Northern Light Media was at the Alaska State Fair again in August and September, 2014, once again in the beautiful Wineck Colony Barn!
Northern Light Media was at the Alaska State Fair again in August and September, 2014, once again in the beautiful Wineck Colony Barn!
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.
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.
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.
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.
After going through hundreds of photos and dozens of front and back cover layout options, here is a first look at the final design for the cover of the new book.The barn on the front is the Earl Wineck barn at the Alaska State Fairgrounds. This is a photograph I took at the end of the Fair last summer. At the invitation of my friend Joanie Juster, I spent many delightful hours in the Wineck barn, talking about the history of the barns, and watching the documentary film Joanie co-produced on the Matanuska Colony Project, Alaska Far Away, as she shared it each day. I gave a couple of slideshow presentations on the barns, and I was delighted to meet many wonderful people who also appreciate the old barns, including Earl Wineck, Jr., who talked his dad into donating their barn to the Fairgrounds. The Wineck barn also appears as the background image on the back cover. The upper image on the back cover is also my photograph, the Ferber Baily barn on Marsh Road, now owned by Richard Estelle.
The bottom image is the new logo for Northern Light Media, made from one of the art prints which my sister, Susan Patch, created from a photograph I took last summer of the Raymond Greise barn on Outer Springer Loop Road, south of Palmer.
The book is in the final stages of production and will be published the first week of May, 2013.
The beautifully photogenic Matanuska Colony barns lend themselves well to artistic expression, and a series of barn images, created by Susan Patch from photos which will appear in the forthcoming book, The Matanuska Colony Barns, are available online at Fine Art America.
Six barn designs are currently available: the Wineck barn at the Alaska State Fairgrounds; the Bailey barn, which is on the National Register of Historic Places; the Venne barn, which is part of the RG Farm on the Outer Springer Loop Road; the Greise barn on the Springer System; the Barry barn on Campbell Road; and the Breeden barn at the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, north of Wasilla. More Colony barn images will soon be added to the series.
FineArtAmerica.com takes care of the printing, framing, matting, packaging, shipping, and delivers “ready-to-hang” artwork. Each image is also available on greeting cards. Take a few minutes to browse the beautiful images!
Adapted from the forthcoming book, Matanuska Colony Barns:
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.”
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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
The work of editing the book still looms large, but I’m approaching what I think may be a final tally of the barns. I know there are still more to be located, but I resigned myself long ago to the fact that this will not be a comprehensive accounting. There are a few owners who, for legitimate reasons of their own, do not want their barns known, and I’m not the first to encounter this. In the September, 1988 report titled Evaluations of Historic Sites in Palmer, Alaska the notation was made under methodology: “A letter requesting information and permission to document the property was sent to each owner. Several properties were eliminated as the owners either knew that the structure was contemporary or declined permission for inclusion in the study. Approximately 100 permission slips were mailed out and from the original 82 permission slips returned, four denied permission and four were determined not to be historically significant.”
Historical significance is a given with the Colony barns, whatever their state of deterioration or reconstruction. Notation has been made, wherever possible, of barns which no longer exist, having burned, fallen in to neglect and decay, or simply having been dismantled for use of the lumber elsewhere. I have not determined a final count of the number of barns which were originally built, but I’m still optimistic that I’ll find an accounting in the old records.
At this point, with my research phase nearing completion but with weeks of work still to be done, I have 42 barns on my list, with 39 still standing and portions of three others still visible. This is a considerable achievement, as when I began this project the best estimates I could find from knowledgeable sources were not even half that many, and one well-respected Valley historian thought there were no more than a dozen left at best.