History Lessons

Colonists line up to leave the St. Mihiel.(photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-195 Alaska State Library)

Colonists line up to leave the St. Mihiel.(photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-195 Alaska State Library)

Now that The Matanuska Colony Barns  is finished, I’ve been reflecting on what it has taken to pull this book together and get it into print. It’s been much more of a task than I imagined when the idea first crossed my mind, and it’s been many times more rewarding than I ever could have guessed.

This book is the culmination of 18 months of researching and exploring the history of the Matanuska Colony Project. My original intention was simply to collect images of the beautiful Colony barns in our valley and create a picture book which would bring smiles and enjoyment. I had no intention of delving into the history of the Matanuska Colony, but it quickly became apparent that the barns are an integral part of the history, and I could not write about the barns without including the history which gives them context and meaning.

Matanuska colonists at railroad station Palmer (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-224 Alaska State Library)

Matanuska colonists at railroad station Palmer (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-224 Alaska State Library)

When I began this work I knew only the bare essentials, that the United States government had brought some families to Alaska in the 1930’s and settled them near Palmer, and I knew that only a few of the barns built for these Colony families were still in existence. I’d taken many photographs of the picturesque Colony barns over the years, but I didn’t realize they were, with only a handful of exceptions, all built from the same blueprint. I didn’t know that the families who came north on a government troopship had been selected because they fit specific parameters, such as “It is preferable that there be three or four children, on average…” and “The family must consider the proposition as the opportunity of a lifetime.”

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

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

Learning about the Matanuska Colony Project involved learning about an important part of the history of Alaska, as well as a surprising part of the history of this country. I’m sure that somewhere in my mostly boring history lessons there was a chapter or two on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, but nothing they taught me in school compared to what I learned in researching this book.

I learned that 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

Joseph Puhl assisted by three neighbors progresses rapidly on his cabin

Joseph Puhl assisted by three neighbors progresses rapidly on his cabin (Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Col. ASL-P270-293 Alaska State Library)

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.

It was difficult to find a balance between including enough of the history and sharing too much; this is a book about barns, after all. But I felt it was necessary to place the  Matanuska Valley Project in the context of this fascinating era, and my hope is the prelude which explains how and why the barns came to be here will instill a deeper appreciation and affection for those few remaining structures.

Advertisements