John August Springer
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 behind what would become the location of Palmer to the northeast. Palmer wouldn’t be there for another fifteen years, of course, but George Palmer’s trading station had been established sometime between 1894 and 1898, near where the present-day bridges cross the Matanuska River just east of town.
According to a post on Facebook from the Palmer Historical Society, “Homesteader John August Springer put his model T Ford up on blocks with only 800 miles on it. He decided that the Valley roads were not good enough to drive on – thus he proceeded to walk everywhere for the remainder of his life.”
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 for the Matanuska Colony Project, which would bring 203 new families from the depression-era Midwest to build their own homes in the Valley. The Colonists who drew tracts in the area which had belonged to John Springer were very fortunate, for it was an excellent location with supreme topsoil.
William Ising Family
One of the tracts of land previously belonging to John Springer was drawn by William Ising, who had joined the Colony Project from Saginaw, Minnesota with his wife, Marie, and their two children. William drew tract number 81, one of the few parcels which was 80 acres instead of the more usual 40-acre size. In 1948 the Isings sold their farm to Clifton and Vera Grover, who had recently arrived in Alaska from Utah. In 1968 their son Wes Grover and his wife, Bonnie, purchased the farm, which was by then a dairy operation. Two additional Colony barns were added to the property, the Joseph Dragseth barn from tract no. 84 was moved into place adjacent to the Ising barn, creating one large building; and the George Venne barn was moved onto the farm from tract number 82 and was set in a pasture just north of the other two barns. The picturesque RG Farm, located at the end of Grover Lane off the Outer Springer Loop, has been the location for many weddings, television commercials, and other events, and has been featured on the cover of the MTA phone directory.
Inner and Outer Springer
The area south of Palmer which became known as the Springer System, with its looping roads named Inner Springer and Outer Springer, is the site of some of the richest and levelest farmland in the Matanuska Valley. Of the more than 200 farms which became the Matanuska Colony Project, for which the federal government offered financing and support, over one-quarter of them were located in the Springer Loop area. Today the Springer System is a network of picturesque farms which might pass for almost anywhere in the midwest if not for the towering peaks of the nearby Chugach Range. While an ever-increasing number of farms are being subdivided for tract housing, there are still enough hayfields, pastures, croplands and massive Colony barns to give the area a friendly rural feel. In fact, the Springer Loop Road area has the largest concentration of existing Colony barns, with most of them in their original locations.
In the southeast corner of the Outer Springer Loop Road, at the end of E. DePriest Avenue, a barely visible trail leaves the end of a cul-de-sac and strikes out toward the Matanuska River. A weathered sign on a nearby tree marks the trail, and after a short walk through the woods, a few of the logs of John Springer’s cabin can still be seen on a bluff overlooking the Matanuska River. John A. Springer chose an outstanding place for his homestead, and today’s residents of the area can only wonder what forces aligned for him and how he came to chose the splendid riverside location.
The Colony Barns are inextricably tied to the colorful history of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, described at the American Public Television website as: “the most unusual and controversial of the many New Deal programs designed to help ordinary citizens crushed by the Great Depression.”
The definitive documentary on the Colony, Alaska Far Away, explains in more detail: “In the midst of the despair of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal gave over 200 struggling Midwestern farm families an extraordinary opportunity: the chance to start over on the Alaskan frontier. ‘Alaska Far Away’ tells the story of this bold government experiment, and the families who found themselves thrust into the national spotlight along the way.”
There are many sources of information about the Matanuska Colony, and also several interesting videos on YouTube. The first three in this group are actual film clips of the Matanuska Colony from the Alaska Digital Film Archives at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks:
Lauren Maxwell of KTVA Channel 11 News contacted me a week or so ago about doing a news feature on the barns and my book. So yesterday I met her and her cameraman, John Thain, in Palmer, and we did some filming and interviews for a short clip segment which will be airing at 6 and 10 pm tomorrow (Thursday, June 13), and will be available to view on their website anytime. UPDATE: The video clip is available at this link.
