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The areas withdrawn lie generally along both sides of the lower reaches of the Matanuska River in the eastern part of the Valley.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.