Photography by Albert Marquez

 

When my friend Albert Marquez, of Planet Earth Adventures LLC, offered to shoot photos of some of the Colony barns for me I knew his work would be first-rate, but I didn’t expect the incredible perspectives and amazing colors he captured. His kind and generous efforts comprise a spectacular visual addition to the forthcoming book:






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Wineck Barn

The Wineck barn in winter (photo by Eric Vercammen/Northern Light Media)

 

Ed Wineck was one of the original pioneers of the Matanuska Valley, pre-dating the Colonist families. In 1936, after some of the original Colonists left, Ed became a replacement Colonist, and was given tract no. 174 near Bodenburg Butte, where he supervised the construction of homes and barns for neighboring families. Ed Wineck and his wife Emma farmed for over 40 years, starting the Valley’s first poultry farm in 1937.

Wineck barn shortly after being moved to the Alaska State Fairgrounds (Library of Congress Photographs Division HABS AK 13-PALM, V, 3A-1)

In 1975 the Winecks donated their barn to the Alaska State Fair, but the barn was too wide to pass through either of the narrow steel bridges across the Knik and Matanuska Rivers. It was not until the new Knik River Bridge was built in 1976 that the barn could be moved  down the Old Glenn Highway to the Parks Highway, across the Palmer Hayflats and back up the new Glenn Highway to the Fairgrounds. The classic gambrel-roofed Colony barn is now a major feature of the Alaska State Fair,  showcasing the Matanuska Colony Project and surrounded by beautiful gardens and flower displays each year.

Puhl / Bacon Barn

 

13151 E. Scott Road

Photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media

Joseph and Blanche Puhl and their two sons, Lloyd and Raymond, came to Palmer from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, and they were one of the first three Colonist families to be self-supporting (others were Virgil Eckert and Walter Pippel), which came as a surprise to the managers, who had not expected any of the new settlers to be independent within fourteen months of arrival.

The Puhl’s unique round-log house is on the National Register of Historic Places. Unlike most of the Colony houses, it was built by the owners, with the assistance of other Colonists, during the summer of 1935. The Puhls dug their own well instead of waiting for the corporation well rig, which also helped to limit the Puhls’ indebtedness to the ARRC.

Joseph Puhl farm, date unknown (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division HABS AK 13-PALM.V, 5-1)

Located on Tract 99 at what is now the corner of the Glenn Highway and Scott Road, the Puhl barn is also a departure from the standard Colony barn design by government architect David R. Williams. Like their neighbors and good friends the Eckerts, who selected tract no. 100, the Puhls built a smaller barrel-roofed barn (28’ x 32’), as compared to the standard 32’ x 32’ gambrel-roofed Colony barn.

Moved in 1958 

According to the book, Evaluation of Historic Sites in Palmer, Alaska, printed in September, 1988 by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Cultural Resources Division, “The barn originally stood on the northern end of the Puhl tract and had a first floor of log. Because it was built without a foundation, as was typical, the logs began deteriorating.

“In 1958 Dexter Bacon moved the barn to its present location and substituted a short concrete block wall and concrete slab floor. The laminated ribs now rest directly on the concrete block. The domed roof flares at the bottom. The barn is sided with drop siding and has fixed, six-pane windows. Large doors are located on either end. The building is currently used as a garage.”

A barrel vault, also known as a tunnel vault or a wagon vault, is an architectural element formed by the extrusion of a single curve – or pair of curves, in the case of this barn’s pointed barrel vault roof – with the length being greater than its diameter.

The history of the property is also described in the Mat-Su Borough book: “In October 1942 the Puhls sold their land to Carl Wilson, who took over the Puhl’s obligation to the ARRC. In 1954 the Wilsons sold the land to Neil Miller, who later sold it to his daughter and son-in-law, Dexter and Priscilla Miller Bacon.”

As noted in the National Register of Historic Places listing, the house and property exhibit attention to detail and excellent care.

An interesting side note was a newspaper report in the Milwaukee Journal dated May 15, 1935 describing young Raymond Puhl, age 7, having contracted a mild case of measles and being completely segregated from the other passengers due to the contagious nature of the disease: “His sickness will not prevent his sailing Saturday…”

Bailey / Estelle Barn

 

3150 North Glenn Highway, Marsh Road

Bailey/Estelle barn, 2012 (photo by Eric Vercammen/Northern Light Media)

Ferber and Ruth Bailey of Lena, Wisconsin, joined the Colony trek in 1935 with their two children. Ferber, who drew tract no. 152, was a carpenter by trade, and he dug a full basement and then helped build their unique home, a one-and-one-half story frame building. The house has a gambrel roof matching the barn, a departure from the norm which makes the entire farm scene unusual and visually appealing, particularly when viewed with 6,398’ Pioneer Peak soaring in the background.

Ferber Bailey farm (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division HABS AK, 13-PALM.V,4-1)

The barn built for Ferber Bailey in 1936 is described in detail on the National Register of Historic Places registration form: “The barn, measuring 32’ x 32’, is a typical gambrel-roofed colony barn with flared eaves. It is of log and frame construction. Small, one-story wood-sided shed additions have been attached on the north and south facades. The original barn is intact and its front facade is unchanged. The barn sits on a concrete sill added when the building was moved. The first floor logs are covered with horizontal lap siding–it is the only colony barn originally constructed with siding over the logs. The upper floor, under the roof line, is sheathed with horizontal drop siding. The mid-section is covered with vertical boards. An open cupola, which vents the building, is located in the center of the high roof ridge. The roof eave extends over the hay loft door on the west side. The door is flanked by multi-pane windows, identical to those on the first floor. The first floor has standard double and single doors.

“The barn stands approximately 150 feet from its original site. It was moved in the late 1940s when the adjacent Glenn Highway was widened.”

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.

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.