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.

Screen Shot 2019-06-01 at 11.48.30 AM

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



A Brief History of Alaskan Barns


Adapted from the forthcoming book, Matanuska Colony Barns:

Dog Barns

James Taylor Dog Barn, Yukon River, Opposite 4th of July Creek, Eagle (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS AK 19-EGL.V,3-B–1)

The first shelters for animals in Alaska were likely the small crudely-built dog barns for the passenger, freight, and mail dogteams which traveled the winter trails. When staying in one place for a length of time, dog drivers would construct rough canvas tents for their teams, and many owners built dog barns to house their weary dogs in more comfort at home. In Buildings of Alaska, Alison Hoagland describes a dog barn built by James Taylor, “a miner turned trapper who built himself an intricate set of buildings on the north side of the Yukon River, probably in about 1924.”

Hoagland detailed the dog barn which Taylor built for his team: “The dog barn, a low cabin with saddle-notched log walls, has six stalls with vertical-pole walls. Each stall has its own door, operable by an outside lever. Taylor also built individual doghouses out of logs and extensive vertical-pole corrals that led down to a stream.”

Ft. Egbert mule barn, Eagle. (Library of Congress, Photographs Division, HABS AK V, 1-A–3)

Not far from James Taylor’s dog barn, also on the Yukon River, one of the most impressive kennels in Alaska was built at the direction of then-Lieutenant William “Billy” Mitchell, who was at that time charged with building an extensive network of telegraph and cable lines that would link Alaska to the rest of the world. The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) would connect Fort Liscum in Valdez to other forts along the Yukon River: Fort Egbert at Eagle City, Fort Gibbon at Tanana, and St. Michael on the Bering Sea coast.

To accomplish this mission Billy Mitchell, who would later gain a Major General’s stars and earn fame and controversy as the “father of the U.S. Air Force,” bought 80 huskies, 40 sets of harnesses and 16 sleds. To house the huskies Mitchell had 19 sled dog kennels added to the south side of the mule barn. In June, 1903, Lt. Mitchell’s crews completed construction of the first telegraph line to span the interior of Alaska.

Interior Ft. Egbert mule barn, Eagle. (Lib. of Congress, Photographs Div., HABS AK V, 1-A–7)

According to the booklet Eagle-Fort Egbert: A Remnant of the Past, produced through the cooperative efforts of the Bureau of Land Management and the Eagle Historical Society & Museums, the first floor of the mule barn, or quartermaster stables, was completed prior to May 1900 at a cost of $550 for materials. It housed 53 animals. Some of the mules’ names hang above the stall doors. The hay loft was built in 1901. The barn was used until 1911. Today it contains exhibits from the past: a blacksmith area, sickbay stall, mule harnesses and hardware, old wagons, mining and agriculture memorabilia, boats and dog sleds.

Nenana: Substantial Buildings

The name Nenana means “a good place to camp between the rivers,” and before that name it was known as Toghotthele, which means, “the hill next to the river.” According to Alison K. Hoagland’s Buildings of Alaska: “At the turn of the twentieth century, Nenana was an Athapaskan Indian village. James Duke set up a trading post here in 1903, and Nenana’s history would have been unexceptional if it had not been for the Alaska Railroad. With a strategic location at the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana rivers, Nenana was originally intended as a construction camp where materials to build the railroad to the south could be unloaded from steamboats. The Alaska Engineering Commission built some substantial buildings…”

A.E.C. (Alaska Engineering Commission) stable and barn in Nenana, June 27, 1917. Signs above the door: “No Smoking” and “Barn No. 1.” Caption: “No. 53. A. J. Johnson, Official photographer, A. E. C.” (Albert Johnson Collection, 1905-1917 UAF-1989-166-626 Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks)

Among those “substantial buildings,” which included dormitories, a cafeteria, a hospital and others, was the A.E.C. stable and barn, a two-story log-and-frame structure known as the Headquarters Barn and Stables. Unfortunately, like almost all of the A.E.C. buildings, it no longer survives,  and photos of the building are rare.

Nenana is once again a quiet place, described by one author as “…a town straight out of a Mark Twain novel: a sleepy, dusty riverside barge stop. Riverboats, in fact, still load with cargo for villages up and down the nearby Tanana River.”

Fairbanks: Creamer’s Dairy

Shortly after the turn of the century, Charles Hinckley and his wife Belle brought three cows and some horses up the Yukon and Tanana Rivers by sternwheeler, and they started a dairy to serve the gold-rich outpost of Fairbanks. In 1928, the Hinckleys sold the dairy to Charles and Anna Creamer; Charles was the son of close friends living nearby, and Anna was Belle Hinckley’s younger sister.

Creamer’s Field barn in Fairbanks. (Photographer- Harpyr)

The new owners named it Creamer’s Dairy, and during the 1930s and 1940s, the Creamers worked hard to modernize and expand the business. They built two large Louden barns, designed by the Louden Machinery Co. of Iowa, which still give Creamer’s its distinctive visual appeal. The larger barn cost $13,700, more than the entire dairy had been worth ten years earlier. The hayloft held 165 tons of hay, enough to feed 55 cows through the winter. In 1938 the Creamers threw a huge dance and invited the whole town to celebrate the opening of the new barn and its state-of-the-art equipment. According to a report in the News-Miner the next day, nearly everyone in Fairbanks attended.

The dairy thrived throughout the next few decades, and when it finally ceased production in 1966 it was the largest and most successful dairy in Interior Alaska. The town of Fairbanks lobbied the state to purchase the entire dairy and 1,800 acres of land, which has since become the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, under the supervision of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The structures are the only surviving pioneer dairy buildings in Interior Alaska, and in 1977 they were admitted to the National Register of Historic Places.

Science-Based Farm Research

In most parts of Alaska barns were few and far between, but as the land grew more settled, more barns were built to shelter valuable livestock and equipment, and to store feed.

Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Agricultural Experiment Station Photograph Collection, Image no. uaf1968000400926

The Hatch Act of 1887 authorized agricultural experiment stations in the United States and its territories to provide science-based research information to farmers. In 1898 the federal government established the first Alaska Agricultural Experiment Stations in Sitka and Kodiak, and stations in Kenai, Rampart, Copper Center, and Fairbanks followed quickly.

In 1917 the Alaska Agricultural Experiment Station was established at Matanuska when M.D. Snodgrass selected 240 acres for the site on the recommendation of the Alaska Engineering Commission. In 1923, at a meeting at the farm, the Matanuska Valley Settlers Association was created to reduce freight shipping rates to the Valley.

In 1931 the federal government transferred ownership of all experiment station facilities to the College of Agriculture and Mines in Fairbanks, which was renamed the University of Alaska in 1935. As population centers shifted, goals and objectives for agricultural research changed and the stations at Copper Center, Kenai, Rampart, Kodiak, and Sitka were closed.

“There are many persons who are happier in a simple existence, living largely through their own efforts in a self-sufficient way… We had it once in America, and there are those who feel we lost something valuable in our departure from it…”   -Rexford G. Tugwell, agricultural economist for Roosevelt’s New Deal