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.
The Parks and Archer barns were built on adjoining 80 acre tracts, numbers 189 and 193, respectively. Lynn Sandvik explained to the author, “They moved the Archer barn north and put them together and did quite a bit of work on them about 20 years ago, for some kind of centennial something, but then they forgot about them again.”
In a letter to the author, Valley historian Jim Fox related a little of the Parks family history from an interview with daughter Bonita Parks Strong: “Many of the farmers in the Butte had sheep, selling their wool to Pendleton in Washington or Minnesota woolen mills, often getting blankets and winter clothes in exchange along with some cash. The Parks family had a big flock which they drove up into the mountains to the north in the summer, an 18 to 20 mile trip…”
Glen Archer, a grandson of Colonists Perle and Dorothy Archer, wrote to the author, “My sister and I grew up listening to our father, Floyd Archer, tell stories about growing up in the Matanuska Valley and homesteading there and how his parents, Perle and Dorothy Archer, moved the family from Wisconsin to Alaska. He was only 18 months old… there were six children including my father in the family. My father still has lots of memories of life in Alaska, going to school, playing with the Colony kids, and all the hard work and long winters.”
“About 12 years ago, I inherited from my father the old family album filled with pictures of the homestead and family in Alaska. Among the pictures is a picture of the Archer barn, more pictures of the chicken coop, farm animals, the fields, as well as the house. All of the pictures appear to have been taken by my great grandparents (Dorothy’s parents) during their trip to visit Perle, Dorothy and the six kids, in 1939, which would have been well after Perle and Dorothy were selected as part of the 200 plus families and moved to Palmer.”
In another letter to the author and friends, Glen Archer shared some of the family history after a visit with his father: “Dad said yesterday that the original house was a nice fairly large two story log house which had a full basement. It had been insulated with what he remembers as oakum, which he described as fibers saturated with a tar like substance. Somehow, two or three years after being built, his older siblings Betty and Bob one day caught the insulation on fire and the house burned to the ground. Dad said that grandpa (Perle) was very sad about the whole experience as he had really put his heart and soul into building that place and was proud of it. According to Dad, Grandpa was one of the few individuals who truly knew how to build and taught others to build. He was a general contractor for decades after they returned to the states. Grandpa also apparently started a sawmill which employed others so they could have access to milled lumber and was instrumental in building Fort Richardson.”
This post is an excerpt from the new book The Matanuska Colony Barns, by Helen Hegener, published by Northern Light Media, May 2013.
This map, which is similar to one which appears in the book, The Matanuska Colony Barns, shows the approximate locations of most of the remaining Colony barns. Adapted from an original map of the Colony tracts, which can be seen as 40 and 80-acre delineations, this map shows the roads as they existed circa 1935, rather than today’s highways and side roads. In the book the locations are notated and cross-referenced with each barn described in the book (a few barns located here do not appear in the book).
A few notes about the locations, shown as stars on this map: All locations are approximate. The Larsh-Wilson barn, which later became the Linn-Breeden barn and was moved to the Alaska Museum of Transportation and Industry (MATI) north of Wasilla, is shown in its original location, as the current location is off the map. The Ed Wineck barn, which was moved to the Alaska State Fairgrounds in 1976, is shown in both the original location near Bodenburg Butte and at the fairgrounds. Various other barns are shown where they are now, but their original locations may be miles from there; a surprising number of these huge structures have been moved around the Valley for one reason or another. Sometimes, as with the Bailey and Loyer barns, they’ve only moved a few hundred feet from where they were built in 1936. Most of the barns are visible from public roads, but please remember to be courteous when visiting and always respect private property signs. The map was created by Helen Hegener. ©2013 Northern Light Media, all rights reserved.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.