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.


The Book Cover

BarnCover2After 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 author and Earl Wineck talking about barns. (photo: Susan Patch)

The author and Earl Wineck, Jr. at the 2012 State Fair, talking about barns. (photo: Susan Patch)

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.

Bailey/Estelle barn, 2008 (photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media)

Bailey/Estelle barn, 2008

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.

NLMBarnLogoThe 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.

Arndt/Swift Barn

The Arndt barn still stands alongside the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. (photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media)

The Arndt barn still stands alongside the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. (photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media)

The Lawrence Arndt family came to Alaska from Wisconsin, and Mr. Arndt drew tract number 190, on what was then called the Wasilla-Finger Lake-Palmer Road, today known as the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. The 1940 census showed Mr. Arndt living with his wife Etta, their 18-year-old daughter Helen; his mother Emma Arndt, and three male lodgers: Edward Church, and Glenn and Rollo Kinty. 

The unusual Arndt barn was one of the handful of barns which had a soaring vaulted roof design, with a high ridge peak, quite different from the standard 32′ x 32′ gambrel roof design of most of the Colonist’s barns. Also known as the curved or Gothic roof, the curvature was built up of boards bent to the desired radius and nailed together to provide adequate strength to support the huge roof structure. Like the standard Colony barns, the bottom section was built with three-sided logs, set on spruce pilings. The inside of the barn was partitioned into areas of various sizes, and a storeroom under the steep stairwell which accessed the hayloft.

Inside the Arndt barn (photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media)

Inside the Arndt barn (photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media)

The Manuska-Susitna Borough’s 1985 book, Knik Matanuska Susitna: A Visual History of the Valleys, noted: “The Lawrence Arndt colony farm has been familiar to Valley residents for years as Arabian Acres where owners Robert and Gladys Swift raised purebred Morgan horses. The colony barn was especially designed like the Monroe, Eckert, and Puhl barns, with a high vaulted roof that varied from the standard colony gambrel. During the colony era, the Arndt house was the site of the neighborhood telephone.”

Kathy (Roark) Laing, who lived for several years on the adjoining farm with a similar vault roofed barn, wrote that she remembered there being “…three farms in a row…”    ~•~


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



Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, 3800 W. Museum Dr, Wasilla 

At the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, June, 2012 (photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media)

The large double barn at the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry (MATI) is known locally as the Breeden barn, but it was actually created from two separate Colony barns by an early Valley homesteader named Frank Linn, whose son Allan grew up to be the State Director of Agriculture from 1975 to 1979.

Frank Linn came to Alaska in 1927 and spent three years working at the Matanuska Experiment Station. In 1928 he purchased 160 prime acres on the southern border of the Station, on a bluff with a commanding view of Pioneer Peak and the Chugach Mountains. In 1935 he sold his land to the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (ARRC) for $5.09 an acre. Colonist Amedee Wilson won the choice tract in the original drawing, but in 1937 Amedee, his wife Leah, and their four children left Alaska.

Kelley Griffin and Ralph Breeden at Breeden’s farm, circa 1975 (photo courtesy of Kelley Griffin)

Frank and Vera Linn acquired the tract again in 1938, and in 1941 they added the neighboring tract, which had been won by Emil Larsh. The Linn family developed a dairy farm, and in 1943 they moved the Larsh barn adjacent to the Wilson barn at a right angle, creating the immense 85-foot-long by 28-foot-wide structure.

In 1957, Anchorage dairy farmers Don and LaVera Breeden purchased the Linn dairy and in 1958 they moved their operation to the Matanuska Valley. The dairy farm eventually changed into a vegetable farm, then became the Matanuska Riding Stables and Guest Ranch, and in later years the Matanuska Lake RV Park.

Interior of hay loft (photo courtesy of Ron Day)

In 2006 the Breeden family donated the barn to the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, and after all the permits, clearances, and other paperwork was in place, in the early morning hours of August 26, 2007, the giant structure was loaded onto a flatbed truck and moved to its new home. There is a wonderful photo by Robert DeBerry of the barn being moved through Wasilla at the Frontiersman web site.


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.”