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.

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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).”

 

Matanuska Valley

Colony barn in a gated subdivision near Palmer. (photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media)

 

The Matanuska Valley’s complex, colorful and vibrant past has left it speckled with picturesque farms and fields which stand in stark contract to the wilderness only a few miles away. At the same time, the rampant growth of the Matanuska Valley’s population and the incessant subdivision and development of what was once rich farmland threatens those picturesque elements, even as heritage-aware groups form and fight to save the farms and historic buildings which remain.

“Back in 1935, those original Valley Colonists already knew this fertile valley could produce a rich agrarian heritage, making Palmer the only Alaskan community to develop from an agricultural lifestyle.”    

-City of Palmer website

The Matanuska Colony Barns

Photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media

 

It’s been my good fortune to live in the Matanuska Valley off and on for close to 40 years, and the Matanuska Colony barns have always been a part of my life in Alaska. 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.

I’ve been living with, admiring, and casually photographing these picturesque barns for four decades, and in that time I’ve asked many questions about them, which have mostly gone unanswered. This blog – or more accurately, the forthcoming book it’s based on – is my attempt to find answers to some of the questions.