ ~ ~

Danish Captain Vitus Bering's ship

Danish Captain Vitus Bering’s ship

In his 1968 book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley, Don L. Irwin, former superintendent of the Matanuska Experiment Station and General Manager of the Matanuska Colony Project, defined four distinct eras in the history of the Matanuska Valley. “First, the era of Russian and English voyages, discoveries, and exploration.” This began with Alaska’s discovery in 1741 by Danish Captain Commander Vitus Bering, at the time serving the Russian Navy, and continued through 1844 with the first mapping of the Valley by Russian Captain Mate Molekoff. During the same era English Captains James Cook and George Vancouver were sailing the same waters; Captain Vancouver sailed to the head of Cook Inlet and explored the Matanuska Valley, but there is no record that he mapped his explorations.

Knik, Alaska, circa 1914

Knik, Alaska, circa 1914

The second era in Valley history, according to Irwin, was the beginning of development, which “might very properly be called the Prospector’s and Trader’s Era.” The town of Knik grew and prospered with the many gold mines on Willow Creek, while coal fields north and east of the Valley were mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey, and the new Alaska Road Commission stayed busy opening the land to homesteaders.

This was the heyday of entrepreneurial traders like George Palmer, the first white resident of the Valley according to the 1880 census, whose trading station on the Matanuska River was established to take advantage of the trails between Cook Inlet and the Copper River area. Palmer would later open a mercantile store at Knik.

George Herning's store after it was moved from Knik to Wasilla

George Herning’s store after it was moved from Knik to Wasilla

Orville G. Herning was another early businessman; in 1905 he built the Knik Trading Company, operating it in Knik until 1917, when he saw the wisdom of moving his business to the new railhead in Wasilla.

That railroad marked what Don Irwin identified as the third era, a time of change in the Valley as the town of Knik dissolved into history’s archives and the new town of Wasilla received a post office and a U.S. Deputy Commissioner’s office which was tasked with the recording of marriages and mining claims.

Mail day in early Palmer

Mail day in early Palmer

Palmer, which was then known as Warton because the postal system would not accept the name Palmer, was only a railroad siding on the branch line to the Jonesville coal mines at Sutton and Chickaloon. There was a freight warehouse and a post office, and a handful of nearby homesteaders, including the aforementioned homesteader John August Springer. Irwin described the situation in 1934:

“There was no highway from the Valley into Anchorage. The Glenn Highway had not yet been surveyed. Train service was the only means of travel out of the Valley. There were no regular church services in the Matanuska Valley from 1918 to 1935. The volume of produce raised by the farmers was too small to interest the Anchorage merchants. The U.S. Agricultural Experiment Station at Matanuska began operation in 1915. A steel bridge was constructed across the Matanuska River near Palmer in 1934. The nearest physician, hospital facility and U.S. Deputy Marshal were at Anchorage. The economy of the Valley seemed to be marking time.”

Colonist mothers and babies arriving at Matanuska train station, 1935

Colonist mothers and babies arriving at Matanuska train station, 1935

Irwin’s fourth era was, of course, that which followed the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project. With the influx of 203 families – and the attendant financial resources provided by the Federal Government – the changes came swiftly. Roads were improved, extended, and eventually paved; bridges spanned the rivers, and freight and passenger trains established schedules. Schools and libraries were built; retail stores, supply services and other businesses were developed; cooperative electric and telephone systems took shape, and a network of churches arose, with many different faiths represented.

There have since been other significant eras which helped to mold the Valley, such as the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the influx of new settlers and businesses which came with those boom times, but the historic importance of the Matanuska Colony remains evident.

  ~ ~ ~

The Wineck barn shortly after being moved to the Alaska State Fairgrounds (Library of Congress Photographs Division HABS AK 13-PALM, V, 3A-1)

The Wineck barn shortly after being moved to the Alaska State Fairgrounds (Library of Congress Photographs Division HABS AK 13-PALM, V, 3A-1)

Today the Alaska State Fair utilizes several original Colony buildings for administration and exhibit purposes, including a beautifully preserved Colony barn, one of over 60 remaining Colony barns in the Valley. These photogenic historic landmarks can be found in many different states of repair, from well-restored and still functional to collapsed and decaying slowly into the ground. Almost all were built from the same blueprint designed by David R. Williams, and their three-sided log first floors topped by a broad gambrel roofline with a bell-cast lower pitch make them easy to identify.

Seventeen structures have been identified within the National Register of Historic Sites’ Matanuska Colony Historic District, including several Colony farms, a number of original Colony homes, the Matanuska Colony Community Center, the Palmer Train Depot, and others.

Kitchen at the Colony House Museum. [Northern Light Media photo]

Kitchen at the Colony House Museum. [Northern Light Media photo]

The Colony House museum in Palmer, originally the home of Colonists Oscar and Irene Beylund on tract number 94, north of Palmer, reflects an average Colonist family’s home, restored to its 1936 -1945 appearance. Administered by the Palmer Historical Society, the living room is features furniture from the 1930′s and 40′s era, including some original to the home. The bright cheerful kitchen includes many unique items utilized by Colony housewives, and throughout the home can be found old books, games and photos which were donated by families of the original colonists.

Mat-Su Borough building was once the Colony school. [Northern Light Media photo]

Mat-Su Borough building was once the Colony school. [Northern Light Media photo]

Perhaps most significantly, the town of Palmer still reflects the planning of government architect David R. Williams, whose unique design for the aforementioned Matanuska Colony Community Center still functions as the town’s core, with three sides of an open central area anchored by buildings which were originally the large three-story school (now the Matanuska-Susitna Borough offices), the teacher’s dormitory (now the Colony Inn), and the trading center (now a restaurant).

[Northern Light Media photo]

[Northern Light Media photo]

The grassy park, now featuring historic signs telling of the town’s Colony heritage, is a favorite gathering place. Nearby is the ship’s bell from the U.S. Army Transport Ship St. Mihiel, which transported the first group of colonists from Minnesota to Alaska, and a set of brass plaques with the names of the Colonist families. The inscription on the first plaque reads:

“50th Anniversary. Matanuska Valley Colony Project. Honoring the 202 families from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota who braved the migratory transition from the depression-torn years of strife and struggle to the promised lands of the fertile Matanuska Valley, and in their endeavor, with faith, hope, and courage, created a new life filled with challenging goals, bringing to Alaska the permanency of residency, the maturity of agricultural development and the true reality that Alaska held the future for the generations to come. Their sacrifices and hardships, together with their gallant leadership has brought greatness to Alaska. May their generations never die. 1935-1985.”