Colony Barns Article

Trunk Rd barn

A classic 1935 Matanuska Colony barn [Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media]

The May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine included an article about the 1935 Matanuska Colony Barns, drawn from the book of that title by Helen Hegener and published in 2012 by Northern Light Media.

Driving the roads around Palmer and Wasilla one sees the old structures often, glimpsed down a tree-lined dirt lane or silhouetted against a mountain backdrop, and they rarely fail to bring a smile. Like trusted and comforting old friends, the barns are always there. There wasn’t space in the magazine for more than a thin overview of the Matanuska Colony history, but it’s an interesting topic, not only to Alaskans, but to anyone who desires to know more about our nation’s brief history.

Edited Bailey Barn

Ferber Baily Colony barn near Palmer [Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media]

“Relief, Recovery, and Reform”

The decade of the 1930’s profoundly altered the course of Alaska’s history, as relationships changed between the citizens, the state, and the federal government, and rugged Alaskan individualism gave way to an acceptance of the government’s increasing role in daily life. The Matanuska Colony Project was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of economic programs designed to provide the “3 R’s”: Relief, Recovery, and Reform.” Relief for the poor and the unemployed, Recovery of the economy to normal levels, and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression.

President Franklin Roosevelt took office at the height of the Great Depression in March, 1933, and when he declared in his inaugural address that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he followed up his bold words and acted swiftly to try and stabilize the economy and provide jobs and relief to those who were suffering. Over the next eight years, the government instituted a series of experimental programs and projects, known collectively as the New Deal for America. Among these was a federal agency which relocated struggling families to communities planned by the federal government. The first of these communities, Arthurdale, West Virginia, became the pet project of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and over 100 others were either planned or initiated by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration or the Resettlement Administration.

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Colonists’ camp from the top of the water tower in Palmer (Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Col. ASL-P270-112 Alaska State Library)

In 1935 the U.S. Government transported 200 families from the Great Depression-stricken midwest to a valley of unparalleled beauty in Alaska, where they were given the chance to begin new lives as part of a federally-funded social experiment, the Matanuska Colony Project. As part of each family’s farmstead, a magnificent barn was raised, a sturdy square structure 32′ by 32′ and soaring 32′ high. Today these Colony barns are an iconic reminder of what has been called the last great pioneering adventure in America.

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

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

Venne sky Albert Marquez

Venne Colony barn on Wes Grover’s farm near Palmer [photo by Albert Marquez / Planet Earth Adventures]

Learn more:

The Matanuska Colony Barns, book by Helen Hegener (Northern Light Media, 2012)

Alaska Far Away: The New Deal Pioneers of the Matanuska Colony, 2008 documentary film about the Project.

Palmer Historical Society and The Colony House Museum

 

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2014 Alaska State Fair

Northern Light Media was at the Alaska State Fair again in August and September, 2014, once again in the beautiful Wineck Colony Barn!

The Wineck barn, as lovely as ever!

The Wineck barn, as lovely as ever!


This year Northern Light Media had two additional books for sale, sharing the history behind the 1935 Matanuska Colony.

This year Northern Light Media had two additional books for sale, sharing the history behind the 1935 Matanuska Colony.


Interior and exterior details of the barns, and tools such as a hay hook, a pulley for lifting bales and feed sacks into the hayloft, a lantern and more were popular with visitors!

Interior and exterior details of the barns, and tools such as a hay hook, a pulley for lifting bales and feed sacks into the hayloft, a lantern and more.


A closer look at the old hay hook and the wooden pulley.

A closer look at the old hay hook and the wooden pulley.

Historic photos of the Wineck tract with the barn in its original location.

Historic photos of the Wineck tract with the barn in its original location.


A poster for the Colony Barns book, and all three books on display.

A poster for the Colony Barns book, and all three books on display.


A rainbow over the Wineck barn - what a lovely way to end a day at the Fair!

A rainbow over the Wineck barn – what a lovely way to end a day at the Fair!

 

John August Springer

The Wes Grover farm is part of the original Springer homestead. Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures LLC

The Venne barn, one of three on Wes Grover’s RG Farm. The Wes Grover farm is part of the original Springer homestead. Photo: Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures LLC.

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.

The Grover farm and Springer's original homestead can be seen closest to the viewer. Springer System, June 7, 1941. Photo by U.S. Army Air Corps.

The Grover farm and Springer’s original homestead can be seen closest to the viewer. Springer System, June 7, 1941. Photo by U.S. Army Air Corps.

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.

Only a few notched logs remain to mark the location  of John Springer’s cabin overlooking the Matanuska River.

Only a few notched logs remain to mark the location of John Springer’s cabin overlooking the Matanuska River.

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.

Detail of logs, John Springer cabin.

Detail of logs, John Springer cabin.

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.

Matanuska Colony History Videos

Mrs. Carl Ericson of Minnesota, shown in her neat kitchen in the camp tent. (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-225 Alaska State Library)

Mrs. Carl Ericson of Minnesota, shown in her neat kitchen in the camp tent. (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-225 Alaska State Library)

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:

Filming Barns for KTVA

Lauren interviews Barbara while John films

Lauren interviews Barbara while John films

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.

The barn cat watching

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.

A fine Colony barn in a beautiful setting

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.

muskoxbarnOur 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.

babiesMark 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.

McKinleyfromEastOur 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.

ButtePhotoPegge 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.

Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman Article

BarnsFrntCvrThe 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.