Our first stop was to see my friend Barbara Hecker, who shared her grandfather’s old Colony barn, now owned by Dr. and Mrs. Vaughn Gardener. Originally built for the Earl Barry family in 1936, this barn was purchased by Barbara’s grandparents, Earl and Kathreen Hecker, in the early 1940’s, when the Barry family left the Colony Project and purchased the Bogard homestead on Finger Lake. In 1948 Barbara’s parents, William and Bergie Hecker, took over the farm and turned it into a Grade A dairy. The Gardeners purchased the farm from Barbara’s parents in 1989, and in 2012 they renovated the barn, revealing the original logs. They straightened and strengthened the walls, added a new steel roof, painted the whole barn and added classic red and white barn doors.
In the Foreword for my book Barbara wrote, “My family’s big red Colony barn was my first cathedral, arching heavenward, mimicking the embracing mountains. It served as both playground and workplace. I knew where the barn cats hid their newborn litters. Calves were my pets and playmates. I sprawled undetected (or so I thought), reading my stash of books, soaking in both sun and sunset.”
It was interesting to visit the old barn and listen as Lauren interviewed Barbara about her family’s history. A barn cat appeared in the haymow, sunning herself, while the Gardener’s border collie, Daisy, earnestly tried to direct our attention to the ball she loves chasing. Barbara talked about the newly-revealed logs with their tiny bug tracks, showed us the milking parlor addition and explained how her father’s cows would enter in the proper order, each cow moving to their own milking station, and when the milking was completed they would back out of the stanchion and return to the pasture, somehow knowing just what to do and when to do it.
We talked about the growth and development which has happened since Barbara’s parents and grandparents farmed the land, and Lauren asked Barbara if it was hard to live close by, seeing her family’s barn every day, and watching the changes happen, such as the nearby subdivisions. Barbara explained that the life of a dairy farmer was never easy, and sale of the land brought a welcome influx of cash to her family. She philosophically considered it just part of the natural progression, and said there were benefits to having things easier, even if it meant having a motorhome parked in the middle of her awesome view of Pioneer Peak.
Our next stop was the Musk Ox Farm, where the barn originally built for the William Lentz family is now the Farm’s gift shop and museum. A long low building next to the barn was probably the milking parlor when it became a dairy in the 1940’s.
Executive Director Mark Austin shared some interesting facts about these Ice Age mammals. After a brief interview with him, we walked a trail between the pastures to a good vantage point for filming the barn and Lauren did a short interview with me about my reasons for writing the book and what I enjoyed about the process. My easy answer was that it was the people I’ve met while researching the barns. While my original thought was to make this merely a picture book showing the beauty of these old structures, it very quickly became apparent to me that the history of the 1935 Colony Project was such an intrinsic part of the barns that it needed to also be part of my book. So what had begun as a photographic journey turned into a research project, and that led me to dozens of people who have since become good friends.
Mark pointed out that there were seven new baby Musk Oxen this year, and we enjoyed watching them frolic amongst their mamas in the adjacent field. We found tufts of qiviut, the fine wool shed by the musk oxen in the spring, and marveled at the silky softness of it. We talked about the history of the Colony Project, and how the barns played into that history, and I explained that there were two Lentz families in the Colony; William’s brother Joe also had a dairy, in the Bodenburg Butte area.
Our final stop was the original Lloyd Bell barn, later owned by Doc McKinley, but now slowly collapsing into itself. We spent a fascinating hour or so listening to stories by the current owner, Pegge McDonald. She told us Doc McKinley was a dentist, known as the Flying Doctor, and she’d been in Cordova when he would fly into town, set up his equipment, and do exams and work on all the children in town. And then she saw him do the same thing one time in Nome… She told us about his wife, who didn’t want her cows to be cold in the wintertime, so a basement was dug under the barn, and a fireplace built so the cows could be kept warm when they temperatures dipped. The huge cement block chimney can still be seen rising through the roof of the great structure.
Pegge brought out a book and shared it with us, a 1960’s National Geographic hardback titled ‘Alaska,’ which featured a two-page aerial photograph of her farm, with the barn standing proudly upright. She told us Doc McKinley would hold dances for the local teenagers in his huge living room, and explained that he had the tremendous rock fireplace built of rocks hauled by local teenage boys who were courting his daughters, while the construction was done by a European stonemason boarding with him. We enjoyed listening to Pegge’s tales, and assured we’d be returning to hear more sometime. Another barn’s history discovered, and another new friend.
