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:

Map of Barn Locations

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).

BarnsStarredMap

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.

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.

Before the Colonists: George Palmer

The Matanuska River. Somewhere near here George Palmer built his trading post. (Photo by Northern Light Media)

 

Trail Comes Out River

George Palmer’s trading station on the Matanuska River was established around 1880* 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’.”  (*see Jim Fox’s comment below for a correction to this date.)

In her small book titled Old Times on Upper Cook’s Inlet, Louise Potter describes the early trails through the Valley: “…the Indians must have marked walking trails through the Upper Inlet country

Dogteam hauling coal in front of George W. Palmer’s store, 1909. (Alaska Railways Photograph Album UAF-1996-0190-8 University of Alaska Fairbanks)

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).”

 

Historic Legacy

A friend talks to Margaret Nelson (with daughter Norma) upon their arrival at Matanuska (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-225 Alaska State Library)

 

Anyone who travels through the eastern part of Alaska’s dramatically beautiful Matanuska Valley soon finds a Colony barn enhancing the landscape. These striking Valley landmarks are the enduring legacy of an all-but-forgotten chapter in American history, when the U.S. government took a direct hand in the lives of thousands of its citizens, offering Depression-distraught farm families an opportunity to begin again in a far-off land with government financing and support. 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.

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 was not the only government rural rehabilitation project; it was in fact only one of a multitude of complex, ambitious and controversial programs initiated under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Federal Rural Development Program, and other resettlement projects included Dyess Colony, Arkansas; Arthurdale, West Virginia; the Phoenix Homesteads in Arizona; and similar colonies in over a dozen other states.

Colonists hauling logs to their cabin sites (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270486 Alaska State Library)

In his 1968 book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley, author and General Manager of the Matanuska Colony Project, Don L. Irwin, explained, “On February 4, 1935, President Roosevelt, by Executive Order No. 6957, withdrew an area of 8,000 acres in the Matanuska Valley from homestead entry. This area was supplemented by a March 13 withdrawal of 18,000 acres of grazing land. Both of these withdrawals were for the benefit of the Colony Project.”

The areas withdrawn lie generally along both sides of the lower reaches of the Matanuska River in the eastern part of the Valley. Irwin detailed the early days of the Matanuska Valley, noting, “There were approximately 100 miles of graded road in the Valley in the spring of 1935. Not more than 20 miles was gravel surfaced and none of it was paved. There was no road from the Valley into Anchorage.”

Cabin construction (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-488 Alaska State Library)

Irwin went on to explain there was weekly freight and passenger service on the Alaska Railroad, but no more than 1,200 acres of land cleared of timber and under cultivation. “One married couple and three elderly bachelors comprised the population of Palmer. There was no doctor, nor were there hospital facilities in the Valley.”

It was into this frontier atmosphere the U.S. government brought their recruited settlers. With thousands answering the call, 202 families were eventually selected and transported to Alaska from the northern tier states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, as it was supposed that residents of these states would be most familiar with the harsh climate to be found in Alaska. A news clip from the Ironwood Daily Globe, of Ironwood, Michigan, explained the selection process for the Alaska-bound group in an article from March, 1935, titled ‘Families in Northern Counties Will Begin Migration to Alaska in April’:

A typical farm scene in the Matanuska Farm Colony. Mrs. E.H. Huseby, colonist mother in the garden behind her tent home picking turnips. In the background can be seen the Huseby’s cabin in construction and their cattle. (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-754 Alaska State Library)

“Madison, March 19–(AP)–Modern pioneers, in the person of 67 northern Wisconsin families now on relief, will begin their exodus to a “new frontier” and a ‘new life’ in Alaska late in April.

“Arlie Mucks, president of the Wisconsin Rural Rehabilitation Corporation, announced that Wisconsin’s quota of the 200 families which will seek to rehabilitate themselves under federal direction in the fertile Matanuska valley, will sail from Seattle, Wash., in May together with similar groups from northern Michigan and Minnesota.

“All qualifications have not been determined, Mucks said, but the eligible families must have been on relief for some time, their members must be healthy and they must have an agricultural background. The husband and wife must be between 35 and 40, and willing to settle in the new Utopia..

“Four hundred CCC men and members of transient camps on the Pacific coast are being sent to Palmer this month to clear the land, build roads and houses, as well as a creamery, school building and community hall.

“When the settlers arrive, each will be assigned 40 acres of land.  In rehabilitating the families, the government intends to spend $3,000 on each group, and the ‘pioneers’ must agree to liquidate the government advance over 30 years.”

D.F. Watson holding turnips grown in his garden (photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-697 Alaska State Library)

Much has been written about the Matanuska Colony Project over the years, both applauding the effort and roundly condemning it. Perhaps the fairest assessment comes from Hugh A. Johnson and Keith L. Stanton in Matanuska Valley Memoir: “The Matanuska Colony was developed during an emergency period and under bizarre circumstances. A national emergency relief program obviously was not the best vehicle for a settlement experiment. The experiment was conducted with nearly all the ingredients as unknowns. It was complicated by some administrative decisions and actions obstructive to smooth development. It may not have been a case of the blind leading the blind–although at times it seemed so.”

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.

A Colonist’s log and frame home, identified as Cabin No. 140 (Photo by Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Collection ASL-P270-322 Alaska State Library)

An editorial in the November, 1972 Agroborealis magazine, published by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, beckoned those who would join Alaska’s farming pioneers: “The great American dream! To be independent. To be completely self reliant and, if possible, self sufficient. Not necessarily to be rich, but to be one’s own boss and beholden to no one. This is what brought our forefathers to this continent in the first place. This is the rainbow that led them over the Alleghenies, across the plains, and through the mountain passes to California and Oregon. This is the magnet that still draws people to Alaska.”

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.