The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman is featuring an article about The Matanuska Colony Barns book in their Friday, June 7 edition, just in time for the annual Colony Days celebration! Local author and longtime Palmer teacher Barbara L. Hecker followed the general outline of the book and wrote about the history of the Matanuska Colony, barns around Alaska, and then focused on a couple of the Colony barns. Photos from the book add visual interest, and the cover of the book – with the beautiful Wineck barn – is featured.
Barbara notes, “Hegener has produced more than a coffee-table tome of lovely photos. Her book holds a succinct but comprehensive history — well-researched, reader-friendly, and amply illustrated with historic photographs, professional full-color images, and personal snapshots from friends and fans of the Colony barns.”
The book can be ordered here.
The Parks and Archer barns were built on adjoining 80 acre tracts, numbers 189 and 193, respectively. Lynn Sandvik explained to the author, “They moved the Archer barn north and put them together and did quite a bit of work on them about 20 years ago, for some kind of centennial something, but then they forgot about them again.”
In a letter to the author, Valley historian Jim Fox related a little of the Parks family history from an interview with daughter Bonita Parks Strong: “Many of the farmers in the Butte had sheep, selling their wool to Pendleton in Washington or Minnesota woolen mills, often getting blankets and winter clothes in exchange along with some cash. The Parks family had a big flock which they drove up into the mountains to the north in the summer, an 18 to 20 mile trip…”
Glen Archer, a grandson of Colonists Perle and Dorothy Archer, wrote to the author, “My sister and I grew up listening to our father, Floyd Archer, tell stories about growing up in the Matanuska Valley and homesteading there and how his parents, Perle and Dorothy Archer, moved the family from Wisconsin to Alaska. He was only 18 months old… there were six children including my father in the family. My father still has lots of memories of life in Alaska, going to school, playing with the Colony kids, and all the hard work and long winters.”
“About 12 years ago, I inherited from my father the old family album filled with pictures of the homestead and family in Alaska. Among the pictures is a picture of the Archer barn, more pictures of the chicken coop, farm animals, the fields, as well as the house. All of the pictures appear to have been taken by my great grandparents (Dorothy’s parents) during their trip to visit Perle, Dorothy and the six kids, in 1939, which would have been well after Perle and Dorothy were selected as part of the 200 plus families and moved to Palmer.”
In another letter to the author and friends, Glen Archer shared some of the family history after a visit with his father: “Dad said yesterday that the original house was a nice fairly large two story log house which had a full basement. It had been insulated with what he remembers as oakum, which he described as fibers saturated with a tar like substance. Somehow, two or three years after being built, his older siblings Betty and Bob one day caught the insulation on fire and the house burned to the ground. Dad said that grandpa (Perle) was very sad about the whole experience as he had really put his heart and soul into building that place and was proud of it. According to Dad, Grandpa was one of the few individuals who truly knew how to build and taught others to build. He was a general contractor for decades after they returned to the states. Grandpa also apparently started a sawmill which employed others so they could have access to milled lumber and was instrumental in building Fort Richardson.”
This post is an excerpt from the new book The Matanuska Colony Barns, by Helen Hegener, published by Northern Light Media, May 2013.
This map, which is similar to one which appears in the book, The Matanuska Colony Barns, shows the approximate locations of most of the remaining Colony barns. Adapted from an original map of the Colony tracts, which can be seen as 40 and 80-acre delineations, this map shows the roads as they existed circa 1935, rather than today’s highways and side roads. In the book the locations are notated and cross-referenced with each barn described in the book (a few barns located here do not appear in the book).
A few notes about the locations, shown as stars on this map: All locations are approximate. The Larsh-Wilson barn, which later became the Linn-Breeden barn and was moved to the Alaska Museum of Transportation and Industry (MATI) north of Wasilla, is shown in its original location, as the current location is off the map. The Ed Wineck barn, which was moved to the Alaska State Fairgrounds in 1976, is shown in both the original location near Bodenburg Butte and at the fairgrounds. Various other barns are shown where they are now, but their original locations may be miles from there; a surprising number of these huge structures have been moved around the Valley for one reason or another. Sometimes, as with the Bailey and Loyer barns, they’ve only moved a few hundred feet from where they were built in 1936. Most of the barns are visible from public roads, but please remember to be courteous when visiting and always respect private property signs. The map was created by Helen Hegener. ©2013 Northern Light Media, all rights reserved.